Science fiction has rocked cinemas for a century, and the genre has produced many undisputed classics during that time. But which movies are essential viewing for anyone interested in the genre? We broke down the 50 must-watch science fiction films.
Methodology: We looked at a few different criteria, including overall cinematic excellence. We wanted to include films that were important to the development of the genre, and which had helped to raise the overall level of awesomeness in science fiction films. We also wanted to represent as many different types of films as possible. And we looked for films that had an original concept, or which were the first of their kind in some way.
But most of all, we looked for films that would represent science fiction well to a new audience and totally rock a neophyte’s brain.
Obviously, a list like this can never be 100 percent definitive, and we may have left your favorite movie of all time out. And there’s clearly a bias here towards more recent movies that are fresher in our minds. Anyway, feel free to disagree and post your own lists in comments!
This film is one of the most formative works of science fiction of all time, and its imagery remains potent nearly 80 years later. And now that there’s a fully restored version finally hitting cinemas — for the first time ever, outside of Germany — you can finally appreciate Fritz Lang’s vision in its entirety. With its uniquely weird storyline involving a worker’s uprising and a woman’s robot duplicate, Metropolis remains a source of fascination — but it’s also the source of much of the work that comes after it.
This wasn’t the first movie adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel about a scientist who dabbles in the forces of nature, but it’s still the most iconic. Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster will always be the definitive version to most people, and this movie gave birth to much of the imagery that we still associate with “mad scientists” to this day. And it’s a work of strange beauty and alienation, that still has the power to shock our hearts to life today.
The 1950s were the era of sensational movies about aliens and monsters threatening our way of life — but only The Day The Earth Stood Still dares to use that framework to make us question that way of life. Klaatu’s visit to us, and the warning he delivers, still resonate today. With its thought-provoking premise, this film won praise from such luminaries as Arthur C. Clarke, who put it on his own list of the best science fiction films.
One of the classic “Ealing Comedies” starring Alec Guinness, this is a very different sort of “mad scientist” film than Frankenstein. Guinness plays a man who’s determined to invent a fabric that can never rip or get dirty, so he can free millions of people from drudgery. But his invention will also put a lot of people out of work, because eliminating drudgery means eliminating jobs. This is science fiction at its most thought-provoking—and it’s funny as hell, too.
60 years later, the archetypal giant monster is still wreaking destruction. But the first Godzilla movie is still a total classic, in which the trauma of nuclear weapons is literalized in the form of a destructive behemoth. A lot of the best science fiction is about grappling with our fears of technology and the unknown, but seldom has it been as visceral and thrilling as it is here. Skip the Raymond Burr-bastardized American release and go straight for the original Japanese version.
A formative classic of space opera, this is said to be the first movie to take place on another planet, in deep space. It’s often described as a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but Forbidden Planet also manages to do something unique, with a monster that comes from within and its secret relationship to the mysterious scourge that wiped out the super-advanced Krell race, 200,000 years ago. Like TDTES, this film examines our own tendency towards self-destruction, but it delves into the psychology of human self-destructiveness more.
There were a number of great apocalyptic movies during the height of the Cold War, including 1959’s On The Beach. What makes Doctor Strangelove a science fiction classic is first of all, that it invests so much energy into inventing strange new ideas like the doomsday device that forces global annihilation in the event of an attack. And the network of underground survival tunnels, where important men and a large number of women will wait out the nuclear winter. But most of all, writer Terry Southern’s satirical gem gives us amazing insight into the psychology of apocalypse, showing us just what sort of men would doom the entire world on purpose.
And here’s a very different version of humanity’s encounter with the “other” — Charleton Heston is the indignant everyman, thrust into a world where humans are little better than beasts and apes are ascendant. With their stinking paws. This film launched a whole genre of films in which a lone human (sometimes Heston again) copes with an inhuman who have inherited our planet and transformed it in their own image. But this film is still arguably the best. (And we almost included the recent prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is a classic in its own right.)
