Aliens, robots, outer space, future Earths, time travel, exquisitely posed questions about the place of humanity within the grand cosmic void – science fiction is about the intimacy of exploration and the enormity of ideas.
Ever since 1902's A Trip to the Moon, directed by Georges Méliès, writers and directors have sought to transfer their exciting hot takes on mankind's ultimate fate to the big screen. Now, in a version of our world that's not only given us a sequel to Blade Runner but also an actual continuation of the Star Wars saga, we've scooped up the 25 best sci-fi films for your approval/outrage.
Our selection process? Well, aside from being just a great piece of moviemaking, the top 25 entries required a significant impact on the genre, stories and ideas that raised the bar on what good storytelling can be, pop culture reaction, originality, and Editor's Choice. Also, a movie can't just be dystopian to be sci-fi, so unfortunately you'll find no Green Place – er – Fury Road in these parts.
You can also take a look at our list of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix for a more recent selection.
The 25 Best Sci Fi Movies
25. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan movies won the hearts and minds of fanboys with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but he truly solidified his status as a filmmaker at the top of his game with 2010's Inception. A mind-bending sci-fi stunner that proved Hollywood blockbusters could still be smart while also dazzling us on a visual and visceral level, Inception is certainly one of the best films to hit, sci-fi or not, in this still young 21st century.
Inception doesn't just simply fit into the sci-fi genre, it's a caper film as well as an avant-garde delve into dreamscapes. At the heart of the picture is Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb, a stricken widower who specializes in a form of corporate espionage that involves stealing information from a mark's mind while they sleep. Of course, as good as Cobb is at his job, it's his own dreams — including appearances by his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) — that are his biggest challenge.
Buoyed by a great cast (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine), stunning visual effects and those rarest of Hollywood commodities — an original and intelligent script — Inception is a no-brainer for this list. Unless we're just dreaming all of this, that is…
Read our review of Inception.
24. Wall-E (2008)
Finding Nemo's Andrew Stanton went from deep sea to deep space for this delightfully warped trek, seen through the eyes of a trash-bot tasked with cleaning up a centuries-later Earth smothered in garbage.
Laced with satirical social commentary regarding the consequences of excess and pollution, WALL-E is a love story among the landfills and one of the best Pixar movies to date. It's an imaginative romp through the fattened ashes of humanity featuring a mostly-silent, slapstick-prone protagonist finding romance amidst enthralling visuals and an emotionally-charged apocalypse. Evoking the distinguished charm of old silent movies, while still featuring occasional dialogue, WALL-E clings to optimism in the wake of waste.
Read our review of WALL-E.
23. Ex Machina (2014)
Alex Garland's intimate, close-quarters sci-fi suspense piece Ex Machina centers on a lowly programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who gets invited to the house of his CEO (Oscar Isaac) to administer the Turing test to the CEO's latest creation – a humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander). It's an A.I. tale designed to set you on edge and catch you off guard.
As a stylish and savage slow-burn thriller, Ex Machina is the perfect example of the genre taking a huge leap forward with a small-scale film. Sci-fi can be both eye-popping and mind-opening, and quite often it's the more cerebral stories that resonate the loudest. You won't even notice, until it's too late, that Ex Machina is a crazed cautionary tale about the hypothetical terror of technology.
Read our review of Ex Machina.
22. Starship Troopers (1997)
"C'mon, you apes! You wanna live forever?"
Much like RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven's previous work of gory and great sci-fi, Starship Troopers is satire snuck inside super-violent propaganda. In Troopers' case, we, as viewers, are tricked into rooting for a fascist war-driven society modeled after Nazi Germany as they take up arms against an intergalactic race of giant insect beings.
What's left, sneering subtext aside, is a disturbingly fun, excessively bloody action movie that's become a bone-crunching cult classic. Watching high school friends enlist in an assault against the cosmic "bugs" who attacked them, splinter off into different arenas of battle within the massive war machine, and then find each other again toward the end of the long-running conflict provides a sweeping emotional core among a lot of strewn body parts.
"Would you like to know more?"
21. Brazil (1985)
Books and movies featuring dystopian future worlds are a dime a dozen. Everyone wants to imitate Orwell and Huxley. Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a welcome shift to the familiar formula. Brazil offers a more whimsical take on the dystopian society, one that frequently borders on comedy thanks to its unusual machines, slapstick tone, and scathing, satirical indictment of modern consumer culture.
