The Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century

Equilibrium with Christian BaleThe 21st century officially started January 1, 2001. However, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll include the year 2000 in there, primarily because it contains a “2.”  Over the last nine years, there have been plenty of sci-fi films, ranging from full-out action to indie dramas. Many have gone on to great things, like this year’s Star Trek, while others have disappeared quickly and faded from memory.

With the Sam Rockwell sci-fi thriller Moon, about an astronaut who begins to see some very strange things on the eve of his return trip to Earth, coming to limited theaters this week, I felt it was a good time to look at the sci-fi movies of recent years that for one reason or another don’t get the respect they deserve. Some are blockbusters that people now shrug off and others are tiny films that lacked the marketing budget to become well known.

Here are the most underrated sci-fi movies of the 21st century, in no particular order:

  • Children of Men
    Some critics shrugged this action-drama off and the movie, lacking a full wide release, never got the attention it deserved, but Children of Men is one of the most chilling and depressing visions of the future. Beyond that, the movie is full of hope, excitement, action and political commentary, making it one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory. In fact, Children of Men was #1 in my Top Ten movies of 2006.
  • Donnie Darko
    This cult classic hardly should classify as underrated anymore, but there are still plenty of people who have yet to witness the perfection that is Donnie Darko, the movie that put Jake Gyllenhaal on the map and made Richard Kelly, well, a one-hit wonder.
  • Frequency
    This little film starring Dennis Quaid and Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel, as father and son separated by time. In the movie, Caviezel discovers that he can communicate with his now-dead father in the past through a CB radio, and the two work together to stop a serial killer. The movie isn’t a classic, but it works nonetheless. Technically this movie, which was released in 2000, was not released in the 21st century, but oh well.
  • Minority Report
    This Steven Spielberg film perhaps doesn’t deserve to be on the list because most have seen it, but it often isn’t given the credit it deserves. The movie is smart, exciting and intriguing, and also features some spectacular-but-unique visual effects and a clever vision of the future.
  • 2046
    In this dreamlike film from Kar Wai Wong, this sci-fi film is actually a sequel to the romantic drama In the Mood for Love, even though that one was by no means a sci-fi pic. Original and mesmerizing in every way, 2046 isn’t for everyone but is a must-see for the true sci-fi fan.
  • Serenity
    This movie, based on the excellent television Joss Whedon show Firefly, is one of the most overlooked sci-fi action films ever made. Fan hopes that the movie would be a big enough hit in theaters to relaunch the short-lived TV show died quickly, but that doesn’t stop Serenity from being funny, action-packed and exciting from start to finish. If you like action films, Serenity is a must-see.
  • Equilibrium
    If this movie had been released just a few years later, it would have received massive promotion and a summer release date. Instead, Equilibrium, which stars Christian Bale in a Big Brother-esque future, barely received a theatrical release. Nonetheless, this film has some amazing action and, of course, stars Batman himself.
  • Primer
    This trippy time travel film is so confusing it isn’t even clear for quite a while that the movie is about time travel. Shot on a miniscule budget, the movie is about a couple of guys who accidentally invent a time travel device, but their determination to not mess with time leads to some seriously disturbing stuff.
  • Stardust
    This adventure film, more fantasy oriented than sci-fi, was shrugged off as cheesy, B-grade fare by everyone, including me, but the movie is actually a highly enjoyable and shockingly funny film that includes ghosts, evil witches, shooting stars and even gay pirates. Stardust is this decade’s version of The Princess Bride.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
    Another fantasy film that failed to live up to its box office potential, Prince Caspian is perhaps the most brutal PG-rated movie ever made. There’s plenty of action and excitement to go around, is a vast improvement over the original Chronicles of Narnia movie. A lot of people decided not to see this sequel despite the success of the original, and if you’re one of them, you should give it another chance.
  • Deja Vu
    Denzel Washington plays typical Denzel Washington in this flashy Tony Scott film, about a police unit who utilizes a special device that allows them to look back in time to solve mysteries. After a terrorist blows up a populated New Orleans ferry, however, Denzel decides that the best course of action may be to travel back in time himself to change the course of events. The movie requires a level of disbelief (as do all time travel movies), but it’s a fun and gritty adventure flick.
  • The Last Mimzy
    This family movie, about two children who develop “powers” after stumbling across a magical stuffed toy, was ignored by most audiences due to the fact that it is, in fact, a family movie. But The Last Mimzy is a well-made, clever and original sci-fi film that has similarities to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