A total departure from everything that came before, this film benefited immensely from Kubrick’s unique eye as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s mixture of hard science fiction and interest in transcendance. It’s almost hard to list everything this film did first, and better than anybody else since: A compelling, realistic description of life in space? A depiction of an artificial intelligence going mad? A huge mystery that spans from the dawn of humanity into our far future? Those are just the building blocks for a film that’s as mind-blowing and rewarding of close attention today as it was in 1968. It’s also given us some of the genre’s most quotable dialogue.
The decade following 2001 saw a handful of slow, meditative science fiction movies, which dramatize the loneliness and madness of the vast cosmos. But arguably the most memorable and intense of these is Tarkovsky’s masterpiece in which a cosmonaut orbiting a planet covered by a psychic ocean is confronted with a reconstruction of his dead wife. Based on a story by Stanislaw Lem, this movie leaves you questioning the very being of its characters and the nature of love itself, as Roger Ebert explains.
There are a lot of great movies about making first contact with aliens—we almost included Contact on this list as well—but this one really captures the mystery and wonder of encountering beings with such a different view of reality that we barely share a language. The concept of communicating with aliens through musical notes is such a powerful one, it feeds into the general sense of awe and strangeness that turns this movie into a powerful experience. For years, this movie shaped how people imagined meeting more advanced extraterrestrial beings.
This film didn’t just launch Scott and star Sigourney Weaver — it also launched a whole genre of movies about our terrifying encounters with creatures beyond our own imagination. Scott merged space opera, Westerns and horror in a way that pretty much nobody had done before, and the result remains vivid today. With a sharp script by Dan O’Bannon and note-perfect direction by Scott, this is a master class on how to do creepiness and a compelling story in the sterility of deep space. And you really have to see the sequel, directed by James Cameron, which is a defining moment in the history of military science fiction and space opera.
This is the first of three sequels that came out in the early 1980s that were better than the films they followed, but which also innovated in a way that their precursors didn’t. Not that the original Star Wars wasn’t innovative — it was, in many ways, including its breathtaking effects, its fresh take on Western and Samurai themes, and its exhilerating approach to space opera. But Empire Strikes Back took all of the formal brilliance of Star Wars and married it to a story that feels truly epic. Luke Skywalker’s journey in the film, from near-death on Hoth to confronting his own darkness on Dagobah to learning the truth on Bespin — this is a real voyage of discovery. You couldn’t skip any of those steps and have it still work. All our other heroes struggle with tragedy and adversity — especially Han Solo — and it makes them deeper and more magnetic as characters. This isn’t just the best Star Wars movie, it’s one of the most essential movies, in any genre.
Based on the novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, this made-for-TV movie is a rock solid piece of science fiction as well as an unsettling psychological drama. Despite the PBS production values, this story of a man whose dreams start coming true in the real world manages to pack in a lot of strangeness and wild visions. Plus it asks the kinds of huge questions about the nature of reality, and how our perceptions shape the world, that science fiction often asks at its best.
The first Mad Max film is brutal and awesome, and well worth watching again, especially if you’ve only seen the crappy dubbed version. But where Mad Max shows the breakdown of Max and the civilization he lives in, this sequel shows the aftermath, and becomes an indelible classic of post-apocalyptic films in the process. The final huge convoy scene, with its demolition derby feeling, has influenced everything that came after. And with “peak oil” once again being a hot topic, this film’s story of barbarians struggling over the last oil supplies has a new resonance. And yes, you absolutely must see the recent Mad Max: Fury Road as well.
Like Empire Strikes Back, this film rises above its status as just another installment in a big, commercial saga. You could show this movie to someone who had never seen any Trek, and it would still resonate on a hundred different levels. James Kirk is the ultimate neophile, who always wants to go forward and rediscover new worlds, but he’s been doing it too long and now his past is chasing him everywhere he goes. He’s got a son and an arch-enemy that he didn’t know he had, and the twist — that the ultimate weapon is also a source of renewal that can literally create life where none existed before — sets up one of the most bittersweet endings in movie history. And then there are the space battles, which are totally different than Star Wars and yet indelibly awesome in their own right.
