How do you define whether or not a certain movie is underrated? Is it measured by lackluster box office sales? Critical and audience reactions? Latent cultural impact? Some combination of all three?
We don’t mean to put you on the spot here and to be quite frank, we’re not so sure there is a perfect answer to that opening query. Some films just aren’t appreciated in their time, but later find their rightful places in cinema history. Perhaps it’s got something to do with viewers’ inability to hear certain messages. Our instant reaction to harsh truths — even those coated in the sugary outer layer of science fiction — is to reject, deny, deflect. But after some time has passed and the dust has settled, humans do have the merciful capacity to reevaluate and come to see that they were indeed wrong.
Below, in order of theatrical release, are our picks for the 25 most underrated science fiction movies of the last decade.
1. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
With this movie, writer-director George Nolfi added some more meat onto the bones of the Philip K. Dick short story originally published in the 1950s. The smartest choice was tweaking “Adjustment Team” to “Adjustment Bureau” for a title that alludes to a sinister and Kafka-esque organization that controls every aspect of what we humans might call “free will.” Matt Damon, who had already starred in a number of Nolfi-written projects (mainly Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum) stars as a rising politician who defies the titular agency in an effort to be with the woman he loves (Emily Blunt). A pair of talented leads; an inspired, Twilight Zone-y premise; and a knockout supporting cast (one that cast that includes Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, and John Slattery) make this one worth a revisit.
2. Robot & Frank (2012)
While known for playing villains — both real and fictional — Frank Langella showed himself capable of a softer performance in this flick about a technologically-averse senior citizen who forms an unexpected connection with a robot companion meant to make his life a little easier (the robot in question is voiced by DA Gil Colson himself, Peter Sarsgaard). Despite his initial apprehension, Frank (the character, not Langella) rediscovers a passion for a troublesome old hobby: jewelry theft. Quirky, heartfelt, and not too fussy, Robot & Frank strikes the right balance between sci-fi and humanity.
3. Dredd (2012)
Almost two decades after Sylvester Stallone removed his helmet (a big no-no for Judge Dredd fans), Karl Urban tried his hand as the titular judge, jury, and executioner to much better results. It didn’t hurt that Dredd — directed by Pete Travis (Project Blue Book) — rocked a solid screenplay by future Oscar winner Alex Garland (Ex Machina), who had already proved himself adept at genre fare with 28 Days Later and Sunshine. The only downside? A sequel was never produced. The upside? Urban still does ok for himself. Ever heard of a little show called The Boys?
4. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
The micro-budget indie movie that propelled director Colin Trevorrow into Jurassic World stardom, Safety Not Guaranteed follows a group of magazine writers trying to determine whether one man’s claim of having access to time travel is real or BS. If it is, they get paid. If not, they wasted a bit of time with a crazy person. It’s Ray Bradbury by way of mumblecore icon Mark Duplass. “It’s well acted, funny in a troubling, low-key way, and offers revealing insights into the world of people permanently at odds with modern society and in search of ways either to escape or to express their discontent,” wrote The Guardian‘s Philip French in their review.
5. Her (2013)
Only Joaquin Phoenix could make us believe in the validity of a romance between a human and an artificial intelligent operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. A subversive riff on the technological dystopia that never gets too heavy-handed with its overall message, Her presents an optimistic and surprisingly tender viewpoint on the danger of “smart” devices. The cold, unfeeling devices sitting snugly in our pockets every second of every day can lead to physical and emotional isolation, but they can also inspire us to see the world in ways we never imagined. It’s beautiful, emotionally raw, and above all, Spike Jonze’s finest directorial effort to date.
6. Coherence (2013)
An average dinner party turns into a full-on head trip when a strange comet passes overhead in James Ward Byrkit’s feature-length debut. Speaking with Yahoo! around the time of the film’s release, Byrkit said the idea stemmed from a desire to “make a movie that’s about something besides the obvious relationship troubles that a million indie movies do. And that led to this cosmic fractured-reality idea. But then it took a year of planning and charting and figuring out all the puzzle pieces and the character arcs and just making it all thematically cohesive.”
7. The World’s End (2013)
The trilogy capper to Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s “Cornetto” saga ups the absurdist ante to levels hitherto unseen in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Returning to the genre roots of Shaun, The World’s End centers around a group of childhood friends attempting to complete a legendary pub crawl they abandoned during their senior year of high school. This alcoholic odyssey to become as sloshed as possible takes a hard left turn when it’s revealed that the town these men grew up in has been overtaken by body-snatching aliens. It’s insane in the best way possible, carried forth by Wright’s signature frenetic editing style.
