This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
The 2010s have long been a significant decade in science fiction cinema. Both Back to the Future Part II and Blade Runner promised us flying cars by this point. Arthur C. Clarke’s and Peter Hyams’ sequel 2010 suggested the decade would kick off with the year we make contact. The Running Man and the original Rollerball teased wild, hyper-violent entertainments we could expect in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 6th Day and The Island anticipated secret human cloning. And such films as I Am Legend and The Postman predicted the world would be a post-apocalypse wasteland by now.
What really happened in the span from January 2010 through December 2019 was movie fans got a whole lot of great science fiction and fantasy films. While the superhero genre seemed to take up most of the speculative fiction market, there was also a smorgasbord of hard sci-fi and cleverly imaginative fantasy worlds. We also saw the return of a favorite space opera franchise, impressive late sequels to genre cult classics, and an increase in smaller indie and foreign works that could challenge expensive blockbusters when it came to special-effects spectacles.
There was so much amazing sci-fi and fantasy that we had a tough time ranking just 50 titles. To make it a bit easier, we did exclude whole swaths of contenders using both basic and arbitrary rules. There are no animated features. Movies that were primarily works of horror were denied unless aliens were involved. Anything with adorable talking bears living among British families as if that’s not entirely strange was also sadly tossed aside. Anything else that appears to be missing is either intentional or accidental, and we’ll let you decide which are which.
Here are our 50 favorite sci-fi and fantasy movies of the 2010s as decided by Christopher Campbell and Luke Hicks with some input from Ciara Wardlow, Jacob Trussell, and Meg Shields:
50. TRON: Legacy (2010)
Disney overestimated the demand for a TRON sequel 28 years after the release of the original box office disappointment-turned-cult classic. For those of us who delighted in the 3D light show and dual Jeff Bridges, the studio’s mistake was our gain. Looking back, it was a perfect movie to kick off the decade, too, even if right at the end of its first year. While not the first movie to feature the digital de-aging technique nor the first to classify as a legacy sequel nor the first sci-fi movie to feature a sexy AI as a love interest, these elements increased prominently in the following years (stay tuned for more!). Maybe the 2020s will finally bring about a third TRON movie so we can eventually find out what Cillian Murphy was doing in this one. (Christopher Campbell)
49. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
It’s been a tough decade to be a Trekkie — not necessarily a bad time but definitely an uncertain time. The 2000s ended with great promise in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek continuity-bending reboot. Then came the wrath of the con that was Abrams’ Star Trek Into the Darkness, a huge disappointment for diehard fans and regular folk alike. Star Trek Beyond was a huge upswing with a fast and furious and fun installment from Justin Lin with a script co-written by ensemble player and trusted fanboy Simon Pegg. The sequel saw a breakout turn from Sofia Boutella and a bittersweet posthumous performance from Anton Yelchin. There doesn’t need to be another movie in this series, scripted by Quentin Tarantino or directed by Noah Hawley or however, especially if all the new Star Trek television keeps fans busy, because Beyond left us on a high note. (Christopher Campbell)
48. Evolution (2015)
Lucile Hadžihalilović’s cryptic, elusive, nightmarish ocean-side fable of sorts is as creepy as films get. It’s the combination of silent children, dingy hospitals, disciplining mothers, sea creature imagery, and slimy mystery likely to crawl under your skin and stay there. Or, perhaps it’ll make a home in your gut and inspire a versatile brand of nausea that slinks back and forth between your stomach and your head and rightly kills your appetite for at least 24 hours. Yes, that’s a warning. Don’t watch Evolution before dinner. The impressive tangible tone is all due to Hadžihalilović’s calculated vision, which we’ve only gotten a glimpse of twice in feature form since the turn of the century. And twice is enough to be sure of her prowess, which is in full fucked up form in Evolution. (Luke Hicks)
47. Snowpiercer (2013)
The #BongHive blew up as a result of Bong Joon-Ho’s irresistible new Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, but Bong’s been delivering shocks for a couple of decades now, albeit mostly to South Korean audiences. Snowpiercer marks his English-language debut and descent into narrative madness. Before Snowpiercer, his movies fit more cleanly intro specific genres, or they could’ve been easily compared to other (lesser) films of a similar style. Memories of Murder, for example, is his take on the crime procedural and The Host is his expression of monster horror. But Snowpiercer marked a turn into the delightfully strange, wonderfully unrecognizable mind of a modern master. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, and Ed Harris fill out varying degrees of extreme castes, whose individual worlds could each contain feature films of their own. (Luke Hicks)
46. The World’s End (2013)
After taking a detour with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which, no, is not a fantasy film), Edgar Wright returned to his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy to finish things off. Somewhat literally as this one deals with apocalyptic events on the night of an epic pub crawl. Even though it’s only the third-best of its trio, The World’s End unites so many things I love, including sci-fi about secret alien invasions involving replacement doppelgangers, the pairing of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, nods to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, intricate foreshadowing, mint chocolate chip ice cream cones, scripts filled with complex trivialities, bathroom brawls, and last but not least, beer drinking. We need more sci-fi movies that don’t so much warn us of where we’re going wrong but instead celebrates our right to have fun, be fuck-ups, and get fucked up. Also, maybe we’re truly doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t. (Christopher Campbell)
