The 13 best sci-fi movies since Avatar
Avatar: The Way of Water, the long-awaited sequel to James Cameron’s chart-topping sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, has finally arrived. It’s been over 13 years since the original film premiered in theaters; needless to say, a lot has transpired in the world of cinema, let alone the world at large. When Avatar debuted way back when in 2009, we only had two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Now we have 30 (and counting). The entire sequel trilogy of Star Wars has elapsed in that time.
As we prepare to return to the extrasolar forest moon of Pandora, it feels apt to look back on all the remarkable sci-fi films that have come out in the past decade and change. From operatic post-apocalyptic action dramas and ecological horror tales to hyperreal parables warning about the commodification of humanity, here are the 13 best sci-fi movies to have come out in the 13 years since James Cameron’s sci-fi epic. And with Way of Water out in the universe, here’s to the next 13 years.
Run time: 1h 55m
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez
Annihilation is a movie as dense with meaning and metaphor as the swamps and forests of its surreal setting: the Shimmer. Created after a meteor touched down on the coast of a southern state of the U.S., every expedition to understand this alien phenomenon has utterly failed. Only one expedition member, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, has ever returned, and he was in a coma. When his wife, a pitch-perfect Natalie Portman, leads the first expedition team composed entirely of women into the Shimmer, they quickly discover that animals and plants are mutating together in frighteningly surreal ways.
During the journey, you begin to learn more not just about the Shimmer’s effects, but about the people who would partake in these almost certainly suicidal expeditions. These stories give the movie a moving perspective on self-destruction and loss, as the (still living) members of the expedition uncover clues from the previous one. Through both its astonishing visuals and minimalist dialogue, the movie effectively captures the psychedelic feel of Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel, but it is so much more than a carbon copy of the book. For example, not only does the movie’s ending go in a completely different direction, but the use of sound effects and music is so iconic it vaults the sequence into the pantheon of great science fiction cinema. —Clayton Ashley
Annihilation is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
Run time: 2h 2m
Director: Ari Folman
Cast: Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm
Ari Folman’s live-action/animation hybrid The Congress is a bit of a mess narratively, in the manner of so many hugely complicated stories wrestling with more ideas than one movie can necessarily contain. But it’s also fascinating, heady stuff that feels more prophetic than ever in an era where AI bots can reproduce artists’ styles in any form users can imagine and James Earl Jones has sold off his vocal rights to an AI company so Darth Vader can continue showing up in new work forever.
The Congress centers on a fading actress, Robin (Robin Wright), who sells all rights to her likeness to an AI firm — she’ll have to quit acting so she doesn’t compete with the corporate, digital version of herself. That alone seems like enough grounding for a high-stakes movie, but from there, the story jumps forward by decades, following digital-Robin through different states of a rapidly developing virtual (and animated) world populated with other avatars, and tracking how art and politics rapidly shift via technological changes.
It’s a bittersweet (and often just bitter) movie about the changing forms of identity in the future, adapting Stanisław Lem’s phantasmagorical 1971 novel The Futurological Congress. It isn’t always grounded enough in comprehensible motives or well-realized characters, but it’s visually rich and phenomenally narratively ambitious — one of those movies that just towers above others in the field. —Tasha Robinson
The Congress is available to stream on Hulu and with ads on Tubi.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Run time: 2h 10m
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman
If someone had told me before watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that I would be moved by the sight of a leering scar-faced bonobo riding astride a galloping horse, cackling wildly while firing two M249 light machine guns at a fortified human encampment, I’d have thought they were insane. That I remember that moment, and what I felt while watching it nearly a decade ago in theaters, is a testament to director Matt Reeves’ ability to draw new blood from the otherwise desiccated corpse of a flagging franchise.
The 2014 follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes transforms Caesar from a fearful simian into an almost Shakespearean king among his people, trying to protect the home he has created while brokering some tenuous semblance of peace between the apes and a neighboring colony of human survivors. These conciliatory efforts of both sides, however, are undermined by their respective dissidents in the form of Koba (Toby Kebbell), a treacherous bonobo who wishes to supplant Caesar as leader of the apes and kill the humans, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), an ex-cop and leader of the human colony who believes that coexistence between the apes and humans is impossible. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is inarguably the peak of the Planet of the Apes reboot series, powered by moving performances and stunning action, and easily one of the best cinematic sci-fi dramas of the past decade. —Toussaint Egan
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Edge of Tomorrow
Run time: 1h 53m
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Tom Cruise reenergized the blockbuster this year with the smash box-office hit Top Gun: Maverick, and nearly a decade ago he starred in one of the best blockbusters of the century.
