The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Movies of 2021

From memory loss viruses to space garbage collectors and beyond.

the matrix resurrections, keanu reeves
'The Matrix Resurrections' | Warner Bros.
'The Matrix Resurrections' | Warner Bros.

2021 felt a little different than most years, partly because we spent it sorta kinda figuring out how to live with a global pandemic, and also because we finally got to see all the great genre films that had been delayed for a year or more. (As far as we're concerned, these two things are equal in importance.) From giant apes fighting nuclear-powered lizards to guys who strap rocket engines to cars to cyberpunk warriors to spicy sandworms and everything in between, let's just say 2021 was a very satisfying year for fans of both science fiction and fantasy. We, your friendly neighborhood Bene Gesserit psychics and/or outer space garbage collectors, watched them all, weeded out the not-so-great offerings, and gathered the rest together in this handy list of everything weird and wonderful that came out in the past twelve months.

Be sure to check out our Best Sci-Fi Movies of 2020, as well as our Best Movies of 2021.

come true movie, julia sarah stone eyepatch

Come True

Release date: March 12
Director: Anthony Scott Burns
Cast: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Tiffany Helm
If you've heard about Come True at all, you've probably heard that it's an intriguing and effectively creepy sci-fi movie that fails to stick its ambitious landing. That's true, but the rest of the movie up until then is as engaging and atmospheric as it gets, introducing us to Sarah, a teenage runaway plagued by night terrors in which she's menaced by shadowy, hulking human figures with glowing eyes. She agrees to take part in a sleep study, but those running the experiment won't explain to her exactly what they're looking for. When the dreams start to get contagious, it turns out that Sarah is dealing with more than just your average nightmare.
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

dune, timothee chalamet, zendaya
Warner Bros.

Release date: October 22
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
The noble House Atreides has been gifted control and residency of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the home of spice, the most precious substance in the universe. Whoever controls spice production on Arrakis will become very rich indeed. But the Atreides family and their vassals need to tread lightly: The gift of Arrakis is definitely a test, and likely a trap, overseen by the Atreides' powerful enemies, the brutish House Harkonnen. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his family, Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their fey son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), arrive on the planet ready to ally themselves with the blue-eyed Fremen, the native human population who have developed ways of surviving in the wasteland. The first part of Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's groundbreaking novel is visually stunning and endlessly exciting, the sort of thing fans have been waiting decades to see.
Where to watch it: In theaters and on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

f9, vin diesel tyrese gibson shooting guns
Universal Pictures

Release date: June 25
Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, John Cena, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson
Dom Toretto and Letty Ortiz have just settled down in a nice farmhouse, determined to bring Dom's son Brian up as normally as possible, away from the bustle of their former lives. It's not long until Mr. Nobody comes calling once again, informing Dom and his crew of a device known as Project Ares with the power to bring civilization as we know it to its knees. Their mission, if they choose to accept it, is to find the separate parts of the device before the bad guys do and hand it over to the right people. Simple enough, except for the fact that Dom's long-lost brother Jakob is working for the baddies, and he knows exactly how to outsmart the Fast Fam at every turn. Car chases, armored tank flips, and makeshift rocket launches ensue. Yes, they go to [REDACTED], so this counts as sci-fi. 
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

the green knight, dev patel and horse

Release date: July 30
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Ralph Ineson, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Joel Edgerton
David Lowery's bold, atmospheric retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Gawain, a future knight who embarks on a quest to prove his chivalric honor after fighting the immortal Green Knight, an enormous axe-bearing warrior who appears to be fashioned out of tree bark and plants. After Gawain beheads the Knight during a "Christmas game," the Knight informs him he must meet him in a year out in the wilderness so that the Knight can return the blow. It's up to Gawain, then, to hold up his end of the bargain, setting off the following December to find this knight in his chapel and receive the deadly blow—one that, as he is not made of magical plants, Gawain is unlikely to survive. The movie boldly reimagines one of the most famous Arthurian tales, and in doing so feels like a relic from an ancient era when the barrier was thin between the world of men and the world of magic, mystery, and everything green.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

i'm your man movie
Bleecker Street

Release date: September 17
Director: Maria Schrader
Cast: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller
Shades of Alex Garland's Ex Machina and Spike Jonze's Her are plentiful in I'm Your Man, the peculiar rom-com about an archaeologist who takes on an extra assignment: testing the capabilities of a humanoid robot built to replace human romantic partners, perfectly calibrated to suit any user's needs. When Alma first meets Tom, she's reluctant and standoffish, unable to reconcile his magnetic attraction with his inhuman nature. But as their strange relationship progresses, Tom's very existence forces Alma to reckon with human romance and emotion as a whole, exploring the needs and wants we are conditioned to have throughout our lives and turning them inside out, one by one. The unconventional love story is not one you'll soon forget, and Dan Stevens speaking flawless German will make you swoon. 
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

