At its core, science fiction is an exploration of humanity’s hopes and fears regarding the future. It should be no surprise, then, that most sci-fi books/movies/TV shows can be divided into two main categories. First, there are those that look optimistically towards the future, celebrating a triumphant human spirit, like Star Trek. On the flipside, there’s the sci-fi that takes a pessimistic or fearful look towards mankind’s future, exacerbating a slew of deeply ingrained anxieties like War of the Worlds.
At the darkest end of the spectrum is a subdivision often referred to as horror sci-fi; this category separates merely cynical sci-fi like Terminator and The Matrix from truly dreadful offerings that are just as likely to please fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like Alien and Event Horizon. Below, in no particular order, are some of the best horror sci-fi movies of the 21st Century. Here’s hoping our future turns out better than this!
There might not be anything especially original about Extraterrestrial, but it’s one of the most impactful representations of alien-abduction anxieties ever made—and the production is fan-freakin’-tastic! In many ways, director Colin Miniham’s movie plays out like an evil version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, processed through a cold and bleak 21st Century filter. The-cabin-in-the-woods motif makes a special connection with horror fans. Bottom line: They do not come in peace.
Area 51 (2015)
Compounding fears that nefarious aliens may already be amongst us is the idea that our government is in cahoots with them. After “losing time” at a party, Reid (Reid Warner) becomes obsessed with the top secret (yeah, right!) military installation known as Area 51 in the Nevada desert. Months later, he embarks on a mission to infiltrate the facility, aided by a couple of his closest friends (and female conspiracy theorist they pick up along the way). Great attention to detail and genuinely tense encounters make Area 51 a worthwhile experience.
In Pandorum, an exhausted Earth sends mankind on a mass exodus (via “space-ark”), where mental illness and technical malfunctions result in disturbing devolutions. It’s the first sci-fi that incorporates the kind of rabid, diseased semi-humans made popular in films like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. A smart script, great performances, and outstanding production prove a winning trifecta is this fan favorite. The multiple twists and a palpable sense of urgency created in Pandorum always keeps me riveted.
My personal favorite in the Predator franchise is 2010’s Predators. Jungle surroundings feel like a nostalgic throwback to the original, while the off-world location is a bold and reinvigorating innovation. The A-List cast and captivating cinematography work wonders; the identification of a hierarchy within Predator society adds volumes to the mythos. There’s a great Third Act twist horror aficionados will definitely appreciate.
Attack the Block (2011)
Before he battled the Empire in The Force Awakens, John Boyega was Moses: The leader of a scrappy band of hooligans protecting the mean streets of South London from an aggressive alien invasion. Attack the Block is a violent sci-fi and a wicked black comedy where toothy beasts from outer space become a metaphor for tenement life. Nick Frost features prominently, and hilariously!
Banshee Chapter (2013)
Banshee Chapter is clearly influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, specifically From Beyond; but writer/director Blair Erickson sets his debut film apart from other Lovecraftian horror by incorporating actual declassified CIA documents related to MK-ULTRA. Banshee Chapter deals with a government research chemical used in mind-control experiments; no one suspected, however, that the drug was actually a sort of homing beacon that allows otherworldly creatures to find you—and take you.
Dark Skies (2013)
Dark Skies is notable for existing at the nexus of alien abduction and haunted house tropes, where a ghostly extraterrestrial presence intensifies a claustrophobic vibe most often found in supernatural films like Poltergeist. And speaking of Poltergeist: Both films examine the impact of extreme stress on a family unity, and both revolve around a child/sibling spirited-off by otherworldly forces.
Dead Shadows (2012)
Fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Lovecraftian horror should definitely check out this French gem. It’s an Earth invasion scenario unfolding in the midst of Project X level festivities, where sex and drug fueled millennials can’t see beyond their own self-pleasure—even on the verge of an apocalypse. Horror aficionados of a certain age will detect many thematic similarities with 1984’s Night of the Comet.
Europa Report (2013)
This found footage/mockumentary is presented with incredible attention to detail, creating a film that feels just beyond the realm of science-fact. While there isn’t any gore, violence, or jump scares, the portrayal of space in all of its chilling indifference is utterly terrifying. Feelings of claustrophobia and isolation become palpable; without suspense per se, there’s still enough constant tension to put a lump in your throat and a knot in your stomach.
The Signal (2014)
2014’s The Signal (not to be confused with 2007’s excellent film of the same name) is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream and an alien abductee’s worst nightmare. What starts off as a road-trip flick descends into an action-packed mind-fuck with a twist-ending M. Night Shyamalan would murder for. The Signal is proof that PG-13 films can be intelligent, engaging, and extremely satisfying.
Pitch Black (2000)
The first great horror sci-fi of the 21st Century borrows much from the first (and arguably best) example of the subgenre: 1979’s Alien. In addition to accelerating Vin Diesel’s career and spawning 2 sequels, Pitch Black imagines a bleak future expressed in classic horror tropes from film and literature. The trek across a dark wasteland could be a journey through the misty moors—the aliens could be werewolves. Everyone is archetypal, and the fears expressed are universal.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
J.J. Abrams experiment in clandestine filmmaking is already one of the most lauded horror movies of 2016, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is destined to become a horror sci-fi classic. John Goodman carries the film as obsessive “doomsday prepper” Howard, giving nothing less than an Oscar-worthy performance; the film’s tagline, “Monsters come in many forms” clearly refers to him. The majority of the film is the epitome of slow-burn suspense, but the mind-boggling conclusion is both action-packed and jaw-dropping.
Non-linear and presented partially as found-footage, Ejecta is an intense and unsettling horror sci-fi with arthouse sensibilities. Low-tech, practical FX and limited CGI are surprisingly successful in a film carried by enigmatic actor Julian Richings (Cube). When a solar flare knocks a UFO out of the sky, a long-term repeat abductee believes he’s found the proof he’s been looking for—but the truth is more terrifying than anyone can imagine. X-Files fans will definitely dig with this one.
John Dies at the End (2013)
Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli helms this hallucinatory mind-fuck based on the novel by David Wong; John Dies at the End is a potent mix of black comedy and stunning psychedelic visuals. The film centers on a “slacker” (played by Chase Williamson) and his experience with an extreme metaphysical drug called “Soy Sauce”, which opens doorways to alternative dimensions. Once opened, however, these same doorways allow opportunistic aliens a chance to invade—and they do.
Almost Human (2013)
Alien abductee Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) returns after being missing for 2 years. Has he been mentally broken by trauma, or is he something else entirely—something no longer completely human? Almost Human manages a fusion of extraterrestrial and slasher motifs that’s surprisingly effective. Writer/Director Joe Begos’ feature film had its premiered on September 10, 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Keep watching those skies, horror fans!