The most underrated sci-fi movies of the last 15 years

Not every movie can be a blockbuster. That's a pretty standard rule of filmmaking, and it equally applies to the science fiction genre. While some movies are destined to become major box office successes like E.T. or Star Wars, other just-as-deserving films will be relegated to rental racks or Netflix before they gain a cult following. Maybe they received poor initial reviews before catching on with a wider audience, or perhaps they suffered from a limited or low-key theatrical release. Whatever the reason, they all deserve a second look from true science fiction fans. Here's our list of the most underrated sci-fi films of the last 15 years.

Equilibrium (2002)

Unlike many of the other films on our list, Equilibrium never won massive acclaim from critics. That's mainly because the dystopian future/thought police plotline is not particularly original, but the excellent cast and amazing fight sequences more than make up for that issue. Christian Bale leads the cast as a Cleric, highly trained in the martial arts and responsible for tracking down those guilty of "sense offense," refusing to take a government-issued medication that suppresses all emotions. The Cleric character's progression throughout the movie is a fascinating story arc.

John Woo may have invented "gun fu" for A Better Tomorrow in 1986, but Equilibrium and Kurt Wimmer invented gun fu's more awesome cousin, "gun kata." Watching the long-range and short-range gun kata battles in Equilibrium will leave your jaw on the floor, much like the first time we saw the lobby shoot-out scene in The Matrix. Since Equilibrium invented this new fighting style, it's been used in dozens of other films, games, and animes, including in Appleseed Ex Machina, which is produced by none other than John Woo himself. Set aside the plot nitpicking and give Equilibrium a chance. You won't regret it.

2046 (2004)

While on the surface 2046 is a romantic drama, Wong Kar-wai's third installment in his tangential trilogy is a science fiction film at heart. Starting in media res and filled with the many interconnecting and incomplete storyline arcs that are Kar-wai's trademark, 2046 is a stunning window into both 1960s Hong Kong and a dystopian future yet to come. The scenes set in the '60s are gorgeously and painfully nostalgic, filled with color and even vaguely psychedelic. The scenes set in the future are equally stunning, at home alongside other sci-fi greats like Blade Runner. Wong dispenses with a traditional three-act structure as well as traditional romantic staples like redemption and closure, leaving his characters and audiences alike with a deep sense of longing and love lost.

The Fountain (2006)

If you enjoy movies that leave you with more questions than answers upon viewing, then Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is perfect for you. It doesn't fit the traditional science fiction mold, as The Fountain doesn't include aliens, battles in space, or a mission to save the Earth. Instead, this enigmatic film stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as a couple seen through three different lenses of time as they cope with loss and death. It's unclear if the three time periods (spaced several centuries apart) are representative of actual people or just a story within a story, connected in only the most allegorical way to the main narrative. Either way, The Fountain is a bold, slightly overwrought but still grossly entertaining piece of science meta-fiction. Jackman and Weisz are enchanting as the main characters (and their centuries-removed alter egos), and the story will wring more than a few tears along with the deep thoughts it invokes.

Sunshine (2007)

While most scientists agree that we have a few billion years left before our Sun dies, the plot of Sunshine moves that timeline up considerably. It is 2057, and the Sun is already nearly dead. The Earth endures freezing temperatures worldwide, and a small crew led by physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is sent on a Hail Mary mission to save the Earth. They must attempt to reignite the Sun with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan. As they near the end of their mission, the crew detects a distress beacon from another spaceship—a ship that disappeared while attempting the same objective seven years before. What they discover aboard the derelict ship could imperil their mission and the last chance for the human race. With clear inspiration from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien, and Event Horizon, this movie will take you on a wild psychological ride from start to finish. Director Danny Boyle and Cillian Murphy reunite triumphantly for Sunshine, taking all of the suspense and fear of 28 Days Later and distilling it perfectly for a sci-fi audience.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)

If Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright had made a movie about time travel, perhaps near the start of their careers, it would probably resemble Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. This mid-budget production by HBO and the BBC has a distinct Cornetto trilogy flair to it, being a relationship/buddy comedy hidden within a larger science fiction theme. After Ray (Chris O'Dowd) is fired from his job, his mates take him out to the pub for a night of commiseration. The rest of the movie takes place almost entirely within the pub, as Ray encounters a time-traveling American woman named Cassie who takes Ray and his friends through time (inside the pub) in an effort to stop what she calls "time leaks" and save the planet. While the production could have used a larger budget for effects, keeping most of the action limited to the pub allows the movie to breathe and focus on the story rather than big set pieces. Overall, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is definitely worth your time.

Moon (2009)

Moon is a deliciously spare sci-fi film that uses its modest budget to great effect. The film focuses on a solitary astronaut—Sam—who is manning a lunar mining operation. Moon explores both ethical and existential questions when the astronaut begins hallucinating about a young woman. His condition isn't helped by the fact that his only companion on the base is an artificial intelligence program, voiced by Kevin Spacey. When Sam discovers what appears to be his doppelganger in another area of his base, things start to get pretty crazy. What is real and what isn't? Is he the real Sam? Are his memories even his own? You'll have to watch Moon to find out.