8. About Time (2013)
This heartfelt time travel drama from writer-director Richard Curtis was the result of the filmmaker coming to terms with the profound hindsight one acquires as they get older. “I thought this was a film where I was bound to get better qualified to write it, as time went by,” he explained to Collider in 2013. “I can’t remember quite what stage I was at then, but I think I had both my mom and dad, and I don’t have them any longer. I knew it would be something where extra time would probably give me extra wisdom.”
9. Pacific Rim (2013)
Giant robots punch giant monsters. That it’s, that’s the tweet. Do you really need anything else? Guillermo del Toro’s loving homage to the kaiju and mecha genres of Japanese culture appeals to the giddy, action figure-loving children in all of us. It’s the kind of turn-off-your-brain fun that never feels braindead in its execution.
Yes, the premise is absolutely silly — del Toro is well aware of that — but he’s smart enough to keep the the larger-than-life elements grounded with a relatable human story of loss and healing. The real tragedy is the movie’s less-than-stellar box office performance, which couldn’t compete with the likes of Grown Ups 2. Let that sink in: Grown. Ups. 2. We’ll take giant beasties going Mano a Mano with giant robots over the immature humor of an Adam Sandler joint any day of the week.
And as an honorary mention, we’ll include the sequel — Pacific Rim: Uprising — on this list as well because it’s still a ton of fun. We repeat: you cannot go wrong with monsters and robots the size of skyscrapers beating the literal snot out of each other.
10. Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson plays a literal man-eater in this deeply-disturbing, yet wildly memorable, alien invasion flick from Jonathan Glazer and A24. According to Glazer, the movie is meant as a commentary on the objectification of women. “What she does in the course of the film, in her own discovery, is she reclaims that — she de-eroticizes her own image, actually,” he said during an interview with Slant Magazine. “Thinking about that now, that’s nothing that I would worry about. It seems to me to be somehow in line with Scarlett’s life as an actress, and in the way she’s objectified. There’s a parallel idea of her reclaiming her image, and her sexuality in this film, which I think she does.”
A television series based on the feature (itself an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name) is currently in development.
11. Snowpiercer (2013)
Choo! Choo! All aboard the class inequity train! Much like he did with Parasite, director Bong Joon-Ho shined a light on the egregious economic divide between the haves and the have nots. Holding a mirror up to society is much easier when you do it through the lens of science fiction (helps the bitter medicine go down). An adaptation of the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, the film takes place on a perpetual locomotive that circles the planet on a regular basis. Earth has become an inhospitable, frozen wasteland due to foolhardy human efforts to slow climate change. Come for the cool genre concept, but stay for the “Eat the rich” commentary when the individuals living in squalor at the back of the train finally stage a revolution.
12. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Groundhog Day meets Independence Day meets Saving Private Ryan. No, really. It sounds like a funky combination — like a sandwich made of tuna fish and peanut butter — but Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman pull it off with a mysterious amount of ease…almost as if they gained the ability to reverse time and learn from their mistakes. That would actually make a lot of sense for this unexpected crowd-pleaser that sort of flew under the radar because of a rather confused marketing campaign on the part of Warner Bros. Is it Edge of Tomorrow? Live.Die.Repeat.? or Live.Die.Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow? Call it whatever you want, just give us a sequel already.
13. Predestination (2014)
From Gattaca to Daybreakers, Ethan Hawke has quite a track record for choosing cult classic genre projects — and Predestination is no exception. Marking a reunion with the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter), the film is about a time traveling agent hot on the heels of a quantum criminal. It’s less a ripoff of Timecop ripoff more an adaptation of the 1958 short story “All You Zombies” written by science fiction demigod, Robert A. Heinlein. Just like with Adjustment Bureau, there was plenty to flesh out from the six-page source material.
“There has to be something that’s driving the story forward from a thriller perspective,” Peter told Collider in 2015. “There has to be some sort of threat going on. We talked a lot about doing it in a way that felt organic and felt like it lived in that world. The Heinlein short story doesn’t have that at all. But it has to be a movie. If you just adapted the story and that was it — it’s a nice set-up and pay-off but it’s certainly not a theatrical film story.”
14. Turbo Kid (2015)
An unabashed throwback to the iconic adventure flicks of 1980s, Turbo Kid feels like it could’ve been made by John McTiernan, John Carpenter, George Miller, or perhaps all three at the same time. The idea of three filmmakers coming together on one movie isn’t out of the realm of possibility since that’s exactly what happened here, with Anouk Whissell, François Simard Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissel — members of a creative collective known as Road Kill Super Stars — sharing the director credit. Set in an post-apocalyptic version of 1997, the film centers around an avid comic book reader who decides to take on a warlord under the persona of his favorite hero.
