The Best Movie Ever: Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century


We live in the future. If you think about it, one of the most important and influential science fiction stories of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey. We’re over ten years past that, and over 30 years past George Orwell’s greatly dreaded 1984. The whole of human knowledge is at your fingertips as you read this (so thank you for not reading that instead). Our phones talk to us. Video chatting is commonplace and there are robots on Mars. Artificial intelligence even seems right around the corner, as illustrated in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a critically acclaimed sci-fi movie premiering in theaters this weekend.


Check Out: Alex Garland Talks Ex Machina, A.I. and Auteur Theory on The B-Movies Podcast


So what has science fact done to our science fiction? That’s what we’re here to talk about in The Best Movie Ever: Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century! We’ve asked CraveOnline’s film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to pick just one science fiction film from the last 15 years to represent the genre in this young century. As usual, they couldn’t agree on a single film.

Check out what films they selected, let us know your own favorites and come back next Wednesday for yet another highly debatable installment of CraveOnline’s The Best Movie Ever!


Check Out: The Best Movie Ever: Kurt Russell


Witney Seibold’s Pick: Minority Report (2002)

I feel that Minority Report was a turning point for director Steven Spielberg. Although the famed pop auteur was already well-known for numerous, enormous blockbusters, and had already mastered deeper, more emotional territory with films like Schindler’s List, his 2002 film was a brilliant attempt to deftly blend his rock-’em-sock’em action pictures with more cerebral, intellectual underpinnings. Minority Report, adapted from a story by cult figurehead Philip K. Dick and starring superstar Tom Cruise, takes place in a future where a trio of psychics (!) have been plugged into a machine by the local police for the purpose of predicting and preventing murders. The excellent script is meticulously plotted, dealing with several time frames, and the race against the clock to prevent a murder that has been predicted, a murder that the hero may have committed. 

But beneath the excellent plotting, there is something more sinister at work. Throughout the course of the film, we (and an on-screen IA officer played by Colin Farrell) are constantly looking for loopholes, flaws in the system. We are kind of hoping that the  pre-cognitives are fallible, and that our fates are not determined. But the film never lets us off that hook. The system, we find by the end of the film, is actually perfect the way it is (despite having to essentially keep three human beings in a constant near-vegetative state). Spielberg has constructed an excellent, intelligent action picture, but he is also elbowing us wickedly in the ribs, forcing us to acknowledge that the universe is essentially fatalistic. He never goes full-bore nihilist with us, but there’s definitely something unsettling about the film’s bigger themes. 

This twist may serve as an antidote to most sci-fi time-travel and future-predicting stories. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron argued that there is no such thing as fate, and that we are masters of our destiny. The characters, then, are able to prevent war a war that seems determined (despite the paradox). Minority Report, however, says that there is fate and fate is all there is. It’s a Calvinist sci-fi film. And yet, despite being trapped by fate, we are still masters in our own small way. And, on top of all this, we have a rollicking and excellently made chase film with severed eyes, evil robot spiders, and a fun scene where a car-making machine builds a car around Tom Cruise. Kudos. 


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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Gamer (2009)

There are a lot of better movies than Gamer made in the last 15 years, and there are even better movies within the science fiction genre (see: PrimerTimecrimes and Source Code). But Gamer, more so than I would argue any other 21st century sci-fi movie, could only exist today. The technology may not have existed to make something like Inception or District 9 before, but the ideas were already out there.

Gamer, directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (insufferably crediting themselves as Neveldine/Taylor), expands on ideas that are so new that they still seem like science fiction, even when they already exist. Gaming is already a rapidly growing industry and medium, with sociological impacts that are still difficult to quantify. Is it changing the way we view our lives, and each other? What if the characters inside our games are real people, choosing or even being forced to submit to our control? Would we play games differently if someone actually died every time we fired our weapons, or would we abandon empathy altogether in favor of godlike control over a virtual reality that is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from our own?

In Gamer, Gerard Butler plays Kable, a convicted felon controlled by a teenaged gamer in a first person shooter. Kable’s wife, Angie (Amber Valetta), makes a living as – essentially – a Sim, living out a gamer’s fantasies by proxy, even when the things she’s forced to do shock or horrify her. The science responsible for this particular fiction was invented by Ken Castle, an entrepreneur played with rambunctious glee by Michael C. Hall, and he has plans to use gamification to control the masses, just like every corporation is (to an admittedly different extent) already doing.

And these ideas that challenge the way we look at how new technologies are currently manipulating our daily lives are presented with wit, threat and exciting action sequences. Like many of the best sci-fi movies, they expand our minds while appealing to our guts. Gamer entertains in much the same way that RoboCop or Total Recall do: with crowd-pleasing violence and wicked satire, making the genuine and disturbing stories of the protagonists more palatable. Gamer broadly entertains as a way to ease us into thinking clearly about complex issues; issues that didn’t even exist 20, 15 or even 10 years prior to its release. It’s the best sci-fi movie of the 21st century because, at least in some respects, it is the 21st century.


Check Out: The Best Movie Ever: Conspiracies


Brian Formo’s Pick: Under the Skin (2014)

Oh, I’ve written a lot about Under the Skin in the past year. It perched atop my year-end best films list, appeared close to the top of a film poster review write-up, and goddamn-actresses-were-great-this-year! list. It even appeared yesterday(!) in the top quarter of our top 50 films of the decade list. So in terms of bests, what the hell else can it be after existing for only a brief amount time? Why, the best science-fiction made this century (so far), of course! 

What makes Under the Skin the best science-fiction film of the past 16 years? Director Jonathan Glazer treats it as non-fiction and without science. We are shown the complete life cycle of an alien being (Scarlett Johansson). She has assumed a human form, and she has a task (to harvest men, whose insides are shipped off to somewhere) but we do not know why she has that task. Nothing is explained. In that way, Under the Skin is a blue collar alien film. We see ranchers, miners, lumberjacks, etc. toiling in the elements in a film and we never ask: why are they doing those tasks? For what purpose are they doing these things? It’s unique to be asked to allow your brain to do that with another lifeform when it looks like a human.

Under the Skin is much more than that simple assessment—because the alien is in the body of one of the world’s biggest celebrities—and no matter how many talk shows we see, and tweets we read, that breed of human is still alien to us. But at this point, I’ve said and analyzed so much of this film on CraveOnline that I just want people to experience it similar to how I did the first time: in the dark. All I knew is that she was an alien, and leaving that’s all that I knew for sure. But I also knew that it was special, that Johansson is doing amazing work lately by exploring females who lack individual identities and attempt to get that (Her, Under the Skin, Don Jon), also that the score is amazing, and that there are lots of interesting possible meanings to unpack, discuss, and read after you’ve seen it. So please do.