The best sci-fi movies are the ones that – while being entertaining – reflect the world around us in a unique, insightful, and revealing way. Just look at Children of Men, a genre masterpiece set in a dystopian UK where illegal immigrants are treated like animals. Sound familiar? More importantly, Alfonso Cuarón’s movie makes for a thrilling and unforgettable watch that can be enjoyed by anyone.
Our teams at GamesRadar+, Total Film, and SFX have come together to attempt the almost unthinkable: ranking the best sci-fi movies of all time. From intergalactic missions to post-apocalyptic thrillers, our experts have come up with a list that encapsulates everything about the weird, wonderful, and – at times – downright wacky genre. 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.
30. Star Trek: Wrath of Khan
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first big-screen Star Trek adventure, was an epic and existential take on the series – and one criticised for not featuring enough action. The producers took this to heart, as they hired Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) to direct a feature film that doubles down on the thrills. Star Trek: Wrath of Khan makes for a warmer movie that still features huge amounts of drama.
Wrath of Khan reaches into the Original Series’ history to find a villain – Khan – who's more grounded and intimidating than the vast majority of Star Trek’s other antagonists. Ruthless and ferociously intelligent, Khan’s re-emergence forces the trainee Enterprise crew to rally harder than ever before, raising the personal stakes to new highs. And really, when is Star Trek better than when it puts the crew’s humanity front and centre?
29. The Abyss
The first of four James Carmon movies on this list, The Abyss makes for an exciting – at times terrifying – underwater adventure. Upon release, behind-the-scenes difficulties overshadowed the movie’s actual content and it was an initial box-office flop. Yet, look past the real-life drama, and The Abyss makes for a wonderful sci-fi movie that features Cameron’s recognisable flourishes – tough-talking military figures, world-leading (though now slightly dated) CGI, and a hugely heartfelt story.
The Abyss follows a crew of American roughnecks who are employed to help discover why a US submarine, near the Cayman trough, mysteriously sunk. When they find the wreckage, they discover something truly unexpected. There are a few different cuts out there, and we recommend watching the Director’s Cut.
28. The Iron Giant
Adapted from Ted Hughes' story, The Iron Giant sees a colossal alien robot crash near a small town in Rockwell, Maine, in 1957. Nine-year-old Hogarth discovers the robot and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. However, when the robot becomes the target of a persistent government agent, Hogarth and beatnik Dean undertake an epic quest to save the misunderstood machine.
The Iron Giant offers two things: the movie treats kids to an emotional, heartfelt, and exciting story about an unlikely friendship. Meanwhile, adults get a poignant fable of Cold War paranoia, where understanding and kindred spirit battled fear and suspicion for decades. The Iron Giant is a layered, understated animated masterpiece.
Almost every original animation produced by Pixar has been a groundbreaking classic. Never has that been more true than with their ninth movie, WALL-E, the story of an ordinary robot who ends up saving the human race.
WALL-E is a bold piece of filmmaking: the opening moments are dialogue-free; the distant future sees humankind becoming blobs of meat, unable to stand on our own two feet; and Earth is a desolate junkyard devoid of life. That’s all pretty heavy for a children’s movie. Yet, amid the bleak dystopian setting is a remarkably heart-warming tale of an innocent, simple droid finding love with a futuristic companion, EVE. There have been few sci-fi movies as oddly romantic.
No movie sums up ’80s sci-fi action cinema quite like RoboCop. Brutal, brash, bloody, and brainy to a deeply deceptive degree, RoboCop is everything great about the decade in one 102-minute salvo. Ostensibly the tale of an honest cop in a decaying future Detroit brought back to messianic, cybernetic life after his excessively gory murder, Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece is a movie with serious layers.
A savage satire of excess (that simultaneously revels in the very same), RoboCop is as hilarious as it is heartfelt; as smart as it is filled with splatter. The 2014 remake attempted similar levels of social commentary, but without Verhoeven’s twisted sense of humour, missed the target. Watch it once, and you’ll have a bloody good time. Watch it twice, and you’ll start to notice a whole lot more.
25. Under the Skin
A cold, washed-out Glasgow is an unusual location for a cerebral sci-fi flick. But this is Jonathan Glazer's point: weird shit can happen anywhere, so why not there? Scarlett Johansson stars as a perplexed extraterrestrial disguised as a perplexed young woman, who ambles around the Glaswegian streets luring men into her Transit van.
This is a haunting exercise in painting a mood. Don't go in expecting a dense plot or a clearly-outlined goal. This is a surreal, twisted, low-key flick that will gnaw at your brain long after finishing. It also birthed the Scarlett Johansson falling down meme and features the most bizarre response to carrot cake ever.
In a totalitarian society, a shaven-headed guide known as Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) escorts a writer and a scientist to the forbidden region of “The Zone”, where all one's wishes can allegedly be granted.
Made and set amid some of the most austere and industrially polluted Russian landscapes ever committed to celluloid, Andrei Tarkovsky's epic inquiry into freedom and faith presents an arduous journey for the spectator, but conjures up its own mystical universe with majestic conviction. Stalker has, since release, become a classic of the genre – and one seeking out immediately.
23. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is the only superhero movie to make this list. (Shock! Horror!) Well, that’s because James Gunn’s silly and irreverent take on the genre barely counts as a superhero movie at all – but a science fiction space adventure. There’s no super-strong lead; no laser-eyes villain; just a rag-tag team of goofy friends saving the universe.
From the opening scene right up until the final moments, writer-director James Gunn's love for the material is on brazen display, every frame oozing with soul. Plus, there's the throwback soundtrack and just enough fan service to make this a must-watch.
Read more: The 25 best superhero movies of all time
22. Blade Runner 2049
There’s no beating perfection. But hey, with a big enough budget and cajones, why not give it a try and see where you end up? Director Denis Villeneuve reworks the world established by Ridley Scott's 1982 original, twists it to better reflect modern quandaries – hello, bountiful misogyny! – and makes it beautiful. A visual stunner with a longing heart to match, who knew we’d get a Blade Runner sequel as daring as its predecessor?
This time, we follow Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner for the LAPD tasked with retiring “rogue” replicants, as he finds himself facing a conspiracy that threatens everything the world knows about bioengineered humans. During his stints, he lurks into the more treacherous parts of humanity… so naturally, Jared Leto’s there.
21. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Return of the Jedi does a rare thing for a trilogy closer: it picks up all the loose story strands and offers a properly satisfying conclusion to everything that came before. There's a lot that happens: peace is brought to the galaxy (for now), the Emperor is defeated (for now), Han and Leia get together (for now), and there's a huge battle over Endor that's still mindblowing today.
The way the film jumps between the fight between father and son, to the ground war of Stormtroopers against the Ewoks, to the space dogfights led by Ackbar and Lando, all without feeling confusing – that's masterful editing. And admit it, you loved the Ewoks and their yub-nub song. We all do.