“Our main inspiration for the setting comes from Mad Max, and all the Italian rip-offs that came from it, mixed with BMX Bandits for the primary colors and plastic look,” the RKSS trio remarked in a 2015 interview at SXSW. “We loved playing with the contrast of gray wasteland and popping colors on our main characters. For the heart of the story, we’re looking at the movies of our childhood like The Goonies, The Dog Who Stopped the War, and The NeverEnding Story.”
15. Midnight Special (2016)
An intimate rumination of the Spielbergian efforts of the 1980s, Midnight Special highlights the special bond between a father and son, who are forced to go on the run from the government when the child starts to show signs of supernatural gifts.
“I grew up on films like this, and I was always struck by this kind of Spielberg template from these early films, which is this mystery that unfolds into some sense of awe,” writer-director Jeff Nichols explained to Consequence of Sound. “I wanted to try my hand at that. But those are just good places to start; you don’t want to fall into the trap of simple homage, that’s just boring. So you still have to figure out how to make it your own, but it’s good to have inspiration.”
16. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
After critics and fans unfavorably described Into Darkness as a pale imitation of The Wrath of Khan, audiences had soured a bit on the rebooted film franchise hailing from director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Alex Kurtzman, and Robert Orci.
A real shame because Star Trek Beyond (helmed by Fast & Furious alum Justin Lin) is a satisfying, back-to-basics adventure that harkens closer to the original ‘60s-era television show than the previous two movies ever did. Rocking a screenplay co-written by Trek super-fan and cast member Simon Pegg, the third chapter presents a smaller, more contained story in which our favorite Enterprise characters square off with an embittered and mutated Federation crew that was left for dead years before.
“We liked the idea of, also, on the 50th anniversary, looking at Roddenberry’s vision and questioning it — you know, the whole notion of the Federation and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, or how productive is inclusivity,” Pegg said at the time. “What is the true cost of expansion? That kind of stuff.”
17. Life (2017)
More than just “another Alien clone,” director Daniel Espinosa’s Life is a big budget, Twilight Zone-y sci-fi thriller that milks its contained space station setting for all the riveting tension (and inventive kills) that it is worth. This riveting movie, from the writers of Deadpool, asks “what would really happen if NASA encountered alien life in space? What would that life look like?” The movie answers both question in graphic, R-rated bloody detail as a microscopic sample taken from Mars evolves into a tentacle-y, translucent mass of murder-fueled — scratch that, survival-fueled — sentience that will do anything to make it out of this consent-less experiment alive, even if it means killing everyone studying it. (Particularly star Ryan Reynolds, who his dispatched from the film in gory, bone-crushing fashion.)
Reynolds’ surprise demise raises the movie’s stakes and puts the audience on notice that any member of the above-the-title ensemble, which includes Rebecca Ferguson and Jake Gyllenhaal, might not make it to see the ending. And that’s too bad, because the shocker ending is the best part.
18. Colossal (2017)
Colossal is, um, weird. But “weird” in a good way! Anne Hathaway plays a down-on-her-luck woman who discovers that she’s got a strange connection with a giant monster destroying the capital city of South Korea. Like we said…weird. But it works!
And did we mention it’s a comedy?
“Initially, I wanted to make a monster movie,” writer-director Nacho Vigalondo told The Verge. “I had this crazy idea about this monster mimicking the movements of someone as a giant avatar on the opposite side of the world. That idea became a chance for me to take a realistic take on a monster movie, without raising a huge budget.”
19. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Legacy sequels are tricky to pull off. You’ve got to draw in longtime fans of the property while still appealing to newcomers who may not have seen the original movie from 10, 20, or — in the case of Blade Runner 2049 — 35 years ago. With that said, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic may just be the perfect example of how you pull off a legacy sequel. Some might even argue that 2049 improves upon its predecessor, which you can’t really say for most of the second cinematic chapters on the market, now can you?
Ryan Gosling wows as Officer K, a replicant blade runner hot on the trail of a child born to human and robot. How is that even possible? Is the K the individual he’s looking for? Well now, that’s part of the mystery. Despite a pair of Oscar wins, 2049 deserved way more acclaim, attention, and box office sales than it got upon its initial release. From the acting to the gorgeous cinematography, Villeneuve reminds us why Blade Runner is one of the greatest sci-fi noirs ever made. We can only hope the Amazon series doesn’t let us down.