lapsis movie, cables in the woods
Film Movement


Release date: February 12
Director: Noah Hutton
Cast: Madeline Wise, Dean Imperial, Ivory Aquino
Set in an alternate version of our present where everything is run on quantum computing, Lapsis follows Ray, a down-and-out man caring for his brother afflicted with a degenerative disease who decides to try to earn a little extra cash by becoming a "quantum cabler," joining up with an organization that sends people out into the woods with a backpack and fiberoptic cord. It's basically hiking for money, if hiking also involved carrying around a phone that yelled at you if you took an unauthorized break or let the mechanized cabling robots get past you. It's a darkly funny send-up of the modern gig economy in a world whose technological advancements swiftly turn it into a surveillance state.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

little fish movie, fish tanks kiss
IFC Films

Little Fish

Release date: February 5
Director: Chad Hartigan
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Jack O'Connell, Raúl Castillo, Soko
If you find yourself turned off or made especially anxious by pandemic-themed entertainment in this day and age, you might want to skip this one, as it's an especially devastating and terrifying tale that builds on what is not a real-life horror. In the near future, a mysterious "Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction," dubbed N.I.A., sweeps the world, causing people's memories to degenerate. Its cause is unknown, and it's incurable, but when Emma, whose husband Jude has begun exhibiting symptoms, hears of a promising new trial, she begs him to apply. Their love story is stitched together in fragments of memory: their first kiss, their wedding day, sessions with their friends' band, a proposal in the fish section of a pet store. The movie is a beautiful exploration of what memory means to people, how valuable our connections become when we're slowly forgetting who we are, with an absolute wallop of an ending.
Where to watch it: Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

the matrix resurrections
Warner Bros.

Release date: December 22
Director: Lana Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick
It's difficult to write about what makes this movie as great as it is without spoiling all the good stuff, but we'll give it a shot: Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a brilliant game designer whose higher ups are pressing him to make a sequel to his seminal game, and the pressure is weighing on his mind, causing him to have hallucinations and psychotic breaks. At least, that's what his therapist tells him. But when familiar characters from the world of his game show up telling him it's all real, Thomas has to make a choice between accepting the reality he was given, and demanding to be shown the truth. The Matrix Resurrections is a fantastic sequel as well as an often hilarious meta-commentary on the nature of IP-driven entertainment and on returning to places that once were familiar, which have now evolved beyond anything you could have imagined. 
Where to watch it: In theaters and on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

memoria, tilda swinton


Release date: December 26
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Juan Pablo Urrego, Elkin Diaz
The latest dreamlike fantasy from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendour) is perhaps his most straightforward movie to date, though that doesn't mean it's any less bizarre. A woman living in Colombia (Tilda Swinton) believes she is hallucinating a strange, loud noise she hears occasionally with no warning, and embarks on a mission to find out what it is, visiting a production studio, a fossil storage facility, and traveling deep into the South American jungle looking for answers. Trust us when we say that the answer, when it finally comes, is mind-blowing. Right after its New York Film Festival premiere, distributor Neon announced that the film would begin a nationwide tour starting this December, playing in one-week engagements city by city with no plan for a streaming or home release, so keep your eyes peeled for release dates near you.
Where to watch it: In theaters, forever (Watch the trailer)

mortal kombat 2021, scorpion fight
Warner Bros.

Release date: April 23
Director: Simon McQuoid
Cast: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada
As far as video game adaptations go, Mortal Kombat isn't merely one of the better ones, but actually makes the case for building its own franchise (mainly because there is no, uhh, Mortal Kombat in this Mortal Kombat). The heroes of Earthrealm are set to go up against the villainous Outworld warriors led by soul-eater Shang Tsung in a legendary ceremonial battle, but the Outworlders have spent centuries picking off Earthrealm's heroes, leaving only a ragtag group of beefy dummies (and one lady who actually gets what's going on). MMA fighter Cole Young must team up with special forces soldiers Jax and Sonya Blade and mercenary Kano, journeying to the ancient Earthrealm temple where Lord Raiden promises they'll find their arcana superpowers and learn how to defeat Outworld. Really, though, the vicious matchup between Sub-Zero and Scorpion is what you spend the entire movie waiting to see, and it delivers.
Where to watch it:HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

oxygen movie, melanie laurent

Release date: May 12
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric
A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up inside a malfunctioning medical pod (yes, this movie takes place in the future, but it's not specified how far in until you get to the four or five twists that make up the film's back half) with no memory of who she is or how she got there, aside from weird flashes of being in a hospital and of rats running around in mazes. The pod's artificial intelligence system MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) informs her that she has less than half of her oxygen left due to an unspecified mechanical failure, and she only has about an hour and change ti figure out what happened, who put her there, and how to get out before she suffocates. In its best moments, Oxygen is a lean thriller that will hold your attention through all of its big reveals, using everything at its disposal to craft a story that's fun, tense, and never boring.
Where to watch it:Netflix (Watch the trailer)

