The whole point of a movie is to entertain, to impact us emotionally in some way, and to allow us to suspend our disbelief and to be drawn into a different world for approximately two hours. When I compiled this list of the best sci-fi movies of all time I wanted to pick films that accomplished those three things. However science fiction movies have another element to them as well. Each of these movies contains elements of the fantastic (at least at the time they were made). They are not constrained by the physical limits of our world, but rather by the imaginations of the writers who created them. While some are bound by the immutable laws of science, most take plenty of creative license to ensure maximum entertainment value.
When one thinks of a science fiction film the first thing that leaps to mind is space. Yes, a healthy number of these movies do in fact occur in space, but there are also plenty that occur within the boundaries of our own planet. Read on to see which of your favorite movies made the cut.
50 – Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – Yes, the final chapter of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy sneaks onto the list. Granted, the fuzzy cuteness of the Ewoks will be off-putting to any hardcore science fiction fan, but other coolness like the final battle between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, laser crossbows and the speeder bike chase scene manage to outweigh it. At least there was no Jar Jar in this one.
49 – Starship Troopers – One of the best things about science fiction movies is the fact that the acting doesn’t have to be good, the plot can be ridiculous, and the movie can still be entertaining. This is the case with Starship Troopers. Yes, it is cheesy and incredibly over the top, but this movie about humans fighting a war against giant bugs had some very impressive special effects for its time, and despite the questionable acting still managed to keep audiences glued to the screen, waiting to see who would prevail in the battle of man vs. bug.
48 – Island of Lost Souls – Many of today’s best sci-fi films owe their inspiration to the great movies of the past. This 1932 classic stars Charles Laughton as the mad scientist Dr. Moreau, who plays God in his laboratory, producing a race of genetic mutants under his sway.
47 – RoboCop – From genetic freaks to a cybernetic lawman. Peter Weller stars as a cop brought back from the brink of death as a nearly unstoppable cyborg who struggles to regain his memory and solve the mystery of his near death as he doles out justice on the streets of Detroit.
46 – Escape from New York – When the main character in a movie is named Snake Plissken you know the film deserves to be on some sort of best movie list. This time the science fiction is in the form of a future where chaos has broken out. New York has become a maximum security prison where the President of the United States is being held hostage and only Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken) can get him out. Not only does Plissken have to achieve the impossible, he has less than 24 hours to do it, before the bomb implanted in his body blows him to pieces.
45 – Men in Black – I briefly considered putting Independence Day in this spot, but then realized that this is a better Will Smith movie. A rare comedy sci-fi movie, Men in Black has Smith teaming up with Tommy Lee Jones as a pair of secret government agents who must save the world from aliens who are bent on blowing it up.
44 – Predator – Though known first and foremost as an action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in his fair share of science fiction films during his acting career. This classic action film has plenty of testosterone as the Governator is joined by Carl Weathers and Jesse “the body” Ventura, among others, as an elite fighting force who wind up battling a savage extra terrestrial hunter in the jungles of Central America.
43 – Minority Report – Steven Spielberg is no stranger to the sci-fi genre, and you will certainly see more of him on this list. In 2002’s Minority Report Spielberg directs Tom Cruise, a police officer working in the “Pre-Crime” division, an elite unit that uses Pre-Cogs (psychics) to take down criminals before they can commit a crime. However the tables turn when Cruise is himself accused of a future murder. The plot is deliciously mindbending and entertaining from start to finish.
42 – The Omega Man – Charleton Heston stars in this 1971 classic about a doctor who winds up the sole survivor of a biological war after injecting himself with an experimental vaccine. He goes to war against the mutants created by the release of the biological agent. Yes, the plot does sound pretty similar to I Am Legend, doesn’t it?
41 – The Fifth Element – Another example of an action star crossing over into the science fiction genre. Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich star in this cool futuristic film about a cab driver who must seek out a powerful weapon to defeat Evil and the diabolical Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman), a businessman who will enjoy huge profits if Evil wins the day.
40 – Planet of the Apes – Charleton Heston makes another appearance on the list of the best sci-fi movies ever made with his classic portrayal of marooned astronaut George Taylor. Set 2000 years in the future on a planet where talking apes rule the movie features one of the best twists in cinematic history. I’ll say no more for those few who haven’t yet seen it.
39 – Contact – There is no shortage of star power associated with this film. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster this movie about radio astronomy lacks the action of most of the other movies on this list, but is conversely far more thought-provoking and realistic than the others.
38 – The Fly – This 1986 remake of the original 1958 classic stars Jeff Goldblum as a scientist who is trying to invent a teleportation device. However, his experiments go horribly wrong when a fly accidentally gets into the teleportation chamber with him. The result is a fusing of DNA that leads to a horrific blend of human and insect. You’ll never enjoy donuts again after watching this film.
