There are few genres as beloved as sci-fi. Filmmakers have taken us to far off galaxies, near-future dystopias, and underwater wonders. They are pure escapism and, as a result, since the first moving picture was shown to audiences, sci-fi has been a mainstay. Choosing the best sci-fi movies, then, is an unenviable task – one that led to many, many (verbal) fights and a few phasers being set to stun.
The teams at Total Film, SFX, and GamesRadar+ all put our heads together, though, to bring you this list of the best sci-fi movies of all time. There are mesmerising sequels, stunning space adventures, and a few animated classics. Yes, there are multiple Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner movies – but can you blame us when they're just so good? If you want to fight about it (and you probably will) then drop us a tweet @TotalFilm... Otherwise, read on with our list of the best sc-fi movies.
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.
20. The Fly
The ‘80s were pretty good for sci-fi movie remakes. There was The Thing (spoilers, more on that later) and The Fly, the latter of which was redone by horror maestro David Cronenberg and stars Jeff Goldblum as a scientist attempting to crack a teleportation code. Naturally, things go wrong when his DNA becomes spliced with that of a fly's thanks to a problematic trial. It's not long before the fly DNA starts to take control.
The Fly is pure body horror. Every stage of Goldblum's transformation into the fly is gross – and you'll never be able to look at a doughnut the same way ever again.
19. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director Michel Gondry’s second feature collaboration with Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman is exactly what you expect from that combination of talent: a sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and maudlin wonder. The movie centres on Joel and Clementine, who meet on a train and are immediately drawn to each other. Turns out, they’ve been in a relationship before, but had their memories erased following a messy breakup.
Eternal Sunshine – which follows their history in reverse as Joel’s memories are torn down around him while he relives it during the erasure process – is a warm, sad, intelligent, but ultimately hopeful examination of human nature and relationships. It also explores the potential of its concept further than its core story making for a near flawless sci-fi movie.
Conclusive proof that blockbusters can respect their audience's intelligence while also thrilling with spectacular set-pieces, Inception is a truly remarkable achievement. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an 'extractor' who normally steals sensitive ideas from his targets' minds, but must now plant an idea in the head of his latest mark.
As the narrative operated on several levels simultaneously, so did the filmmaking, layering metaphysical ideas with startling visuals and a grippingly propulsive narrative. Inception is a film not afraid to dream much, much bigger. However, if you’ve ever been worried about being trapped in a dream inside a dream, this may raise those fears tenfold.
17. 12 Monkeys
What would the authorities do with a man claiming to be a time-traveller? Lock him up in an asylum, of course. This is the unfortunate scenario put forth in 12 Monkeys and faced by James Cole (Bruce Willis), a survivor from a post-apocalyptic future wherein a hideous virus has ravaged the face of the planet.
Terry Gilliam’s dystopian future may be terrifying, but electric performances from both Willis and a young Brad Pitt – playing an unstable activist – makes this a thrilling watch. Gilliam certainly has a knack for exquisite put together sci-fi (spoilers: we’ll be seeing him again on this list shortly).
16. Children of Men
Set in a near-future where humanity has become completely infertile, Clive Owen plays a grizzled civil servant who gets kidnapped by his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) and charged with rescuing the last pregnant woman in Britain.
Alfonso Cuarón directs a sombre, dystopian sci-fi that dazzles with its visual flair, including an awe-inspiring one shot as Owen’s character runs through the desolate streets of Bexhill-on-Sea. Children of Men really is a parable of things to come.
Remember when Hollywood made big-budget, epic sci-fi movies aimed almost exclusively at adults? Denis Villeneuve does. The second of the director’s output to appear on this list, Arrival blends the arresting spectacle of alien contact with the intelligent, distinctly personal story of a linguist recruited to find a way to communicate.
Favouring affecting, emotional drama and the discussion of big questions over lasers and explosions, Arrival’s maturity and sophistication – highlighted by some fantastic lead performances, namely Amy Adams (robbed of an Oscar nomination) – made it one of the best movies of 2016.
