18. RoboCop (1987)
The movie: If any one film sums up ’80s sci-fi action cinema in its entirety, it’s RoboCop. Brutal, brash, bloody, and brainy to a deeply deceptive degree, RoboCop is everything great about the decade in one 102-minute salvo of brilliance. 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 film with serious layers. A savage satire of ’80s 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.
Most iconic moment: The “30 seconds to comply” boardroom demonstration of the new ED-209 security mech, that goes horribly wrong to the tune of one vaporised mid-level exec. The scene was originally cut by censors, who didn’t realise that the over-extended nature of the gore is precisely what made it funny rather than frightening. “Someone call a paramedic”, indeed.
17. Arrival (2016)
The movie: Remember when Hollywood used to make big-budget sci-fi for grown-ups? Arrival does. The first of two films on this list from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, 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) made it one of the best movies of 2016 in any genre.
Most iconic moment: Avoiding spoilers, it’s probably the reveal of the Shell, the grandiose alien craft standing vertical and monumental in open, mist-shrouded fields. Part egg, part Pringle, all spellbinding.
16. WALL-E (2008)
Before Pixar got carried away with unnecessary sequels, it felt like every single movie the CG animation pioneers made was a groundbreaking classic. Never was that more true than with their ninth offering, the story of an ordinary robot who ends up saving the human race. It’s hard to single out what’s boldest about WALL-E. Is it the fact that most of the movie is dialogue-free? Or that in this distant future humanity has evolved into a species of immobile blob people? Or even that it’s a kids’ movie set on a desolate, junkyard Earth entirely devoid of life. While WALL-E exists in a bleak dystopia, however, it’s heart-warming stuff, a story of the little guy beating the system, and an unlikely romance between the titular dilapidated droid and his futuristic companion, EVE. Up there with the very best sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
Most iconic moment: The bleak opening scenes of a wasteland Earth are powerful visually, but the highlight is undoubtedly watching WALL-E and EVE dance among the stars – not least because WALL-E is propelling himself with a fire extinguisher.
15. 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 villain (the eponymous Khan) who's more grounded than many Star Trek has offered up, and he’s much more intimidating for it. Ruthless and ferociously intelligent, Khan’s re-emergence is the catalyst that forces the trainee Enterprise crew to rally harder than ever, under much greater hardship with much higher, more personal stakes than we’d seen before. 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). Alternatively, “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!”
14. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Most aliens who fall to Earth seem to have world domination on their minds – you know, the War of the Worlds and Independence Day types who just want to wipe out everything that stands before them. But it takes a special kind of alien to not only come in peace, but also make the world take him/her straight to their hearts. Having dealt with alien visitation on a planetary scale in the similarly brilliant Close Encounters of the Third Kind, director Steven Spielberg instead focused on a single family and their extra-terrestrial house guest in his all-conquering classic. E.T.’s a perfect bit of storytelling, at times wish fulfilment (who wouldn’t want an alien BFF?), at others incredibly moving – if you still have a dry eye come the closing credits, you’re officially heartless. The performances from the child stars (including a young Drew Barrymore) are remarkably real, while it’s all backed by one of John Williams’s most iconic scores – and if you look at his resume, that’s really saying something.
Most iconic moment: No contest – it’s got to be E.T. making you believe an early ’80s bike could fly, an image so iconic that Spielberg used it for his Amblin production company’s logo.
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The movie: Director Michel Gondry’s second feature collaboration with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation writer Charlie Kaufman is exactly the sweet, funny, heartbreaking, maudlin wonder that combination of talent would have you expect. Joel and Clementine meet on a train and are immediately drawn to each other. The reason is that they’ve been in a relationship before, but had their memories of each other erased following its breakdown after two years. Following their history in reverse as Joel’s memories of the whole episode are torn down around him while he relives it during the erasure process, Eternal Sunshine is a warm, sad, intelligent, but ultimately hopeful examination of human nature and relationships. It also takes the time to explore the potential of its concept further and wider than its core story – near flawless, human sci-fi with a purpose.
Most iconic moment: The ending, where, having realised the full truth of everything, and being fully aware they might be setting themselves up for nothing more than another bout of pain and failure, Joel and Clementine decide to get together anyway. Because humans are brilliant and stupid and great like that.
12. 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. Unfortunately, bloated sequels Reloaded and Revolutions don't come close to any list of the best sci-fi movies – probably best to pretend they never happened.
Most iconic moment: Neo and Trinity getting trigger happy during the lobby sequence, blasting the crap out of all that stands in their way.
11. Forbidden Planet (1956)
The movie: The oldest entry on this countdown of the best sci-fi movies helped lay the groundwork for Star Wars, Star Trek and pretty much every other outer space adventure on screen since. Back in the 1950s, science fiction was mostly the realm of the B-movie, but Forbidden Planet was a rare example of a major studio putting some financial muscle behind a genre that was anything but fashionable at the time. Loosely based on The Tempest (part of the fun is spotting the parallels with the Shakespeare play), it’s the story of a 23rd century Earth vessel that lands on the distant planet of Altair IV, searching for the survivors of an expedition that went missing 20 years earlier. While the slightly theatrical acting feels of its time – check out a pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen as the dashing Commander Adams – in every other regard it’s massively innovative, from the mould-breaking electronic score to Robby the Robot and the animated id monster. A true classic.
Most iconic moment: Marooned antagonist Dr Morbius reveals the remains of the super-advanced Krell civilisation, that died 200,000 years earlier – a vast, genre-defining vision of an alien world.
10. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The movie: From Superman: The Movie to X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2 to The Dark Knight there are loads of amazing superhero movies with a sci-fi vibe. Indeed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has produced plenty all by itself – and some of them (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok) may even be better than Avengers: Endgame. But the culmination of Marvel’s 11-year masterplan deserves its place on this list of the best sci-fi movies because it’s just so, well, sci-fi. Let’s have a look at the evidence: it features aliens and plenty of scenes set in outer space; it boasts the MCU’s first adventures in time travel; and every single superhero seems to swan around in a shapeshifting suit powered by state-of-the-art nanotechnology. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s funny and clever, and carries enough emotional heft to make you weep buckets. As the finale of a 22-movie arc, it takes some beating.
Most iconic moment: So many to choose from, but it has to be the moment all the returnees from the Infinity War dusting return to face Thanos and his armies. “On your left!”