Best Indie Sci-Fi 1997-2018 V1.5.3: The Definitive Top 52 Films, Plus 52 More

by emvan | created - 20 Mar 2015 | updated - 2 days ago | Public

List Status

The planned version 1.5 has morphed into 1.6, adding an additional five films. This interim version includes two of them (marked !**); 1.6 will add The Endless and Upgrade, thus bringing is up to date for buzzed-about films, as well as the older Brand Upon the Brain!. (It also re-organizes this introduction.)

Once those have been added (in V1.5.9), there still needs to be one more pass to fix the cross-references (currently fairly broken!) and, beginning with #16, to expand or tweak some notes and make the inclusion of extra info (sources, budget and distribution, and director and writer ID's and histories) consistent.

The long-overdue "V1.4.9" added 25 titles (marked **): the 13 must-see films and 5 of the should-see films that had been released since V1.0 in early 2015, and 6 and 1 respectively older films that were missing for various reasons.

The next planned full update is v2.0 in late 2019, which should add 50 or more films, mostly to the "should-see" section. The end of the list (on the next page) has the names and links to all of the candidates (and some for 3.0), including 7 "could-see" films with tentative rankings; that list might be updated before then. Feel free to nominate omissions!

What's Included!

What's sci-fi? A main difference between V1.0 and the revisions is that my definition of what's "sci-fi" or "sf" has been expanded to make the list considerably more inclusive. (The notes to the films use those terms consistently--"sci-fi" uses familiar tropes, which is often a good idea, while "sf" strives for originality.) Most of the older films I've added fall on the interesting borderlines of sf, and into two or three categories of their own.

"Slipstream" is a term invented by SF criticism to describe any narrative with non-fantastic elements that doesn't fit comfortably into either sf or fantasy. If the notes to a film explain why I included it, it's slipstream in this broad sense.

It's also used more specifically for a genre of narratives that refuse to commit to a genre, and are meant to make roughly equal sense whether interpreted as some or all of sf, fantasy, surrealism, or realism (with hallucinations or delusions).

Finally, I've coined the term "metaphysical fantasy" for stories set in the present with a fantastic element that is fundamental to reality, original (at least in part), and substantively developed. These films feel exactly like sf, and I think appeal more to sf fans than fantasy fans--so I think they clearly belong here.

What's indie? My original criterion was that a film had to be either independently distributed (in the U.S.) or independently produced. As a proxy for the latter, films needed to be made for US $15M or less (inflation-adjusted to the end of 2014. Most films fit both criteria, of course.) That happens to produce a fairly thorough list of worthy sf films that have escaped wide notice, but it's not what I think film buffs really want, which is a complete list. So after some thought, I decided that the revised versions of the list should include all other films that had a U.S. limited release, regardless of budget. And that does the trick.

(It turns out that nearly all of the added films (i.e., major studio films costing more than $15M) were made for an adjusted $35M or less, which is also a limit that encompasses a set of great major-studio wide releases like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her. These mid-budget films form a recognizable stylistic class, so I've noted which films belong to it.)

Why 1997? After three years that produced just two original sf films of any budget worth seeing (Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days), 1997 brought us Gattaca, Face/Off, Men in Black, Contact, The Fifth Element, and #5 on the list. It's the start of the modern golden age of sf cinema. (I have a list of 50+ low-budget sci-films from 1968 to 1996, but I've seen fewer than 20. I hope to rank them all someday.)

The Rankings and Notes

The ranking is based on a combination of three separate 0-100 sub-scores, which I give at the beginning of my notes. "All" is the rating from critics and general film buffs, weighting the Rotten Tomatoes Average Rating and IMDB User Rating equally (V2.0 will give them both). "Fans" is from the average ranking of Netflix users with tastes like mine (their prediction for me), and counts double (yes, I'm proposing that I'm the paradigmatic consumer of smart sf films!). And the third, "Me," is mine; I value sf intelligence and cinematic brio equally. "Me" counts double compared to everyone else when I like a film better, and as little as 40% when I like it less. The total scores run so close together that the precise ranking is almost arbitrary. A final 0-100 number at the end gives the film's popularity or notoriety (for films in V1.0 only; V2.0 will update them all).

As previously noted, ** before a note indicates a film added for this addition. ++ marks a note with expanded insights and + a note with new information on the filmmakers. After the subscores, $ indicates a mid-budget film and $$ a big-budget (> $35M) one; + indicates a major or mini-major distributor and W a wide release.