Blade Runner is still just as visually unique now as it was when it came out, and it defined the look and feel of cyberpunk as well as urban dystopia. And you can’t even talk about science fiction noir without delving into Blade Runner. And like many of the other films on this list, Blade Runner looks at what it means to be human by examining our interactions with the “other” — but the line gets so blurry, and the Replicants so fascinating, that the end result is something you have to chew over in the hours after watching.
A lot of people may hate on this film, but it changed the way we see first contact with aliens as much as Close Encounters of the Third Kind did. And E.T. was one of the first really compelling aliens ever to appear on the big screen. E.T. takes the sense of wonder from Close Encounters and makes it more intimate and personal. This is also the movie in which Spielberg’s obessions with fatherhood, children and discovery resonate the best. But also, from a technical standpoint, it’s an amazing achievement — rewatch it sometime, and look at how everything is presented from a child’s eye-level, and the mom is the only adult whose face we see in the first two acts. Spielberg uses lighting, camera angles and dialog to make a film that’s not just about childhood, but told from a child’s point of view.
It’s hard to understate how much this film changed the genre of science fiction — it’s arguably the first movie to use computer generated effects, as Lisberger hung out at MIT and learned from the techies there — but it’s also still one of the most thrilling depictions of virtual worlds on the big screen. (Compare Tron to Lawnmower Man to see how much more exciting and believable the earlier film is.) With the theme of fighting against the fascistic Master Control Program, Lisberger manages to update science fiction’s longstanding interest in social change, but makes it fun and exciting rather than dreary and preachy.
It’s shocking how few truly great science fiction comedy films there are, but BTTF would still tower above the rest even if there were tons. It’s clever and yet never stops being about Marty McFly and his family. It manages to come up with a coherent theory of time travel, in which you can rewrite the past and the effects are seen nearly instantaneously (luckily, Marty is only missing like an arm and a leg before the timestream rights itself) and never becomes inconsistent. And it’s surprisingly daring, jumping feet first into the tricky waters of time-traveling incest. Plus it’s one of those science fiction movies that everybody, even genre-hating snobs, will admit to loving.
And another classic from 1985’s is also a comedy... well, sort of. It’s possibly the darkest, bleakest, most horrifying comedy you’ll ever see, with freakish plastic surgery, a man being condemned to death because of a typographical error, a lecture on ducting and a vigilante plumber. This is my favorite movie of all time, and probably the best thing to come out of Monty Python after the television series. This film probably couldn’t get made today, and it definitely wouldn’t get made in Hollywood, which tried to neuter it in U.S. cinemas. A subversive masterpiece, this film changed what a lot of people thought was possible in dark comedy as well as dystopian film-making.
We love tortured movies about encountering the other—and they don’t get much more tender and beautiful than this tale of a human (Dennis Quaid) who gets crash-landed on a planet with an alien (Louis Gossett Jr.). The two of them have to learn to work together to survive, and ultimately become a kind of family. It’s a parable of overcoming xenophobia, but also of learning to see the beauty in the other—and the ugliness in your own people.
Another totally subversive science fiction movie from the 1980s, this film picks up Tron’s obsessions with corporate fascism and runs in a different direction, with the evil OCP trying to take over Detroit’s police force and remake the struggling city as Delta City. RoboCop himself is a great example of science fiction’s struggle with the ways technology changes or negates our humanity, and 20 years before The Dark Knight, this film manages to delve into similar questions about how far we’ll go to keep society safe from crime. A surreal blend of cyberpunk, Frankenstein and action movie, this film remains Verhoeven’s greatest statement.
This is one of the greatest science fiction action movies of all time, as a total badass commando (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who else?) is faced with an alien creature that’s way more badass than he is. The Predator can see in infrared and turn invisible, and seems unbeatable. And it’s come to Earth for one reason only: To hunt us for sport. The process of taking this alpha killer down is one of pure deduction and brute savagery, and it’s amazing to watch.
