One of the best elements of a well-told story is a vibrant, emotional setting, and there is possibly no greater canvas of the imagination than outer space. Humanity’s capacity for space exploration in the last century has bloomed alongside a deep interest for the great void above in all the realms of art. The mystery of space has captured the attention of filmmakers as well, whose medium lends itself well to depicting the wonder of the endless black expanse.

Updated August 2, 2023: This article has been updated with even more great science fiction films from the 2000s.

CGI technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, and movies like Gravity or Interstellar are examples of this. But there was a period of time when the technological ability to showcase space had not quite caught up to the spiritual hunger to do so. Still, filmmakers persevered to tell stories set in space, and the limitations presented by the technology of the time only fueled their drive to get creative. Here are the best outer space movies of the 2000s, ranked.

15 The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Vin Diesel as Riddick and Alexa Davalos as Kyra in Universal Pictures' The Chronicles of Riddick
Universal Pictures

The Chronicles of Riddick follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Pitch Black (2000), persisting in the tale of Richard B. Riddick, a role reprised by Vin Diesel. The sequel portrays Riddick, now a fugitive, caught in the crossfire of two conflicting forces in the cosmos. The audience is taken on a ride by director David Twohy, where Riddick must face an aggressive empire known as the Necromongers.

This sequel not only extends the universe unveiled in Pitch Black but also amalgamates an intriguing fusion of the science fiction, action, and horror genres, firmly staking its claim in the dominion of 2000s space cinema. Its extensive world-building, paired with a stellar performance from Diesel, marks it as a remarkable contender among its peers.

14 Mission to Mars (2000)

Don Cheadle, Peter Outerbridge, Kavan Smith, and Jill Teed in Mission to Mars (2000)
Buena Vista Pictures

Centered around a rescue operation to Mars following an enigmatic catastrophe encountered by a manned Mars expedition, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars sees Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle portraying astronauts embarking on a dangerous mission, which eventually reveals a breathtaking secret about the Red Planet.

Related: 10 Movies Where Humans Colonize Other Planets

De Palma's film presents audiences with a mesmerizingly vivid representation of Mars. The director deftly combines CGI and practical effects to fabricate a persuasive image of space exploration and Martian landscapes. The riveting narrative that weaves together elements of drama, mystery, and science fiction testifies to the diverse themes captured and encapsulated in outer space cinema during the 2000s.

13 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Obi Wan Kenobi and the future Darth Vade duel in Revenge of the Sith
20th Century Fox

Helmed by George Lucas, the film signifies the grand finale of the prequel trilogy. Anakin Skywalker's metamorphosis into Darth Vader and the collapse of the Jedi Order form the crux of the storyline. Engulfing the viewers in a potent cocktail of political powerplay and personal ruin, the film unveils a sorrowful narrative trajectory integral to the overarching epic of Star Wars.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith's visual effects are genuinely trailblazing, illustrating an alien galaxy of immense intricacy and magnificence. Beyond its breathtaking aesthetics, the narrative compellingly unravels, tying up the loose ends of Anakin's plunge into the abyss of darkness. Its gravitas in storytelling and cinematic triumphs cement it as a vital landmark in the 2000s space-themed cinema.

12 Pitch Black (2000)

A scene from Pitch Black
USA Films
Universal Pictures

Pitch Black introduces the character of Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel), a criminal who is aboard a spaceship for prison transport. The ship is attacked and crashes on a planet, where Riddick and the other survivors are attacked by alien creatures. In exchange for his freedom, Riddick helps the survivors escape the planet. It has strong visuals and tense action sequences, grounded by Diesel’s performance, and was an underestimated hit that launched the Riddick franchise.

11 Solaris (2002)

A scene from Solaris (2002)
20th Century Fox

Solaris stars George Clooney as Chris, a doctor who travels to a space station near the planet Solaris. While there, he finds most of the station’s crew has died, and that he and the surviving crew are seeing artificial replicas of their dead loved ones. Chris is haunted by his own wife, and the responsibility he feels toward her death, which allows for deep character exploration and insights into the distinction between humans and artificial beings. It’s a deep and emotional movie set against the backdrop of a mysterious planet.

10 Space Cowboys (2000)

A scene from Space Cowboys
Warner Bros. Pictures

The somewhat cliché plot of Space Cowboys' adventure story is enhanced by charismatic performances from Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones. A team of astronauts is sent to prevent a Soviet satellite from crashing down to Earth, and the difficulties presented by the mission threaten to overwhelm them.

For a movie from 2000, the special effects were quite impressive to audiences at the time. Ironically, the story is more of a down-to-earth approach, adhering to the known realities and dangers of space travel, making this film more of a drama with sci-fi elements than a science fiction film.

9 Treasure Planet (2002)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Martin Short in Treasure Planet
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Leave it to the world of animation to present outer space in the most vivid, wild, and fantastical light. Treasure Planet follows Jim Hawkins, a disaffected young man whisked away on a grand adventure to find the Treasure Planet, an infamous spaceship captained by pirates. The film’s vision of outer space is brought to life with a steampunk aesthetic and new animation techniques revolutionary for its time. This is one of the few films that paints outer space as a magical realm, and the imagination of the creators is as boundless as the art they’ve created.

