The 2000s marked a turning point in the world of cinema, as the industry witnessed the emergence of bigger and bolder blockbusters. These movies were characterized by more action, larger casts, bigger budgets, and spectacular special effects. Sequels and franchises became increasingly common, setting new records in box office receipts. Some of the most notable franchises that were born in this decade included X-Men, Transformers, and Avatar.
The use of a large budget and advanced visual effects allowed filmmakers to bring their imaginative worlds to life. The movies became more expansive, with intricate storylines and complex worlds. The films on this list are among the most beloved by audiences, the type of movies that fans would watch repeatedly to appreciate every detail. They took viewers from cyberspace to outer space, telling stories of man against machine, man against nature, and man against himself.
These movies are thrilling and timeless, leaving a lasting impact on audiences. They are some of the highest-grossing sci-fi movies of the 2000s, and they continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and audiences alike. With their grandeur, complexity, and unparalleled visual effects, they represent the pinnacle of science fiction filmmaking in the 21st century.
Marvel’s X-Men hopped off the comic book page and burst into movie theatres worldwide in July 2000. Director Bryan Singer helmed this tentpole and brought a sense of gravitas to a superpowered civil rights story about mutants trying to live in a society that fears them. Led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men, Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his breakout role) face off against Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood of Mutants: Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), Toad (Ray Park), and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane). Magneto is in pursuit of Rogue (Anna Paquin), a young mutant on the run from a painful past, to use her powers for his plan to turn world leaders into mutants using experimental radiation.
X-Men was a global success, earning rave reviews and raking in $296 million worldwide.
Jurassic Park III
For Jurassic Park III, Steven Spielberg stepped away from the director’s chair and handed the reins to director Joe Johnston, best known for The Rocketeer and Jumanji. In the fast-paced 2001 threequel, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is back and hired by Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) under pretenses to help find their missing son on Isla Sorna, the second island where dinosaurs roam free. Dr. Grant and the Kirbys have to fight for survival after they crash-land on the island and continuously dodge the vicious Spinosaurus and an aviary of pterodactyls.
Jurassic Park III lacked the suspense and thrills of the first two films and the movie received a mixed reaction from critics but audiences clamored for it, with global box office receipts topping $368 million.
Planet of the Apes
Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes is a bold re-imagining of the 1968 classic and stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Clarke Duncan. In this version of the story, astronaut Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) is accidentally pulled into an electromagnetic storm and he crashes on a planet ruled by hyperintelligent apes. Davidson is forced to live in captivity and with the help of Ari (Bonham Carter), he starts a human uprising.
Burton’s visual sensibility is on full display in this film, especially when it comes to Colleen Atwood’s gorgeous costume design and Rick Baker’s incredible prosthetic ape makeup. This updated version earned mixed reviews from the critics but Apes fans and Burton fans alike turned out, with the global gross topping $360 million.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
In 2002, the second in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones introduced audiences to an older Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) alongside his Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, in a role he recently played again) as they protect Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) from an assassin. War is brewing in the Galaxy, and it is up to Obi-Wan and Anakin to discover the truth behind a mysterious army of clone soldiers. The prequel trilogy treated fans to more ferocious lightsaber duels and this film saw the first time beloved Jedi Master Yoda engaged in a fight with the iconic weapon.
Critics of the film enjoyed the visuals, with Lucas presenting viewers with new planets and alien creatures from the Star Wars universe, but found the romance between Skywalker and Amidala to be wooden and lacking chemistry. It was eagerly anticipated by the diehard Star Wars fandom and pulled in $645 million worldwide.
Master of suspense M. Night Shyamalan released his alien invasion thriller Signs in August 2002. A former priest (Mel Gibson) suffering from a crisis of faith finds mysterious crop circles in his cornfield. He is then forced to face his deepest truths and resolve the past as he contends with a global alien onslaught. Co-starring Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin, and Rory Culkin, and featuring one of the greatest jump scares of the 2000s, Signs is not only a sci-fi thriller with some legitimate scares (the Brazilian videotape scene is still an effective jump scare today) but a moving story about a family dealing with grief during an unprecedented situation. Shyamalan’s third big box office smash brought in over $400 million globally and a ton of great reviews, with critics responding positively to the way Shyamalan maintains tension throughout the film.
