Compiling the best sci-fi movies is a challenging and eclectic task. Science fiction is, after all, the fiction of ideas. The realm of what-ifs, imagine-thats, and maybes, in which any and every possible change or reimagining of human existence is possible. As such there’s a hell of a lot of variety, and a hell of a lot of different approaches to choose from.
So we’ve gone diverse. Over the next few pages you’ll find comedies, horror-tinged sci-fi nightmares, technologically powered adventure romps, and more than a few other angles in between. Please note those, that these are the best sci-fi movies right now, not necessarily the most historically important ones (though there is some crossover). We love Metropolis and Le Voyage dans la Lune as much as anyone, but don’t expect to see them on this list as they’ve both been superseded in the many decades since their releases.
Oh, and for the purposes of not having to choose, and because some sci-fi stories really are best when you take a whole series into account, we’ve allowed certain sequel and trilogy combos to sit in a single entry. Otherwise there’s a one-film-per-series rule in play here. For the purposes of avoiding Star Wars and Trek overload, if nothing else…
25. 12 Monkeys (1995)
The movie: Potentially Terry Gilliam’s best film (it’s this or Brazil, but the latter isn’t really sci-fi, so…), Twelve Monkeys is a masterpiece of visual design and thoughtful, character-driven ambiguity. Relating the story of future convict James Cole as he’s forced back in time on a mission to save the world from a viral terrorist attack (or is he?), Twelve Monkeys follows his increasingly tortured relationship with reality as he meets the would-be ringleader of the perpetrators (or is he?), and attempts to decipher the events to-be that may or may not lead to a future that may or may not even exist (or is he?). Delivering deep, well-considered, career-highlight performances from Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeline Stowe, amid one of the most winding, engaging, and constantly wrong-footing time-travel films around, Twelve Monkeys will stick with you for a very, very long time indeed.
Most iconic scene: Cole meets Brad Pitt’s fanatical Jeffrey Goines in a grimy, shit-encrusted mental hospital. Pitt’s hyperactive, deranged scenery-chewing here changed the path of his career emphatically.
24. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The movie: In a future where humanity is defined by mind rather than body, and cybernetic physicality is interchangeable, a special forces team investigate instances of apparently politically motivated ‘ghost’ hacks, and discover a philosophical rabbit hole that goes way deeper than the espionage and gunplay they’re used to. One of the best cyberpunk films ever made and one of the most visually beautiful animated features, Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shiro’s manga opens with a slick slice of beautifully choreographed cyborg action, and then drops straight into serious, emotive themes that will stick with you long after its resonant, open ending.
Most iconic moment: Captain Mokoto’s stealth-camo assassination mission at the start of the film. Tumbling from a roof like a ballerina, planting an explosive headshot like the crack marksman she is, then falling away, shimmering like a Predator. It’s a hell of a cool operation.
23. Dark City (1998)
The movie: Landing a year before The Matrix and playing with many of the same ideas - albeit with far less action-driven conceits - Dark City, by The Crow director Alex Proyas, is a brilliantly stylised slice of thoughtful, sci-fi fantasy with a dark, atmospheric lineage stretching way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Following amnesiac, accused murderer protagonist John Murdoch along a fantastical noir journey to understand a city that makes no sense - where it’s always night, but no-one but him seems to notice - Dark City is a smart and tonally powerful gem of a film. Tragically overlooked at release, its potential influence on Neo’s adventures has nonetheless been debated ever since.
Most iconic moment: When Murdoch’s journey to the Shell Beach holiday resort of his childhood reveals the truth about the city. Which we will not spoil here.
22. Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The movie: After Star Trek: The Motion Picture took the epic, existential approach, the sequel doubled down on character and action. Delivering an entirely warmer, more ‘fun’ film without skimping on the drama, it reaches back into Original Series history to dig out a titular villain at once more grounded than many Star Trek offers up, and much more intimidating for it. Ruthless and ferociously intelligent, Khan’s re-emergence is the catalyst that forces the Enterprise crew to rally harder than ever, under much greater hardship with much higher, more personal stakes than we’re often used to seeing. And really, when is Star Trek better than when it puts the crew’s humanity front and centre?