14. Back to the Future
Back to the Future remains the quintessential time-travel movie. The movie’s twisting, looping, self-aware causality is a fantastic feat of writing, pacing, and wit. But the high-concept is only part of what makes Back to the Future a classic.
Where other sci-fi movies will hinge everything on an intergalactic conquest or saving entire worlds, Back to the Future’s stakes never get bigger than Marty protecting his family. And with so much iconography crammed into its runtime, it’s hard not to have Robert Zemeckis’ movie on a list of best sci-fi movies of all time.
13. Terminator 2
Terminator 2 remains a masterclass in making things bigger and more mainstream without losing the infectious hook of the original story. An unashamed blockbuster, T2 nonetheless maintains all the thick, weighty atmosphere that made the first Terminator so compelling, while delivering some of the slickest action direction around.
And, of course, turning the first movie’s villain into the protector of John Connor is a stroke of genius – all praise James Cameron! Nothing the Terminator franchise has done since has come close.
12. The Matrix
Is this real life? Is this just fantasy? Or are we stuck in a simulation and being harvested for electrical energy by an alien race who have taken over earth, and only The One can save us all?
The Wachowski sisters’ groundbreaking The Matrix bundles philosophical questions of identity, purpose, and reality into an action masterpiece. The visual effects – including a serious amount of wire-fu and slow-motion bullet-time – stands up remarkably today, despite being over 20 years old.
Most aliens who fall to Earth seem to have one thing on their mind: world domination. Think War of the Worlds and Independence Day – those evil outer-world beings who just want to control mankind. Well, Steven Spielberg’s classic’s slightly different. Not only does E.T. come in peace, he just wants to get back home.
Having dealt with alien visitation on a planetary scale in the brilliant Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg instead focuses on a single family and their extra-terrestrial house guest. E.T. remains a perfect slice of storytelling, and if you still have a dry eye come the closing credits, you’re officially heartless.
Aliens is the textbook example of how to make a perfect sequel. Where Alien was an incredible piece of horror filmmaking, Aliens takes the premise of terrifying extraterrestrial life and makes an excellent action flick that’s bombastic and thoughtful.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley returns – and if there was an Oscar for best performance over the course of multiple movies, the actress would surely be a shoe-in. It’s incredible to think James Cameron put together the script while working on another exquisite sci-fi masterpiece: The Terminator.
Terry Gilliam’s slapstick homage to George Orwell’s 1984 sticks two fingers to The Man over and over, all while telling one of the wackiest stories ever committed to celluloid.
Jonathan Price plays Sam Lowry, a miserable worker at the Ministry of Education desperate to break free from the shackles of a totalitarian regime. Daydreaming of rescuing the same woman over and over, he tries to locate a terrorist – and encounters his fictional woman. Brazil’s surreal, dreary dystopian setting is as much a character as anyone in the movie. And, just in case you forgot, Robert De Niro shows up for one of his more low-key, somewhat baffling roles. A true classic.
Ridley Scott’s horror/sci-fi mixing masterpiece centres on the crew of the Nostromo, who are sent to investigate a distress call from an abandoned alien spaceship. Things, as you would expect, go horribly wrong as a Xenomorph gets on board – and the hunt begins.
The Giger-designed alien is as terrifying a monster as you could wish for. The dread goes much deeper than teeth and claws though. This creature represents a multilayered, bottomless pit of psychosexual horror, its very form praying on a raft of primal terrors. Plus, the visual ambiguity of Scott's direction during the final act is an absolute masterclass in 'What's that in the shadows?' tension. A movie working on so many different levels.
7. The Thing
John Carpenter’s ultimate creature feature. The title might be hokey, but The Thing remains one of the most gloriously splattery and tense horrors of all time. A group of Americans – including Kurt Russell’s R.J MacReady – are stationed at an Antarctic research facility and take on an alien thing that infects blood.
