Sci-fi movies have always been a way to express the wildest dreams of the future for filmmakers. They could make things extravagant, complex, dark, hopeful, pretty much anything their imagination can conjure up, you could put it in a futuristic sci-fi film.
Before the turn of the century, there were several critically-acclaimed sci-fi movies that took place in the 2000s, with present day already eclipsing some movie marks, like Back to the Future Part IIbeing set in 2015, or the anime masterpiece Akirabeing set in 2019. Some of these films are a little too accurate, while others go above and beyond for an advanced future we may not see for quite some time.
Updated on January 3rd, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
With 2022’s sci-fi films like Don’t Worry Darling and Spiderhead posing even more concerning potential aspects of humanity’s future, it’s the perfect time to rediscover some classic movies from the genre that got it right several decades ago.
10/10 ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)
Available to stream on IndieFlix.
The original Planet of the Apes stars Charlton Heston and is actually set way forward in 3978, which is why it is first on this list. It’s not even close to that time period in present society, but it is noteworthy because of the inspiration of the newer Matt Reeves-led Apes franchise, which is set in the present-day/not-too-distant future.
Taylor (Heston) and his crew land on an unknown alien planet ruled by talking apes who have created a caste system and political structure. After battling for his freedom, Taylor travels to the Forbidden Zone, where he discovers a destroyed Statue of Liberty. Revealing to him that this is actual Earth and not an alien planet like he thought. It is a bone-chilling scene and arguably one of the most memorable moments in sci-fi history, but not one that’s likely to happen in human history (at least not anytime soon).
9/10 ’12 Monkeys’ (1996)
Available to stream on Starz.
In the year 2035, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is living as a prisoner underground in the city of Philadelphia after a virus was released in 1996 that wiped out most of humanity. Cole is sent back in time to find the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the group seemingly responsible for leaking the virus.
12 Monkeys has time travel, post-apocalyptic (a theme in futuristic sci-fi movies) cities, all of which take place in 2035. Cole gets teleported several times to the wrong year, including 1990, and World War I, so it’s pretty clear even in 2035, society hasn’t worked out all the bugs to time travel. While it gets some of the chaos humans tend to find themselves in right, (thankfully) not much else in it has come to pass.
8/10 ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
Available to stream on AMC+ and Showtime.
Both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day fit the bill for this entry, as both films send back Terminators from the year 2029 (which is rapidly approaching). In the original, the T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) (the mother of the future Resistance leader, John Connor), while Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is sent to protect her.
During that time in 2029, Skynet, an AI system, gained self-awareness, which prompted humans to shut it down. However, Skynet prevented this, and thus started a nuclear war. The closest thing to Skynet right now is Siri or Alexa, it remains to be seen if they become sentient.
7/10 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Available to stream on HBO Max.
Often cited alongside the best sci-fi movies ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film filled with so many questions and interpretations. This list isn’t to go over those, so it’s time to focus on the concrete. HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) is a computer with a human personality designed to assist scientists Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).
When HAL seemingly malfunctions, he kills the other members of the crew by turning off the life-support, and he also is directly responsible for Frank’s death before Dave disconnects him. Stanley Kubrick said HAL,”had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility,” which sounds pretty human. It’s another instance of AI gone wrong in the future, and with the way the tech is advancing today, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine similar cases someday.
6/10 ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Available to rent on Amazon Video and Google Play Movies.
Blade Runner takes place in 2019 Los Angeles. Following Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is a Blade Runner, his job is to hunt down Replicants, biologically engineered humanoids. Blade Runner is bleak. Los Angeles is in a constant state of darkness and rain, and many humans have left Earth for other off-world colonies.
While it may not be completely accurate to how 2019 Los Angeles actually looked (there aren’t flying cars), in today’s world there are humanoid robots similar to Replicants, although not as detailed, smart or convincing as a real human being.
5/10 ‘The Matrix’ (1999)
Available to stream on HBO Max.
In the early 21st Century, a time that has already passed in real life, a war between humans and intelligent machines broke out. Humans would use nuclear weapons to stop the machines’ access to solar energy, which resulted in the machine capturing humans to use their bioelectricity, allowing the machines to win.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer who goes by “Neo,” his hacking alias. When he meets Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) he discovers the true fate of humanity and The Matrix. This movie would evolve into a franchise, but the first installment is one of the most influential movies ever. It also happens to paint an eerily accurate picture of a planet dominated by virtual reality, which is picking up steam in the real world today.
4/10 ‘Total Recall’ (1990)
Available to stream on HBO Max.
What an absolute ride this movie is. Taking place in 2084, Douglas Quiad (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker with recurring dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman. After visiting Rekall, a company that implants realistic false memories, all hell breaks loose as Quiad’s past and true identity are revealed.
Still a few years off, something about implanting realistic false memories seems shockingly possible. VR and AI already exist in a lower capacity in today’s society, and the neuroscience behind memory-erasure movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is within reach. Implanting fake memories may be the most realistic possibility on this list.
3/10 ‘Gattaca’ (1997)
Available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video and Google Play Movies.
In the “not-too-distant-future,” eugenics is the norm, and there are Valid’s (eugenic humans) and In-Valids (natural birth). While genetic discrimination is illegal, there is a clear separation between the Valid and the In-Valid (just look at their names). And there are limitations to what In-Valids can do in society.
Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) poses as a Valid, and eventually is assigned to be a navigator for Gattaca’s next mission to Saturn’s moon, Titan. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that eugenics becomes more and more popular, especially as the controversial topic of CRISPR technology continues to be debated. Gattaca clearly demonstrates what kind of problems that may cause in society though, both on a societal level and a human level.
2/10 ‘Akira’ (1988)
Available to stream on Hulu.
The only anime on this list and one of the best anime movies of all time, Akira is set in 1988, where the sudden destruction of Tokyo triggers the third World War. Fast-forward to 2019, Tokyo has been rebuilt on the artificial islands of Tokyo Bay, now known as Neo-Tokyo.
Akira has some truly bone-chilling images, and explores the aftermath of a Japan that experienced its third devastating explosion, this time in its most populated city. Militaristic regimes, advanced human experiments and a dystopian society are all prevalent in this film. The search for power always leads to destruction, which is a concept that’s all too familiar today.
1/10 ‘Back to the Future Part II’ (1989)
Available to stream on TNT and Tru TV.
Doc (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty (Michael J. Fox) travel to 2015 to save the future of Marty’s children. Shenanigans ensue as Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) gets his hands on a Sports Almanac that allows him to become infinitely wealthy back in 1985.
Here is a list of some things Back to the Future Part II got right: Doc looks at his watch and predicts when it will stop raining, a clear indication at the up-to-date weather app on all iPhones and Apple Watches; It accurately depicted Zoom/Skype video calls; mobile payments like Venmo and PayPal; drones are used to follow Doc around and videotape him (drones are common today, but not necessarily for news coverage); and perhaps most impressively: the prediction of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series despite having a decades-long drought to that point (they didn’t win in 2015, but they ended up winning in 2016).