The movie follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a humble worker who embarks on a search for a woman haunting his dreams. As is usually the case in these stories, his journey quickly puts him at odds with the totalitarian government that controls all aspects of life. With its unusual tone, gorgeous special effects and strong thematic framework, Brazil remains one of Gilliam's best films.
Read our review of Brazil.
20. Back to the Future (1985)
Time travel in movies wasn't uncommon before 1985's Back to the Future, but no one thought to cram a flux capacitor in the back of a DeLorean until Marty McFly and Doc Brown stepped onto the scene. This family(ish)-friendly sci-fi classic sees Michael J. Fox's Marty accidentally drive himself back to 1955. Before he can get home, he has to deflect his mother's romantic advances, ensure his parents fall in love, and do something about that bully Biff.
Time travel hijinks have never been as enjoyable as they are with Marty McFly. The movie inspired two sequels that saw ever more complicated problems arise in the timestream. The franchise as a whole was far more consistently entertaining than many sci-fi series, but we still favor the original above all others.
19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
"This means something."
Yes, yes it does, Richard Dreyfuss. His character's carving Devil's Tower a.k.a. UFO-topia and then later visiting the site where the titular close encounter occurs turns this movie into one of the few entries on this list about aliens that is more concerned with the wonder and privilege of first contact than the horror movie consequences of it.
Spielberg's first alien-centric blockbuster forever set the tone for the director's unique brand of Hollywood filmmaking – that of grounding the extraordinary within the perspective of a working-class family with "real" interactions and problems. It's a hallmark the director would revisit in such films as E.T. and 2005's War of the Worlds. Moreover, the movie's messaging is that — despite the sometimes too familiar sci-fi genre — not all aliens are malevolent.
The script, written by Spielberg, has some issues that don't hold up as well as the movie's impressive spectacle, but overall Encounters earns its place here for reminding us that good sci-fi doesn't have to have explosions or aliens slaughtering people — it just has to be good, and that's enough.
18. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Would you like some Shakespeare with your sci-fi? Good, because that's what this 1956 trendsetter is — the Bard's The Tempest, only relocated from an isolated island to an isolated planet. Also altered from the original play? Robby the Robot has a bigger part.
We typically think of sci-fi movies from the 1950s as being cheap or B-grade, but Forbidden Planet is nothing of the kind. A big-budget tale with amazing visual effects that still work today, shot in glorious color and CinemaScope, the picture is like an old fresco from the Sistine Chapel — curiously ancient and not-of-this-time, but undeniably beautiful and mesmerizing. Also, again with robots.
Leslie Nielsen plays the commander of the Earth ship C-57D, a sort of proto-Captain Kirk in what is in many ways a nascent version of the Star Trek scenario (Gene Roddenberry would acknowledge his debt to this film in the years after that franchise's success). Finding only the mysterious Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) on the planet Altair IV, Nielsen's character eventually learns that there is one other resident of this world… the Monster from the Id!
17. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Terminator 2 is a solid example of a sequel coming along and just destroying the original in every regard. In this follow-up to the original, Skynet sends back an advanced, liquid metal-based Terminator to destroy John Connor once and for all. Connor's only hope is the T-800 – a reprogrammed version of the same machine that once nearly succeeded in killing his mother.
T2 is host to some truly epic action and chase sequences. Almost 30 years later, the film puts most action movies to shame. But where T2 truly earns its enduring status is in its heart and thoughtful message. This James Cameron movie was all about the notion that the future is not set in stone, and that people can rewrite their destinies if they so choose. Even a cold machine can learn what it means to love and feel emotion.
No matter how much the sequels have (perhaps inadvertently) dulled these messages, Terminator 2 remains the high point of the franchise and one of the definitive works of Cameron's career.
16. Metropolis (1927)
Filmmakers around the world were still working to understand the complexities of cinema in the 1920s. It took a visionary director like Fritz Lang to provide early evidence of the storytelling heights film could aspire to.
Metropolis is not just a great sci-fi film, it's easily one of the best films of the silent era. The movie presents a future society divided by class warfare, with the rich elite living in the towering skyscrapers of Metropolis, and the lowly workers toiling below. As a relic of the German Expressionism movement, Metropolis shows impressive visual design and effects work that still hold up today.