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1. Donnie Darko (2001)

R | 113 min | Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller

88 Metascore

A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after he narrowly escapes a bizarre accident.

Director: Richard Kelly | Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne

Votes: 679,469 | Gross: $1.48M

++ All 84, Fans 92, Me 100 = 96. One of the three greatest sf puzzle films ever (the other two being The Prestige and the next entry) and one of the greatest troubled-teen drama / comedies ever, a combination that has earned it a spot in the IMDB Top 250 (the only such film here). You can watch the original cut for its beautiful Lynchian ambiguity, but you should know that it was not intended by Kelly but only emerged when Jake Gyllenhaal urged him to cut reams of clumsy expository dialogue. I strongly recommend the 2004 director's cut (133 min), which adds significant character and thematic depth and solves the exposition problem, clarifying what has always been a thrilling and profound exploration of the nature of free will. Kelly next did #42. His new script has attracted serious buzz; fingers crossed. (60 popular, the highest here.)

2. Upstream Color (2013)

Not Rated | 96 min | Drama, Sci-Fi

81 Metascore

A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.

Director: Shane Carruth | Stars: Amy Seimetz, Frank Mosley, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig

Votes: 27,683 | Gross: $0.44M

++ All 78, Fans 89, Me 100 = 95. The most challenging sf puzzle movie ever, with clues buried in nearly every shot; I figured something out on my 8th viewing (and it seemed obvious once I got it). Miraculously, it's also one of the great all-time arthouse-style cinematic experiences. Like Donnie Darko, one of my five favorite films of all time, a moving examination of personal identity, autonomy, and community. Carruth, who began with #4, signed up a stellar cast for the (non-sf) The Modern Ocean three years ago; no further progress has been reported. (12 popular.)

3. Get Out (I) (2017)

R | 104 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller

84 Metascore

A young African-American visits his white girlfriend's parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.

Director: Jordan Peele | Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Votes: 343,014 | Gross: $176.04M

** All 86, Fans 92, Me 95 = 94; +W. The most critically acclaimed film of 2017 (and the only film here to garner an Oscar nomination of any kind, let alone one for Best Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) has more than enough sci-fi to warrant inclusion. Scares, grim laughs, and huge smarts about racial identity; see it between the comparably brilliant Dear White People and Blindspotting. Sean McKittrick, one of Peele's two fellow producers, started his production career on #1. Their team is currently making Us, another "social horror thriller."

4. Primer (2004)

PG-13 | 77 min | Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller

68 Metascore

Four friends/fledgling entrepreneurs, knowing that there's something bigger and more innovative than the different error-checking devices they've built, wrestle over their new invention.

Director: Shane Carruth | Stars: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya

Votes: 87,183 | Gross: $0.42M

All 73, Fans 89, Me 98 = 93. If you somehow don't know this, try to avoid descriptions. Carruth's first film is famous for being shot for $7000, for its realistic absence of expository dialogue, and for complexity so brain-bursting it leaves some people giddy. If you've seen it and don't think it belongs somewhere near the top of this list, you may need to make up your own. (23 popular.)

5. Open Your Eyes (1997)

R | 117 min | Drama, Mystery, Romance

A very handsome man finds the love of his life, but he suffers an accident and needs to have his face rebuilt by surgery after it is severely disfigured.

Director: Alejandro Amenábar | Stars: Eduardo Noriega, Penélope Cruz, Chete Lera, Fele Martínez

Votes: 58,501 | Gross: $0.37M

+ (US 1999). All 81, Fans 87, Me 95 = 92. This Spanish original is so good that I've never bothered to see the remake, Vanilla Sky. One of many films on this list with a strong Philip K. Dick flavor, and that's always a win. Amenabar next had a huge horror success with The Others but has not since returned to the fantastic. (17 popular.)

6. Sorry to Bother You (2018)

R | 111 min | Comedy, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

81 Metascore

In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.

Director: Boots Riley | Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick

Votes: 18,640 | Gross: $17.49M

^** All 81, Fans 94, Me 93 = 90. Begins as a sharp observation on racial identity and, as it reveals the details of its alternate reality, morphs into a biting satire of capitalism. Riley, who spent 25 years fronting acclaimed hip-hop act The Coup, is at work on another film.

7. Frequencies (2013)

Not Rated | 105 min | Mystery, Romance, Sci-Fi

In an alternate reality, children learn how lucky they will be (their "frequency"), knowledge which shapes their destiny. The unluckiest boy must parse the mysteries of free will in order to pursue his forbidden love of the luckiest girl.

