In an era when the movies at your typical multiplex were much more varied than they are today, we got plenty of original sci-fi fare. The 2000s were a golden age for original sci-fi premises, and while there were plenty of less-than-stellar titles in theaters every year, there were also some gems that got totally overlooked.
These seven movies are those kinds of gems — sci-fi movies that deserve a better shot than they were given upon their initial release.
A cross between sci-fi and fantasy, Reign of Fire tells the story of humanity’s reaction t0 the reawakening of dragons. It follows a man who works as a “fire chief,” charged with keeping his small community alive who encounters an American who claims he has a way to take down dragons once and for all. Reign of Fire is one of the best movies about dragons ever made.
The effects haven’t aged nearly as poorly as they probably should have, and the central performances from Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey remain among both actors’ best genre work.
Perhaps the lowest-budget movie on this list, Primer follows a group of engineers who inadvertently build a time travel machine — and decide to test it out. After they start to use the machine, though, they quickly realize that it has ramifications that they never could have anticipated.
Primer may be the most realistic time travel story ever told, and it follows its own logic to a baffling, but utterly compelling endpoint. You may not be able to follow Primer from moment to moment, but you’ll likely find yourself swept up in it anyway.
Sam Rockwell has become something close to a national treasure in the more than decade since Moon was released, but at the time, he wasn’t nearly as well known as he is today. Even so, Moon remains one of his greatest achievements. The film follows a man who is stationed alone at a base on the moon, waiting for his replacement to be sent to him.
The movie takes a number of twists and turns from there that are best left unspoiled, but Moon is really a showcase for the remarkable charisma of Rockwell, and how capable he is of carrying a film all by himself.
Another Christian Bale thriller from his post-American Psycho, pre-Batman Begins career, Equilibrium stars Bale as an enforcer in a world in which violence has been completely eradicated by the suppression of both emotions and art. When Bale misses a dose of the drug that keeps his emotions repressed, he suddenly finds himself in a unique position to overthrow the established order in his world.
Equilibrium is not a unique premise, but the execution here is everything. Bale gives the performance his all, and the details of this particular sci-fi world help to make it feel believable.
Starring a young Vin Diesel who had not yet started living life a quarter mile at a time, Pitch Black gets at some of Diesel’s nerdier interests and manages to be a pretty fun ride. The film follows a group of survivors who crash-land on a planet in deep space, only to discover that the planet is infested with flesh-eating creatures that only come out once every 22 years during an eclipse to hunt.
It’s a premise that leads to some pretty solid action beats, and one that spawned the entire Riddick franchise in its aftermath. This first installment remains the best, though, in part because it predates Diesel’s movie stardom.
This little-seen Jennifer Lopez thriller has gained something of a cult reputation in recent years. The movie follows a psychologist who has developed a new technology that allows her to enter the subconscious of another person.
When a serial killer is captured, but their last victim is still missing, the psychologist is forced to use this technology to enter their mind and find the killer before time runs out. Things get fairly mind-bending from there, but it’s fair to say that The Cell, despite its poor reception at the time, has aged pretty well.
Featuring an all-star cast that would only become more famous in the years after the movie’s release, Sunshine follows the crew of a ship that has been sent on a highly dangerous mission to reignite the sun with a nuclear warhead after they discover that it’s dying. Things go off the rails from there, but Sunshine is so well-designed and performed that its controversial third act feels entirely justified.
Few movies ever made have better scores, but what makes Sunshine truly special is the way it combines the bombast of its premise with more subtle, intricate character work.
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