Science fiction is still one of the most popular genres of film, if only because scenes of outer space usually make for epic moments on the big screen. And to be sure, many of 2021’s best sci-fi films were those sorts of movies, i.e. massive action blockbusters of incredible scale.
However, there were also smaller movies in 2021 that used science fiction as a way to tell a unique story and to look at the human condition in new ways. Whatever form you prefer for your sci-fi, here are 10 of the best movies in the genre from the last year.
10. The Tomorrow War
Sometimes science fiction movies presents deep and serious ideas, are about finding our place in a massive universe, or explore the fact that life, no matter how different, has so much in common. And sometimes it’s about shooting gross alien monsters with machine guns. Is The Tomorrow War a brilliant movie? No, it is not. Is The Tomorrow War full of humans and aliens constantly murdering each other? Yes it is, and sometimes that’s all you need. Clearly, a lot of people like this because we're probably getting more of this.
9. Boss Level
The time loop is a science fiction idea that, while it was unique once, has been done so many times now that it’s starting to feel a little tired. But then something like Boss Level comes along and you don’t care because the movie is so much fun that it works anyway. The dynamic duo of director Joe Carnahan and star Frank Grillo come together once again for an action-packed story about a man trying to figure out why he’s stuck in a loop, and why a bunch of people are trying to murder him.
8. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller seem to be a nearly unbeatable pair when it comes to animation. This year’s Netflix comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which tells the story of a mildly dysfunctional family’s attempts to beat an artificial intelligence, is a hilarious and heartwarming adventure. It’s one of the best animated films of the year among some strong contenders, but it’s without question the best animated sci-fi movie this year.
Technically speaking, most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies qualify as science fiction, but it’s been a while since we’ve had one that so neatly fit that mold as Eternals. Chloé Zhao’s film expanded the scale of the MCU in a way no movie had done before, introducing us to characters who were, in many cases, literally bigger than life. And yet, it ultimately focused on people and their relationships. Eternals wasn’t heralded as the best of Marvel's output, but it was still one of the best science fiction movies this year.
6. The Matrix Resurrections
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from a new Matrix movie after so many years, and it's hard to imagine anybody was quite expecting the movie that we got. Rather than being a sequel or a reboot of the popular franchise, what we got was a movie that shined a critical light on the idea of sequels, reboots and popular franchises. Still, it was all done in that mind-bending way only the Wachowskis can do it.
5. Little Fish
Quite often science fiction is used as a tool in order to examine stories of humanity in new ways, and that’s what Little Fish is all about. The film is ultimately a relationship drama starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, but it examines the nature of their relationship, and what that even means, as one of them deals with a disease that is wiping their memory. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking and then beautiful again.
4. Space Sweepers
Space Sweepers arrived on Netflix very early in 2021, and yet, here at the end of the year, it's still one of the best sci-fi movies of the year. It so many classic elements, like the ragtag spaceship crew fighting against overwhelming odds, that's it's hard not to love it on spec. It's technically a Korean movie, but so many different languages are spoken on screen that everybody is going to need to deal with some amount of subtitling. It doesn't distract from this fun outer space adventure which has some fantastic outer space sequences that will rival any Western sci-fi movie.
3. Free Guy
Free Guy might not be the first movie one would think when considering science fiction films from 2021, but it does deal with the idea of artificial intelligence. It just happens to do so while also being the most fun movie on this list. Ryan Reynolds is hilarious as always, but in the end, the movie makes you care for a character that, even within the confines of the film, might not technically exist. That’s what makes Free Guy special and successful.
While the number one movie on this list is an unqualified epic with a massive cast, the number two movie is, in many ways, the smallest. Oxygen follows one single character, who awakens and finds herself inside a medical stasis tube with no memory of who she is or how she got there. It’s equal parts science fiction, horror story and mystery as she attempts to put pieces together while her oxygen supply is slowly depleting. It's an engaging story that probably won't end up where you think.
Denis Villeneuve's Dune was one of the most anticipated films in recent memory. It took on one of the great epics of science fiction; one that had failed to see a satisfying adaptation in the past. While this version of Dune is only half the story, it is certainly an epic production. Every image is so visually stunning that it’s difficult not to get swept up in the experience. The sequel has to be considered a frontrunner for this list when it comes out in two years.
From the massive blockbusters to the small character studies, there was a lot of great science fiction on the screen in 2021. Hopefully, 2022 will mark the end of living within our own sci-fi dystopia, and that will ultimately mean even more great choices for fans of science fiction in the coming year.
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