Director: Darren Paul Fisher | Stars: Daniel Fraser, Eleanor Wyld, Owen Pugh, Dylan Llewellyn

Votes: 12,578

(US 2014 VOD). All 74, Fans 87, Me 96 = 92. Almost no one's seen this yet except for Netflix users who got to stream it (as OXV: The Manual), but I think it's so good as to be hype-proof. In terms of puzzle and challenge, it's more Darko-esque than Carruthian, and so I think it has a chance to earn a sizable following if it's ever released on disc. (6 popular).

8. The Lobster (2015)

R | 119 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance

82 Metascore

In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos | Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman

Votes: 162,196 | Gross: $8.70M

** (US 2016). All 79, Fans 92, Me 93 = 92. Devastating deadpan satiric black humor that is ultimately directed at bigger targets than the initial and obvious, as you'll see if you go with the flow of the film's unexpected second half. Lanthimos's next film, the horrific fantasy The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is darker and even deeper (and still somehow funny).

9. Colossal (2016)

R | 109 min | Action, Comedy, Drama

70 Metascore

Gloria is an out-of-work party girl forced to leave her life in New York City and move back home. When reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, she gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to this phenomenon.

Director: Nacho Vigalondo | Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson

Votes: 47,176 | Gross: $3.02M

** (US 2017). All 73, Fans 88, Me 95 = 92. Kaiju fans expecting something straight are sorely disappointed. But the giant creatures here are an astonishingly well-crafted metaphor for people leading monstrously damaging lives, and the story is funny, then surprisingly dark, and in the end empowering. Vigalondo's followup to #49 and #67 is sci-fi because of its tropes; no rationale for the fantastic element is given--or needed.

10. Predestination (I) (2014)

R | 97 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi

69 Metascore

For his final assignment, a top temporal agent must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time. The chase turns into a unique, surprising and mind-bending exploration of love, fate, identity and time travel taboos.

Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig | Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Madeleine West

Votes: 216,630 | Gross: $0.07M

++ (US 2015.) All 77, Fans 90, Me 93 = 91. I'm so familiar with the classic Robert A. Heinlein story that it's based on ("'--All You Zombies--'") that I had to watch it twice in the span of four nights to figure out how good it is, on its own merits. Answer: tremendous. In particular, the justification for the commercially necessary extra action element is via a plot addition that Heinlein would be jealous he hadn't thought of. And like so many other films here, it's in part about the natures of free will and personal identity. (17 popular.)

11. Marjorie Prime (2017)

99 min | Drama, Mystery, Romance

82 Metascore

A service that provides holographic recreations of deceased loved ones allows a woman to come face-to-face with the younger version of her late husband.

Director: Michael Almereyda | Stars: Stephanie Andujar, Hana Colley, Geena Davis, Hannah Gross

Votes: 4,172 | Gross: $0.18M

** All 75, Fans 88, Me 94 = 91. This adaptation of Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play begins as a beautifully written, acted and shot dysfunctional family drama; the sf element serves as a tool for its probing examination of memory and grief. By the end, the sf element is raising deep questions on its own. Slow and a bit, yes, stagey on first viewing; on a re-view the choice of pace seems perfect. Tonight at Noon, Almareyda's adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem story "Five Fucks," was shot in 2005 with a stellar cast, completed in mid-2017, and is yet to screen. See the final note for a previous film.

12. Pi (1998)

R | 84 min | Drama, Horror, Mystery

72 Metascore

A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.

Director: Darren Aronofsky | Stars: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart

Votes: 157,914 | Gross: $3.22M

** All 79, Fans 84, Me 94 = 90. In genre criticism, "slipstream" is a beautifully useful term for narratives that refuse to be nailed down to a single reading. Pi is quintessentially so, the options being sf, surrealism, and realism with hallucinations. The sf side is strengthened by Sol, one of the best mentor characters in sf films. If it is one. Aronofsky went on to do ... well, you know.

13. Mr. Nobody (2009)

R | 141 min | Drama, Fantasy, Romance

63 Metascore

A boy stands on a station platform as a train is about to leave. Should he go with his mother or stay with his father? Infinite possibilities arise from this decision. As long as he doesn't choose, anything is possible.

