Practically since the dawn of movies, sci-fi pictures have been emptying the pockets of movie fans everywhere. From Star Wars to The Matrix, from 2001 to Transformers, these days you can barely flick a piece of popcorn without it bouncing off a billion-dollar sci-fi franchise competing for your time and attention.
But the focus on big-budget blockbusters means many smaller movies get overlooked. If you’re in the mood for something you HAVEN’T seen before, we’ve picked out some lesser-known sci-fi movies from the last 20 years that you might have missed between your third and fourth viewings of whichever Lord of the Rings sequel was out at the time. Some you’ll know, some you won’t – but all of them have at least one thing that makes them worth your time.
1. Screamers (1995)
Based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story, The Second Variety, this movie tells the story of a civil war on a remote mining planet perpetuated using self-aware machine weapons that, in a dramatic twist, have found a way to appear indistinguishable from humans. The film stars Robocop’s Peter Weller as military commander Hendricksson as he attempts to negotiate peace with his enemies, fearing that Earth has abandoned their conflict entirely. Although a flop on release, it has gained a cult following in the years since and even spawned a sequel in 2009. If nothing else, it has the Starship Troopers-esque charm of a B-movie with the budget to realise its ambitious content.
2. Memories (1995)
This sci-fi anthology anime is split into three segments: Magnetic Rose, in which space explorers encounter a virtual world created from one woman’s memories, Stink Bomb, in which a man turns himself into a biological weapon, and Cannon Fodder, which depicts a day in the life of a city devoted to shelling an unseen enemy. All three shorts are based on work by Katsuhiro Otomo (creator of Akira) and the first is written by the legendary Satoshi Kon, so there’s no shortage of top-notch anime talent in this rarely-referenced cinematic curio.
3. The Arrival (1996)
Writer-director David Twohy penned this criminally forgotten conspiracy thriller (it was the 90s, after all…) about a radio astronomer (Charlie Sheen) who receives signals that appear to be from intelligent extra-terrestrial aliens, only to find himself on the run as those around him die in mysterious circumstances. The film totally follows up on its premise and plays out like an entire series of X-Files in 2 hours, with the additional benefit of actually having an ending. Home releases are sadly quite spartan (unless you have a laserdisc player) but the film itself is reason enough to spend your time and money.
4. Gattaca (1997)
It barely make back a third of its budget at the box office, but Gattaca was a great sci-fi film starring Ethan Hawke as Vincent Freeman, a naturally-conceived child in a future where genetic selection sees him as a second class human. After stealing the identity of someone from the genetic elite, Freeman joins Gattaca, a spaceflight conglomerate, hoping to achieve his dream of becoming an interplanetary pilot. Unfortunately, he ends up becoming the top suspect in a murder scandal. The themes are big and the execution relatable, and it’s a mystery why the film didn’t do better – though it has since been recognised as an early but still thought-provoking commentary on the now-relevant issue of genetic selection.
5. Dark City (1998)
Described as a neo-noir film, this 1998 movie was co-written by David Goyer and features big names like Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt. It stars Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, an amnesiac who wakes in a hotel bathtub and quickly finds himself on the run from the police. Murdoch slowly realises that reality isn’t what it seems, developing strange mind powers and beginning to question to nature of this strange city where it’s always night. Although overshadowed the following year by The Matrix, which has many similar themes, visuals and plot points, Dark City is more psychological, like Phillip K. Dick meets Franz Kafka.
6. The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron star as husband and wife in this disturbing thriller about an astronaut who, after losing contact on mission, appears to experience a dramatic change in his identity just as his wife discovers that she’s pregnant with twins. The star quality of its lead actors helps disguise the slow pace, but the weird Rosemary’s Baby tone of the movie that keeps you engaged throughout. It would’ve made a great episode of The Outer Limits, but it’s ultimately still a better movie than its catastrophic box office taking suggests.
7. The Cell (2000)
A visually intriguing and often bizarre psychological thriller from director Tarsem Singh, The Cell stars Jennifer Lopez as a child psychologist who uses virtual reality to enter the mind of a serial killer played by Vincent D’Onofrio, alongside an FBI officer (Vince Vaughn) as they look for information about his final victim. The arresting, design-led visuals contrast heavily with the grimly realistic exploration of what might drive someone to murder. It’s just weird enough to keep you thinking about it long after the conclusion.
8. Xchange (2001)
Stephen Baldwin and Kyle MacLachlan lead this Canadian picture from 2001, in which people can travel the globe by swapping bodies over long distances. Which is fine, until a businessman discovers that his body has been hijacked by a terrorist, and the cloned body he’s stuck in has just days left to live. Despite some weirdly graphic sex scenes giving the film an air characteristic of 90s late-night fodder it should’ve moved beyond, it’s got a reasonably interesting hook in that the lead character is portrayed by three different actors and at least it has its head screwed on when considering the psychological effect of wearing someone else’s face.
9. Dead Leaves (2004)
When people talk about anime as a hyper-kinetic medium, Dead Leaves might just be what they’re talking about. This hour-long movie sees two amnesiac criminals – Pandy and Retro – arrested in a futuristic Tokyo and imprisoned in the notorious prison Dead Leaves, which is sited on the remains of Earth’s moon. Once inside, they orchestrate a prison break aiming to expose the illegal experiments taking place on the prison populace. But if you get all that on a first viewing, you probably weren’t paying enough attention to the incredible visuals and frenetic soundtrack. It’s a welcome reminder that science fiction doesn’t have to be ponderous or worthy. Sometimes it can just be really good fun.
