The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of 2021 Ranked

Science fiction is a wide-encompassing genre, with ties to fantasy and horror. It's defined as speculative; however, while many sci-fi stories draw on real-world science and actual, if unlikely, possibilities, sometimes elements from other genres sneak their way in. One of the best examples is Marvel Studios. Its movies often feature fantastical elements, like the existence of the mythical Asgard and the magic used by sorcerers such as Doctor Strange, but with pseudo-scientific explanations that tie them all into one coherent universe.

If you feel like 2021 has been a fertile year for science fiction, you are not wrong. 2021 has been rich in awesome sci-fi movies, ranging from animated adventures and superheroes flicks to space operas and horror-adjacent tales. While some of the biggest sci-fi movies of the year have yet to arrive (looking at you, "The Matrix Resurrections" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home"), there are still enough great films to make up a list of the year's best. Here is a ranking of 2021's 15 best science fiction movies, so far.

15. Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder delivers a solid zombie movie with "Army of the Dead," a spiritual sequel to his 2004 movie, "Dawn of the Dead." Set in Las Vegas, "Army of the Dead" plays out like a heist movie with a sci-fi twist. A convoy headed to Area 51 gets in an accident, letting loose a virus that infects Sin City. A little while later, a team of mercenaries is sent into the walled-off metropolis to steal a loot of $200 million from a casino before the city is nuked by the government, which has lost control of the zombie infestation. Snyder goes all out with the monsters; the film features a shambling bachelorette party, an undead tiger, and even a zombie baby.

"Army of the Dead" is all about absurdity and gore. Snyder has a lot of fun blowing up zombies for our viewing pleasure, and to great effect. "Army of the Dead" is mindless fun. Don't expect clever, interesting dialogue or thoughtful character backstories. Instead, let yourself be entertained by intense action sequences and great special effects.

14. Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Directed by Andy Serkis, "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" is a surprisingly easy-going sci-fi movie with a subverted rom-com at its core. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and Venom are essentially an old couple, bickering about anything and everything, and otherwise enjoying life with their pet chickens, Sonny and Cher. If it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is, and that's the best thing about "Venom: Let There Be Carnage": The movie doesn't take itself seriously, and doesn't want you to, either. It's a goofy comedy in which the stakes are low, and we're just there to enjoy the ride.

The movie's villain, Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), is your run-of-the-mill mass murderer. He doesn't have a master plan to end the world, as most comic book movie villains do. Shortly before his execution, Cletus bites Eddie and ends up infected with the symbiote, then uses his newfound powers to wreak havoc on San Francisco. However, if Eddie and Venom are a perfect match, Cletus and Carnage, his symbiote, are definitely not. 

It may have been a missed opportunity not to give Harrelson a more quirky symbiote — he doesn't get to be nearly as funny as Hardy — but the movie doesn't suffer from it in the end, because Eddie and Venom are the stars of this particular show.

13. Eternals

The latest entry in Marvel Studios' epic shared universe, "Eternals" had big shoes to fill. It received mixed reviews, but managed to establish a very complicated origin story for the entire known universe, as well as over 10 new characters. Introducing new heroes to an already-packed roster is a challenge, but having them fit into the complex storylines that Marvel has told over the last decade or so is an even bigger one. At least "Eternals" isn't worried about killing off a few characters along the way, leaving us with two smaller teams to follow in future movies.

As directed by Chloe Zhao, who won last year's Academy Award for best feature film her drama "Nomadland," "Eternals" lets the indie director's artistry shine through the big superhero fanfare. It's heavy with flashbacks and mythology and Easter eggs, but also features Marvel's most diverse cast yet. We are finally treated to the MCU's first major same-sex couple, as well as its first deaf hero. "Eternals" has faults but ultimately redeems itself, promising great potential for the MCU as Marvel Studios keeps expanding its universe.

12. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

If you're unfamiliar with the anime "Neon Genesis Evangelion," this movie might be a bit hard to appreciate in its entirety, as the series' lore can feel opaque for even the biggest fans. In "Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time," the series' last two episodes, which originally aired in 1996, are revisited by director Hideaki Anno for a third, and final, time. The giant clone-piloted mechas called EVAs that made the series so iconic are back, but this time, the end of the world has happened, and the characters are dealing with the fallout. The opening scene, set in Paris, features an intense battle between EVAs around the Eiffel Tower as the city is blanketed in red light.

"Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time" isn't all action, though, and offers meditative moments that demonstrate how humanity is scraping by following the cataclysmic Near Third Impact. For fans of the anime, this film is deeply satisfying, tying up all the loose ends and offering a true conclusion to Anno's work on "Neon Genesis Evangelion."

11. A Quiet Place Part 2

"A Quiet Place Part 2," the sequel to 2018's "A Quiet Place," is a post-apocalyptic thriller that effectively marries the genres of science fiction and horror. While it isn't quite as immersive as the original, "A Quiet Place Part 2" still delivers a solid sci-fi adventure that picks up right where the first one left off.