    Steven Spielberg is responsible for many of the classic sci-fi films over the last several decades, as well as three underrated films on this list. No movie is more underrated, or as ambitious, as A.I., starring Haley Joel Osmet as a robot child who is abandoned by his parents. Featuring an excellent performance by Jude Law, the Pinocchio-esque adventure film has all the makings of a sci-fi original; unfortunately, most people remember this film for it’s 27 endings, which, admittedly, become painful after a while. Endings are important, but A.I. is one film where people have forgotten just how good the rest of the movie is.
  • Unbreakable
    Marginally sci-fi, Unbreakable is one of my favorite movies. A lot of people consider M. Night Shyalaman as a one-hit wonder (The Sixth Sense), and yet this one, about an invincible Bruce Willis, is a well-paced and intriguing drama with a pretty good twist ending. Some people really hate this one, but it’s subtle (and hypocritically direct) homage to comic books is impressive.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
    Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie star in the visual epic, which was essentially made on a home computer. The movie never lived up to its hype and has quickly been forgotten, but it’s throwback look and feel to early adventure films make this one a hidden gem. It certainly could have been better, but it’s still pretty good.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
    I can’t remember much about this animated film other than that I found it immersive and extremely creative. The movie is, in fact, about a “moving castle,” but there is a much deeper plot than that. The animated element understandably turns off a lot of people, but this one is worth a chance.
  • Sunshine
    Before he did Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle directed Sunshine, a visually stunning sci-fi film about a group of astronauts headed to the sun to save it – and subsequently Earth – from destruction after the previous mission failed. But as the astronauts approach the sun, they discover that there may be a survivor from the previous mission – and that he’ll stop at nothing to ensure that they fail as well. The movie’s blend of visual epic and psychological thriller doesn’t always work, but it comes about as close to ever as being the 21st century’s answer to 2001.
  • The One
    This Jet Li-starring action film has a pretty standard and even cliche plot, and if you’re not a fan of movies that star the same actor twice, you may want to stay clear, but there’s enough excitement and special effects (a la The Matrix) that make this a worthy entry on the list. I haven’t been a huge fan of most of Li’s American films, but The One is an exception.
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
    Terminator 3 often gets a bum rap, but after Terminator Salvation failed to inspire, I had to give this one another chance. While it understandably doesn’t compare to the original James Cameron classics, it actually is a pretty effective action film with some strong sequences and a surprisingly explosive ending. On its own, Terminator 3 is a well-made and exciting action flick, but when viewed as part of a trilogy, most quickly shrug it off: hence the “underrated” description.
  • Idiocracy
    Not a classic by any means, Idiocracy pales in comparison to Mike Judge’s Office Space, but it still has its moments. About a man (Luke Wilson) who wakes up a thousand years in the future to find that he is now, unfortunately, the smartest man on the plan, Idiocracy pokes fun at the current state of America and provides a fair amount of laughs.
  • War of the Worlds
    The last Spielberg movie to make this list, several people “hate on” this film because it stars Tom Cruise, and yet it’s an exciting experience with plenty of alien action. Featuring a great destruction sequence in Brooklyn and some other impressive moments (the ferry attack comes to mind), Spielberg really fires on all cylinders – as does Cruise and co-star Dakota Fanning. The movie’s ending is a little lackluster, but only marginally so.
  • Wristcutters: A Love Story
    There’s a special place in purgatory for those who commit suicide, and that’s what this film explores. After a young man’s girlfriend commits suicide, he does the same, only to find himself in a dreary world that looks a lot like the Southwest. He sets out with some friends he picks up along the way to find his girlfriend and get her back. Sounds weird, huh? Yes, especially considering that there’s a black hole under the front passenger seat in the car the characters drive around. But Wristcutters is an enjoyable and utterly unique romantic comedy.
  • Knowing
    Nicolas Cage stars as a professor who discovers a code that he believes predicts what could be the end of the world. Like Next, Knowing looked like it could be harmless, B-grade action fare, but the movie, from the director of Dark City, is surprisingly deep. Though the movie suffers from some questionable special effects, Knowing has some good disaster sequences and an underlying sci-fi layer that wasn’t at all advertised in the previews.
  • Reign of Fire
    Christian Bale is on the list again! In this one, he’s battling dragons alongside Matthew McConaughey in a futuristic world where much of society has been wiped out by the deadly creatures. I wasn’t a big fan of the movie when I first saw it, but it has grown on me over time. Either way, it’s a movie that was largely ignored by audiences and critics alike.
  • Timecrimes
    This Spanish-languge film isn’t perfect as it suffers from a pretty low budget and questionable acting from the main star, but its increasingly complex time travel elements make this one hard to predict. It starts out as a horror movie and quickly turns into a thriller where the main character is battling different versions of himself; it’s definitely compelling.