8 Zathura (2005)

Sony Pictures Releasing

Similar to Jumanji, Zathura features a board game that comes to life. This one takes brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) into outer space, where their house floats through the galaxy and is prey to a group of lizard-like aliens. The brothers must survive the game – and its challenges, like meteor showers – to get back home. The effects are largely practical and still look great today, while the humor, genuine sibling relationship, and story details make this a suspenseful and fun watch.

7 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Sam Rockwell, Yasiin Bey, and Martin Freeman in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Buena Vista Pictures

With Garth Jennings at its helm, the 2005 space odyssey, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, featuring Martin Freeman and Zooey Deschanel, is a comedic voyage across the cosmos. Drawing its plot from Douglas Adams' renowned book, the narrative revolves around Arthur Dent, an unfortunate Englishman who Ford Prefect, a scribe for "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," saves from Earth's annihilation.

Cult status envelopes the film, as a multitude of aficionados relish its arid English humor and zany comedy. The film distinguishes itself from its space movie peers with its unique narrative style, a vibrant fusion of surreal and fanciful elements. Acclaim followed the film from audiences, commending its novel and amusing interpretation of interstellar exploration. It stands as a testament to the genre's versatility, reminding audiences that outer space films can be as humorous as they are awe-inspiring.

6 Serenity (2005)

A scene from Serenity
Universal Pictures

Serenity is the movie follow-up to Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series Firefly. The movie follows the adventures of the crew and two uniquely powerful new characters who face the threat of the Reavers, a cannibalistic faction that pursues them across space.

With a snappy wit and enticing characters, Serenity is a tightly told adventure story set in space with Joss Whedon's signature blend of action and comedy, with a bit of political satire thrown into the mix as well. The moral dilemmas feel surprisingly intimate for a space-adventure film, and are handled with the right care to make for some impactful moments without the film deviating into the territory of melodrama.

5 Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2009 cast
Paramount Pictures

J.J. Abrams foregoes some of the more political and philosophical themes of previous Star Trek works to create something more akin to an extended action-adventure thrill ride. Diehard fans of Star Trek lamented the loss of those themes, which had characterized the franchise for decades, but found a lot to love in the wits of a director who knows how to engage and entertain an audience.

Despite a safe, low-risk plot, Star Trek brought the franchise back to mainstream audiences after a long time, and made peace with older fans by setting the film's continuity in an alternate reality to preserve the events of the original films.

4 Avatar (2009)

A scene from Avatar
20th Century Fox

Avatar created one of the biggest cultural moments of the last few decades, even if its story does not hold up to the standards of certain audiences and critics. James Cameron's film has been compared to Star Wars for its scope, and for the technological progress represented by the film. Taking place on the fictional moon of Pandora, Avatar follows the journey of a former marine who befriends an indigenous alien population and joins them in resisting the imperial control exerted by the humans in the story.

Some of Avatar's underlying themes have drawn differing judgments from critics. Adam Cohen praised the anti-imperialist subtext, comparing the metaphor to other major world conflicts involving imperialism; while others criticized the way the movie represented colonization, a theme that continued in 2022's sequel. As one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, it's natural that reception has been divided - but what's undeniable is how impressive the movie's visuals remain.

3 Moon (2009)

A scene from Moon
Sony Pictures Classics

This entry on the list occupies a particular kind of existential, humanist science fiction in the same vein as Andrei Tarkovsky. Sam Bell, the lone caretaker of a mining facility on the moon, begins experiencing strange hallucinations and becomes suspicious of the circumstances of his employment on the moon.

Related: The 10 Most Thrilling Space Movies of All Time, Ranked

Fans of all backgrounds will find something to appreciate in Moon, between intense scenes of action, terse dramatic exchanges, and gorgeous visuals. Sam Rockwell, playing the protagonist, brings a very personal, subtle touch to the role that enhances the film's dire, introspective mood.

2 Sunshine (2007)

A scene from Sunshine (2007)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sunshine follows the crew of the Icarus II, on a mission to reignite the dying sun and bring sunlight back to earth. The drama unfolds carefully and horrifyingly as crew members make careful decisions that begin to degrade the collective sanity of the group. Many science fiction films emulate the pattern of deep space wearing on the human psyche, but Sunshine stands out thanks to fantastic performances from its cast, and Danny Boyle's talent for discovering and portraying raw, harsh emotion. The action scenes and overall production value also contributed to its success, making for a gripping 100 minutes that remain memorable weeks later.

1 WALL-E (2008)

Wall-E-2008 (1)

Brimming with the optimism that audiences expect from a Disney-Pixar film, what’s most surprising about Wall-E is the depth of despair that it plumbs to create that joy. The film builds on the ever more tangible fear of environmental ruin, putting us in the eyes of a trash compactor robot that comes to observe and experience a version of humanity crippled by its own worst qualities. Watching Wall-E is a strangely wistful experience, one that reminds audiences of how simultaneously beautiful and perverse our actions as a species can be. The film drew enormous critical acclaim, and critic Richard Corliss even called it one of the best films of the decade.