By Matthew Mahler
These are the 20 greatest science-fiction movies ever made, comprising nearly 100 years of the very best the sci-fi genre has to offer.
Hugo Gernsback is often credited with coining the term 'science-fiction,' and that's why the Hugo Awards are named after him. He said that the genre "can be defined as: Imaginative extrapolation of true natural phenomena, existing now, or likely to exist in the future." The key word here is 'imaginative.'
Sci-fi is perhaps the most imaginative genre (at least outside animation, though the two overlap), and it has the ability to not only imagine different worlds and technologies, but to also expand our own imaginations for the betterment of the world and ourselves. Hollywood has helped pioneer science-fiction thanks to the bigger budgets and studio system of its industry, but sci-fi films are popular around the world as well.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the only other country that could historically compete with American sci-fi films no longer exists, and in many ways was always a fiction. For a variety of reasons, the Soviet Union produced some of the most philosophical, intelligent, and epic science-fiction films of all time — Inquest of Pilot Pirx, Daed Man's Letters, Per Aspera ad Astra, and Kin-Dza-Dza are just a few, along with Andrei Tarkovsky's work.
This isn't to say that other countries have failed sci-fi; there are great titles in Germany (World on a Wire), France (The Last Combat, Fantastic Planet, Je t'aime Je t'aime), Japan (Godzilla), Brazil (The Fifth Power, The Pink Cloud), Poland (On the Silver Globe), and many other nations. Nonetheless, America has created many sci-fi masterpieces.
While sci-fi blends with many other styles, we won't be including some titles which are patently defined by other genres (such as The Thing, which is more of a perfect horror movie than anything else). Sometimes, the combination is perfect (like the sci-fi horror of Alien, or the coming-of-age drama and sci-fi leanings of Donnie Darko). Those films, like the rest of these, deserve to be called sci-fi, and the best of the bunch.
While several great and arguably masterful movies were not included (Annihilation, Ex Machina, The Terminator, The Abyss, Sunshine, Planet of the Apes, Arrival, Repo Man, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coherence, A Clockwork Orange, THX 1138, Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Fifth Element, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Soylent Green, WALL-E, Snowpiercer, Her, Total Recall, Gattaca, Brazil, Robocop, and especially Children of Men, along with many more), the following are what we believe to be the fest sci-fi films of all time, ranked.
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20 Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko slowly became a cult film for any teenager who felt ostracized, lonely, or depressed. It's a weird, messy, but wonderful film about the titular boy who may either be diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorder or is perhaps receiving transmissions from the future.
One day, a piece of an airplane lands on his bedroom; it would've killed him if he wasn't there. Thus begins Donnie's strange journey through 1980s suburbia, demonic-looking rabbits, and wacky time travel theories in this pop masterpiece.
The great Jean-Luc Godard subverted many genres in his early days, from gangster pictures (Breathless) to musicals (A Woman Is a Woman). One of his most imaginative deconstructions of genre is Alphaville, a brilliant French film which arguably invented the sci-fi noir genre hybrid which would lead to numerous science-fiction classics.
In the film, a government agent named Lemmy Caution (Eddie Considine, who played the role in many other films) is sent into the titular town to apprehend a mad computer scientist, and is aided by the dystopian ruler's own daughter (Godard's early muse, the amazing Anna Karina). Alphaville has an unofficial Godard sequel, Germany Year 90 Zero, which is hard to find but worth seeking out.
18 Back to the Future
A timeless classic that spawned two delightful sequels, Back to the Future has completely entered the pop culture lexicon and become one of those rare movies where, even if you haven't seen it, you probably know about it.
Marty McFly accidently drives into the past with the help of the wacky mad scientist Doc Brown, and has to ensure that he doesn't mess up the past so much that he blurs out of existence. It's one of the most purely entertaining popcorn classics in the history of film, even if it's not necessarily the most intellectual or visually stunning sci-fi film.
17 Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies are renowned for being unique allegories that reflect different sociopolitical issues in their time, whether it's McCarthyism in the '50s, Watergate paranoia in the '70s, the Gulf War and AIDS in the '90s, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s.
Related: Every Invasion of the Body Snatchers Movie and How Each is an Allegory For Their Time
While the 1978 film is incredible, the 1956 version is the first and arguably the best. It follows a doctor in a small town who stumbles across an alien plot to replace everyone with 'pod people,' emotionless aliens who look just like their human counterparts.
There are several great David Cronenberg films which could probably be on this list, from Videodrome to The Fly. Perhaps his most underrated film, though, is eXistenZ, a star-studded and extremely prophetic sci-fi masterpiece about video games, virtual reality, and political radicalism.
Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are on the run from an angry group who opposes virtual reality and the new technology that Leigh's character is pioneering. Along the way, the two confuse reality with its virtual counterpart and don't know who to trust, as Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, Don McKellar, and many others suspiciously appear on their path.