"A Quiet Place Part 2" focuses on the Abbott family's oldest child, deaf teenager Regan (Millicent Simmonds), as she decides to find a radio tower where she can broadcast the unusual sound made by her hearing aid. In the first movie, Regan discovered that the noise-sensitive extraterrestrial monsters that threaten her world are vulnerable to the high frequency, and hopes to weaponize it by broadcasting it across the world. Battle-hardened survivor Emmett (Cillian Murphy) decides to help the family, and ends up an unwilling participant in Regan's plan. Simmonds' and Murphy's chemistry as a surrogate father-daughter team is undeniable, and their relationship is what makes this movie truly shine.

10. Space Sweepers

Netflix loves to gamble, and the South Korean space opera "Space Sweepers" definitely feels like a risk on the streaming platform's part. It's a successful one. "Space Sweepers" is a highly entertaining romp that follows a ragtag team of scrap gatherers. In 2092, the wealthy have fled Earth, which is polluted beyond repair, to colonize Mars. As the rest of humanity struggles to survive, some have turned to "space sweeping," which is just what it sounds like: cleaning up space debris, hoping to sell the junk to company factories for a profit.

One team's daily routine is disturbed when its members discover a little girl hiding in one of the scraps they intercept. As it turns out, the child is both a weaponized robot and the most wanted individual in the solar system. The production quality of "Space Sweepers" is incredible, and its heroic crew of misfits perfectly strikes the balance between humor and drama that fans expect of such sci-fi fare.

9. Little Fish

After the last two years, the premise of "Little Fish" will sound hauntingly familiar. A weird virus called neuro-inflammatory affliction is spreading around the globe, targeting people's memories and making them forget details about their lives. Amid the storm the virus causes on a global scale, "Little Fish" focuses on a recently married couple, Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O'Connell). Jude contracts the disease, and Emma struggles to keep their relationship afloat as he forgets more and more about her and their relationship.

Memory is elusive, and anyone who's had someone close suffer from a disease like Alzheimer's can tell you that being forgotten by those you hold dear is heartbreaking. The timeliness of "Little Fish" is coincidental, but in the wake of COVID-19, it's nearly impossible not to relate to the characters' plight. "Little Fish" is a simple yet effective parable that goes to the very essence of what science fiction is: speculative, human, and deeply emotional.

8. Free Guy

Like some other films on this list, "Free Guy" is a hilarious movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, and yet delivers on bigger, more serious ideas like the potential of artificial intelligence. Granted, it is classic Ryan Reynolds fare, but if you enjoy that, you'll really enjoy "Free Guy." It also happens to be one the best films based on video games that Hollywood has made so far, and that's saying something.

Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, an AI character in a game called "Free City" who becomes self-aware after gaining special sunglasses that only actual players are allowed to have; they let him see the game's UI, making him a player himself. Soon, Guy meets Millie (Jodie Comer), a player who's investigating the game to find out if her proprietary code was used in its programming. 

What she uncovers has even bigger stakes: The game's non-playable characters have developed sentience and built real lives and relationships in the game. And so, Millie must race against the clock to save their lives (or programming, as it were) from the greedy game developer Anton (Taika Waititi). The ethical questions around artificial intelligences' rights as living entities are part of a much bigger debate, but "Free Guy" still manages to scratch the surface of these issues in a funny and entertaining movie.

7. The Suicide Squad

A loose follow-up to 2016's "Suicide Squad," "The Suicide Squad" makes up for its title's lack of originality with a film packed with jokes, blood, and bright colors. Director James Gunn, known for his work on the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, manages to make "The Suicide Squad," his own without simply copying his Marvel work. Instead, Gunn goes back to his B-movie roots, delivering a superhero romp that is hilarious and very, very violent.

"The Suicide Squad" improves on its predecessor in all aspects. It features an extensive ensemble cast with some supervillains we already know, as well as some new ones brought on for a new mission; each character is more improbable and pathetic than the last. True to the film's title, not all of them make it out alive, but Gunn makes us care for almost every one of these twisted, evil characters, packing heartfelt sweetness among all the blood. Surprisingly, we mourn each gruesome demise.

6. Lapsis

Sometimes, the scariest, most effective sci-fi is that which feels the closest to our reality. "Lapsis" makes that gamble. By having its main character, Ray (Dean Imperial), be part of a global Ponzi scheme to pay for medical treatment for his brother, Jamie (Babe Wise), it anchors the story to things we already experience every day: the late-capitalist gig economy and America's individualistic, for-profit healthcare system. "Lapsis" is the feature film debut of director Noah Hutton, who also has a few documentaries under his belt. That experience is put to good use with "Lapsis," which feels just as strange as real life can sometimes be.

