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The Best Sci-Fi Movie of Each Year Since 1998

Critics and audiences come together to recommend 25 movies that defined sci-fi!

by | May 16, 2023 | Comments

We’re celebrating 25 years of Rotten Tomatoes with a look back on some of the most celebrated movies of each year, since 1998! Previously we took a stab at the horror genre, drew up an extensive guide to animation, and now we’re hitting warp speed with science-fiction. To choose the best sci-fi film of each year, we’re applying our recommendation formula, a calculation based on the Tomatometer and Audience Score that prioritizes titles that stood out among critics and fans, combined with a pinch of curatorial love from our editors.

The list begins in 1998 with Dark City, the moody, rain-drenched noir from director Alex Proyas. In a way, City feels like a precursor to the following year’s best: The Matrix (both movies even use some of the same sets). The Wachowskis’ game-changing mind-bender was an enigma that became a cultural revelation when released in 1999, and its themes and iconography resonate today. A sequel, Matrix Reloaded, appears as the most-recommended sci-fi movie of 2003. Frequency, which is featured after The Matrix, was just fine for most critics, but its high Audience Score puts it over the top for the year 2000. Should note here that superhero movies were not considered for this list. Maybe expect its own separate article exploration in the near future?

Moving on, sci-fi takes a chilling turn with the fatalistic indie cult classic Donnie Darko, and Steven Spielberg‘s post-9/11, surveillance-state missive Minority Report, based on the Philip K. Dick short story. The genre continued to grow as a playground for auteurs during most of the 2000s with some career-best works from Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Joss Whedon (Serenity), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), and Danny Boyle (Sunshine).

In tandem with the rise of the superhero, sci-fi entered its blockbuster and fan-driven era with the viral Cloverfield, produced by J.J. Abrams, who would go on to reboot Star Trek. As a Dark Knight follow-up, Inception cemented Christopher Nolan as one of few elite directors whose name alone will get audiences into theaters, with that film creating the appetite for more explosive puzzlers like Source Code, Looper, and Edge of Tomorrow.

Bouncing forward into the later 2010s, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) was a stunning caper to the little reboot trilogy that could. And the highest-recommended sci-fi movies from 2018-2020 (Upgrade, The Vast of Night, and Sputnik) demonstrates the genre maxim of never letting small budgets get in the way of big imagination.

And it was with 2013’s Gravity that sci-fi became a regular fixture in the Oscar Best Pictures nominations inner-circle. There was The Martian, Arrival, and Dune, before Everything Everywhere All At Once became the first science-fiction movie to win it all at the 2023 ceremony.

#1

Dark City (1998)
76%

#1
Adjusted Score: 81230%
Critics Consensus: Stylishly gloomy, Dark City offers a polarizing whirl of arresting visuals and noirish action.
Synopsis: John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens alone in a strange hotel to find that he is wanted for a series of... [More]
Directed By: Alex Proyas

#2

The Matrix (1999)
83%

#2
Adjusted Score: 93858%
Critics Consensus: Thanks to the Wachowskis' imaginative vision, The Matrix is a smartly crafted combination of spectacular action and groundbreaking special effects.
Synopsis: Neo (Keanu Reeves) believes that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), an elusive figure considered to be the most dangerous man alive, can... [More]

#3

Frequency (2000)
70%

#3
Adjusted Score: 74836%
Critics Consensus: A tight blend of surprises and suspense keeps audiences spellbound.
Synopsis: What if you had the chance to travel back in time and change just one event in your life? What... [More]
Directed By: Gregory Hoblit

#4

Donnie Darko (2001)
87%

#4
Adjusted Score: 90943%
Critics Consensus: Richard Kelly's debut feature Donnie Darko is a daring, original vision, packed with jarring ideas and intelligence and featuring a remarkable performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as the troubled title character.
Synopsis: In a funny, moving and distinctly mind-bending journey through suburban America, one extraordinary but disenchanted teenager is about to take... [More]
Directed By: Richard Kelly

#5

Minority Report (2002)
89%

#5
Adjusted Score: 98121%
Critics Consensus: Thought-provoking and visceral, Steven Spielberg successfully combines high concept ideas and high octane action in this fast and febrile sci-fi thriller.
Synopsis: Based on a story by famed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, "Minority Report" is an action-detective thriller set in... [More]
Directed By: Steven Spielberg

#6
#6
Adjusted Score: 82729%
Critics Consensus: Though its heady themes are a departure from its predecessor, The Matrix Reloaded is a worthy sequel packed with popcorn-friendly thrills.
Synopsis: Freedom fighters Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) continue to lead the revolt against the Machine... [More]

#7
Adjusted Score: 100740%
Critics Consensus: Propelled by Charlie Kaufman's smart, imaginative script and Michel Gondry's equally daring directorial touch, Eternal Sunshine is a twisty yet heartfelt look at relationships and heartache.
Synopsis: After a painful breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergoes a procedure to erase memories of her former boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey)... [More]
Directed By: Michel Gondry

#8

Serenity (2005)
82%

#8
Adjusted Score: 88968%
Critics Consensus: Snappy dialogue and goofy characters make this Wild Wild West soap opera in space fun and adventurous.
Synopsis: In this continuation of the television series "Firefly," a group of rebels travels the outskirts of space aboard their ship,... [More]
Directed By: Joss Whedon

#9

Children of Men (2006)
92%

#9
Adjusted Score: 102723%
Critics Consensus: Children of Men works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastical cautionary tale, and a sophisticated human drama about societies struggling to live.
Synopsis: When infertility threatens mankind with extinction and the last child born has perished, a disillusioned bureaucrat (Clive Owen) becomes the... [More]
Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