There’s intense paranoia as the party begins to fall apart as the infection spreads, but it’s the very real, oh-so-touchable nature of the nasties at work here that’s so disturbing. The practical effects – the responsibility of a young Rob Bottin and uncredited Stan Winston – are the true stars as arms are eaten by chests, decapitated heads sprout legs, and bodies are elongated and stretched. The macabre vision of these murderous monsters at work is never anything less than true nightmare fuel.
6. Jurassic Park
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 to the time of dinosaurs is one that has been beloved by fans for decades since and has spawned many, many sequels, though none compare to the original.
Thanks to a mix of large, intricate puppets and CGI dinosaurs unlike anything the world had seen before back in 1993, the special effects feel like they haven't aged at all. What’s even more remarkable is that Spielberg made the blockbuster – at one time, the highest-grossing movie ever released – at the same time as the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, also released 1993. Quite a phenomenal year.
Low budget, high concept – The Terminator borrows from oodles of genres to tell a love story set in a world of machines. James Cameron’s 1984 flick cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous character, a cyborg sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) the mother of future resistance leader, John. The resistance sends her a protector in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who will do anything to keep her safe.
The Terminator, of course, put James Cameron on the map, proving his skills at world-building, character development, and genre were exceedingly good. While its sequel had the bigger budget, it’s impressive to witness the ingenuity of the production, giving us a tightly-plotted thriller with some of the best ‘80s set pieces.
4. Empire Strikes Back
It’s no overstatement to say the original Star Wars changed cinema forever – its mix of pulpy adventure, aliens, spaceships, robots, smugglers, “hokey religions and ancient weapons” was unlike anything we’d seen before. Needless to say planet Earth was smitten. Luckily for us, George Lucas had plenty more story to tell.
The Empire Strikes Back redefined what a movie sequel could do – not only does the follow-up expand the galaxy Lucas built, but, shockingly for the time, it turned out to only be the middle part of a much wider story. Every Star Wars movie since has been measured up against Empire, but none have been as shocking, or including such a phenomenal cliffhanger.
3. Blade Runner
While both Blade Runner movies are stunning, atmospheric works of deep intelligence and profound emotional impact, the original remains the unmoved classic. Blade Runner (a regular presence on all best sci-fi movies lists) uses its high concept – a man trying to work out whether other “people” are actually robots known as replicants – to deliver a deeply moving tale that asks questions of humanity in a nihilistic, synthetic, commodified universe.
While, at its core, Blade Runner is a detective story, the layers go so much deeper. While Harrison Ford’s performance anchors us in Ridley Scott’s world, it’s Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty who steals every scene.
2. Star Wars
Star Wars, later given the title A New Hope, introduced us to that famous galaxy far, far away, filled with lovable creatures and witty characters. A timeless tale of good versus evil, this movie inspired a generation of fans and filmmakers alike. While the effects blew everyone away (and still hold up reasonably well), it was the cohesiveness of the world that really impressed.
Whereas most sci-fi of the time was more magical, A New Hope featured a dirty, lived-in universe, which somehow feels so real. Lucas weaves the hero’s journey into the intergalactic universe, making for a compelling watch that remains entirely beloved today. Yes, there have been countless sequels, TV shows, comics, and video games set in the Star Wars universe, but none of them can quite compare to the original.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Released a full year before Neil Armstrong took one small step for mankind, 2001: A Space Odyssey took one giant leap for cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s seminal epic – an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story the Sentinel – breaks down the barriers between lofty, cerebral sci-fi and more accessible mainstream fare. Simplifying the story is no easy task. On a basic level, the majority of 2001 centres on a team travelling through space, only for their robotic command centre to turn evil. Yet, around that, we also see the birth of mankind and our own evolution into something greater.
One of the most iconic and influential sci-fi movies of all time, 2001 still feels incredibly modern today, thanks to its incredible cinematography and practical effects. Do not – and we cannot stress this enough – watch on a mobile phone or laptop. Every frame is a wonderfully detailed painting, and you need to get this on the biggest screen possible – whether TV or projector. Immerse yourself in Kubrick’s masterpiece and you’ll immediately understand why we voted 2001 the best sci-fi movie of all time.
Want more best movie lists? Then check out our list of the best horror movies of all time.