We almost included Carpenter’s remake of The Thing on this list as well, along with Escape from New York, but ended up leaving this as the only example of Carpenter’s amazing ouevre on this list. Because it’s arguably the most subversive and insane of Carpenter’s 1980s gems. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper gets hold of some special sunglasses that allow him to see that we’re all ruled over by evil skull-faced aliens. Their ugly faces are everywhere, and their propaganda is ubiquitous. Good thing Piper is out of bubble gum.
This anime classic is still utterly unique, all these decades later. In 2019, Tokyo is an apocalyptic wasteland in the aftermath of World War III, and a biker gang led by Kaneda tries to prevent the devastation from happening again. Unfortunately, one of the bikers, Tetsuo, has the same kind of psychic powers as Akira, the man who caused the destruction of Tokyo in the first place. They keep trying to remake this movie in live-action with American actors, and let’s hope they keep failing.
Speaking of dark action movies that confront us with questions about what it means to be human — this film would deserve a spot on the list just for the scene in which John Connor opens up the Terminator’s head and changes his brain from read-only to read/write, so the Terminator can begin to learn from his experiences instead of just following commands. But it’s also a brilliant action movie, in which every action sequence is inventive and uses special effects in a clever way. Every big-budget, CG-heavy action film aspires to be Terminator 2 deep in its chrome heart.
And here’s another Spielberg movie! This one’s about humans creating awe-inspiring creatures, rather than encountering them. Michael Crichton took the story of his beloved film Westworld and replaced robot cowboys with cloned dinosaurs, and the result is a thrillride in which a shirtless Jeff Goldblum asks the big questions about whether we should tamper with the forces of nature, just because we can. As much as Tron and Terminator 2, this film utterly transformed how movies use digital effects.
Like Akira, this is one of the first anime films to hit the U.S. and make a big impact, and impress on U.S. fans how powerful anime film-making was becoming. It’s spawned a huge franchise, which for the most part hasn’t diluted the awesomeness of the concept at all — Stand Alone Complex is considered one of the greatest science fiction anime shows, and it wouldn’t exist without this film. With its theme of possibly false memories and cyber-weirdness, it had a huge influence on both cyberpunks and memory-altering works like Dark City and Dollhouse, but it turns into an amazing examination of the theme of sentience and the definition of life.
Gilliam is one of the few directors to be represented on this list more than once—we almost included his Time Bandits too, but that’s arguably more fantasy than science fiction. This film, based on the French time-travel story La Jetee, is one of the most perfect works of fatalism ever. A man goes back in time from the plague-ridden future, only to find that he’s already part of the apocalyptic events that he remembers from his childhood. What makes this movie even more compelling is the way it combines the closed-loop time travel with a vision of madness, as embodied by Brad Pitt.
Niccol has sort of made a career out of filming wonderfully heavy-handed dystopias, but this is his most beloved and successful (other than The Truman Show, which he wrote but did not direct.) Ethan Hawke is a man who wants to join the space program even though he was not genetically enhanced, in a future where only people with upgraded genes get to do certain things. It’s a thought-provoking look at the implications of gene-splicing that’s even more relevant today.
In a strange, dirty, glamorous future, the young Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is our only hope for escaping total destruction at the hands of a Great Evil—but she’s faced with an army of alien thugs and their vicious leader, Zorg (Gary Oldman). This is a joyously silly and bizarre space opera that’s full of beautiful set pieces and incredible production design. But it’s also one of the few movies to capture the unique feel of French bandes dessinees in live-action, especially the artwork of Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.
Forget the colossal letdown of the sequels — viewed as a standalone film, this is a brilliant action movie that spawned a million imitators, but it also put an end to an entire sub-genre. There were a slew of dark cyberpunk movies in the late 1990s that mixed weirdness and clever intrigue, with a sense that nothing was real — and The Matrix basically ended that subgenre by being so good, the others paled by comparison. (Have you even heard of Cyberwars? The 13th Floor?) And this film asked philosophical questions about the nature of reality, while feeding us our messianic candy in a way that didn’t leave us sick to our stomachs afterwards.