20. Okja (2017)
Miyazaki meets Food, Inc. There’s just no better way to describe Bong Joon-Ho’s plea for us all to go vegan. The film revolves around the relationship between Mija, a young girl from South Korea, and Okja, a giant animal that resembles a cow, hippo, and Falkor from The NeverEnding Story. The pure dynamic between human and nature is abruptly upended by a multi-national conglomerate, the Mirando Corporation. The company’s intentions, as you might have already guessed, are far from pure.
“I believe that Okja is about growing up, in a way, the loss of innocence—what you retain from your childhood to become an adult and what you lose,” Jake Gyllenhaal, who goes all in as Mirando spokesman Dr. Johnny Wilcox, states in the official production notes provided by Netflix. “And also, how the world, as beautiful as it is, can also tear those things away. I think it’s a film that’s not without great humor, along with a love for the hope that there is in the world…but without overlooking the brutality in the world, either.”
21. High Life (2018)
One of Robert Pattinson’s smaller indie dramas before his return to blockbuster filmmaking in The Batman, High Life takes place in the vastness of space, but its story couldn’t be smaller. And we mean that as a compliment. If you’re going to set your movie against the backdrop of an ever-expanding cosmos, then you’re going to need a relatable human-driven narrative so as not to lose the audience. Pattinson takes on the role of Monte, a man raising a baby daughter on a ship cruising amongst the stars.
“All her movies feel like they’re not just made … it doesn’t feel like a director said, ‘Oh, I’m a professional film director, I’m making this because I have to make a movie.’ They all feel like a little part of her,” the actor said of director Claire Denis in a 2019 conversation with SYFY WIRE. “I always find it interesting to find out what it is about a director that makes them feel that. But also, I always just thought the performances she always gets, it’s across the board, there aren’t really any bad performances in any of her movies. So I was just wanting to work with her as an insurance policy.”
22. Annihilation (2018)
Like The Thing and The Void, Annihilation is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired movies not to be adapted from a story actually written by H.P. Lovecraft. Based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, Alex Garland’s second directorial effort tackles themes of the unknown and how ill-equipped we are as humans to deal with things that are completely alien to our own sphere of influence. We like to think we’re in control of everything, but what do you do when a mutated bear creature screaming like your dead colleague tries to kill you? It’s pee-your-pants levels of scary.
Despite its more crowd-pleasing horror elements, Annihilation is not a mainstream blockbuster film, which is most likely why it tanked at the box office. Any description we may try to give would be insufficient and that’s not some sort of cop out — just go check out the film for yourself!
23. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
It’s not often you see moviemaking titans joining forces to bring a blockbuster to the big screen. When you hear that James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez are taking on one of the most beloved mangas of all time, you have no choice but to sit up and take notice. Cameron was originally supposed to direct the project, but got a little busy on a franchise called Avatar. Have you heard of it? That’s where Rodriguez came in. “I wanted him to look at the finished film and go, ‘That’s the script I wrote! That’s exactly the picture I had in my head,’” he admitted to Rolling Stone. “Or, at least not say, ‘Ah, I knew I shoulda directed this myself!'”
Too bad a sequel’s been in flux for the last couple of years.
24. Ad Astra (2019)
The horror…horror…Apocalypse Now, but make it in space. Got it? Good! That’s so much of what Ad Astra is: a self-reflective odyssey to find a madman hellbent on the destruction of his fellow human beings.
It just swaps the Vietnam War backdrop for the vastness of the cosmos (humanity’s “final frontier” as Captain Kirk once said). The settings have changed, but man’s heart of darkness remains the same. Isn’t that what McConaughey says in Dazed and Confused? This one might have come off as a cheap Coppola knock-off, had it not stemmed from the mind of James Gray, a criminally underrated filmmaker whose reputation for quieter human dramas translates surprisingly well into the world of genre.
25. James vs. His Future Self (2019)
The message of James vs. His Future Self is simple, yet elegant: let go of the past and start living in the now. Leave your emotional baggage behind if you can and start focusing on a brighter future. Leave work a little earlier and hold your loved ones close, tell them how much they mean to you. Simple, yet elegant. What elevates this time travel dramedy into the territory of modern classic is the emotionally-charged dynamic between James (Jonas Chernick) and…well, his future self.
Older James is played to side-splitting perfection by one half of Home Alone‘s Wet Bandits: Daniel Stern. He brings just the right amount of charm and insanity to a man hellbent on preventing his younger self from inventing time travel and ruining both their lives. Well, just one life. Unless we’re dealing with a multiverse-type of situation? Here come the paradoxes again… Anyone have some Advil handy?
In any case, make sure to keep your ears pricked for a knockout joke about tomatoes going extinct, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a box of tissues nearby for the upbeat tearjerker of an ending. If you enjoyed The Adam Project, then this one is definitely for you.