Most iconic moment: Kirk and Spock’s heart-wrenching goodbye as the latter sacrifices himself, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few (or the one). Alternately, “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!”
21. Ex Machina (2015)
The movie: The strength behind Ex Machina's 'man makes human robot' story isn't the sci-fi trappings behind the conceit, because that's relatively staid and downplayed. Instead it's more of a character-led thriller that builds on a lingering sense of uncertainty. Its small cast - creator, robot and guest - keep things tense and claustrophobic with strong performances from all, as you try to guess what's coming next. It's not so much a film with a twist as a situation that's hard to read; keeping you squirming as you try to second guess which way it's going to break.
Most iconic moment: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) dances away his troubles with one of his androids. Gorgeously shot in crimson shadows, it's a terrific spot of foreshadowing.
20. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
The movie: One of the purest, most downright likeable sci-fi comedies ever made, the size of Bill and Ted’s heart makes it a classic. Following two academically challenged but winsomely well-meaning teenagers on a time-travelling journey to pass their high school history test - seeing them make friends with Socrates, Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, and a very crotchety Napoleon along the way - the film isn’t just brilliantly fun (and funny) throughout, but it’s always very careful indeed to make sure that we’re always laughing with our heroes, not at them. It might seem a simple film on the surface, but creating something so innocent and cynicism-free around a concept like this takes a heck of an amount of skill.
Most iconic moment: Napoleon goes to Waterloo. The Californian water park, not the battle.
19. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The movie: 2001 made a giant leap for cinema a full year before TV viewers watched Neil Armstrong take one small step for mankind. Adapting a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick delivers one of the most iconic and influential sci-fi movies of all time, breaking down the barriers between lofty, cerebral sci-fi and more accessible mainstream fare. It feels incredibly modern today despite its age, thanks to its incredible cinematography and man vs. machine themes.
Most iconic moment: Simians thumping away with bones.
18. Mad Max 2 (1981)
The movie: Sometimes you need a second go to really get it right. Where George Miller’s 1979 original delivered a meaty slice of low-fi, dystopian action within a slightly scrappy debut feature, Mad Max 2 is the full realisation of the post-apocalyptic vision that has informed every football-padded, spike-shouldered wasteland ever since. Drowning on desolate, mournful atmosphere, but filled with a fizzing, anarchic, particularly Australian, no-rules carnage, the aesthetic of Mad Max 2’s nuked-out, character-driven, tetanus-edged western has been copied a million times, but its furious soul has never been remotely recaptured. Except, of course, by Miller himself.
Most iconic moment: The desert around the film’s central refinery is turned into a swirling vision of Hell, as lead antagonist Lord Humungus barks his demands through the red, swirling dust kicked up by a motorised army who at this point might as well be nitrous-injected demons.
17. The Matrix (1999)
The movie: Is real life really real life? Turns out it's not in The Matrix and we're all plugged into a simulation of what Earth once was so that robots can harvest us for electrical energy. Lovely. But once you know that? The world, sorry The Matrix, is your oyster. At least that's the case for Keanu Reeves' Neo who chooses to learn the truth about the machines and his own fate as The One. This makes it easier for him to manipulate the matrix and bend it to his will. It makes for some impressive slow-motion bullet fights.
Most iconic moment: Neo and Trinity getting trigger happy during the lobby sequence, blasting the crap out of dozens of agents. Hands down.
16. Jurassic Park (1993)
The movie: Messing with Dinosaur DNA and hiring incompetent IT staff was never going to end well, but at least it makes for a cracking movie. Steven Spielberg's original trek back through time is one that has been beloved by fans for decades since and has spawned several sequels, though none compare to the original. Through a mix of large, intricate puppets and ground-breaking cgi (at the time) mean the special effects feel like they haven't aged at all.
Most iconic moment: The T-rex's head appears over the side of the railing, her huge jaws grinding away on a goat carcass before letting loose her almighty maiden roar. This is the first time we see - and hear - the beast, and she's glorious.