Director: Jaco Van Dormael | Stars: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

Votes: 189,969 | Gross: $0.00M

** (US 2013.) All 78, Fans 89, Me 92.5 = 90; $$. Made in Belgium in English, barely released in the U.S., and now a sizeable success on disk. It makes the differences between alternate, forking timestreams so visceral and emotionally charged it seems as if you lived them all yourself. It'll take a second viewing to see how much the frame story adds to that. Van Dormael's recent fantasy The Brand New Testament is high in my queue.

14. Snowpiercer (2013)

R | 126 min | Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

84 Metascore

Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.

Director: Joon-ho Bong | Stars: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris

Votes: 226,623 | Gross: $4.56M

** (US 2014.) All 81, Fans 94, Me 90 = 90; $$+. Bong's followup to #66 is based on a French graphic novel and is mostly in English. A sci-fi premise that you don't need to take seriously sets up the eponymous train as one of the most obvious metaphors in all of sf, in this case for income inequality. It's then used to ground a tense action thriller; this shouldn't work at all, but does gloriously. Bong's followup, the big-budget Netflix streamer Okja, is just as radical and maybe even better.

15. Busanhaeng (2016)

TV-MA | 118 min | Action, Horror, Thriller

72 Metascore

While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.

Director: Sang-ho Yeon | Stars: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, Su-an Kim

Votes: 98,358 | Gross: $2.13M

** All 81, Fans 86, Me 92 = 89. To call this surprisingly low-budget Korean import either "Snowpiercer with zombies" or the best zombie film since Romero's first two--which it is, by a mile--is to sell it short. With nonstop thrills, biting social satire, and genuine heart, it forces me to recognize that zombie films that provide an sf rationale belong here, too. Actually a sequel to an unavailable animated film and due for both a remake in English (by the French studio Gaumont) and a sequel, Peninsula.

16. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

PG-13 | 93 min | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy

86 Metascore

Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.

Director: Benh Zeitlin | Stars: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes

Votes: 76,340 | Gross: $12.80M

** All 83, Fans 86, Me 91 = 89. The near-future sf element -- rising sea levels from global warming -- is small and overlooked, but undeniable and crucial. I plan to revisit this, and it seems likely to move up.

17. PK (2014)

Not Rated | 153 min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy

An alien on Earth loses the only device he can use to communicate with his spaceship. His innocent nature and child-like questions force the country to evaluate the impact of religion on its people.

Director: Rajkumar Hirani | Stars: Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, Sanjay Dutt, Boman Irani

Votes: 129,867 | Gross: $10.62M

** All 86, Fans TBD, Me 90 = 89. A low-budget Indian import that was immensely popular there. The sf element is negligible, but the satire on organized religion is delicious, and there's a romantic side story which is allowed at various points to take over the film, with completely rewarding results. Be sure to blink while watching (Aamir Khan's alien never does, and I found myself doing the same!)

18. The Frame (2014)

127 min | Crime, Drama, Fantasy

Two strangers find their lives colliding in an impossible way. Alex is a methodical cargo thief working for a dangerous cartel. Sam is a determined paramedic trying to save the world while running from her past.

Director: Jamin Winans | Stars: David Carranza, Tiffany Mualem, Cal Bartlett, Christopher Soren Kelly

Votes: 2,603

(US VOD.) All and Fans TBD, Me 92 = 88. The thematic similarities to Frequencies are startling, and this may be the deeper, more thought-provoking film. Given the popularity of Winans' previous film, Ink (see #36), this has gotten amazingly little attention in terms of reviews. Like Ink, it's technically closer to fantasy than sf, but very strongly has the flavor of the latter. A potential cult classic. (1 popular. Seriously.)

19. Ex Machina (2014)

R | 108 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi

78 Metascore

A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breath-taking humanoid A.I.

Director: Alex Garland | Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno

Votes: 401,996 | Gross: $25.44M

** All 85, Fans 99, Me 79 = 88. Terrific, thrilling cinema undercut by two related flaws. Like at least two of Garlands's previous scripts (28 Days Later [#44] and the big-budget Sunshine), it has some third-act problems; in this case, sketchy character motivations lead to arguable plot holes. More importantly (to me or anyone into it), all the science is either underdeveloped or just plain wrong, rendering the plot nonsensical. We are told nothing about what fundamental behavioral algorithm Ava has been designed to (or is believed to) have; depending on that algorithm, the test she is given could in fact be passed by a robotic intelligence with nothing resembling consciousness or even a deeply human intelligence. However, by understanding the “Mary the color scientist” thought experiment, she does in fact demonstrate she is conscious. So, umm, what was the point? I’m sure it succeeds in being thought-provoking to the naïve viewer, but anyone taken by the movie who decides to dig deeper is, alas, going to end up only with the thought that Garland’s research into consciousness and AI seems to have consisted of looking them up on Wikipedia (and not reading the entire articles). The good news: Garland's second film as director, the bigger-budget Annihilation, has a transcendent third act and would rank 4th here if it qualified.

20. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

PG-13 | 103 min | Drama, Horror, Mystery

76 Metascore

After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg | Stars: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., Douglas M. Griffin

Votes: 248,670 | Gross: $71.90M

** All 79, Fans 86, Me 90 = 88. The title (which indicates what other movie's universe it's set in) reveals that it ends as sci-fi, but for the most part it's a brilliantly executed locked-room psychological thriller. Before #3, it proved that major studios are still capable of releasing profitable indie-budget sci-fi. A story written in the margins of a bigger one; we're still waiting for the sequel to take us there.

21. Midnight Special (2016)

PG-13 | 112 min | Action, Drama, Mystery

76 Metascore

A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child's special powers.

Director: Jeff Nichols | Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver

Votes: 65,911 | Gross: $3.71M

** All 75, Fans 81, Me 91.5 = 87. Promises more sense-of-wonder than it can deliver with its budget, but the payoff was never the point. The puzzle-box plot is plenty gripping enough, and provides an insightful and moving metaphor for parenthood, alongside a thought-provoking examination of religion and belief. Barely promoted by the studio and not widely released, I think it has legs once it finds a better audience.

22. La piel que habito (2011)

R | 120 min | Drama, Horror, Thriller

70 Metascore

A brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, creates a type of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: a mysterious and volatile woman who holds the key to his obsession.

Director: Pedro Almodóvar | Stars: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes

Votes: 119,607 | Gross: $3.19M

All 80, Fans 89, Me 88 = 87. As you can tell from the three sub-scores, the first entry on the list (other than Get Out) that's simply a great film that happens to be sf (even if often not considered as such), without special appeal to geeks. (23 popular.)

23. The Congress (2013)

Not Rated | 122 min | Animation, Drama, Sci-Fi

63 Metascore

An aging, out-of-work actress accepts one last job, though the consequences of her decision affect her in ways she didn't consider.

Director: Ari Folman | Stars: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Votes: 15,481 | Gross: $0.14M

(US 2014). All 72, Fans 81, Me 92 = 91. It's a message-board cliche to accuse someone who didn't like a movie of not understanding it, but that failure is actually what's driving down the first two sub-scores. Pay close attention when the movie suddenly transforms in style at the end of the first act (when it becomes animated): there's an sf *explanation* for it, and one you have to think about. This loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is, I think, the best and most moving exploration of the idea of "escape" (from the real to the imaginary) in all of cinema. (6 popular.)

24. Extracted (2012)

R | 85 min | Drama, Sci-Fi

A scientist who has invented a technique to watch people's memories finds himself in a dangerous situation after he's tasked with entering a heroin addict's mind to see whether the man committed murder.

Director: Nir Paniry | Stars: Sasha Roiz, Jenny Mollen, Dominic Bogart, Richard Riehle

Votes: 10,804

(US 2013 DVD.) All 72, Fans 83, Me 91 = 87. Given its budget and the underwhelming reviews and IMDB rating, I had to watch this one twice within five days to see whether I hadn't somehow hallucinated its excellence. I hadn't. Especially impressive are the human side of the story and the performances from the largely unknown cast. (9 popular.)

25. Aurora (2012)

Unrated | 124 min | Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller

58 Metascore

A neuron-transfer scientist experiments with the thoughts of a comatose young woman.

Director: Kristina Buozyte | Stars: Marius Jampolskis, Jurga Jutaite, Rudolfas Jansonas, Vytautas Kaniusonis

Votes: 2,346

(US 2013 DVD). All 77, Fans TBD, Me 90.5 = 87. This Lithuanian film is pure arthouse, with stunning visuals, and more than enough sf to satisfy. (2 popular.)

26. I Origins (2014)

R | 106 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi

57 Metascore

A molecular biologist and his laboratory partner uncover evidence that may fundamentally change society as we know it.