45. Never Let Me Go (2010)
It should be noted that novelist turned screenwriter turned director Alex Garland has yet to pen a subpar screenplay. The worst is probably Dredd, which is still a blast. Hell, it’s higher up on this list than Never Let Me Go, the tender, only slightly dystopian story about three friends and their search for identity. I saw this film for the first time in an intimate theological bioethics course in college, and it sparked some fervent debate, as all of Garland’s thought-provoking screenplays do. It was as alluring then as it is now. It might’ve been a masterpiece had it been helmed by Garland, but he hadn’t started directing yet. Instead, it was handled by music video savant Mark Romanek, who did a fine job leveling the balance between realism and fringe sci-fi. All crew aside, it would be hard not to swoon a little over any film that casts an ensemble trio of Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as naïve high schoolers. (Luke Hicks)
44. Monsters (2010)
This decade, as professional-looking special effects tools became cheaper and more available to general consumers, we began to see a lot of short films used as calling cards, whether for the start of careers and/or as proof of concept for expanded features. Often sci-fi and horror features. Monsters is not based on a short but has the same feel as many of those smaller efforts. Gareth Edwards just went for it instead of bothering with the stepping stone. This low-budget monster movie, which is basically It Happened One Night set following an alien invasion during a period in which giant creatures residing south of the US border is a norm, contains amazing computer effects that Edwards produced on his own with commercially sold software. Monsters also, like the Best Picture nominee District 9 the year before, brought back the heavy political metaphor and context aspect of smaller sci-fi films we’d seen in the past, this one evoking US/Mexico border and immigration issues. It plays a bit on the nose, but it’s still effective. Edwards, of course, went on to direct the 2014 Godzilla reboot, which uses a similar approach to what he achieves with Monsters only on a much, much bigger scale and budget. (Christopher Campbell)
43. Marjorie Prime (2017)
Michael Almereyda’s follow-up to 2015’s Experimenter went largely unseen, which is a shame for anyone interested in the concept of memory across time and the way it impacts storytelling and truth. Marjorie Prime is virtually a chamber drama, maybe a chamber tech-drama to get a little more specific. The majority of the film takes place in a family’s living room, where a new model of hologram technology gives family members the chance to reconnect with dead loved ones. Of course, these are just holograms. They don’t come with the minds of those they represent, but they are a product of intelligent technology we haven’t seen the likes of in the sense that they learn. And they learn quickly. And soon enough, they become much like the ones they’re imaged after. Marjorie also stands as a magnificent Lois Smith vehicle (age 87 at the time of the filming) and one of the only significant Jon Hamm feature performances. Interesting how he can play a handsome, well-dressed, unfeeling hologram-man so well. One might think he’s had a bit of practice in that arena (minus the hologram part). If for no other reason, watch Marjorie Prime to get a better glimpse of how family histories morph into myth. It’s quite fascinating. (Luke Hicks)
42. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
In a decade dominated by superhero movies, particularly those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy stands out above the others for a number of reasons. Even more than with their initial solo Avengers features, this comedic space adventure proved Marvel could strike gold with obscure comic book characters if done right with a focused vision. James Gunn gave us a mashup of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Kelly’s Heroes, and his own past superteam experience writing The Specials, then he added an excuse for a yacht rock mixtape soundtrack despite the setting, and expanded the MCU (and the genre in general) to the cosmic realm of the very weird and very funny (there’d be no Thor: Ragnarok without this succeeding). Guardians of the Galaxy contains some basic ragtag-team tropes but also a talking raccoon with an attitude and a character who is a sentient tree with a limited vocabulary. The first movie is consistent with the franchise’s villain problem and that’s okay if we consider it a set-up for what’s to follow, even if that can be an issue as well. Yet regardless, we’re here for the immediately monumental characters and good times all around. (Christopher Campbell)
41. Upgrade (2018)
The remarkable similarity between Leigh Whannell‘s Upgrade and Sony’s Venom (right down to the lookalike leads) is a fascinating yet sad case study of where we’re at right now with sci-fi and fantasy movies — and really with all kinds of movies these days (see Joker). The latter is linked to a comic book IP and despite being a bit of a mess in its execution managed to gross $856 million worldwide. The former, about a mechanic upgraded with cybernetic implants that basically turn him into a superhero, is an original character- and filmmaker-driven work that’s much tighter in its delivery and which grossed just $14 million globally. Fortunately, B-movie throwbacks like Upgrade can still cost a minuscule amount of money compared to something like Venom. In its lack of famous stars and famous characters and marketing onslaught, Upgrade can simply yet effectively concentrate on a smart script and thrilling action with effects in support of the story. (Christopher Campbell)