The best sci-fi movies often push the boundaries of what’s possible to depict on the big screen by taking on complex fictional concepts that are often rooted in reality. Recent films in the category embrace the intersection between science, philosophy, and humanity, and use mind-blowing visuals and cutting-edge cinematography to bolster filmmakers’ ambitious efforts.
From the visually stunning and otherworldly story told in Dune to the mind-bending mix of existentialism and the multiverse in Everything Everywhere All at Oncethe greatest science fiction movies from the past five years represent the best that the genre has to offer. With so much to explore in the genre, these are the few standouts that should be considered essential viewing for fans.
Ad Astra (2019)
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Director James Gray’s Ad Astra is a beautifully slow, yet riveting psychological sci-fi movie that revolves around a determined astronaut’s journey to find his father. Starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, the film depicts his perilous trip to Neptune, where his father led a crew that disappeared and has been presumed dead for 29 long years.
Visually thrilling and perfectly paced, Ad Astra is undoubtedly among the most underrated sci-fi movies ever. It’s also an incredible drama about a father-son relationship transformed by obsession in the guise of science. Pitt delivers one of his most profound performances as a heartbroken son with too many unanswered questions in a story set against the backdrop of the vastness, silence, and darkness of space.
Tenet is an inventive film from a director known for turning mind-bending concepts into blockbusters. Christopher Nolan‘s divisive 2020 movie tells the story of a former CIA agent, known simply as the Protagonist (John David Washington), who joins an organization that claims to be preventing an attack from the future. Their secret weapon? “Inverted” entropy, which allows them to reverse the flow of time.
Everything about Tenet is ambitious, from its visual effects and action sequences to its complicated plot and science fiction concepts – and for the most part, Nolan pulls it off. If anything, the film is an undeniable representation of what it means to innovate and take risks, even if those gambles don’t immediately pay off. Tenet may be one of those visionary works that will only get better with time (if it hasn’t already).
Palm Springs (2020)
Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as an unlikely pair stuck in a time loop, Palm Springs is a charming sci-fi rom-com that offers a fresh spin on a familiar concept. Set in the titular location, the film follows a man and a woman who meet at a wedding, but soon find themselves waking up to the same events over and over again.
While there have been several great time loop movies over the years, what sets director Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs apart is its irreverent approach to the idea. It never takes itself too seriously and initially appears to be a lighthearted comedy, especially as the duo comes up with increasingly hilarious and absurd ways to pass the time. This is also precisely what makes its more emotionally hard-hitting moments so much more effective toward the end of the film, as philosophy, love, and time loops collide.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the eponymous – and infamously difficult to adapt – novel by Frank Herbert, Dune is an epic sci-fi film that transports viewers to another world in the distant future. There, the noble House Atreides must tread carefully in their new home, the dangerous desert planet Arrakis. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), set to lead the people, is soon thrust into a deadly war that only the strongest can survive.
With sweeping alien landscapes, a haunting musical score, and a story for the ages, 2021’s Dune lays the groundwork for what could be an epic sci-fi franchise in the coming years. It’s already clearly the best adaptation of the legendary sci-fi novel, but even those who aren’t familiar with the source material will appreciate Villeneuve’s take on the otherworldly tale.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
At this point, the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that needs no introduction. The award-winning sci-fi drama movie stars Michelle Yeoh as Chinese-American immigrant Evelyn Quan Wang, who’s struggling to juggle her failing business, messy marriage, and most importantly, complicated relationship with her daughter. When she’s approached by an alternate version of her husband, who tells her she’s meant to save the multiverse, it’s understandably the last thing she needs.
Everything Everywhere All at Once quickly became an international phenomenon when it premiered last year, thanks to its absurdist humor paired with wildly frenetic visuals. Its sci-fi elements – multiversal travel and communication – serve mostly as vehicles for the existentialist movie’s crucial message about life, the choices people make, and the things that truly matter no matter where you are in the multiverse.