Director: Mike Cahill | Stars: Michael Pitt, Steven Yeun, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Brit Marling

Votes: 100,447 | Gross: $0.33M

All 72, Fans 81, Me 91.5 = 87. Cahill's emotionally potent followup to Another Earth (#49) is the best examination of the relationship between science and the "spiritual" in sci-fi cinema. Those who are convinced they are necessarily in conflict tend to misread this and not like it much (regardless of which side they favor), but the film argues (correctly) that they can be not just reconciled, but combined. (12 popular.)

27. Coherence (2013)

Not Rated | 89 min | Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi

65 Metascore

Strange things begin to happen when a group of friends gather for a dinner party on an evening when a comet is passing overhead.

Director: James Ward Byrkit | Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen

Votes: 83,972 | Gross: $0.07M

(US 2014). All 77, Fans 87, Me 87 = 86. (Yes, 21 of the top 26 films were released in the U.S. from 2013 on.) This is actually much more head-scrambling and Primer-ish than the sub-scores would lead you to believe; the broad appeal comes from it being so entertaining scene-by-scene. It perhaps sacrifices a bit of depth in the process (I'm open to arguments to the contrary, though). (9 popular.)

28. 2046 (2004)

R | 129 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi

78 Metascore

Several women enter a science fiction author's life over the course of a few years, after the author has lost the woman he considers his one true love.

Director: Kar-Wai Wong | Stars: Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Li Gong

Votes: 45,961 | Gross: $0.26M

(US 2005.) All 80, Fans 79, Me 89 = 86. Technically, this sort-of-sequel to Wong's arthouse masterpiece In the Mood For Love isn't sci-fi, but it devotes a large chunk to visualizing a sci-fi story written by its lead character, and rather brilliantly so. (17 popular.)

29. Sleep Dealer (2008)

PG-13 | 90 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi

59 Metascore

The near future. Like tomorrow. In a world marked by closed borders, corporate warriors, and a global computer network, three strangers risk their lives to connect, break through the barriers of technology, and unseal their fates.

Director: Alex Rivera | Stars: Luis Fernando Peña, Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas, Metztli Adamina

Votes: 6,084 | Gross: $0.08M

(US 2009). All 65, Fans 79, Me 91 = 86. Takes an all-too plausible sci-fi technology, smartly extrapolates three different uses for it, and knits them together in a moving and socially relevant story. I suspect that the overlap between fans of hard sf and folks interested in the film's social concerns (immigration and labor policies) is just too small, but if you're in that intersection, this is just great. (7 popular).

30. The Bad Batch (2016)

R | 118 min | Drama, Horror, Romance

62 Metascore

In a desert dystopia, a young woman is kidnapped by cannibals.

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour | Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves

Votes: 18,190 | Gross: $0.18M

** (US 2017.) All 62, Fans 69, Me 92 = 86. Marketed as a "cannibal romance" when the former plot element disappears after the opening and the latter barely surfaces near the end, it's thus become a serious contender for the single most misunderstood and underrated film of all time. I've weighted the "Me" score extra and bumped it up two points and 9 spots. If you want to know why, read my full review (spoiler-free as always).

31. Sound of My Voice (2011)

R | 85 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi

67 Metascore

Two documentary filmmakers attempt to penetrate a cult who worships a woman who claims to be from the future.

Director: Zal Batmanglij | Stars: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling, Davenia McFadden

Votes: 18,792 | Gross: $0.41M

(US 2012). All 73, Fans 87, Me 87 = 86. The second-film co-written by Brit Marling (again, see #49). One or two of its puzzles may be in fact insoluble at present, since it's reportedly the first of a planned trilogy. But there's more than enough that does fit together to give it a ferocious kick (9 popular).

32. Resolution (III) (2012)

Not Rated | 93 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller

80 Metascore

A man imprisons his estranged junkie friend in an isolated cabin in the boonies of San Diego to force him through a week of sobriety, but the events of that week are being mysteriously manipulated.

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead | Stars: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Emily Montague, Kurt David Anderson

Votes: 10,315

!** (US 2013.) All 75, Fans 76, Me 91 = 86. A film so perfectly "slipstream" (see the intro) that it actually specifies which genres it might belong to. It's primarily a meta-horror film like The Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but instead of satire, there's a genuinely creepy exploration of why we like these kinds of stories. While the other films lose steam when they finish their plots, this one has a great ending that slingshots into The Endless, next up in my streaming queue.

33. Moon (2009)

R | 97 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi

67 Metascore

Astronaut Sam Bell has a quintessentially personal encounter toward the end of his three-year stint on the Moon, where he, working alongside his computer, GERTY, sends back to Earth parcels of a resource that has helped diminish our planet's power problems.