Watch the Moon movie trailer, and look forward to our Moon movie review coming later this week!

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists
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  • Fernando Ruiz

    Hey where was “The Fountain” at?? or “Casshern”. You forgot these great classic sci fi from the past few years. “War of the Worlds” and “Minority Report” come on bro wheres the passion for this art form??

  • I actually never saw Casshern; The Fountain, though, didn’t do it for me. I could see your argument for the list, but as trippy as it was, I found it underwhelming as something to watch; I therefore can’t recommend it.

  • Fernando Ruiz

    Well no need to argue about your list. Its a good list either way. Although I recommend Casshern. Its like a long Music Video mixed with politics, kung fu, comic book visuals, and a pretty good message in the end regarding human peace, all together a good story. Very Sci Fi.
    The Fountain is possibly my favorite movie of all time. It takes place in 3 different time settings. Its got Mayan mysticism, ancient Spanish politics and religious plots, its got modern science and the extent some scientists try to go defy death. Its got possibly the coolest spaceship any Movie ever has come up with. And in the end its got a Dying Star scene that looks freaken amazing. Also highly recommended. Plus its directed by Darren Aronofsky who makes every movie look cool as hell. So also very Sci Fi. Thanks for your response Erik!

  • Good summaries/analysis – I’ll add Casshern to my netflix list. If memory services, I gave up on it because the release date kept getting pushed back – and once a film goes “direct to DVD,” I generally assume it sucks unless I get a recommendation.

    As for The Fountain, I agree, there are many ambitious elements in it. I just felt that Arronofsky got a little lost in the story he was telling and it just didn’t click.

  • Fernando Ruiz

    Well since you’ve picked movies like “Children of Men”, “Primer” and “Idiocracy” to be on your list ill give you a pass that you know your stuff. Those are my favorite movies also! But when you put “Unbreakable” on there and you can’t agree on the “The Fountain” im baffled. Excellent work either way Erik. Maybe your fans will read this dialogue and give “The Fountain” a chance. As far as story, just remember his dying wife tells him to write the last chapter of her book 😉

    Oh and “Moon” looks really good! Thanks again Erik!

  • Thanks for your understanding. :o)

    BTW, here’s FilmJabber’s Moon movie review, fresh of the presses:

  • AK1980

    Interesting list, and I’ve added a few to my viewing list 🙂

    Erik.. I get ya, Unbreakable is very, very deserving of it’s place on the list. Why don’t people like it?!

    The only film that springs to mind that I would have listed for sure is Cube. It has so many bad qualities, but I just think it’s an awesome film.