Ray works for CABLR, a giant communications corporation, laying "Quantum cables" in remote areas that connect to ominous black cubes. The gig works similarly to Uber or DoorDash. Using a company-issued device, Ray claims a route and connects the cables in as fast as he can. He's followed by drones that drop the necessary materials, as well as a dog-like robot that tracks his progress and acts as a metronome of sorts; if Ray is beaten by the robot to the next cube, he risks losing the route he claimed. "Lapsis" is an excellent satire, a sharp commentary on our often-absurd everyday life, and one of this year's must-watch releases.

5. Oxygen

"Oxygen," is proof that you don't need gore to make a scary movie. The sci-fi thriller is set entirely in the main character's cryogenic pod, in which she's trapped. Oxygen is slowly depleting — hence the movie's title — as Liz Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) struggles to find a way out of the container. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there, and only learns more as she researches herself with help from the pod's AI interface, MILO.

Director Alexandra Aja had already delivered big scares with his 2019 horror thriller "Crawl," and many of that film's most admirable qualities can also be found in "Oxygen." Apart from flashbacks to Liz's past, everything takes place in the cryogenic chamber; it should go without saying that, if you suffer from claustrophobia, you should abstain from watching. However, If tight spaces don't bother you, then you'll be rewarded with a thrilling mystery and an absolutely incredible performance from Laurent.

4. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel Studios' fourth phase was held back by the pandemic, so "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" was an important release for many reasons. Not only was it the first film of Phase 4 to introduce a new hero, but Shang-Chi is also the first Asian lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least in the feature films). After over 10 years, it was high time for Marvel to have an Asian headliner, and the rest of the cast is predominantly Asian, as well. While the movie follows Marvel's usual formula, it breaks down barriers and helps push towards true on-screen inclusion, which makes it worthy of mention all by itself.

But two other things set "Shang-Chi" apart from the other Marvel films. First, the friendship between Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his friend Katie (Awkwafina) remains platonic throughout, and the duo have great comedic chemistry. Second, the movie also gives us a compelling villain in the character of Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-Chi's dad and the Ten Rings' leader. Leung's performance is the best out of the whole cast; the legendary Hong Kong actor delivers a nuanced and haunted villain who feels relatable even if he is over 1,000 years old. The movie's special effects and its marriage of classic kung-fu fights with Marvel's usual action scenes are also well executed.

3. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

If you haven't seen "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" yet, then the upcoming holidays are the perfect time to sit down and watch it with your loved ones. This is a movie that will make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. It also shattered records for Netflix, becoming the most-watched animated film on the streaming platform. Finally, it's an extremely relevant movie, exploring our relationship with technology and social media, and yet it feels timeless in the way it tackles serious subjects like how different generations relate to each other, which is why it earns one of the top spots on this list.

In "The Mitchells vs. the Machines," the worst outcome imaginable becomes reality. A big corporation called PAL Labs launches a line of personal robots whose artificial intelligence starts to rebel, rounding up every human on Earth in order to send them to space to die. The Mitchells, an unlikely and very weird family, escape capture and team up to take the AI down, but only after resolving their various interpersonal conflicts. The movie piles on the internet culture references but still stays down to Earth (pun intended) with its characters' flaws and relationships, making it hard not to recognize yourself in this dysfunctional family dynamic.

2. Titane

The French film "Titane" marries sci-fi with body horror and tenderness in a transgressive and surprising movie that doesn't care about your pre-existing expectations. Directed by Julie Ducournau, the film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and is probably the weirdest, goriest film to do so. 

The film's main character, Alexia, has had a titanium plate affixed to her skull ever since she was a child, the result of a violent car accident. However, the tragedy changes her psychologically as well as physically; she develops psychopathic tendencies and becomes a murderer. Alexia feels a closer affinity to cars than to human beings, and makes a living dancing at car shows as an adult.

Alexia gets pregnant after orgasming in a flame-adorned Cadillac, and her body starts leaking oil. The more tender, heartfelt moments come in the twist ending. "Titane" is one of those thought-provoking films that you must put your trust in completely to fully enjoy.

1. Dune

"Dune" was one of this year's most highly anticipated movies, and director Denis Villeneuve did not disappoint. This adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic 1965 sci-fi novel is not Hollywood's first attempt to bring the material to the screen, but it's certainly its best. Villeneuve takes the necessary time to establish the characters and settings, with longer-than-usual shots and an incredible attention to detail, making this film one of the year's best sci-fi films without contest. The fact that this movie is only the first part of the story, with the second installment already in development, only adds to the excitement.

One of the challenges of science fiction is making the universe in which the story is set feel real, imagining how life for humanity could look centuries from now without it feeling tacky or cartoonish. "Dune" achieves this with its stunning sets and intricate costumes, creating beautiful images. It also manages to include many Easter eggs and references to the novel, making it deliciously rewatchable. "Dune" uniquely immerses viewers in Herbert's carefully crafted world, and fresh-eyed viewers will enjoy it as much as fans of the original novels.