37 – Jurassic Park – Jeff Goldblum also shows up in this 1993 special effects tour-de-force, only this time the DNA is of the Dino variety. An ill-conceived theme park turns into a nightmare after dinosaurs who’ve been recreated from ancient DNA escape their boundaries. Steven Spielberg delivers one of the greatest special effects feasts of all time in this spine-tingling sci-fi thriller based on the novel and screenplay by Michael Crichton.
36 – The Abyss – Not all science fiction has to take place in space, or on land for that matter. Director James Cameron takes audiences into the deep, dark sea as he follows the adventures of oil workers and Navy SEALs who encounter mysterious alien forces while trying to exploring the crash scene of a nuclear submarine.
35 – Gattaca – One of the most underrated sci-fi movies ever made, Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman has enjoyed a cult following in the decade or so following its release. Set in a future world where babies are created rather than born to ensure maximum genetic superiority. Hawke, one of the last naturally born people, is forced to skirt the system and assumes a new identity in order to live dream in spite of his genetic “inferiority”.
34 – Primer – Though most of the films on this list have enormous budgets and mind-blowing special effects, this little independent movie, made for a mere $7000.00 proves that sometimes hard science can trump cold hard cash. Primer is a time travel movie with so much intricate detail that is easy for audiences to adopt the notion that such time travel is possible.
33 – The Andromeda Strain – As much a mystery as a sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain, much like The Omega Man features biological weapons. This time a team of scientists must try and figure out how to stop an alien virus before humanity is wiped out. Their only hope is to figure out why an old man and a baby survived exposure to the virus before it is too late.
32 – Sleeper – Bet you didn’t think to see a Woody Allen film on the list of the best sci-fi movies ever. As usual, Allen’s plot is brilliant and strange. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a shop-keeper who is brought out of cryostasis after 200 years in order to help fight the new government. Monroe must come to grips with a world that is radically different from the one he left.
31 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Chilling and mysterious, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a near perfect blend of sci-fi and horror. Donald Stars as an inspector at the Department of Public Health who discovers people are being cloned and replaced by an aggressive alien force.
30 – Brazil – Terry Gilliam delivers a classic comedy sci-fi masterpiece in this 1985 film about a low-level bureaucrat who tries to save an innocent man after he is wrongfully arrested following a technical error in the system. His good intentions only make things worse and he ends up in hot water himself.
29 – Serenity – Based on the cult classic sci-fi television series Firefly by Joss Whedon, Serenity follows the adventures of the crew of the spaceship Serenity as they battle the Alliance and Reavers in an attempt to solve the mystery of what the Alliance wants with the girl River. Those who didn’t watch the series first might question the film’s high placement on this list, but those who were fans of the short-lived TV show will no doubt defend its inclusion (and probably complain that it isn’t ranked higher).
28 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Though fans of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective might disagree I think this clever and strange 2004 film is Jim Carrey’s best work as an actor. The science fiction this time has nothing to do with aliens or space travel. Carrey plays a man who discovers his ex-girlfriend has undergone a procedure to have all memory of him erased. Crushed, he decides to do the same, but ultimately tries to hold onto his memories when he realizes he still loves her. One of the most clever and unique films on the list, it may not appease the action fans, but with elements of romance and comedy there is plenty here for almost every movie fan to enjoy.
27 – Forbidden Planet – If you are in the mood for a classic sci-fi movie then look no further than Forbidden Planet. Now more than 50 years old the film nonetheless stands up admirably against today’s movies. A starship crew travels 17 light years from Earth in order to determine why a colony of scientists stationed on Altair IV has gone silent. When they get there they discover only Dr. Morbius and his daughter remain alive and that an alien race once inhabited the planet. The movie is pulp sci-fi at its finest and the music will truly send a tingle down your spine. A must watch for all sci-fi lovers.
26 – The Thing – Another movie that straddles the horror and science fiction genres John Carpenter’s The Thing is, in my opinion, one of the creepiest movies ever made. Set in an Antarctic outpost, The Thing pits a group of scientists against an alien organism capable of shapeshifting and taking on the appearance of others. Dogs ripped inside out and heads that sprout legs like spiders are just a few of the horrors this film offers. Don’t expect to sleep much the night after you watch this film.
25 – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Few franchises are as synonymous with science fiction film and television as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. With multiple television series and spin-offs and a host of movies with their associated spin-offs the Star Trek franchise has attained a cult following that is religious in its fervor. The Wrath of Khan was the absolute pinnacle of the original Star Trek franchise. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest of the crew are at their best against the threat of Captain Kirk’s old nemesis, the warrior Khan. I was tempted to put the recently released Star Trek: Into Darkness into this spot, but nostalgia got the better of me and I stuck with this old classic.