    Cheers for the list 🙂

  • @AK1980 I vaguely remember seeing a small part of Cube, but never got into it. Besides – that was 1997, so it wouldn’t qualify for this list.

    Thanks for the comment, and yes, I don’t understand the animosity some people have towards Unbreakable.

  • AK1980

    Erik, how did I miss that?! I foolishly checked the Cube Trilogy boxed set which had a 2005 release.
    Not so cleverly highlighting my stupidity to millions…

    So I watched Primer.

    I have to watch it again. Enough said.

  • No worries, it happens. Glad you liked Primer. Or found it confusing enough that you need to watch it again.

  • Darshan M

    Primer was an excellent suggestion.. Loved it.. A great list overall..

    But I agree with Fernando. The Fountain is my all time favorite Sci Fi movie. And one of the most underrated movie of all time.. The story was quite well told actually.

    I wouldn’t qualify unbreakable (although i agree it was good) or Caspian as a Sci Fi movie but again thats open to debate 😛

  • Josh

    May I also recommend to people:

    City of Ember (2008)
    The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
    Traumschiff Surprise: Periode 1 [German] (2004)

  • great list!

    @Josh I’m sorry but you probably did not read the book. The movie adaptation of City of Ember was so horribly done and I feel sorry for the great actors behind the project. On the other hand, I absolutely love Spiderwick Chronicles. =-)


  • Don’t forget the more recent, Pandorum. It’s a patchwork of other movies but the acting and direction is good, so it delivers. Also, Eden Log is a real trip. Super Bizarre.

  • @Josh – City of Ember was OK but I thought the writing wasn’t very good.
    Spiderwick Chronicles – very good movie.
    Will have to watch Traumschiff Surprise

    @TDOG – I didn’t like Pandorum. I agree it was a patchwork, but didn’t think the directing/acting made up for that fact. Eden Log was interesting but a bit too trippy. Still, good recommendations/comment!

  • Joey Tavares

    Thank you for this list.

    “Idiocracy” may come across to some in the know as a de-population puff piece. To those more awake than in the know, it is a telling riposte on current affairs.

    I found “The Fountain” hauntingly beautiful and intellectually stimulating.

    I highly recommend “Mr. Nobody”. The best film I’ve seen, let alone sci-fi.

  • Axelsson

    A very good list.
    Since you wrote it there are a coupple of movies that shold make the list.

    Predators with Mr.Brody. Talk about under rated! I love it.
    And Battle Los Angeles, This movie is a kickass version of the suck ass Skyline! =D

  • Axelsson

    Edit: Couple

  • @Joey Tavares and @Axelsson – thanks for the comments! I’ll have to check out Mr. Nobody. Idiocracy was surprisingly quite good. I wouldn’t say great, but it probably deserves to be on this list.

    I absolutely hated The Fountain, but I know it has its fans. It was a bit too “pure sci-fi” for me.

    Predators was surprisingly decent. The first half is better than the second, but it’s still a worthy sequel/reboot.

    I liked Battle LA, but don’t know if I’d watch it again. I completely agree Skyline sucked ass.

  • Viola

    I would add Pandorum, Jurassic Park 3, Ultraviolet, Mission to Mars, Supernova, The Cell, The Cave and Cube 2

  • Weezyjigga

    suk ma bawlz niggaaaaaa

  • soundwave

    None of these are underrated, more like the bottom half of any generic must-see scifi list.

  • species-521

    just found 5 ( F I V E ) movies in this last who were at least not bad, and just two really good ones, the rest is quite crap-ish… or very close.
    awful list…

  • Gias

    Must watch Sci fi imo

    In no order…….
    Time crimes
    Roller ball (70’s version)
    logans run
    The Fountain
    The Man from Earth

    The Man Who fell to earth
    The Road
    THX 1138
    Tremors (my quilty pleasure)
    The Omega man
    The Rover
    The Quiet Earth