Cargo (2009)

Gene Roddenberry once imagined that in the future, humans will have left behind the concepts of money, greed, and deception. The Swiss producers of Cargo obviously don't subscribe to that rosy view. The year is 2267, and the Earth is no longer inhabitable. Doctor Laura Portmann is desperate for money in order to pay passage to join her sister on Rhea, a paradise-like colony planet. To earn the cash, Portmann signs on for an eight-year stint aboard a cargo ship headed to an unmanned space station. On such a long journey, the skeleton crew must each take months-long shifts on watch. With her shift nearly over, Portmann begins to hear strange sounds coming from the cargo hold, and the rest of the crew is awakened from stasis to help her investigate. What they find and the implications of their discovery are an innovative and surprising twist that is reminiscent of sci-fi favorites like The Matrix or Serenity. Cargo was the first science fiction film produced in Switzerland, but after seeing the movie, we definitely hope it won't be the last.

Another Earth (2011)

If you like philosophical conundrums and a dose of existentialism with your sci-fi, then Another Earth may be the movie that you've been searching for. A planet identical to Earth in every way has just been discovered hiding in our solar system. A promising young woman's scientific career is cut short when she accidentally kills several people in a drunken car accident. Ethical dilemmas arise for the young woman (played by Brit Marling) when she meets the survivor from the car crash, falls in love with him, and is later offered a chance to travel to "Earth 2." If the second Earth is identical to our own, what about the people who live there? Might she have a "twin" there who never had the car accident? What about her lover's family? Could they still be alive and well on Earth 2? Another Earth explores all these questions and more, making for an entertaining sci-fi movie that will leave you thinking deep thoughts long after the credits roll.

Paul (2011)

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite for an adventure that's just as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead, but with much more sci-fi flair. As their geeky characters traverse the American Southwest on a road trip to the San Diego Comic-Con, the pair encounter Paul—an alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) on the run from his government handlers. What follows is a deeply entertaining sci-fi adventure chase movie, as the three of them attempt to outrun the agents tracking Paul down—led by the particularly tenacious Agent Lorenzo Zoil.

From start to finish, Paul is a tender and hilarious love letter to sci-fi fans, with carefully sprinkled references to some of our favorite science fiction films, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., as well as "geek" culture in general. If you're looking for a funny science fiction movie for the 21st century, watch Paul today—and keep your eye out for the Sigourney Weaver and Steven Spielberg cameos.

Snowpiercer (2013)

The limitless hubris of humans is a common theme of science fiction films, and Snowpiercer is no exception. In this quirky and amazing Czech-Korean production, humans have essentially destroyed the planet with their efforts at fiddling with Earth's climate, bringing on a new ice age. Humanity's last remaining survivors are all aboard the Snowpiercer, a massively long train constantly circumnavigating the globe on a continuous track. Twenty years after the climate disaster, a distinct caste system has emerged on the train, with "elites" living toward the front and "scum" inhabiting the rear cars of the train. One of these scum, Curtis Everett (played by Chris Evans) leads a rebellion among the tail section of the train's passengers, who aim to make their way to the front of the train and take control of the locomotive by force. The group will face many foes along the way, including the incomparable Tilda Swinton as the bizarre and intimidating Minister Mason. The eventual outcome and the plot developments along the way will keep you on the edge of your seat in a way no typical sci-fi blockbuster ever could.

Coherence (2014)

Coherence is a brilliant experiment in science fiction filmmaking. Shot on a shoestring budget with no script and no special effects, Coherence was the feature film debut of director James Ward Byrkit. As a writer on Rango, Byrkit was no stranger to questions of reality and our own existence, which he tackles head-on with Coherence. Starring Byrkit's friends and shot primarily in his own home, the movie follows a group of friends at a dinner party, which is interrupted by the flyover of a comet. The effects of the comet temporarily open up pathways to parallel realities, realities inhabited by the same group of friends. The group eventually fractures, breaking off to explore the other realities, and chaos ensues. By choosing friends who were also improvisational actors and who didn't know each other before filming started, Byrkit managed to harness their own creativity and ended up with a thought-provoking and thrilling science fiction film that is almost entirely improvised. Coherence doesn't need flashy effects, a billion extras, or even a crew to prove that it deserves a spot on this list.

Predestination (2014)

As far as science fiction plots go, Predestination doesn't start out on the most original note. An operative from a time-traveling intelligence agency (Ethan Hawke) is back on the job after a horrible injury, and has one last mission to complete: prevent a time-traveling terrorist from setting off a bomb in New York City, 1975. This might sound like the beginning of a fairly formulaic sci-fi action film, but seriously, Predestination is anything but. When Hawke's character meets a man who tells him his strange and compelling life story, the agent invites him to come along on his mission—and things get pretty weird from there. With twists that could put M. Night Shyamalan to shame, a plot based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and thrilling elements that could have been penned by Alfred Hitchcock himself, Predestination is a sci-fi movie that you should definitely make some time for.