Perhaps the most realistic film about time travel, Chane Carruth's 2004 film Primer is an extremely unique movie and undoubtedly the one film to master the 'science' aspect of science-fiction. The film follows two low-level businessmen who have been working in their garage on a machine which can potentially send things back in time. Numerous rules and machinations follow as they devise a believable plan, along with increasing paranoia.
Shane Carruth is brilliant, serving as star, writer, director, producer, editor, and composer of the film, making a masterpiece out of just $7,000. His long-awaited follow-up, Upstream Color, is also a masterpiece. Unfortunately, his personal problems have all but destroyed his career, but looking purely at these two films, it's clear that he was one of the greatest sci-fi filmmakers of his generation.
14 The Man Who Fell to Earth
David Bowie capitalized on his gender-fluid 'starman' persona in the '70s with a surprisingly good acting career, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is his undisputed best. A dreamy, sad sci-fi epic based on the great story by Walter Tevis, the film follows a stranded alien who uses his extraterrestrial technology to build an economic empire, initially hoping to return to his planet.
Along the way, he succumbs to the same vices, attachments, and tragedies which affect many humans. Nicolas Roeg's film is one of his best, a movie that simultaneously defines the decade it's from but also remains timeless.
13 Dark City
Another great sci-fi film noir which leans very heavily into the noir aspect, Dark City didn't make many waves in the '90s, but film critic Roger Ebert adored it and pushed for its continued relevance and increased acclaim. The Alex Proyas movie is a stylistic masterpiece, a rainy, pulpy mystery about a man wrongly accused of murder who realizes that his entire life and city is part of an alien experiment.
12 12 Monkeys
Based on Chris Marker's ingenious short film, La Jetée, director Terry Gilliam brings his madcap enthusiasm and aesthetic panache to this utterly gripping sci-fi story of a man sent into the past to save the world from a deadly pandemic.
Bruce Willis is at his best in 12 Monkeys as the prisoner who goes back in time, and Brad Pitt stunned the world with his literally wild performance, introducing audiences to one of the hottest actors of the past three decades. Gilliam's usual carnivalesque style works perfectly here in this exhilarating classic.
Many have called it the last mainstream art film, because Christopher Nolan's Inception manages to bring experimental narratives and visuals to the mainstream in a way rarely seen with popular film. While it isn't exactly an art film, it is one of the few recent examples of a true anomaly — a massive commercial success that is also critically adored and timeless.
The stunning cast of Inception guide viewers through a kaleidoscopic world in which people use a device to infiltrate others' dreams, and then burrow deep into their subconscious, even digging into dreams within dreams. It's a head trip, with one of the action sequences of the 2010s and one of the decade's greatest scores.
10 Until the End of the World
Until recently, viewers could only see the truncated version of Wim Wender's masterpiece, Until the End of the World, but even that was nearly three hours long. Now, the Criterion Collection has released the official five-hour version, and it's a doozy. The 1991 movie follows a woman as she travels the world, chasing a mysterious man she loves while being followed by her ex-lover and some goofy criminals.
Related: Why Until the End of the World May Be the Greatest Road Movie of All Time
It's the road trip movie to end all road trip movies, as she hops from country to country, learning of a device which can visually record people's dreams. With one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, extremely imaginative sci-fi technology, and a delightful William Hurt performance, it's a visionary masterpiece.
9 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg followed up his massive blockbuster hit, Jaws, with a much weirder, more meditative, and arguably smarter film, the sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A beautiful movie about connection, universality, and obsession.
Richard Dreyfuss plays a father who becomes fixated on UFOs after a strange possible experience with one. He becomes a kind of conspiracy theorist and 'truther,' alienating his family with his eccentricities, but he may be on to something. The film has one of the finest endings of all time.
8 The Matrix
The Matrix redefined popular sci-fi when it came out, leading to a kind of 'space race' between studios to develop new CGI technology and create the next big franchise. The Wachowski sisters' classic film is another title that practically everyone knows about, thanks to its then-cool aesthetic, quasi-philosophical dialogue, and groundbreaking effects.
The Matrix follows a man stuck in a digital simulation who joins a group of revolutionaries to take down the computers, and brought cyberpunk and simulation theory to the masses, all packaged into a super stylish gift to movie lovers.
While it's not the first sci-fi film (the 1902 Georges Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon, and Edison Studios' 1910 film, Frankenstein, are early examples), Metropolis is arguably the first great one. This epic masterpiece from the great Fritz Lang created an entire world, fleshed out with miniatures and the pioneering Schüfftan process of mirrors, and is probably the first example of elaborate world-building in film.
