Of the 50 highest grossing movies of all time, over 40 could be described as science fiction or fantasy – and most of those have earned over a billion dollars at the box office. In other words, the genres are not only massively popular, they're the biggest on the planet. They're not just lucrative, however – any list of the best sci-fi movies contains some of the most inventive, groundbreaking and – let’s be honest – awesome films in history.
Science fiction is the genre of ideas, the place where travelling among the stars, exploring the space-time continuum and bringing dinosaurs back to life can be possible. The best sci-fi movies make you believe the impossible, usually via a combination of brilliant storytelling, memorable characters and spectacular visuals – often the effects can be enough to justify the price of a cinema ticket by themselves. Remember that feeling when you first saw Star Destroyer flew overhead in the original Star Wars or when Doc Brown’s pooch Einstein became the first ever time traveller in Back to the Future? Then you know what we mean.
Before you read on, there are a few caveats to this list of the best sci-fi movies. We’ve applied a rule of one entry per movie franchise – otherwise the 25 could have been overloaded with Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe films. We’ve also bent the rules a little to allow certain classic trilogies/series to sit as one entry – otherwise we’d have to make an impossible choice between The Terminator and Terminator 2, Alien and Aliens. And finally, this collection of the best sci-fi movies undeniably skews modern – we’re not denying the brilliance of black-and-white classics like the Boris Karloff-starring Frankenstein, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the original The Day the Earth Still, but have opted instead to focus on more recent movies recognisable as the genre we know today.
So turn your time circuits on, engage the warp drive and join us on an adventure through the best sci-fi movies of all time – we’ve seen things you people will never believe…
25. Avatar (2009)
Avengers: Endgame may be doing its best to steal its crown – Disney are even arranging a re-release with extra footage to get it over the line – but Avatar remains the highest grossing movie of all time. In the decade since its release it’s become all-too-easy to dismiss James Cameron’s sci-fi epic as an example of style over substance, but that would mean ignoring one of the best pieces of world-building ever seen. Indeed, the 3D visuals were so groundbreaking – from the vast Pandora ecosystem to the flawless performance capture tech – that much of Hollywood is still playing catch-up today. Okay, the story is a little too clichéd and predictable to propel the movie any higher in this list of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but it’s one of the most immersive movie experiences ever. And Cameron himself clearly thinks it’s a world worth exploring further – he’s got three sequels in production, with the first due in 2021.
Most iconic moment: The first meeting between human Jake Sully’s avatar and Na’vi Neytiri – a scene that not only showcases Pandora’s breathtaking wildlife, but also marks the beginnings of a beautiful friendship.
24. Dredd (2012)
The movie: Finally doing justice to a classic comic book character long-neglected by Hollywood – partly the result of the negative reaction to the mediocre 1995 Sylvester Stallone-starring adaptation – Dredd is the drum-tight, economical slice of brutal, satirical, dystopian sci-fi action the 2000 AD anti-hero always deserved. Playing well into its resources by delivering an intense and cool-as-hell action extravaganza within a closed, localised environment (in a similar manner to the brilliant The Raid the year before), Dredd 2012’s smaller scale belies a wealth of intelligent world-building amid all the gorgeously depicted, slow-mo, colour-saturated violence. And Karl Urban’s saw-rough, monosyllabic portrayal of the titular Judge, jury and executioner is downright perfect.
Most iconic moment: When Dredd, having finally fought his way to the top of the tower and defeated its villain in savagely effective fashion, looks down and responds to her earlier grandstanding. “Yeah”. And then he’s done.
23. 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. Much better than the Scarlett Johansson-starring remake.
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.
22. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
The movie: One of the purest, most downright likeable comedies ever made – as well as one of the best sci-fi movies – 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 adventure to pass their high school history test – a journey that sees 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.
21. Total Recall (1990)
The movie: Very (very) loosely adapting a short story by original Blade Runner author Philip K. Dick, Total Recall is as bold, chunky, brash, and physical a sci-fi action blockbuster as can be imagined. It’s peak action Schwarzenegger distilled into a single, explosive, Technicolor package. But, being from RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven, it’s also far smarter than it at all needs to be. Come for the garish prosthetics and hard-hitting violence, stay for the mind-bending existential pondering. Seriously, get to the end and then try to state definitively what really happened.
Most iconic moment: When Arnie’s Doug Quaid gets caught trying to sneak through the Martian space port as a result of his exploding, mechanical old-lady head disguise malfunctioning.
20. Predator (1987)
The movie: One of the best action/horror hybrids of its decade, on paper Predator is a film with no right to the quality it has. A simple tale of burly marines hunted by a monster in the jungle, it has all the hallmarks of B-movie schlock – and for a while, with its original, goofy-looking, doglike alien, it looked set to be. But with future Die Hard director John McTiernan wrangling the charisma of its hulking Arnie-led cast, it turned out to be a minor masterpiece. Hot, claustrophobic, tense, and surprisingly refined despite the high levels of ’80s gore, Predator is a tight, character-driven hybrid that has an atmosphere all of its own, and stays fresh no matter how many times you rewatch it.
Most iconic moment: The first time we see the Predator’s prey through its own eyes. That ‘VWOOOM’, cutting into garish, pixelated infra-red is the starkly defining image of the series.
19. 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 in the majestic 2015 follow-up Fury Road.
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.