Cruise plays a PR officer who is forced to join a military operation against invading aliens, only to find himself stuck in an endless time loop. In the loop, he meets celebrated soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, in the rare kind of scene-stealing role that manages to outshine Cruise), who trains him in loop after loop (without remembering their previous meetings, of course).
The movie makes clever use of its time loop gimmick both visually and in the narrative – only in this kind of movie can you have your protagonist die as a punchline. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s anchored by two movie stars overcharged on charisma, operating at the height of their powers in a dynamic similar to screwball comedies of days yore (but this time, with mech suits).
My only complaint is they chose the worst of their three possible titles; the original light novel’s title All You Need Is Kill is excellent, as is the movie’s tagline, Live Die Repeat. —Pete Volk
Edge of Tomorrow is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Run time: 1h 31m
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is probably the movie that first comes to mind in the sci-fi subgenre of films about one person struggling to survive on their own amid the forbidding environment of space. But for my money, Alfonso Cuarón told a similar kind of story more effectively two years earlier in Gravity. Sandra Bullock gives one of her finest performances as the film’s hero, Dr. Ryan Stone, a first-timer paired with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who has to find the will within her to persevere and use all of her ingenuity to make it back to Earth.
Cuarón and frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki use every moment of Gravity’s 91-minute run time for maximum impact. They take the time for long, languid shots to establish the drudgery of life as an astronaut; the endless expanse of space; and the vast distance between Earth and our heroes — and then punctuate them with violent interruptions of peril, quickening the pace of the story and the pulse of the viewer. The (appropriate) omission of sound renders these harrowing sequences all the more breathtaking. —Samit Sarkar
Gravity is available to stream on HBO Max.
Run time: 2h 6m
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara
The only thing Spike Jonze got wrong in his solemn, pastel vision of the future is that a human might be gainfully employed at a business like “BeautifulHandwrittenLettters.com” when AI has reached near-sentience. But beyond the absence of ChatGPT, everything else infused into this love story is emotionally on point: The tryst between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his Siri-esque love Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) continues to marvel thanks to the ways Jonze connects human needs and gut responses to the technological element. There are satirical jabs — a cute bubble kid character in Theodore’s hologram video game devolving into caustic vulgarity is just too good, even if it’s too easy — but no easy answers. Jonze gives Phoenix and Johansson time to indulge each other, for romance to take off, for failed relationships to be considered, and for the world around Theodore to feel both too big and too small. It’s a movie rich with ideas without anything that goes boom — a different kind of science fiction we almost never seen on screen. —Matt Patches
Her is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Run time: 2h 49m
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Like a lot of science fiction out there, Interstellar is about a dad. More specifically, it’s about a dad going to space and leaving behind his two kids, specifically his young daughter Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 fame in her youth and Jessica Chastain as an adult). Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of other astronauts travel via wormhole to the far reaches of the galaxy, looking for a viable home for humanity. Time is running out on Earth, which has been hit by crop-destroying blights. Interstellar was praised for its scientific accuracy and its special effects — which are all very impressive and cool (that planet with the enormous tides! The black hole!). But at its heart, it’s a story about a father and a daughter trying to connect across time and space — and the weight of that is what makes it resonate years later. —Petrana Radulovic
Interstellar is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Run time: 2h 0m
Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Mad Max: Fury Road feels like a package of contradictions, shoved enthusiastically in your face. In the wastes of the postapocalypse, you have to fight for your survival — water, gasoline, bullets — and Max (Tom Hardy) fights his way through it all. But you’re probably here for the spectacle and theater; Fury Road feels so much to me like the era of films that needed to be watched in theaters.
In Fury Road, the postapocalypse is furious and bombastic, ecstatically violent and explosive. Loud and frenetic action-packed sequences — cars decked in terrifying spikes — contrast with the desolation of climate apocalypse, and the fleshy softness of the human body. There is so much going on, and there is nothing going on, on the long stretch of dusty road.
Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy give the performances of a lifetime — alongside other fantastic actors, like Nicholas Hoult and Zoë Kravitz. The series, which has existed since the late 1970s, has been helmed by director George Miller, who you may also know as the director of Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City. That varied filmography may not sound like it makes sense, but when you think about the spectacle of these films, the underdog arc of their main characters, and the showmanship of it all — these past films make a lot of sense. —Nicole Clark
Mad Max: Fury Road is available to stream on HBO Max.
Run time: 2h 0m
Director: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara
With the notable exception of many of the American releases, almost all of the Godzilla movies rule. The original Toho film is one of the best movies ever made, and most of the entries that followed from that era are an absolute blast. But if you’re looking for a more modern adaptation, you can’t get better than Shin Godzilla.
Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno took the kaiju series and filtered it through a bureaucratic lens. Sure, there is death and destruction, but the main tension of Shin Godzilla happens in meeting rooms, as red tape and incompetent politicians get in the way of real solutions to help people in crisis.
If a Godzilla movie about bureaucracy sounds boring to you — rest assured, it is not. Anno brings those scenes to life with humor and a careful eye, and it’s all juxtaposed with a terrifying new design for one of cinema’s oldest monsters. The final shot, best left undescribed, will linger and haunt you.
Shin Godzilla is a landmark entry in one of cinema’s most important franchises, and one of my very favorite movies of the 21st century. Anno has since written and produced Shin Ultraman and is directing Shin Kamen Rider, which is coming out next year. If they’re anything like Shin Godzilla, I can’t wait. —PV
Shin Godzilla is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Run time: 2h 6m
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton
Before his phenomenon Parasite, Bong Joon-ho brought his satirical scalpel to this English-language adaptation of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novel of the same name. And true to director Bong’s past and future work, Snowpiercer operates on multiple levels that coalesce into one of the all-time great science fiction works. In the wake of climate disaster, Earth’s last survivors circle the icy globe aboard the Snowpiercer — but all cars are not created equal. When Curtis (Chris Evans), a lowly caboose rider, decides it’s time for a change, his revolt breaks through car by car to uncover the truth of their steel prison, and unmask the upper crust who wines and dines while they suck down rations of mushed-up cockroaches. Bong weaves together brutal action, crushing social commentary, and Tilda Swinton in wacky makeup to prop up a circus of dystopian proportions. —MP
Snowpiercer is available to stream on Showtime and rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Run time: 1h 57m
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld
We don’t deserve Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The feature is a revolution in computer-generated animation and design, a prescient entry in the mainstreaming of the multiverse concept, a collection of fabulous vocal performances, and would have had the bangingest soundtrack the year it came out if it hadn’t shared 2018 with Black Panther.
But the most miraculous thing about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might be that it’s… kinda the best version of Miles Morales’ story in any medium? Spider-Verse oozes love for its source material, right down to the most minute design choices, showcasing not just a story that can only be told with superheroes, but the iconography that makes those stories indelible.
In the slow movement of superheroes to the mainstream, live-action film is positioned as the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy, even when it means losing the expressivity and simplicity that birthed the genre in the first place. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is all the proof anyone should need that the best comic book adaptations — maybe the only good ones — consider the medium and not just the message. —Susana Polo
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Under the Skin
Run time: 1h 48m
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Few films released in the last decade — or two, or more — have the unnerving power of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Mixing naturalistic vérité footage with unforgettable sequences of stark surrealism and a sparse, frightening score by Mica Levi, the film follows an uncanny woman (Scarlett Johansson) who drives a van around Scotland, seducing and abducting men whom she brings back to a deserted house where a dark void awaits. The first hour will leave you chilled and awestruck; the second, as the woman breaks her pattern and tests the boundaries of her existence, trades some of that inscrutable power for a more conventional story structure, but it’s still quietly disquieting.
Stripped to its bare bones by Glazer from a 2000 novel, Under the Skin supports all kinds of interpretations: It’s a film about alienation, foreignness, gender performance and identity, about using and being used, and about the utter strangeness of our world when viewed from the outside. It already reads differently now than it did on release in 2013. At its center is a never-better Johansson, using her movie-star magnetism like a scalpel in a brave and devastating dissection of what it means to be human. —Oli Welsh
Under the Skin is available to stream on HBO Max.
World of Tomorrow 1-3
Year: 2015 (World of Tomorrow); 2017 (Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts); 2020 (Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime)
Run time: 17m (World of Tomorrow); 23m (Episode Two); 34m (Episode Three)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Cast: Julia Pott, Winona Mae, Jack Parrett
On a list of films whose average combined run times amount to approximately two hours, Don Hertzfeldt’s 2015 short film is a stark argument by example that less is more. It’s hard to contest such an argument when you consider the results. World of Tomorrow is a moving, evocative, strange, and honestly visionary work of sci-fi storytelling that transports its audience to a far-flung posthuman future and asks them to consider what it means to be truly human at all.
The first installment takes bigger visual, emotional, and thematic swings than most of its contemporaries, either animated and not, while the second and third films go further to expand its universe while diving even deeper into the motivations of its intimate cast of characters. All three shorts are exceptional, but if you only have time to watch one, you simply can’t go wrong with the first. —TE
World of Tomorrow is available to stream for free on YouTube. World of Tomorrow Episode Two and World of Tomorrow Episode Three are available to rent and stream on Vimeo.
And the honorable mentions…
Big Hero 6
Blade Runner 2049