• Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

15 Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the Last Decade

Like horror, science fiction has recently had a mini-renaissance at the box office.

The genre keeps pumping out blockbuster IP (thanks, Star Wars) or amazing original ideas (think District 9) that keep audiences wanting to boldly go to galaxies far, far away – or explore their own world, albeit one put through a post-apocalyptic lens (Mad Max: Fury Road) or more of a Rod Serling-esque one, like Matt Reeves’s recent Planet of the Apes sequels. But some movies are “neither fish nor fowl,” meaning they slip under the radar or disappoint at the box office despite resonating with fans and critics alike. (Ahem, Blade Runner 2049.)

As The Adjustment Bureau – the underrated, compelling sci-fi drama starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt — celebrates its tenth anniversary next month, we’re getting nostalgic for the last decade’s output of modern sci-fi movies. Here are the genre’s 15 most underrated movies of the last ten years.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau Matt Damon Emily Blunt
Image via Universal Pictures

Writer-director George Nolfi‘s The Adjustment Bureau feels, tonally, like a Phillip K. Dick story, despite the low-key great movie not really borrowing much from Dick’s original source material, The Adjustment Team. It’s not a decked-out sci-fi adventure in the usual sense, but the film’s heady ideas, scientific theory, religious implications, and impressive fantastical realism render it a fascinating, and if sometimes uneven, viewing experience.

The themes of fate and destiny, here made the responsibility of beings best described as almost angelic bureaucrats, are the load-bearing columns holding up Nolfi’s dense, slow-burn sci-fi romance between stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Damon plays a promising politician who loses his shot at the Senate when a compromising photo of him from college hits the press. The same night he loses his election, he meets a charming woman (Blunt) with whom he has considerable sparkage. But their romance interferes with the “grand scheme of things,” especially with the trajectory of the politician’s life. Soon, Damon and Blunt find themselves struggling to outrun the underground masters of their fate while trying to take control of a destiny their pursuers would argue was never really in their control to begin with.

This tug-of-war between free will and the illusion of it is as tense and engaging as the romance between our two leads is compelling. Damon and Blunt’s chemistry radiates old school Hollywood charm; it’s like Nolfi took the leads from a 1940s rom-com and dropped them into the middle of a morality play with literal Biblical stakes. The first half of Adjustment Bureau may feel a bit too long as it puts its more trailer-friendly sci-fi setup on the backburner in favor of establishing the leads’ dynamic, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. All of that character work establishes the emotional stakes as the movie rockets to a riveting (if somewhat trippy) climax that will have you questioning your own fate long after the end credits roll.

Predestination (2014)

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Image via Stage 6 Films

Predestination is a complicated and compelling drama hiding out in a twisty, time travel thriller. Written and directed by Peter and Michael Spierig, based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 short story “All You Zombies,” this little-seen indie stars Ethan Hawke as a time-traveling agent struggling to stop a bomber in 1970s New York. But the bomber’s identity, and that of a bartender with a mysterious past (and future), threatens to unravel our reality as the movie rockets to one hell of a twist ending.

Predestination’s elevator pitch can be boiled down to Memento by way of Back to the Future Part II, but more through a Christopher Nolan lens than a Robert Zemeckis one. The end result is a complex tale about how to define one’s existence when they can exist across multiple timelines and places. What is a life worth when it has been distilled and fractured across time? That’s just one of the heady, thematic questions the movie asks — and, as Hawke’s character and the audience discovers — finding the answer isn’t easy. But it does make for rewarding viewing.

RELATED: Ethan Hakwe Talks ‘Predestination’ and Fate vs. Free Will

Coherence (2013)

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Image via Oscilloscope

Shot in five days, with no script and very little budget, Coherence is Ray Bradbury by way of Agatha Christie. A confident feature film debut from director James Ward Byrkit, Coherence centers on a group of friends who have their dinner party upended when a comet streaks across the night sky and drags a tear through reality in its wake. Multiple alternate realities open themselves to the main characters, realities populated with alternate versions of themselves.

As a result, this friend group unravels into enemies as Byrkit twists the screws on a thought-provoking sci-fi tale that needs to be seen at least twice to fully appreciate the level of craftsmanship here.

Colossal (2016)

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Image via Neon

A monster movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis? Sign us up!

From director Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal asks “what if a Godzilla-sized monster brawl was a projection of our own emotional issues and insecurities?” This premise is what alcoholic Gloria (Hathaway) finds herself in the middle of, as her struggles literally manifest themselves in the form of a monster in South Korea that terrorizes people. This big creative swing requires significant buy-in from the audience, which Vigalondo makes surprisingly easy to do thanks to the way he grounds the ridiculous nature of his conceit in a very relatable world. He and his talented cast embrace the movie’s core conceit in ways that make us laugh with and never at it, as Colossal doubles down on delivering a small-scale, character-first genre film that only gets better with repeat viewings.