Director: Duncan Jones | Stars: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw

Votes: 303,267 | Gross: $5.01M

++ All 82, Fans 90, Me 82 = 86. I'm not sure the sci-fi scenario underlying the story makes any sense, but the story is as good as its considerable reputation. Jones went on to do Source Code, but Moon's earlier-written thematic companion, Mute, hit Netflix in early 2018 and tanked. (40 popular.)

34. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

R | 99 min | Comedy, Horror

76 Metascore

A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.

Director: Edgar Wright | Stars: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis

Votes: 454,736 | Gross: $13.54M

!** All 84, Fans 84, Me 86 = 85. My rule for zombie films is that they have to include a sci-fi rationale, and this one, deservedly beloved as it is, pointedly leaves one out. However, it's the only zombie narrative I know that makes the single most important scientific point about zombies! And that easily earns it a spot. Not only is there no apocalypse, the zombie outbreak is put down in a single day. In fact, the living outnumber the newly dead 20,000 to 1, so only if there's an incredibly virulent zombie virus, as in #47, do zombies pose much of a problem.

35. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

R | 100 min | Animation, Crime, Drama

73 Metascore

An undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result.

Director: Richard Linklater | Stars: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane

Votes: 98,248 | Gross: $5.50M

All 74, Fans 86, Me 87 = 86. This rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick's masterpiece doesn't quite capture all of the book's heartbreak and philosophical depth, but it hits almost all of the high points spot-on. (31 popular.)

36. Fisshu sutôrî (2009)

112 min | Action, Comedy, Music

In the year 2012 a comet approaches earth, threatening to end civilization when it impacts. On the streets of Japan, a single music store remains open, its proprietor insisting to his ... See full summary »

Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura | Stars: Atsushi Itô, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Noriko Eguchi, Hidekazu Mashima

Votes: 2,446

(US 2011 DVD). All 79, Fans 88, Me 85 = 85. This seems to be three or four different movies intercut at random, and then it all starts coming together wonderfully. At the same time, it's sort of an alternate history of punk rock! Everybody who sees this digs it. You're next, right? (3 popular.)

37. Attack the Block (2011)

R | 88 min | Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi

75 Metascore

A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion.

Director: Joe Cornish | Stars: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones

Votes: 91,505 | Gross: $1.02M

All 75, Fans 82, Me 87 = 85. Our heroes start off unsympathetic and have to earn our affection, to great effect. Cornish went on to co-write Ant-Man, and his longtime passion project, Snow Crash, is being revived as an Amazon mini-series. (20 popular.)

38. The Untamed (2016)

Not Rated | 98 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi

72 Metascore

A couple in a troubled marriage locate a meteorite, initiating an encounter with a mysterious creature. Their lives are turned upside down by the discovery of the creature, which is a source of both pleasure and destruction.

Director: Amat Escalante | Stars: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza, Eden Villavicencio

Votes: 3,052 | Gross: $0.03M

** (US 2017.) All 72, Fans TBD, Me 88 = 84. Most thoughtful sf works via metaphor, but sometimes it just adds an sf trope to the actual human situation and turns it up to 11. This is a very well crafted and disturbing arthouse psychosexual drama that features the best low-budget creature I've ever seen. See it on a triple bill with two other 2017 films: fantasy Thelma and horror Raw.

39. The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

R | 111 min | Drama, Horror, Thriller

67 Metascore

A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.

Director: Colm McCarthy | Stars: Sennia Nanua, Fisayo Akinade, Dominique Tipper, Paddy Considine

Votes: 42,564

** (US 2017.) All 75, Fans 83, Me 86 = 84. The solution to its terrific first-act puzzle moves it into more familiar territory, where it remains thoroughly satisfying, with far more originality, science, character development, and thematic depth than is usual for its ilk. I actually think the low IMDB score is from viewers who already knew where it was going (try to avoid spoilers) and found the last three of those elements to be distractions.

40. Avalon (2001)

R | 107 min | Action, Drama, Fantasy

In a dystopian world, a woman spends her time playing an illegal and dangerous game, hoping to find meaning in her world.