24 – Tron – Back when a personal computer was a Vic 20 with 3.5K (yes K) of RAM and games with 3D graphics were a distant dream a movie came along that gave us a glimpse of the world of video games we’d find today’s society so intertwined with. The film itself stars Jeff Bridges as a hacker who winds up captured in virtual world where he must compete in live video games at the peril of his life.
23 – Donnie Darko – Much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Donnie Darko is a film that bucks most conventional science fiction stereotypes. Dark, moody and downright strange the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a disturbed teenager who meets a giant bunny named Frank who informs him the world will end in 28 days. Didn’t I say it was downright strange? Despite the confusing premise the film is quite entertaining and has become a huge cult favorite since its 2001 release.
22 – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – Mel Gibson gives his best action movie performance in this film about a post-apocalyptic world where gasoline is as valuable as water. He plays a reluctant hero to a small town that is terrorized by bandits hell bent on raiding their refinery.
21 – ET: The Extra Terrestrial – This movie was the highest grossing film of all time for several years following its 1982 release. Audiences flocked in droves to see the story of the cute alien with a love for M&Ms candy who just wants to place a phone call and get back home. In the film we also see a young Drew Barrymore in one of her very first roles. Though a little cuter than most of the films on this list, much like today’s Wall-E the movie is one that is enjoyable for the whole family.
20 – Total Recall – Arnie ushers us into the top 20 sci-fi movies with this cool tale of virtual reality. This movie is another great mindbender where the audience never knows what is “real” and what is only occurring in the minds of the characters. This is one of those rare movies that you can dust off and watch every few years and still enjoy it just as much as the first viewing. If you haven’t seen it before, make sure you rent this one and not the completely inferior remake starring Colin Farrell.
19 – A Boy and His Dog – Okay, many of you won’t have heard of this one, but that’s okay. The whole point of these best movies lists is to help people uncover some hidden gems they haven’t seen, and A Boy and His Dog is a gem to be sure. Very hard to summarize the film is as oddball and original as any film on this list. Much like The Road Warrior the film is set in a post-nuclear world where a boy and his dog, Blood (who communicates telepathically with him) set out to find for sex. Yes, it is a strange premise, but despite its oddness the film manages to be very entertaining and is a must-watch for fans of the genre who like movies that step outside the usual boundaries now and again.
18 – Star Trek (2009) – Much like how Batman Begins revitalized and reimagined the Batman series of movies the new Star Trek movie released this past spring has injected some much needed life into this classic science fiction series. The film is actually a prequel and details how a young James Kirk met his crew mates and became the captain of the Starship Enterprise. Grittier than the earlier films the movie met with massive critical acclaim, and though some of the chronology may confound you it is a very enjoyable film, even for the non-Trekkies among us.
17 – WALL-E – Not all of the best sci-fi movies are necessarily live action movies. Pixar merely asks that you suspend your disbelief a little more than usual as you follow the adventures of a trash collecting robot whose actions help rescue humanity. As touching as it is funny the movie is one that kids and adults will enjoy equally and belongs in your DVD library regardless if you are a fan of the science fiction genre.
16 – District 9 – Okay, this one hasn’t exactly stood the test of time like others on this list, but despite its relatively recent release it has to be considered one of the best movies of the genre. Gritty and visceral with incredible special effects and CGI the movie is an incredible directorial feat by Neal Blomkamp.
15 – 12 Monkeys – Terry Gilliam once again shows his ability to direct science fiction fare with this 1995 classic starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Disease and time travel are key components of the plot as a convict must travel back through time to try and diagnose what caused the disease that decimated the human race.
14 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Steven Spielberg continues his domination of this list with this 1977 film about UFOs. Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, a man who has a close encounter and is thereafter plagued by visions and a strange sequence of musical notes that won’t stop playing in his mind. The encounter becomes an obsession and he is compelled towards a meeting with destiny and a close encounter of the third kind (physical contact) with the aliens.
13 – The Day the Earth Stood Still – Wow, talk about legendary sci-fi films. The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the defining films of the genre. Featuring aliens, flying saucers and robots the movie is classic science fiction pulp, and the name of Klaatu – the alien who arrives on Earth – is instantly recognizable from several other films whose creators have paid homage to The Day the Earth Stood Still.
12 – Alien – Ridley Scott’s alien horror masterpiece was so good that it would stand just as high or higher on a list of the best horror movies ever made. Scott’s horrific monster is a special effects triumph, and the tension in the film is palpable throughout. The acting by Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Ian Holm and John Hurt is head and shoulders above what you can normally expect to find in a science fiction or horror film. If you enjoy either genre this DVD is a must have for your collection.
11 – Back to the Future – The best time travel movie of all time, and one of the best films of the 80s, Back to the Future is at once a comedy, a love story, and a science fiction classic. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are perfectly cast as Marty McFly and Doc Brown, a high school student and a half-mad scientist who has invented a time machine out of a DeLorean. After the doctor is gunned down by terrorists trying to secure his plutonium, Marty escapes in the DeLorean, but exceeds the 88 MPH limit that triggers the time travel mechanism and finds himself in 1955, where his actions wind up almost wiping him out of existence. Hello? McFly?