Snowpiercer (2013)

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Image via TWC

Gritty, violent and more timely than ever, Snowpiercer, from Oscar-winning director Boon Joon Ho (Parasite), is a post-apocalyptic thriller unlike any other. Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes place in a frightening not-too-distant future where mankind’s Hail Mary play to derail global warming fails and confines a caste system of humanity aboard the titular train. Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton headline an impressive and game ensemble cast as Director Bong offers a quirky and unflinching view of humanity’s hubris only being surpassed by their pathological inability to not fight for a better life. Even if that means risking what’s left of the one they have. It’s both an intellectual and physical battle between the “scum” and the “elites,” the haves and havenots, and Director Bong finds the exact amount of whatever that struggle needs to deliver an effective and (no pun intended) chilling ride.

RELATED: Every Bong Joon Ho Movie Ranked From Least Amazing to Positively Transcendent

Iron Man 3 (2013)

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Image via Marvel Studios

Iron Man 3 tends to get a bad rap, in large part because of its unusual handling of classic Marvel villain the Mandarin. Frankly, we appreciate the subversive take and the Marvel movie’s commitment in forcing Tony to find who he is, and what it takes to be a hero, outside his suit. Writer-director Shane Black’s brand of humor and approach to character-first action scenes, which have an extra sci-fi tinge here, give an edge to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark shtick. The Black-RDJ combo gives Iron Man 3 and its star a welcomed chance to explore the PTSD Tony suffered after the Battle of New York.

Edge of Tomorrow (2013)

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Image via Warner Bros.

Edge of Tomorrow is one of the most underrated Big Studio releases ever made. Tom Cruise’s fun, action-packed time-loop thriller made more of a dent on home video than in theaters. But this clever spin on both the alien invasion and time-travel genres is one of those rare studio films of late that stays with you long after the credits roll. Come for the dizzying Normandy Beach-style attack that opens the film, stay for Cruise’s all-in performance that laughs with but never at the movie’s more sci-fi buy-ins.

About Time (2013)

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Image via Universal Pictures

A box office disappointment at the time of its release, Richard CurtisAbout Time has found an impressive second life on streaming and home video — and for good reason. It’s a time travel story unlike any other, one that mixes timey-wimey sci-fi with the rom-com sensibilities Curtis is best known for.

There were all sorts of reasons to dismiss About Time upon its release, from the fact that it borrows a little too heavily from Groundhog Day to the presence of Rachel McAdams inviting all sorts of comparisons to The Notebook. But taken on its own merits, About Time proves itself to be a likable romantic comedy with a neat little high-concept twist thrown in. Domhnall Gleeson plays the son of a time traveller (Bill Nighy) who struggles to make a romance work with his crush, played by McAdams. When he hits bumps in their courtship, he goes back in time to “fix” it and cheat destiny. But the one thing he can’t cheat is death, as he painfully discovers when his father becomes ill. This bittersweet twist is a heartbreaking one, thanks to Curtis’ deft handling of the more intimate consequences breaking the laws of physics can have — especially when put through the lens of a father and son relationship. The “Doctor Who meets Four Weddings and a Funeral” tone Curtis is going for here is a tricky one to balance, and he doesn’t always succeed. But the parts of the movie that do work, especially the performances (watch out for then-newcomer Margot Robbie), make About Time worth giving a second chance.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Matt Reeves’ blockbuster sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar’s tribe of sentient apes becoming infected with humanity’s worst tendencies in the aftermath of a disease that wiped out most of the planet’s human population.

Reeves takes a very grounded, character-driven approach to both the apes and their human counterparts, with a script by co-writer Mark Bomback taking its time to further build Caesar’s world with the exact amount of resonance and sympathy needed to invest audiences in the tragic conflict that is to come. WETA’s motion-capture CG here is way past the point of photo-real here, as the line between digital and flesh and blood vanishes every time Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell bring to life friends-turned-rivals Caesar and Koba, respectfully.

 

Midnight Special (2016)

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Image via Warner Bros.

Midnight Special, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Mud, is the best sci-fi movie the ‘80s never made.

Equal parts E.T., Starman, and Stranger Things, Midnight Special is a slow-burn road movie about Alton, (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy with special gifts on the run from both government suits and a dangerous religious cult. These parties either want to harness his abilities or, if they can’t, put him down. The boy’s odyssey through rural Texas with his father (an exceptional Michael Shannon) is like an Amblin greatest hits reel come to life, as told by a filmmaker with a delicate and insightful handle on visual storytelling that honors and pushes forward the genre standards as defined by the likes of those Nichols’ story emulates — namely Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Midnight Special is as thrilling as it is emotionally stirring. Nichols’ very grounded, emotionally-honest telling of this extraordinary tale resonates because it unfolds at human height with relatable characters we can’t help but invest in.

Voyage of Time (2016)

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Image via TIFF

One of the reasons a movie can be overlooked is that you literally can’t figure out how to see it. Unfortunately, that was the case with Terrence Malick‘s IMAX sci-fi documentary Voyage of Time. Narrated by Brad Pitt, Voyage of Time was released on only 12 IMAX screens that were located in places like science museums. The roll out was made even more confusing by the fact that at around the same time, a different version — featuring twice as much footage and different narration (this time by Cate Blanchett) — was also being screened. The point is that if you can see the film (and you should), it’s totally trippy and amazing — think the opening scenes of Malick’s The Tree of Life, but with more dinosaurs.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond Chris Pine
Image via Paramount Pictures

The best odd-numbered Star Trek film since The Search for Spock, Star Trek Beyond is waaaay better than its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness. Unlike that J.J. Abrams-directed film, Justin Lin’s Beyond celebrates what makes Trek so great — its themes and characters — while honoring the 50th anniversary with a scary-entertaining mix of humor, heart, and spectacle. It would arguably rank higher among fans if not for the problematic execution of villain Krall (Idris Elba), whose motivations (while great on paper) are denied the necessary screentime to truly connect. But the film mostly overcomes that, as well as certain tonal and narrative bumps, thanks to the filmmakers making the first of these nuTreks to feel like an episode of The Original Series — a first for the Chris Pine-led franchise.

RELATED: Every ‘Star Trek’ Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Image via Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049 is arguably the best movie based on a Philip K. Dick story. It’s also, for most of its two-and-a-half-hour run time, better than the 1982 original. (Sorry not sorry.) In a decade or so, this will be one of those movies, like its 1982 predecessor, that we’ll be hitting ourselves for sleeping on upon its theatrical release.

Ryan Gosling gives a very internalized (and tricky) performance as K, a Replicant charged with retiring his own kind – machines more human in spirit than the actual humans that issue their kill orders. Soon, K’s past becomes violently intertwined with that of Rick Deckard’s (a never-better Harrison Ford), as the two are forced to team up to solve a future-set mystery plot that feels right at home in dime-store detective fiction.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins achieve a visual palette that’s both vivid and heartbreaking, stark and alive. The movie’s production design achieves “you are there” verisimilitude, and the performances — especially Ford’s raw and vulnerable Deckard — make you feel like you’ve done more than merely experienced this movie. You lived it.

Annihilation (2018)

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Image via Paramount Pictures and Skydance

If 2001 and Solaris had a three-way with John Carpenter’s The Thing, then their offspring would be Annihilation.

Don’t let Paramount’s unceremonious release of one of the best films of 2018 fool you; writer-director Alex Garland’s slow-burn, unnerving adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s bestseller is as disturbing as it is hypnotic. Garland’s take on the material is an unflinching look at how destruction and creation are both similar and essential parts of life, arguing that both are critical elements to the terrible privilege and beautiful instability of existence. Annihilation is a psychedelic must-see, anchored by a fierce and vulnerable lead performance from Natalie Portman.

Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)

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Image via United Artists Releasing

A welcome salve to the ongoing trainwreck that was 2020, Bill & Ted Face the Music was the perfect mix of heartfelt sci-fi comedy we needed while enduring one of the worst years ever. While fans’ praise for the film was all but unanimous, the movie — much like its predecessors — seemed to have faded faster off pop-culture’s radar than the initial response to the film would have suggested.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is arguably the best movie in the franchise. A threequel in the works for nearly a decade, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves)’s latest adventure through time and space has our middle-age heroes struggling with coming to terms with the destiny their teenage selves were told they must fulfill, one they have yet to achieve.

The former slackers from San Dimas, now husbands and fathers, embark on a journey to find the song they were told years ago would unify the world. Their first stop? Visiting their future selves so they can take it from them. That plan goes sideways quickly, and that’s a good thing, as Face the Music director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) invests the timey-wimey comedy with a surprising amount of heart and legit tear-inducing moments of reflection between leads Reeves and Winter. Also along for the ride are welcome additions to the franchise, Bill and Ted’s musically-inclined daughters, played by the exceptional Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Atypical).

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