Director: Mamoru Oshii | Stars: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski

Votes: 12,260

(US 2003 DVD.) All 74, Fans 71, Me 90 = 84. At the outset, the seemingly straightforward plot seems to clash with its arthouse style and relatively slow pace. Then things start Not. Adding. Up., and by the time it ends, it's morphed into the most challenging puzzle movie on the list. All of that (including the belief that its contradictions are unintentional) will throw off some viewers. I think I know what's going on, and I think it's extraordinary. (7 popular.)

41. The Survivalist (2015)

Not Rated | 104 min | Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller

80 Metascore

In a time of starvation, a survivalist lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in forest. When two women seeking food and shelter discover his farm, he finds his existence threatened.

Director: Stephen Fingleton | Stars: Mia Goth, Olwen Fouéré, Martin McCann, Barry Ward

Votes: 13,376

** (US 2017.) All 76, Fans 81, Me 86 = 84. Nothing about the post-apocalyptic setting is ever revealed. Not a lot happens. But once it gets going (and it takes its time beautifully) the psychological tension is unrelenting. Yet another film that subverts its familiar tropes powerfully and artfully.

42. Nochnoy dozor (2004)

R | 114 min | Action, Fantasy, Horror

58 Metascore

A fantasy-thriller set in present-day Moscow where the respective forces that control daytime and nighttime do battle.

Director: Timur Bekmambetov | Stars: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Vladimir Menshov, Mariya Poroshina, Valeriy Zolotukhin

Votes: 50,018 | Gross: $1.49M

(US 2006.) As the first half of a single film only: see the next entry.

43. Dnevnoy dozor (2006)

R | 132 min | Action, Fantasy, Horror

59 Metascore

A man who serves in the war between the forces of Light and Dark comes into possession of a device that can restore life to Moscow, which was nearly destroyed by an apocalyptic event.

Director: Timur Bekmambetov | Stars: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Mariya Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov, Galina Tyunina

Votes: 31,773 | Gross: $0.45M

(US 2007.) All 68, Fans 69, Me 91 = 84. This forms a single continual narrative with Night Watch -- despite the titles, most of the plot is reportedly drawn from the first of Sergey Lukyanenko's novels. I think they're massively underrated because folks are not regarding them that way ... and because they are admittedly, in places, confusing as hell. Technically they're epic fantasy, but they feel exactly like sci-fi. (22 and 16 popular.)

44. Southland Tales (2006)

R | 145 min | Comedy, Drama, Mystery

44 Metascore

During a three day heat wave just before a huge 4th of July celebration, an action star stricken with amnesia meets up with a porn star who is developing her own reality TV project, and a policeman who holds the key to a vast conspiracy.

Director: Richard Kelly | Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Carlos Amezcua

Votes: 34,566 | Gross: $0.28M

(US 2007). All 59, Fans 64, Me 94 = 83. Warning: This ranking is for the combination of the massive, dense graphic novel which forms the first half of the story, and the film. The film half alone is nearly incoherent; the combination makes thrilling sense, and is an entirely satisfying followup to #1. (16 unpopular.)

45. Perfect Sense (2011)

R | 92 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi

55 Metascore

A chef and a scientist fall in love as an epidemic begins to rob people of their sensory perceptions.

Director: David Mackenzie | Stars: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, Lauren Tempany, Connie Nielsen

Votes: 49,733 | Gross: $0.00M

(US 2012.) All 69, Fans 79, Me 87 = 83. One of those films whose sf premise is close to impossible, but plays out beautifully as metaphor once you suspend your disbelief. Mackenzie later did Oscar nominee Hell or High Water. (12 popular.)

46. Under the Skin (I) (2013)

R | 108 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi

78 Metascore

A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.

Director: Jonathan Glazer | Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell

Votes: 108,471 | Gross: $2.61M

(US 2014.) All 75, Fans 87, Me 82 = 83. This stripped-down adaptation of Michael Faber's novel is exquisite, mesmerizing cinema -- and close to negligible as sci-fi. Upstream Color and Vanishing Waves have proven that the latter need not get in the way of the former, and can even deepen the human message. I think I'd rate this higher if I weren't convinced that a huge opportunity was missed. (19 popular.)

47. 28 Days Later... (2002)

R | 113 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi

73 Metascore

Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary.

Director: Danny Boyle | Stars: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Alex Palmer

Votes: 337,512 | Gross: $45.06M

** (US 2003.) All 80, Fans 80, Me 84 = 83. The film that introduced us to fast zombies is terrific through two acts and then staggers around with arms outstretched, looking in vain for interesting story to devour.

48. The One I Love (2014)

R | 91 min | Drama, Fantasy, Romance