The 1999 release of The Matrix marked a pivotal point for modern sci-fi filmmaking. What was once a niche genre reserved for science fiction fans alone has become a major part of mainstream pop culture. Sci-fi action films in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel cinematic universes represent some of the highest-grossing films ever made.
Though those franchises are great, we decided to leave them off this list and focus on films that were more fitting for the sci-fi genre. Here are the best sci-fi films since The Matrix.
District 9 (2009)
This low-budget debut for writer/director Neill Blomkamp delighted audiences. This is thanks to a breakout performance from newcomer Sharlto Copley and a thought-provoking story with parallels to South African Apartheid.
District 9 takes place in an alternate 1982. An alien ship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa and thousands of sick and malnourished insect-like aliens are found aboard. The South African government struggles to find a solution and confines them to an internment camp called District 9. The story explores themes of xenophobia, social segregation, economic class, and racism in a believable world built on a shoestring budget.
District 9 features an interesting aesthetic that incorporates the found footage format along with news clips, fictional interviews, and surveillance footage. The film was well-received by critics and would go on to earn $210 million at the box office. This success would launch the careers of Blomkamp and Copley in the process.Source: Picture via Sony Pictures
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Based on the 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, A.I. Artificial Intelligence was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. Set in a futuristic society, A.I. follows the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), a childlike android uniquely programmed to fill the void for a couple who have lost their child.
The development of A.I. has an interesting backstory, with producer-director Stanley Kubrick acquiring the rights to Aldiss’ story in the early 1970s. Production was put on hold because Kubrick felt that computer graphics imagery (CGI) was not advanced enough to create David in live-action and that there wasn’t a suitable actor for the role. Eventually, Kubrick handed the production over to Spielberg. However, Kubrick passed away before he could see it brought to the screen.
A.I. received positive reviews with high marks being given for the film’s visual effects and the performance of Osment.Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures
WALL-E is a 2008 animated film from Pixar Animation Studios. It follows an adorable trash compactor robot — the titular WALL-E — living on a deserted Earth, left to clean a largely abandoned city. When WALL-E is visited by an EVE probe sent by the Axiom ship, he quickly falls in love with EVE and pursues her across the galaxy.
Like many Pixar films, WALL-E offers commentary on real-life issues. In particular, the film criticizes consumerism, human environmental impact, obesity, and global catastrophic risk. The film was a massive critical and financial success. It was nominated for and won several awards while grossing $533.3 million worldwide.Source: Screenshot via Disney
The Martian (2015)
After a string of disappointments, Ridley Scott made a remarkable comeback with The Martian. Based on the 2011 novel written by Andy Weir, The Martian follows an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon). He is mistakenly presumed dead after a mission goes awry and is left behind on Mars as a result. A botanist by trade, Watney takes his fate into his own hands and does his best MacGyver impression by fashioning a farm inside his small base of operations.
Scott’s film does an excellent job of straddling the line between being hard sci-fi, action, and comedy. The Martian received rave reviews. So many great reviews that it was nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards, as well as a Best Actor nomination for Matt Damon, who was fantastic in the role.Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Studios
Primer is an independent science fiction film about the accidental discovery of time travel. The film was written, directed, produced, edited, and scored by Shane Carruth, who also stars in the film alongside David Sullivan.
Aaron and Abe (Carruth and Sullivan, respectively) supplement their day-jobs working out of Aaron’s garage with entrepreneurial tech projects. One day, the pair accidentally discover an A-B time loop side effect that allows for time travel. Abe eventually refines the experiment and builds a stable time-apparatus large enough to accommodate a human subject.
Produced for just $7,000, Primer is notable for its use of a unique plot structure and complex technical concepts. The film was well received and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Primer received a limited release in the United States, earning just $841,926 at the box office. Since then, it has gained a large cult following.Source: Screenshot via THINKFilm/IFC Films
The 2013 science-fiction love story Her was written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonez. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde. The film follows Theodore Twombly (Phoenix). Twombly develops a relationship with his artificially intelligent assistant Samantha, who is personified by the soothing voice of Scarlett Johansson.
Warner Bros. initially provided a limited release for Her at six theaters. After a positive critical reception, it was later given a wide release at over 1,700 theaters across North America. Her received multiple awards nominations including Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Jonze took home the award for Best Original Screenplay. The film was a modest financial success, earning $48.5 million on a $23 million budget.Source: Screenshot via Annapurna Pictures
Interstellar is a 2014 science-fiction epic co-written, directed and co-produced by Christopher Nolan. The film stars Matthew McConaughey and a star-studded ensemble cast that includes the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine. Set in the near future where humanity is on the brink of extinction, the film follows a team of astronauts as they search for a new planet for the human race to inhabit.