a quiet place part 2, emily blunt covering noah jupes mouth
Paramount Pictures

Release date: May 28
Director: John Krasinski
Cast: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy
We catch up to the Abbott family minutes after the conclusion of the first movie, as mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her kids pack as much as they can before abandoning the farmhouse they have hidden in for that past year. With an amplifier and the cochlear implant belonging to Regan (Millicent Simmonds, who remains the best part about this series) that they've fashioned into a weapon against the sound-sensitive alien invaders, they set off into the mountains toward what they believe to be another settlement, carrying their weapons and the soundproof box for their newborn baby with them. When they get to their destination on the map, they find Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a former friend from their small town who is now mourning the loss of his own family, reluctant to involve himself with the Abbotts in any way. But when they figure out there are other survivors somewhere out there, perhaps with a safeguard against the aliens, Regan becomes convinced that she has to find them.
Where to watch it: Amazon or Paramount+ (Watch the trailer)

raya and the last dragon

Release date: March 5
Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim
In the Southeast Asian-inspired nation of Kumandra, five kingdoms, representing five parts of a dragon, each possess a piece of a dragon crystal, created by the lost dragons of Kumandra to defeat a spectral threat. Raya, princess of the Heart kingdom, is on a mission to find the very last dragon in existence and reunite the five crystal fragments to save her home, but she's followed every step of the way by her enemy Namaari, princess of the militaristic Fang, each of them blaming the other for the crystal's destruction. With a lush, beautifully rendered world, endearing and complex characters, and some really intense fight scenes, Raya and the Last Dragon is the best Disney animated movie in years.
Where to watch it: Disney+ (Watch the trailer)

shang chi
Marvel Studios

Release date: September 3
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Meng'er Zhang
After escaping his powerful, domineering father and moving to America, Shang-Chi works as a parking valet in San Francisco, trading banter with his best friend Katy and keeping his past as a trained martial artist in his father's army of spies a secret. Until, of course, his father sends his goons to collect what's his, and Shang-Chi is forced to stop avoiding his past and make the long journey home, dragging Katy along and collecting his equally skilled yet estranged sister Xialing on the way. The dazzling martial arts cinema-inspired fight scenes make the blurry, visually incoherent cut-to-pieces sequences in prior MCU offerings look like a small child smashing action figures together, and the intricate message of the movie, eschewing Avengers-style battles of good-versus-evil, feels more like the welcome burst of energy the MCU needs to find its purpose.
Where to watch it: Disney+; rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

space sweepers, crew staring

Release date: February 5
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Cast: Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu
Right from its first, electrifying sequence involving a bunch of bounty hunting spaceships chasing after a careering piece of garbage, Space Sweepers spins a far-future of multicultural, multilingual human life in space that's as exhilarating as it is crushingly dystopian. Tae-ho is a pilot aboard the freighter Victory, along with Captain Jang, engineer Tiger Park, and loudmouthed robot Bubs, all of them part of an outer-space trash-collecting bounty-hunter guild known as the Space Sweepers, who capture space junk and sell it for parts. After a particularly harrowing chase, the crew finds a little girl hiding in a derelict spaceship, who just happens to be a nanobot-filled android that a group of space terrorists have fitted with a hydrogen bomb. At first the Victory crew plans to sell the "little girl" back to the terrorist group who lost her, before they realize that she's much more special than she seems.
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

titane movie

Release date: October 1
Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon
After a young girl experiences a devastating car crash, it leaves her with a fundamentally ruined relationship with her father and a titanium plate in her head to replace her crushed skull (the titanium is, of course, from where the film draws its title). Years later, an older Alexia works as a dancer, flaunting her spiral scar on the side of her head from her childhood surgery, and seemingly finding more in common with machines than with people, drawn to the very vehicles that once nearly ended her life (to delightfully preposterous results, inspired as it was by a nightmare in which the director imagined she was giving birth to car engine parts). Her inability to find commonality with humans eventually leads to violence, which leads to an escape, an improbable disguise, and a strange yet oddly moving relationship with a grieving firefighter who injects himself daily with steroids to alter the shape of his body. Suffice it to say, Titane is not for those of weak constitutions, who might be perturbed by, say, someone killing someone with the sharp end of a hair ornament, but it's so good you won't know what hit you.
Where to watch it: In theaters (Watch the trailer)

the wanting mare, ashleigh nutt
Gravitas Ventures

The Wanting Mare

Release date: February 5
Director: Nicholas Ashe Bateman
Cast: Ashleigh Nutt, Nicholas Ashe Bateman, Edmond Cofie, Yasamin Keshtkar
What is probably the strangest movie you'll watch all year was filmed almost entirely in a warehouse in New Jersey, with hazy, glowing visual effects fleshing out its fantastical world. In the far future, the twin cities of Levithen and Whithren are separated by a body of water, crossed once a year by ships bringing horses from the north to the south. In this place, a baby is born, in possession of a dream that is passed down through generations; years later, a woman saves a man's life, and the two of them navigate their dangerous environment full of thieves and gang bosses. The plot, such as it is, is slight, with a dreary, disconnected quality that makes the film more than a little incoherent, but as an experience, it's not one you'll soon forget.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.