The film continues to make an impact, and has inspired countless other sci-fi projects onscreen and off. A longer cut of the film was also discovered in 2008 in Argentina; it seems Metropolis is one of those rare films that truly does get better and more relevant with age.
15. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Pod people want to rule the world! Actually, those no good, dirty Commies want to, or wanted to back in 1956 when Don Siegel's sci-fi/horror Cold War cautionary tale, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, first scared the bejesus out of Reds-fearing Americans everywhere.
The film stars Kevin McCarthy as Miles Bennell, a small-town doctor who discovers a quiet epidemic in the making — many of his patients believe that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Eventually, of course, these impostors are revealed to be the pod people from space, alien plants whose biological mission is to destroy and replace higher life forms (i.e. humanity). The scenario is quite terrifying, for the enemy can be your wife, your boss, your kid… anyone.
The film careens towards an unforgettable finale as Siegel lets a panicked McCarthy stare directly into the camera at us and scream his warnings about the Reds… uh, the aliens: "They're here already! You're next!" Funny thing is, in the years after the film's success, the filmmakers usually denied that the movie was meant to be anything more than a sci-fi scarefest. But we know better.
14. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Forget the bland 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves, the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is the one that deserves accolades in the annals of sci-fi greatness. After all, it's the movie that inserted the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" into the pop culture lexicon!
The Day the Earth Stood Still was designed to be a thinking fan's sci-fi film. Instead of epic space battles and evil empires, the film featured a visiting alien named Klaatu. Klaatu arrives on Earth with a peaceful but stern warning: Should humanity extend its penchant for violence into the stars, they'll be struck down.
It attracted a fair amount of controversy in its day. Some didn't appreciate the cautionary message the film presented as humanity entered the atomic age. Others took offense at the Christ-like traits of Klaatu. Sixty years later, the controversy has faded, but the message remains as strong and as relevant as ever.
13. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
When it comes to cold, disturbing, and thought-provoking sci-fi, it's hard to do better than Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
Based on Anthony Burgess' novel, this film is set in a dreary near-future Britain where roving gangs of colorfully dressed teens terrorize the populace and the government has resorted to extreme measures of cerebral, er, "conditioning" to stem the tide.
A Clockwork Orange is well known for the stunning performance by star Malcolm McDowell, the trademark Nadsat Russian-English slang, and the iconic scene featuring the Ludovico apparatus. A Clockwork Orange asks viewers to ponder the nature of violence. Is it enough to curb a person's outer violent tendencies, or does this simply render them a false human being — a clockwork orange? The film's ultimate statement on the matter differed from that of the book, but that didn't necessarily make it an inferior ending.
12. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
In 1982, Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial became a bonafide blockbuster by providing audiences with an unrivaled emotional journey.
This is textbook Spielberg. Henry Thomas' Elliott, a lonely young boy living with his single mom and siblings, finds some direction and meaning in his life when he stumbles upon a lovable alien critter who he dubs E.T. Stranded on Earth and trying to phone home, E.T. forms a bond with Elliott that rivals some of cinema's greatest teams.
The animatronic alien is and was unique and convincing, the performances from a mostly young cast are superb, and best of all, the film's exploration of the mysteries of childhood is thoughtful, sensitive, and at the same time often fun. Also sad — but in a good way!
11. Aliens (1986)
Aliens, James Cameron's souped-up action spectacle sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, is layered with so much awesomeness that it's hard to narrow down the exact reason it works as well as it does.
Aliens continues Ellen Ripley's story, years later, while adding a new layer to the xenomorph's biological cycle, introducing an Alien Queen and in doing so one of the big screen's best and scariest villains. The hit sequel is a bullet of a movie that packs the perfect amount of character development, horror and action into a story that could have been threadbare in a lesser craftsman's hands.
Ripley returns to LV-426, the planet where she first encountered the alien, to discover that it's now home to a shake-n-bake colony of families and workers, which is basically ringing the dinner bell for the xenomorphs to prove that, in space, everyone can hear you scream if you die loudly enough. Our heroine joins an elite group of Colonial Marines sent to the surface, and they quickly find that neither flame throwers nor machine gunnery are a match for things that bleed acid and sweat slime. Cameron's decision to keep Ripley and her surrogate daughter Newt as the emotional core of the movie makes the increasing threats around them all the more real, putting us on the edge of our seats.
10. Jurassic Park (1993)
"Hold on to your butts."