Co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan worked on the script for four years. He even dedicated himself to learning the scientific aspects of the film by studying relativity at the California Institute of Technology. The younger Nolan’s dedication paid off as the film was praised by scientists for its realistic depiction of wormholes and black holes.
In addition to pleasing scientists, Interstellar received mostly positive reviews. The film would go on to win the award for Best Visual Effects at the 87th Academy Awards.Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures
The Mist (2007)
Based on the 1980 novel by Stephen King, The Mist is a 2007 science fiction film written and directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont, known for his work on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, had shown an interest in adapting the book for the big screen since the late 1980s.
The story revolves around inhabitants of the small town of Bridgton, Maine. They gather in a small supermarket after a severe thunderstorm causes a power outage in the surrounding area. However, a strange mist overruns the town and conceals vicious creatures who slowly pick off the terrified residents of the quiet town.
Considered to be one of the best film adaptations of Stephen King’s work, The Mist received critical acclaim for Darabont’s nod to black and white horror films of the 1960s. The film performed well at the box office too, earning $57 million on a modest $18 million budget.Source: Screenshot via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Dimension Films
Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow is essentially a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day. The film follows Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a public relations officer with no combat experience. Cage is forced to team up with the seasoned combat veteran Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) to improve his fighting skills in order to exit a time loop where he continually dies in battle. It’s an interesting premise that’s elevated by the performances of Cruise and Blunt.
The film was a financial success earning $370 million at the global box office and received positive reviews from critics. While Tom Cruise has appeared in several excellent sci-fi films since 1999 including 2001’s Vanilla Sky and 2002’s Minority Report, Edge of Tomorrow is arguably the best of the bunch.Source: Picture via Warner Bros. Pictures
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
The Planet of the Apes series is now over 50 years old. Previous films in the series are a bit of mixed bag with fans divided on whether the first series is better than the current trilogy. Despite that, one thing everyone can agree on is that the 2001 Tim Burton film was a misstep for the franchise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It follows a group of people in San Francisco who struggle to stay alive in the aftermath of a plague that is wiping out humanity.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was met with widespread acclaim. Critics praised the visual effects, story, direction, and Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Ceasar, the leader of the evolved ape tribe.Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Studios
Minority Report (2002)
Loosely based on a short story by famed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as Chief of PreCrime John Anderton. PreCrime is a specialized division of the Washington D.C. Police Department responsible for apprehending criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “PreCogs.”
Minority Report‘s central theme is the question of free will versus determinism. As such, it examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. It’s an interesting premise that provides the backdrop for an exciting movie. Plus, the film featured a unique film noir visual style that added to the stories’ dark and sinister undertones.
Directed by Stephen Spielberg, Minority Report was one of the best-reviewed releases of 2002. So well-reviewed that it solidified Tom Cruises’ position as a bonified sci-fi star.Source: Screenshot via DreamWorks Pictures
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows an estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories, only to start dating again.
The film stars Jim Carrey as the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as the unrestrained free-spirit Clementine Kruczynski. The two begin a relationship on a Long Island train from Montauk to Rockville Centre. However, the two do not realize they are former lovers who are now separated after a two-year relationship.
The unique premise provides an interesting backdrop to this romantic sci-fi film that incorporates elements of psychological thrillers and dark comedies.Source: Screenshot via Focus Features
Looper is a science fiction thriller written and directed by Rian Johnson. It stars Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt.
The film’s story centers around contract killers known as Loopers. Loopers are hired by crime syndicates from the future that send targets back in time to be eliminated. In 2044, 25-year-old Joe (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper who works for a Kansas City crime family. Joe is tasked with closing his own loop by assassinating his future self, played by Bruce Willis. However, future Joe isn’t too keen on the idea.
Looper‘s central concept is an interesting one. One complemented by fantastic performances from Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Blunt. Looper is a thought-provoking and thrilling film. No wonder it has a strikingly high rating of 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.Source: Picture via TriStar Pictures
The Man from Earth (2007)
The Man From Earth is a sci-fi drama that feels more like a stage play than a feature film. In fact, it would eventually be adapted to the stage.