10 – The Terminator – Well, here we are in the top 10 sci-fi movies, and once again Arnie is in the lead role. This time he is playing the villain, a cybernetic organism sent back to the future to kill the mother of the man destined to lead the resistance against the machines of the future. The 1984 movie has had a huge impact on pop culture and lines like “I’ll be back,” and “Come with me if you want to live,” have been quoted to death in the last 30 years.
9 – Star Wars – The most popular science fiction franchise ever created, this space opera created by George Lucas and starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Sir Alec Guiness and Carrie Fisher has raked in billions of dollars at the box office and in merchandise sales. With special effects that belie the fact that it is more than 3 decades old the original Star Wars stands up very well even by today’s standards. I needn’t get into the plot. If you are a sci-fi fan then you already own this movie and have likely seen it dozens of times.
8 – 2001: A Space Odyssey – One of the most brilliant directors of the past half century Stanley Kubrick has created so many masterpieces that it is hard to pin down one as his defining film. His creations have spanned every genre from comedy (Dr. Strangelove) to epic (Spartacus) to horror (The Shining) to war (Full Metal Jacket). All of these movies were critically acclaimed, so it is little surprise that his venture into the science fiction genre would be just as good. As good as the plot is it will be the characters who will impact you the most, and HAL 9000, the ship’s sentient computer system will have you questioning our current determination to create artificial intelligence.
7 – Metropolis – I’m digging way back into the film vault for my number 7 selection. Released in 1927 the film isn’t even available anymore in a complete form. However, it is arguably the first real masterpiece of science fiction cinema, and its influence can be seen in many of the other films on this list. If you love classic movies grab the restored edition of the DVD and experience a truly pioneering film now more than 8 decades old.
6 – Avatar – James Cameron’s groundbreaking film that really jumpstarted the whole 3D movie phenomenon we’ve seen over the past few years, Avatar completely obliterated box office records during its 2009 run. Though the plot itself was rehash of popular sci-fi themes, the amazing special effects had sci-fi fans flocking to the theater in droves. With more than 2.5 billion dollars in earnings worldwide it is little surprise a sequel is in the works. Hopefully James Cameron can blow our minds all over again when he unleashes Avatar 2 in 2016.
5 – Blade Runner – Harrison Ford starred in some of the biggest movies of the 70s and 80s with his role as Han Solo in the Star Wars movies and of course as Indiana Jones in the franchise of the same name. However, his portrayal Deckard in the futuristic 1982 movie Blade Runner is as just as good, if well known, than his turns as Indy and Han. Ridley Scott hits another home run with this film about a futuristic Los Angeles where Deckard, a Blade Runner, must hunt down artificial humans called replicants and exterminate them. Blade Runner is dark, gritty sci-fi fare for those who like their movies with a little more edge to them.
4 – Aliens – Ripley is back in this bigger and even better sequel to the original Alien film. This time, as the title implies, the crew’s problems are now plural. The action is more intense, the special effects even better and the sense of peril rarely abates through the entire film. If you like movies that make you grip the edge of your seat until your knuckles turn white then this one is for you.
3 – The Matrix – Though the trilogy would eventually wind up a disappointment if you watch this 1999 Wachowski brothers special effects extravaganza on its own it is still completely mind-blowing, even 14 years following its release. Well ahead of its time in terms of special effects, the mythology and the plot of the film are a feast for the imagination. The action is beyond cool, and though the acting – particular that of Keanu Reeves – is wooden at times, it strangely seems to fit the mood of the film.
2 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Much like Aliens, Terminator 2 takes everything that was great about the first movie and improves on it. The special effects will make your jaw drop when you realize this movie is now more than 2 decades old. This time it is terminator vs. terminator as Arnie serves as protector this time around, defending John Connor, the future hero of the resistance against a superior T-1000 terminator sent back in time to kill him.
1 – Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – Though many would have the groundbreaking original film at the top of their lists, I believe the sequel was just that much better. The acting and the special effects were improved, and the action was fiercer throughout. However the main reason I put this at number one on the list of the best sci-fi movies of all time was the very real sense of peril you can feel when watching this movie. The film is rare in that it bucks the usual trend of having a happy ending. The good guys get their butts kicked in this one. Granted it is the middle of the trilogy and we all know that the ewoks save the day in the next chapter, but watched on its own merits the film definitely has a dark side missing from many of its competitors on the list. If you haven’t dusted off your Star Wars films in a while and the thought of watching 6 straight hours seems daunting, just skip parts 1 and 3, and go straight to the heart of the action. The Empire Strikes Back is, hands down, the best science fiction film ever made.