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Michel Gondry directs Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in this film about two lovers who have their memories erased when the relationship turns sour, only to find themselves drawn back into one another’s lives. Charlie Kaufman’s script is typically sharp and complex, but Gondry’s elegiac direction emphasises the films emotional components too. Hailed by some critics as one of the best films of its decade, it uses a simple science-fiction conceit – erasable memories – to examine the nature of intimacy. It’s devastatingly good cinema, and if you’ve never seen it there’s no reason to wait.
11. Primer (2004)
This ultra-low budget sci-fi drama has become a cult hit thanks to its realistic (and therefore insanely complicated) time travel mechanics, which make it hard to understand without diagrams. Despite being deliberately complex in narrative and structural terms, the film asks interesting philosophical and moral questions, doesn’t pander to its audience and remains true to the characters. If nothing else, it’s proof of what can be done on a tiny budget, and that science fiction doesn’t have to be expensive to be through-provoking.
12. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s pre-Gravity sci-fi epic stars Clive Owen as a bureaucrat forced back into his former life as an activist when he’s charged with protecting the only pregnant woman in a world where humanity has become collectively infertile. Beneath its action tropes, the film is a meditation on immigration and war, rich in symbolism and single-shot direction that immerses viewers in events. Richly realised and thoughtfully textured, it criminally failed to make its money back at the box office but has received high critical praise from virtually every outlet going. Easily one of the best sci-fi movies of the last decade, and probably much longer too.
13. The Road (2009)
If you’re the sort of person who likes to imagine all the survivalist fun you’ll have when society collapses, you might want to watch this film first and then reconsider your enthusiasm. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee star in an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, in which a father and son trudge across the United States after a global cataclysm has wiped out most of the population and ruined the ecosystem. It’s a cinematic dirge, unrelentingly bleak in tone and brutal in its realism. Although it lacks the elegance of the original novel, it still holds its own as a piece of cinema worth spending your time on.
14. Drones (2010)
Written by Thrilling Adventure Hour’s Ben Acker and Ben Blacker and co-directed by Buffy alumni Amber Benson and Adam Busch, Drones is a comedy sci-fi movie in which a man discovers that some, if not all of his co-workers are aliens monitoring Earth until it’s ready to be destroyed. It’s like Office Space-meets-Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and while it isn’t going to completely shatter your world view or challenge your preconceptions, it is, at the very least, good for a laugh.
15. Another Earth (2011)
Another Earth uses a sci-fi premise – the discovery of a second Earth moving closer to our own – as little more than texture to the story of a young woman befriending the man she put in a coma while drunk driving. It’s a film about how small decisions can have a big impact on our lives, and while the fact that there’s another planet in the sky drives the narrative, it’s not what the story is about. It’s melancholic and emotionally intense, and a great example of science-fiction that’s about people, rather than ideas.
16. Dredd (2012)
We of all people shouldn’t have to remind you, but Dredd is one of the best sci-fi action movies of the last 10 years. Of course, if the box office numbers are anything to go by, that doesn’t matter because none of you actually watched it. Written by Alex Garland and starring Karl Urban as Judge Dredd and Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson, Dredd is everything its 1990s predecessor wasn’t: stylish, action-packed and gritty. It might not have the overt satirical bite of the comic source material, but it plays out more like a Korean Gun-Fu film than a Hollywood action movie. Maybe that’s why it didn’t find its audience. Even if you have zero affinity for Dredd, there’s plenty to keep you entertained here. Just try not to think about the sequel that’ll never be.
17. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
You’ll have probably seen screenwriter Drew Goddard’s first screenplay, Cloverfield, and you’ll doubtless be aware of the super-sharp Matt Damon vehicle, The Martian. But did you know that between those two, he wrote and directed a sci-fi horror called The Cabin in the Woods? Actually filmed in 2009 but shelved due to financial problems at its studio, it was eventually released in 2012 and features a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth. The film smartly deconstructs and critiques horror tropes as a group of young adults visit the eponymous cabin in the woods and find themselves the subjects of a surprisingly clinical ritual. The film has a great sense of humour (as you’d expect from a graduate of the Buffy writers room) and the audacity of its ending would be the film’s greatest moment, were it not for utter genius of its title card drop.
18. Snowpiercer (2013)
Set in a post-apocalyptic man-made ice age, Snowpiercer is the first English-language film directed by Bong Joon-ho, starring a number of big-name western actors including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and John Hurt. Based on the French BD graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, it takes place aboard a train called Snowpiercer which houses the last remnants of humanity who are divided into the Elite, in the luxurious front carriages, and the “scum” in the squalid rear carriages. At least, until a revolution starts. Widely praised and lauded for its direction, Snowpiercer is that rarest of things: an action movie that feels truly original.
19. Best Friends Forever (2013)
Written by and starring Brea Grant (Heroes, Dexter) and Vera Miao, Best Friends Forever follows two friends as they make a cross-country trip from Los Angeles to Texas, oblivious to the nuclear war that has begun in their wake. A rare female-led entry into the apocalyptic sci-fi genre, Best Friends Forever makes light work of a big premise, focusing on the turbulent friendship of its lead characters and poking fun at genre conventions as it weaves its way through to several unexpected plot twists to a nonetheless predictable conclusion, buoyed by its humour and strong characters. The Road it ain’t.
20. Under the Skin (2013)
The hypnotic direction of Jonathan Glazer and stunning performance of lead actress Scarlett Johansson makes Under the Skin hard to look away from throughout. In it, a predatory alien disguised as a woman entices and consumes people as she attempts to understand the world around her. The film was shot using hidden cameras, meaning substantial portions involve non-actors and unscripted exchanges, making the narrative all the more captivating and at times, uncomfortably real. Tense and original, it’s a true cinematic masterpiece unlike anything else you’ll watch.