The film stars David Lee Smith as John Oldman, a university professor who claims to be a Cro-Magnon caveman that has secretly survived in society for more than 14,000 years. The film’s setting is entirely focused around Oldman’s cabin during his farewell party. The plot advances through intellectual arguments between Oldman and his fellow faculty members, some of who struggle to come to grips with his claims.
While The Man From Earth features some inconsistent performances, it has a unique concept and some fascinating interactions between the various characters. Despite no theatrical release and a limited DVD release, the word slowly spread about this unique sci-fi film.Source: Picture via Anchor Bay Entertainment/Shoreline Entertainment
This sci-fi heist film is yet another epic written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional thief who steals information by entering a target’s subconscious. Things get interesting when he is offered the chance to have his criminal record expunged as payment for planting information into a target’s subconscious. The film features a stellar ensemble cast that includes Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.
Inception is known for its breathtaking and mind-bending dream sequences. These sequences are made all the more impressive by the fact that Nolan used little CGI. Instead, opting for practical effects whenever possible.
Inception received critical acclaim and was praised for its screenplay, visual effects, and performances from the experienced cast. The film would go on to earn several Academy Awards and a worldwide box office gross of $828 million.Source: Picture via Warner Bros. Pictures
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, is a neo-noir sci-fi classic that had a profound influence on the science fiction genre. The 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was initially met with skepticism by fans. However, once it was confirmed that Harrison Ford would reprise his role as a Rick Deckard and that Denis Villeneuve was directing, anticipation grew considerably.
Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after the first film. Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner who uncovers a secret that threatens to disrupt the rocky relationship between humans and replicants.
Blade Runner 2049 was praised for its performances from an accomplished ensemble cast as well as its faithfulness to the original film. Despite being well received by critics, the film was a box office disappointment, earning just $260 million on a $185 million budget.Source: Picture via Warner Bros. Pictures
Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men takes place in 2027 in the wake of the death of the world’s youngest citizen and two decades of human infertility have left society on the brink of collapse. The film is set in the United Kingdom, where the last resemblance of a functioning government imposes oppressive immigration laws on desperate refugees. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a civil servant charged with escorting a young refugee woman to safety after it’s discovered that she is miraculously pregnant and may hold the key to the future of humanity.
Featuring the themes of hope, redemption, and faith, Children of Men‘s unique premise makes for an interesting sci-fi thriller based in a dystopian future. The film received a limited release and was considered a failure at the box office. Despite its struggles financially, Children of Men was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing.Source: Screenshot via Universal Studios
This 2009 sci-fi gem is directed by Duncan Jones and stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell. Bell is on a three-year solo mission mining helium-3 on the far side of the moon. However, he begins to experience hallucinations and enters into a personal crisis.
The film features Kevin Spacey as the voice of Sam’s robot companion GERTY in a performance that mirrors HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bell’s isolation leads to some interesting scenes as he navigates the fully automated space station with only GERTY to interact with.
Due to a limited release, a lot of people missed out on Moon. Despite that, Rockwell was praised for his performance and the film won several awards on the film festival circuit.Source: Picture via Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Danny Boyle, Sunshine is a sci-fi thriller that incorporates elements of classic sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Alien. The film takes place in 2057, where the earth is becoming dangerously cold because the sun is dying. A crew of eight astronauts from around the globe pilot a colossal nuclear bomb aboard the spaceship Icarus II, with the intent to jump-start the sun.
Sunshine is a sci-fi epic that received positive feedback from critics and was nominated for several awards for its acting, directing, and production merits. Unfortunately, Sunshine failed to earn back its estimated $40 million budget. It earned just $32 million at the global box office.Source: Screenshot via Searchlight Pictures
Ex Machina (2015)
Ex Machina is a fantastic sci-fi thriller that blew audiences away when it was released in 2015. As is the case with many films on this list, it was overlooked by moviegoers outside of dedicated sci-fi fans.
The directorial debut of Alex Garland, the film stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac. It revolves around Gleeson’s character Caleb Smith, a programmer invited by his CEO (Oscar Issac) to administer the Turing test to an intelligent humanoid robot played by Alicia Vikander.
Ex Machina addresses themes of artificial intelligence, humanity, compassion, and love. The performances from the three lead actors provide a compelling dynamic that will have viewers engaged throughout. As such, the film received widespread critical acclaim being recognized for its visual effects and performances.
Source: Screenshot via A24