Metropolis is a silent German classic that focuses on a dystopian society separated by extreme class disparity, where the proletariat workers attempt to use a robot to rise up against the elites. The original 153-minute film is rarely seen, but the 124-minute edit from 2001 is often considered authoritative and is a perfect film.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky only really made two sci-fi films, but they're often both considered to be two of the best in the genre. Of course, his other films are brilliant (especially The Sacrifice and Andrei Rublev), but these two sci-fi movies are philosophical and mind-expanding in the way few films ever are. Solaris follows a psychologist in the futre who is sent to a space station to check on the progress of its scientific study of the titular planet, Solaris.
Once there, he realizes that only two crew members are alive, and that they've both become somewhat insane. The reason for this is that the planet is somehow accessing and manipulating the memories of people in its vicinity. It's a quiet and moody film, visually stunning and emotionally powerful, and stands completely on its own in the sci-fi landscape. Steven Soderbergh remade the '70s film in the 2000s with George Clooney, and it's actually a wonderful remake.
While it might tip a bit too close to horror (and the excellent James Cameron sequel too close to action), Alien still remains one of the best science-fiction films of all time. Ridley Scott's masterpiece introduced the world to some unforgettable imagery, from chest-bursting aliens to a badass Sigourney Weaver. The film is a kind of mystery-horror in sci-fi trappings, following a crew of interstellar travellers who are picked off one by one by a disturbing Xenomorph.
The most profitable film of all time at the moment (not adjusting for inflation), Avatar is truly iconoclastic. It's a testament to James Cameron's patient vision that the great director chose to work on nothing else but the Avatar franchise for the past two decades, and with the vast success of the recent sequel, it's clear that people still care about Avatar. This is astounding, given how genuinely radical the film is — as the podcast Chapo Trap House once defined it, Avatar is a movie that gets people to root for the Viet Kong against U.S. troops.
The film is ecologically and politically radical, focusing on the world of Pandora and its native inhabitants. A villainous corporate-government hybrid is invading the planet and draining its resources, and is uploading the consciousness of soldiers into 'avatars' of the indigenous Na'avi population of the planet.
One of them, however, learns to respect and love the Na'avi and understand that the mission from Eath (aka America) is an imperialist, exploitive, and racist operation that values profit over countless lives. With stunning visuals and the greatest use of 3-D in cinema history, Avatar is not only an ideologically powerful film but a cinematically masterful one.
3 Blade Runner
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner features literally everything people love about science-fiction — meticulous and expansive world-building, cool technology, intellectual ideas, philosophical musings, amazing characters, and a style all its own. Fusing Asian aesthetics with a perpetually rainy city of American skyscrapers and corporations, Blade Runner chronicles the attempts of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to hunt down some rogue 'replicants,' or androids who do the manual labor and dirty work of humans off-planet.
With its incredible Vangelis score and wonderful supporting performances (from Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos, William Sanderson, and James Hong), Blade Runner has cemented itself as one of the coolest, most progressive and influential sci-fi films of all time. The Ryan Gosling-led sequel brings Harrison Ford back and is actually fantastic.
2 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey is so close to being the best science-fiction film ever made, but it is undoubtedly the most important. Audiences can track the evolution of sci-fi by breaking it down into two categories — before 2001, and after 2001. The Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is perhaps the defining film of the 1960s and arguably the first modern sci-fi film, in terms of technology, special effects, narrative, and ideas.\
Related: 2001: A Space Odyssey: Revisiting Kubrick's Masterpiece and Explaining the Ending
Dave Bowman is a crew member on the Discovery One, which is headed to Jupiter to explore strange radio signals that are similar to one discovered on a lunar crater. He's assisted by the ship's intelligent computer, HAL-9000. While HAL is generally seen as just a red light, he becomes one of the most memorable villains in film history, as he hides the mission's true objectives from Dave and attempts to kill all the crew. The film is bookended by two of the most mysterious sequences in film history, and features a hallucinatory ending sequence which is the closest mainstream film has ever come to true experimental art.
The aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most important sci-fi film of all time, but when deciding upon the 'greatest,' an obviously subjective term, Stalker comes to mind. The second film from Andrei Tarkovsky on this list, Stalker is a mysterious and mind-blowing movie about an alien sort of 'zone' which has opened up in Russia, an area where the normal laws of physics and reality as we know it don't apply.
The zone is navigated by 'stalkers,' people who bring individuals into the area for money. Stalker follows one of these strange guides as he leads two men past the military blockades and deep into the zone, where 'The Room' is said to reside, an area which can grant anyone a wish.
It's a simple premise, and actually a somewhat simple execution, though the narrative remains shrouded in mystery. The film follows the men as they navigate the zone and speak about their motivations, theories, and memories, while the zone itself seems to take control of the film.
Yes, the film is stylistically perfect in every respect and utterly entrancing (which is why it's ranked as the best sci-fi film of all time by Rotten Tomatoes), but the best thing about the film is its metaphysical exploration of reality. Watching Stalker is like a serious hallucinogenic trip — if you can endure it, you'll come away thinking you've finally solved the meaning of life. Few feelings can beat that elation.