You know why this movie still works, more than 15 years after it unleashed the power of CG everything on audiences? Because when Alan Grant first looks up to see that veggiesaurus get on its hind legs to eat some tree leaves, the scene still gets us to mouth "wow" every time.
That sense of awe and wonder that only a Spielberg movie could provide is the reason why we still get goosebumps when Richard Attenborough's John Hammond says, "Welcome to Jurassic Park."
When this movie first premiered in the summer of 1993, it spared no expense at treating audiences to a then-groundbreaking blockbuster experience. Sure, CG technology has advanced since ILM's pioneering work here, but the movie's achievements within the medium for better or worse are what helped pave the way for those innovations. While the story about dino experts and a snarky, flirty Jeff Goldblum forced to survive a Disneyland ride gone all murder-y is a clothesline on which Spielberg can hang set pieces, it does deliver just enough emotion and character work to elevate the film above simple popcorn entertainment.
Read our review of Jurassic Park.
9. The Thing (1982)
An alien with the ability to take the form of any life that it absorbs infiltrates an Antarctic research base, and soon the 12-man team is up to their eyeballs in slaughter, suspicion and paranoia. John Carpenter's best film has itself planted right in the middle between the horror movie and sci-fi movie lines.
As a sci-fi film, a cross between Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie succeeds at asking the question "Who Goes There?", much like its literary source material did, by forcing our survivors to figure out who they really are as The Thing puts their humanity to the test. The tension escalates and Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances as team leader MacReady.
The practical special effects hold up better than you'd think, and we defy you to not have your mind blown when the head of a victim sheers itself from its burning corpse and spider-walks away. If you haven't seen this movie, remedy that now.
8. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix, from the inventive boundary-pushing Wachowskis, captured the imaginations of sci-fi lovers everywhere and offered them a type of film they hadn't seen before. Though the franchise never became the "new star Wars" everyone hailed it as at the outset, the first film of the trilogy remains a savage and nihilistic roller coaster of butt-kicking awesomeness.
This Keanu Reeves movie is brimming with all sorts of philosophical questions. What is reality? Is the world around us real or an illusion? Whose kung fu is strongest? The film yearned to be more intelligent and thoughtful than the average action movie, yet it was never afraid to put aside the musing for some well-choreographed bullet-dodging and martial arts mayhem. The Matrix's slow-motion combat ballet inspired legions of imitators, but none have lived up to the original, not even the two Matrix sequels.
7. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The best of the Trek movies, Wrath of Khan tackles some of the series' heaviest of themes; ideas centered around using space exploration as a means to feel young despite life's way of always coming to an end.
The plot centers on the consequences such mortality has on William Shatner's Admiral Kirk, a guy who doesn't believe in the no-win scenario, but who ends up paying for that view when a man he hasn't seen in 15 years comes calling with phasers set to "KHAAAAAAAN!" There is more going on, subtextually and emotionally, than a movie based on a sci-fi show (with too many Styrofoam sets) needs. But that's the genius of Trek II; it goes above and beyond what is required of its genre trappings and delivers a great story and a great film. That is why this 23rd century adventure still holds up today.
And if Kirk and Spock's last moments together, separated by glass, don't have you crying the same big fat tears you shed at Pixar movies, then you have a Ceti eel where your heart should be.
6. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Spawning four sequels, two reboots, a TV series, a cartoon, comics, toys and every kind of marketing tie-in you can dream of, the original 1968 Planet of the Apes isn't just a great sci-fi film, it's also one of the very first genre franchises to come out of Hollywood.
The wonderfully misanthropic George Taylor (Charlton Heston) heads into outer space to get away from all those damned dirty hippies in the far-off future of 1972, only to wind up living among all those damned dirty apes in the far-far-off future of the 40th century. Perhaps the apes makeup and concepts of the film have worn thin by today's standards, but this was state of the art stuff back in the day. A movie where apes evolved from men? There's got to be an answer!
The answer is simple: Whereas this first film is the most polished, highbrow and grandiose of the original series, the sequels that followed all added value to the overall concept, never resting on their monkeyshines laurels but instead furthering and expanding upon the ideas of the original picture. But the 1968 film, with its upside-down world social commentary and Big Ideas about science, religion and history, is where it all started. And where it will all start again and again and again…
5. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back takes the "escape your hometown" joyride aspects of its groundbreaking predecessor and adds an adult sensibility and thematic through-line that brings a real depth to George Lucas' galaxy far, far away. While one hesitates to use the well-worn terms "dark" and "stylish" when describing director Irvin Kershner's installment in the series, the film nonetheless is the darkest and most stylish of the Star Wars movies.