#10

Sunshine (2007)
77%

#10
Adjusted Score: 83604%
Critics Consensus: Danny Boyle continues his descent into mind-twisting sci-fi madness, taking us along for the ride. Sunshine fulfills the dual requisite necessary to become classic sci-fi: dazzling visuals with intelligent action.
Synopsis: In the not-too-distant future, Earth's dying sun spells the end for humanity. In a last-ditch effort to save the planet,... [More]
Directed By: Danny Boyle

#11

Cloverfield (2008)
78%

#11
Adjusted Score: 86777%
Critics Consensus: A sort of Blair Witch Project crossed with Godzilla, Cloverfield is economically paced, stylistically clever, and filled with scares.
Synopsis: As a group of New Yorkers (Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman) enjoy a going-away party, little do they know... [More]
Directed By: Matt Reeves

#12

Star Trek (2009)
94%

#12
Adjusted Score: 108853%
Critics Consensus: Star Trek reignites a classic franchise with action, humor, a strong story, and brilliant visuals, and will please traditional Trekkies and new fans alike.
Synopsis: Aboard the USS Enterprise, the most-sophisticated starship ever built, a novice crew embarks on its maiden voyage. Their path takes... [More]
Directed By: J.J. Abrams

#13

Inception (2010)
87%

#13
Adjusted Score: 102772%
Critics Consensus: Smart, innovative, and thrilling, Inception is that rare summer blockbuster that succeeds viscerally as well as intellectually.
Synopsis: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief with the rare ability to enter people's dreams and steal their secrets from... [More]
Directed By: Christopher Nolan

#14

Source Code (2011)
92%

#14
Adjusted Score: 102746%
Critics Consensus: Finding the human story amidst the action, director Duncan Jones and charming Jake Gyllenhaal craft a smart, satisfying sci-fi thriller.
Synopsis: Helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is part of a top-secret military operation that enables him to experience the last... [More]
Directed By: Duncan Jones

#15

Looper (2012)
93%

#15
Adjusted Score: 106174%
Critics Consensus: As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, Looper delivers an uncommonly smart, bravely original blend of futuristic sci-fi and good old-fashioned action.
Synopsis: In a future society, time-travel exists, but it's only available to those with the means to pay for it on... [More]
Directed By: Rian Johnson

#16

Gravity (2013)
96%

#16
Adjusted Score: 113257%
Critics Consensus: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is an eerie, tense sci-fi thriller that's masterfully directed and visually stunning.
Synopsis: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. Her commander is veteran astronaut Matt... [More]
Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

#17

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
91%

#17
Adjusted Score: 107301%
Critics Consensus: Gripping, well-acted, funny, and clever, Edge of Tomorrow offers entertaining proof that Tom Cruise is still more than capable of shouldering the weight of a blockbuster action thriller.
Synopsis: When Earth falls under attack from invincible aliens, no military unit in the world is able to beat them. Maj.... [More]
Directed By: Doug Liman

#18

The Martian (2015)
91%

#18
Adjusted Score: 110180%
Critics Consensus: Smart, thrilling, and surprisingly funny, The Martian offers a faithful adaptation of the bestselling book that brings out the best in leading man Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott.
Synopsis: When astronauts blast off from the planet Mars, they leave behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead after a fierce... [More]
Directed By: Ridley Scott

#19

Arrival (2016)
94%

#19
Adjusted Score: 115641%
Critics Consensus: Arrival delivers a must-see experience for fans of thinking person's sci-fi that anchors its heady themes with genuinely affecting emotion and a terrific performance from Amy Adams.
Synopsis: Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touch down in 12 locations... [More]
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve

#20
Adjusted Score: 114312%
Critics Consensus: War for the Planet of the Apes combines breathtaking special effects and a powerful, poignant narrative to conclude this rebooted trilogy on a powerful -- and truly blockbuster -- note.
Synopsis: Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a... [More]
Directed By: Matt Reeves

#21

Upgrade (2018)
88%

#21
Adjusted Score: 98265%
Critics Consensus: Like its augmented protagonist, Upgrade's old-fashioned innards get a high-tech boost -- one made even more powerful thanks to sharp humor and a solidly well-told story.
Synopsis: A brutal mugging leaves Grey Trace paralyzed in the hospital and his beloved wife dead. A billionaire inventor soon offers... [More]
Directed By: Leigh Whannell

#22
#22
Adjusted Score: 104817%
Critics Consensus: An engrossing sci-fi thriller that transcends its period trappings, The Vast of Night suggests great things for debuting director Andrew Patterson.
Synopsis: In the 1950s, two kids search for the source of a mysterious frequency that has descended on their town.... [More]
Directed By: Andrew Patterson

#23

Sputnik (2020)
88%

#23
Adjusted Score: 94354%
Critics Consensus: Effective space alien horror with a Soviet-era twist, Sputnik proves there are still some scary good sci-fi thrillers left in the galaxy.
Synopsis: Summoned to a secluded research facility, a controversial young doctor examines a cosmonaut who returned to Earth with an alien... [More]
Directed By: Egor Abramenko

#24

Dune (2021)
83%

#24
Adjusted Score: 109829%
Critics Consensus: Dune occasionally struggles with its unwieldy source material, but those issues are largely overshadowed by the scope and ambition of this visually thrilling adaptation.
Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to a... [More]
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve

#25
Adjusted Score: 115556%
Critics Consensus: Led by an outstanding Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once lives up to its title with an expertly calibrated assault on the senses.
Synopsis: Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, the film is a hilarious and big-hearted sci-fi action... [More]
Directed By: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert