Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy Movies of 2021: Top New Films So Far This Year

From memory loss viruses to space garbage collectors.

space sweepers

‘Space Sweepers’ | Netflix

‘Space Sweepers’ | Netflix

2021 is shaping up to be a little special, as far as genre films are concerned, since we’re finally getting to see all of the movies that were supposed to come out last year, but were bumped ahead on the release calendar. That means we have giant apes and nuclear-powered lizards, guys who strap rocket engines to cars, time-travel romances, sandworms, and approximately a bajillion superhero movies to look forward to this year. That’s great news for fans of science fiction and fantasy who got a little shafted during cinema shakeups last year. We’re already off to a strong start, but we have so much more coming that we can’t wait to see, so watch this space for more updates throughout the year. 

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

space sweepers

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)

the wanting mare
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)

little fish
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: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, etc. (Watch the trailer)

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, Vudu, etc. (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: Rent on Disney+ (Watch the trailer)

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