Han Solo's uncertain fate, Luke's terrible realization about his father, Lando's betrayal, the defeat of the Rebels at Hoth… these were all gut-punch moments that had us reeling then and, in some ways, still do, even if the soft-pedaling of Return of the Jedi undoes so much of Empire's hard work. But that's a discussion for a different list.
4. Alien (1979)
The tagline "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream" defined the Alien film series. It was Ridley Scott's movie that first pit Warrant Officer Ripley against the acid-bleeding xenomorph, and while on the surface Alien is a "monster in the house" creature feature, here the house is a spaceship and the monster is a mouth-tongue'd beastie that lays eggs and uses people's chests as doors.
The fun here is that the science fiction goes less Star Trek and Star Wars, and more gritty, which makes the scares more urgent, more real. This is a future where ships look more like oil derricks than Enterprise. Putting a blue-collar crew in the middle of our first truly great "monster in space" movie created a new subset of the genre, one that Hollywood has milked ever since with less-than-consistent results.
Alien changed the careers of both its director and leading lady. It introduced one of the best movie monsters ever. And it reminded us how great the genre can be when it combines expert storytelling with new and different concepts. And mouth tongues.
3. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Yes, Empire has AT-AT battles and Boba Fett and the iconic "I am your father" twist. But in terms of pure science fiction action and adventure, nothing can top the original Star Wars.
A New Hope wowed viewers from the opening shot of the Star Destroyer pursuing the fleeing Rebel ship to the final ceremony where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were crowned as galactic heroes. In between these two points was everything a sci-fi/fantasy fan could hope for: humble heroes pulled into larger worlds, roguish scoundrels, princesses in peril, a menagerie of weird and wonderful aliens, and epic space battles that held the fates of planets in the balance.
With A New Hope, George Lucas took everything that was great about the classic adventure serials of the early 20th century and updated that with a modern flourish. It is not the most complex or dense of the Star Wars movies. It's simply the most pure fun anyone can hope to have watching a movie.
See our guide on how to watch the Star Wars movies in order.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
A future built on a science that allows men to play God. Their creation? An artificial intelligence more human than human, forced into slave labor and born with a ticking-clock expiration date. It is up to an ex-cop by the name of Deckard, an ex-Blade Runner, to put down a group of renegade Replicants. This is the bare-bones context in which Ridley Scott's masterpiece resides. Surrounding that core conceit is the stuff that great sci-fi is made of, moral and ethical themes that are not easy to navigate and are even more difficult to satisfy dramatically on screen.
Using Philip K. Dick's source material as a blueprint to build a detective story around that which wants to be about more than just Deckard catching his prey, Scott effortlessly knows how to tell this story — you feel it in every shot, every cut, every music cue. Scott and his production team create a future Los Angeles built on neon and skyscrapers that stab a permanent rain-streaked sky. From the top down, Blade Runner is film noir science fiction — as unique and alive as the androids its protagonist must retire. The film's impact on visual storytelling cannot go unmentioned.
Blade Runner is also a classic and triumph of the genre because no singular viewing delivers the same experience; you'll notice a new detail here or catch a different subtext in a line of dialogue there. You'll think you get the message of the movie, but then you realize you're just touching the surface. It may a take a few more years and a touch more hindsight for Blade Runner 2049 to crack this list, but Denis Villeneuve's sequel, 35-years after the fact, is also a visual feast that expertly expands on the original.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's 1968 epic existentialist arthouse addition to the space exploration genre may be light on actual "story," but it's way high on hypnotic splendor, standing tall as one of the major artistic works of the 20th century.
Divided into four main parts (the apes, Heywood Floyd's mission to the moon, the Discovery One's Jupiter flight, and the LSD finale), the film's plot in an extreme nutshell is about an alien monolith that is discovered by astronauts, and how it leads to a close encounter of the third kind and beyond. Oh, it's also about the evolution of man from ape to Something Else.
Technically masterful and innovative, thematically challenging and enthralling, visually and aurally exquisite and unforgettable, 2001 is everything a great sci-fi movie should be. But don't take our word for it: Pop a stress pill some time and check it out yourself.
Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood explain the sci-fi classic's enduring appeal in the video above.