Men in Black II
On the Fourth of July weekend of 2002, Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and director Barry Sonnenfeld reunited for Men in Black II. Another alien threat looms over planet Earth and Smith’s Agent J has to seek out Jones’ retired Agent K. The secret to stopping Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), an alien made up of slithering reptilian vines, lies in Agent K’s memories. The problem? Agent K had his memory wiped before retirement. They team up with waitress Laura (Rosario Dawson) to stop Serleena from getting the Light of Zartha, a power source that will destroy all life on Earth if not returned to its homeworld.
Jones’ deadpan delivery and Smith’s animated persona are a perfect match. Beloved side characters from the first film like the Worm Guys and Frank the Pug get more to do this time around. Critics were so-so on the film overall, but this sequel made $441 million globally.
X2: X-Men United
Bryan Singer returned to direct the superhero sequel X2: X-Men United, released in May 2003. Returning cast members included Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Anna Paquin. In this round, the X-Men have to team up with the Brotherhood of Mutants to battle the ruthless Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), who plans to use Professor X’s (Stewart) telepathy amplifier Cerebro to kill every mutant on Earth. In addition to Stryker, this sequel introduced Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a teleporting mutant, and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), a mutant with similar attributes to Jackman’s Wolverine.
X-Men’s status as a civil rights allegory is never more apparent than in this film, as the marginalized mutants, good or evil, are threatened by a more nefarious force. There is also a charming coming-out scene featuring Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) finally letting his family know that he is a mutant. Critics and audiences went wild for the film, and it grossed over $400 million globally.
The Matrix Reloaded
The Wachowskis changed filmmaking with the original and May 2003, the directors reunited with stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving for The Matrix Reloaded. Neo (Reeves) is back and his powers as The One have grown. As the lethal Machine army digs toward Zion, Agent Smith (Weaving) has found a way to copy himself within the Matrix.
The fights are faster, the explosions are louder, the philosophical themes are more overt, and the special effects are bigger and bolder in this sequel, the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time until dethroned by 2016’s Deadpool. It features one of the most expensive action sequences ever filmed: a highway chase scene that sees Morpheus (Fishburne) and Trinity (Moss) trying to outrun upgraded Agents trying to destroy them. Audiences could not wait to see Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity on-screen again, and they turned out in droves to the tune of $739 million worldwide.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the iconic T-850 in the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is again sent back in time, except here he is sent to protect John Connor (Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) from the virtually unstoppable T-X aka The Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). Jonathan Mostow takes over directing duties from series creator James Cameron, and he stages incredible action set pieces, including a car chase through the streets of Los Angeles involving a fire truck and a crane.
The film had plenty to live up to, as Terminator 2 is one of the most memorable sci-fi movies of all time. While this entry into the Terminator film series is not the most highly regarded, it was still a box-office success. Fans of the series were excited to see the return of Schwarzenegger as the titular robot and the film pulled in over $430 million around the globe.
The Day After Tomorrow
A true auteur of disaster films, director Roland Emmerich chilled audiences to the bone with the climate change sci-fi thriller The Day After Tomorrow. The film is about Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a paleoclimatologist who makes a terrifying discovery: the Earth’s weather patterns are about to drastically change and put everyone in danger. When ignored by the government, Jack makes the perilous journey to New York City to save his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) after he and his friends are trapped due to the unprecedented weather. Hail the size of cantaloupes pelts Tokyo, massive tornadoes rip through Los Angeles, a tsunami pounds Manhattan, and the US starts to freeze over.
Emmerich knows his lane very well, delivering epic, eye-popping sequences of Mother Nature gone bad. While somewhat scientifically inaccurate (it is science fiction, after all), The Day After Tomorrow drew in audiences around the world and grossed over $552 million.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
In 2005, George Lucas returned with the final chapter of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Full-fledged war has broken out in the Galaxy and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) are tasked with trying to stop it. Obi-Wan is sent to defeat General Grievous, a four-armed cyborg military leader, while Anakin is directed to spy on Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) as he also has nightmares of his pregnant wife Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) dying. His fear makes him susceptible to Palpatine’s manipulations and ultimately leads Anakin to become Darth Vader.
