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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