Also known as “the Star Trek spoof that became one of the best Star Trek movies.” This is such a brilliant concept: A group of washed-up actors from a space opera TV show get recruited by aliens who believe the show is a documentary, and have to learn to become the characters they played on TV. What makes things even better is that Galaxy Quest goes beyond just poking fun at all of the tropes of old-school television science fiction, and actually becomes a terrific space adventure in its own right.
Primer is famous as a film that you need to watch a few times before you fully grasp what’s going on, and there’s never been a movie that was less eager to explain itself to its audience. The opening, in which a couple of nerds tinkering in their garage randomly hit on an amazing discovery, is one of the great iconic nerd scenes of all time, and then the movie just gets crazier and crazier, with our heroes going back in time a few times too often until they descend into a kind of insanity. Worth watching just for the Walkman scene. This film is what Lost was trying to do with its own time travel stories.
It took immense self-control not to load this list up with a ton of films from the Pixar guys. But The Incredibles is arguably the best Pixar film, and the best superhero film, of all. This film takes the mythos of the Fantastic Four and mashes it up with a bit of Watchmen, and the result manages to be just as fun as the former and almost as dark and thought-provoking as the latter. And The Incredibles does something few other standalone superhero films have pulled off: it feels like a fully realized superhero universe, in which there are superhero costume makers, and tons of larger-than-life challenges all the time, including big robots and supervillains. This film paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so much else.
This film works on so many levels. It’s a metaphor for the ways in which you try to erase someone from your memories and your life, after a breakup, in order to reinvent yourself as a single person. And yet, the film manages to suggest, that process is a form of suicide — you have to destroy a piece of your life in order to excise your former lover from it. And since that process is also the reverse of falling in love, maybe it leads you to realize why you fell for the other person in the first place. But Eternal Sunshine is also an incredibly clever science fiction movie that introduces a bizarre new technology in a way that’s both surreal and believable.
This film is beloved because it provides a fitting (if heart-breaking) conclusion to the perfect one-season TV series Firefly. But you don’t even have to have seen Firefly to appreciate Serenity as a great science fiction movie in its own right—despite what the critics told people when this film was released. Serenity is the story of a group of smugglers and crooks, who fought on the wrong side of a space war, and their discovery of a terrible secret about the people who were on the winning side. There’s a fantastically complex metaphor at the heart of this movie about free will, and what it means to “be bad guys.” This film also benefits immensely from having Chiwetel Ejiofor as its villain.
On the surface, this film is about a dystopian future in which humans can no longer procreate, and society falls into madness. But it quickly turns into a metaphor for immigration and xenophobia, as the United Kingdom tries to shut out the rest of the world. No film has depicted sheer chaos as kinetically and memorably as this one has, especially in its epic final single-take action sequence. Unpredictable, dazzling and well-made, Children Of Men sets the standard for gritty science fiction action movies.
Bong has become more well known recently for directing the post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer—but this story of a mutant creature terrorizing Korea is like a new Godzilla for the 21st century. Instead of being unleashed by atomic bomb tests, this monster is created by chemical spills and American imperialism, and the political satire is pretty intense. But this is also one of the all-time great monster movies, in which the fight against the creature is a thing of beauty and terror.
American cinema has pumped out post-apocalyptic stories like a doom factory over the past decade or so. But few of them manage to be as hopeful, or as sweet, as this story of a robot who’s left alone on an abandoned Earth, turning all our garbage into cubes and studying the remnants of our culture. This movie turns into a love story, as the stranded Wall-E encounters another robot, and that in turn becomes the story of how human beings can find redemption through our own creations.
As much as it’s true that we’re drowning in a sea of derivative garbage, as Hollywood tries to churn out as many cookie-cutter films and sequels as possible, some really original and clever films have sneaked through. Moon is both a throwback to old-school film-making (mostly practical effects, a single massive set that was built in its entirety and sealed up during filming) and a huge step forward in terms of using special effects in a clever, inobtrusive way. (The central trick, of having two Sam Rockwells, could not have been done without CG effects, and the DVD gives some insight into just how hard it was to pull off.) This movie manages to make the theme of corporate evil and the nature of selfhood, that pops up in so many films on this list, and make it totally fresh by throwing in a horrifying twist, in which Rockwell’s character turns out to be disposable in the most literal sense.