The third film of the Skywalker saga grossed $860 million globally, making it the highest-grossing film of 2005. The film took audiences to Kashyyyk, home of the Wookiees, and Mustafar, a volcanic mining planet that serves as the backdrop for the most epic lightsaber duel in the entire saga: Obi-Wan vs Anakin.
War of the Worlds
Megastar Tom Cruise teamed up with director Steven Spielberg for the first time on this 2005 retelling of the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds. In this suspenseful film, Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a divorced dad in New Jersey tasked with taking care of his kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), as an invasion of deadly alien tripods begins across the globe. The tripods lay waste to cities everywhere as Ray fights to keep his family safe.
Alien invasion thrillers always have a place at the box office but in a post-9/11 world, the realistic depictions of widespread destruction in this film give the otherworldly story added drama. Spielberg slowly teases out the reveals and maintains the tension as Cruise delivers an intense performance, complete with one of his many signatures: running. Fans ran straight to the cinema and this film pulled in $603 million globally.
X-Men: The Last Stand
Director Brett Ratner stepped behind the camera for X-Men: The Last Stand, replacing previous director Bryan Singer. This time around, the X-Men have to face off against Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey as she transforms into the Dark Phoenix. Her nearly unlimited power is unleashed following the events of X2. Meanwhile, the US government has developed a “cure” for genetic mutation, and it is up to the X-Men to stop humans from destroying mutantkind forever.
Critics felt this installment did not live up to the previous two films due to being overstuffed with the plot, the overuse of CGI, and Ratner not investing enough time into the characters. Released on Memorial Day weekend, this chapter of the X-Men saga was a huge success, going on to be the third highest-grossing film of 2006 with a total international gross of $460 million.
I Am Legend
Will Smith’s stellar performance drives I Am Legend, an intense and dramatic sci-fi thriller directed by Francis Lawrence. A virus that was modified to cure cancer turned people into mutant cannibals and three years later, Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the last uninfected human in New York City. Neville, a virologist for the US Army, works to find a cure. He broadcasts his location to any survivors to come and find him, yet no one answers. Neville fights to survive with his dog Sam by his side. After Neville learns that the mutants can learn and adapt, he finds himself desperately trying to fight for survival.
For most of the film, Smith is alone, speaking his lines to nobody. In one heartbreaking scene, he urges a mannequin to respond to him. Audiences and critics reacted positively to the movie, with Will Smith’s committed performance being commended. Released in December 2007, The film pulled in $585 million in worldwide box office gross.
Rebooting a beloved franchise is a risky gamble for any director but J.J. Abrams delivered a bonafide crowdpleaser with his May 2009 update of Star Trek. Starring Chris Pine, Zoe Saldaña, Zachary Quinto, and Eric Bana, the film follows the early days of the USS Enterprise as it traverses the stars. James T. Kirk (Pine), Spock (Quinto), and Uhura (Saldaña) and the rest of the crew have a run-in with the time-hopping Romulan Captain Nero (Bana), who is out to destroy every planet in the Federation as revenge. Rounding out the cast are Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, along with the late Anton Yelchin and the television series’ original Spock, Leonard Nimoy.
Blending story elements from the original series with the new cast portraying the legendary characters, Star Trek was a huge success, going on to be nominated for Four Academy Awards and winning for Best Makeup. Abrams’ spectacular reboot grossed $385 million globally.
Director James Cameron transported audiences to the lush planet Pandora in Avatar, the Christmas 2009 blockbuster that introduced moviegoers everywhere to the Na’vi and their stunning world. Starring Sam Worthington in his big break, Zoe Saldaña, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver, the film follows the story of the peaceful Na’vi, a race of blue aliens, as they are forced to deal with the invading human force mining their planet for a mineral called unobtanium. As Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, links his mind with a Na’vi body and is able to walk again, he develops a deep bond with them and fights to protect them.
Audiences were blown away by the visual feast Cameron created along with his cast and crew. Critics were also impressed by the CGI but felt the story was well-trodden material. Cameron again proved to be box-office gold: Avatar grossed $746 million domestically, leading to a total worldwide gross of $2.7 billion.