Science Fiction has always existed as a means of processing societal anxieties about the future. Add elements of horror to the mix, and you often get an extremely potent cinematic concoction, where some of the best expressions of future fear are surprisingly Gothic. While focusing on films from the 21st Century means ignoring many titles that helped define the Horror/Sci-fi subgenre (Alien, The Thing, and Event Horizon being the most obvious) it shines a light on terrors specific to our current worldview—which would have been unimaginable in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Just as “Horror” as a classification can be difficult to describe in any blanket terms, “Sci-Fi” can be a tricky genre to definitively define. For the purpose of this article and subsequent discussions (which I welcome) I’m defining Sci-Fi as movies that deal with future technologies (including metaphysical technology including time machines, telepods, and portals) and/or advanced alien lifeforms. Enjoy!
The Top Horror/Sci-fi Movies of the 21st Century
Pitch Black (2000, Twohy)
The first great horror/sci-fi of the 21st Century borrows much from the first (and arguably best) example of the subgenre: 1979’s Alien. Pitch Black brings a bleak future expressed in classic horror conventions from film and literature. The trek across the dark wasteland could be a journey through the misty moors—the aliens could be werewolves. The characters are plagued with model human frailties, no more difficult to place into context than any movie or cinematic persona: Everyone is archetypal, and the fears are universal.
Extraterrestrial (2014, Minihan)
There might not be anything original about Extraterrestrial, but it’s still one of the most impactful representations of alien-abduction anxieties ever made—and the production is fan-freakin’-tastic! In many ways, Miniham’s movie plays out like an evil version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, processed through a cold and bleak 21st Century filter.
The Island (2005, Bay)
Before you argue that PG-13 rated The Island isn’t hard-core enough for horror circles, I’d invite you to watch the scene where Michael Clarke Duncan escapes from surgery on auto-repeat for a few hours—it might change your tune. Themes of advanced human slavery where clones are cultivated for spare parts makes Bay’s film extremely apropos of 21st Century anxieties, while echoing cannibalistic aspects of classics like Soylent Green.
Pandorum (2009, Alvart)
While Enemy Mine might not have qualified for this list, there’s another film starring Dennis Quade that ranks near the best: Pandorum. An exhausted Earth send mankind on an extended journey via space-ark, where mental illness and technical malfunctions result in a disturbing devolution. It’s the first sci-fi that incorporates the kind of rabid, diseased semi-humans we first experienced in films like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend.
Slither (2006, Gunn)
The great thing about including Slither on this list is that there’s no need to compare it to 1986’s Night of the Creeps or endure the seemingly inevitable debates that follow regarding possible misappropriations. It’s an organic alien invasion without spaceships, where the take-over happens on a cellular level; this makes Slither an excellent example of 21st Century Body Horror as well. The practical FX may just be the greatest achievement since John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the irreverent mix of horror and comedy is perhaps the best since Return of the Living Dead.
Dark Skies (2013, Stewart)
Dark Skies is notable for existing at a rare nexus of alien abduction and haunted house tropes, where a ghostly extraterrestrial presence intensified a claustrophobic vibe more often found in supernatural films like Poltergeist. And speaking of Poltergeist: Both films examine the impact of extreme stress on a family unity, and both revolve around a child/sibling spirited-off by otherworldly forces.
Dead Shadows (2012, Cholewa)
Fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Lovecraftian horror should definitely check out this French gem. It’s an Earth invasion scenario clouded in Project X level festivities, where sex and drug fueled millennials can’t see beyond their own self-pleasure—even on the verge of an apocalypse. Horror aficionados of a certain age will detect many thematic similarities with 1984’s Night of the Comet.
Europa Report (2013, Cordero)
This found footage/mockumentary is presented with incredible attention to detail, creating a film that feels just beyond the realm of science-fact. While there isn’t any gore, violence, or jump scares, the portrayal of space in all of its chilling indifference is utterly terrifying. Feelings of claustrophobia and isolation become palpable; without suspense per se, there’s still enough constant tension to put a lump in your throat while twisting your stomach into knots.
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007, Mulcahy)
The fact that Resident Evil: Extinction is the third film in a franchise based on a video game makes it easy to dismiss as shallow eye-candy—even by normally open-minded aficionados. But Extinction is impressive, first off, for combining sci-fi with traditional zombie tropes. The devolved societies adrift in a desert wasteland is reminiscent of Mad Max, giving the film a retro spin. Bottom line: Extinction is vastly entertaining and hands-down the best in the Resident Evil franchise—so good it even works as a standalone.
The Signal (2014, Eubank)
2014’s The Signal (not to be confused with 2007’s excellent film of the same name) is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream and an alien abductee’s worst nightmare. What starts off with a buddy-flick/road trip hook descends into an action-packed mind-fuck with a twist-ending Shyamalan would murder for. More proof that PG-13 films can be intelligent, engaging, and extremely satisfying.
Ejecta (2014, Archibald/Wiele)
Non-linear and presented partially as found-footage, Ejecta is an intense and unsettling sci-fi with arthouse sensibilities. Low-tech, practical FX and limited CGI are surprisingly successful in a film carried by enigmatic actor Julian Richings (Cube). When a solar flare knocks a UFO out of the sky, a long-term repeat abductee believes he’s found the proof he’s been looking for—but the truth is more terrifying than anyone can imagine. X-Files fans will definitely connect with this one.
What are some of your favorite Horror/Sci-Fi movies from the 21st Century? Sound off in the Comments section!
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