The other great indie film of 2009, this quasi-documentary feels like an old-school Doctor Who story about a human turning into something unrecognizeable, wrapped around a totally savage message film. There’s seldom been a less sympathetic protagonist than Wikus, who’s a pusillanimous cog in a brutal machine — the scene where he casually slaughters alien children and jokes about the popping sound still makes me ill — but we wind up identifying with him and his plight as he’s cast out of society anyway. That makes a more powerful statement than if Wikus were a noble champion of the downtrodden from the beginning. And while Wikus finally sort of redeems himself, it’s shocking how late it comes. Plus, this is another great action movie that actually uses action sequences in an inventive way. Despite its crude stereotypes of Nigerians, this remains an important, influential film.
Like Eternal Sunshine, this film examines the nature of consciousness in a clever way that still makes sense in the end. And like Wrath Of Khan, it’s about a man who’s being swallowed up by his past, except that in this case Dom Cobb is actually haunted by a literal ghost, and he’s in constant danger of being pulled so deep into a kind of netherworld that he’ll never escape. But as a clever caper that revolves around a brilliantly inventive new technology and keeps reinventing itself every few minutes, Inception does what only the truly great science fiction films pull off: it makes science fiction a nexus of different genres, in which every genre is enriched by its contact with the speculative.
Here’s another great time-travel movie, in which a man is at war with himself in a kind of echo of Twelve Monkeys. Once again, Bruce Willis goes back in time—but in this universe, you can actually change the future through your actions in the past. (As proved by a horrific mutilation scene early on in the film.) Willis wants to fix his mistakes by rewriting history, but finds out that it’s not that simple. The transition from the citified first half to the countrified second half is beautiful and marks a shift in our understanding of the film’s story as a whole.
We dithered about whether to include this film, because it’s sort of a flawed gem. But it’s also a hugely important film about our relationship with technology and how our devices are changing us and making us both smarter and more dependent. In a future where your smartphone really is smarter than you are, what does it mean to fall in love with your technology? And can that technology really love us back, the way we want it to?
And here’s a sort of companion piece to Looper and Twelve Monkeys—the Spierig Brothers took Robert A. Heinlein’s classic, definining story of time travel and transformation, and actually managed to turn it into a powerful, satisfying movie. What makes this film more than just the clever closed-loop time travel scenario its title implies is the intense performance from Sarah Snook as the “Unwed Mother.”
Like Galaxy Quest, this is a space comedy that manages to be a great space movie in its own right. The “group of misfits have to band together to stop a cosmic threat” storyline has seldom been captured in such a thrilling, and heart-breaking fashion. This movie somehow makes an assortment of weird creatures, including a raccoon and a tree, feel more vivid and personally relevant than most movies manage to make flesh-and-blood humans.
Like Her, this is a vital film about our relationship with technology, and it asks the key questions that we’re all struggling with in our Twitterpated era. In this case, instead of a smartphone in love, it’s an android who’s irresistibly beautiful and vulnerable. A man goes to a secret A.I. lab in the middle of nowhere to meet a machine that can think for itself—not realizing that he, not she, is the experiment.
And finally, we just saw a brand new science fiction masterpiece. Like Gravity (which we almost included on this list as well) this is a brutal, immersive film about surviving away from Earth. But it’s also a wonderful celebration of the ingenuity and cleverness of a man who’s stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how to survive by his wits alone. The humor and desperation make this movie a rollercoaster ride, as much as its thrilling visuals.
Additional reporting by Mary Ratliff. Thanks also to Alasdair Wilkins, Meredith Woerner, Wes Siler, Jamie Condliffe, Jennifer Ouellette, George Dvorsky, Andrew Liptak, Darren Orf, Germain Lussier, Matt Novak, Carlos Rebato, Kaila Hale-Stern, Cheryl Eddy, Brent Rose, Maddie Stone, Carlos Zahumensky, Diane Kelly, Attila Nagy and Mario Aguilar for the suggestions!
A version of this list first appeared in 2010.