9. 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 to the time of dinosaurs is one that has been beloved by fans for decades since and has spawned four sequels (including the incredibly successful Jurassic World) , 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.
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.
8. The Fly (1986)
The movie: Taking a ‘50s sci-fi classic and evolving it into hard-hitting, emotionally pounding, existential body-horror poem, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is a clear career highlight for both its director and its cast. And when the cast is headed up by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, that is rather a big deal indeed. Small, personal, nightmarish, and intimate, The Fly is as thoughtful and affecting as it is viscerally horrifying. Detailing teleportation scientist Seth Brundle’s physical and mental descent after a tragic splicing accident with a household insect, it’s a film with focused, stage-play scale and near-operatic dramatic power. In fact it was later adapted into a stage opera, a change of medium that doesn’t remotely feel like a stretch.
Most iconic moment: Davis’s Veronica walks in on Brundle trying to persuade his latest pick-up to take a trip through the teleporter. The scene leads to one of the most iconic lines in sci-fi history: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
7. The Terminator and Terminator 2 (1984 and 1992)
The movies: Tonally distinct spins on the rich, doom-laden, apocalyptically tinged tale of near-unstoppable robot assassin vs. squishy human would-be saviour, the two films work as fantastic companion pieces – and both deserve their place in the pantheon of the best sci-fi movies. The first is as tense, oppressive, and relentlessly claustrophobic a film as you could want. Deftly combining the slasher genre with the road movie to create a hell of an uncomfortable sci-fi mood piece, it’s a film directed with a razor-sharp instinct for pacing and impactful economy. Terminator 2, however? A masterclass in taking things bigger and more mainstream without losing the infectious hook of the story. Warmer and lighter in some ways, while certainly an unashamed blockbuster, T2 nonetheless maintains all the thick, weighty atmosphere that made the first film so compelling, while delivering some of the tightest, slickest action direction around. Nothing the Terminator franchise has done since has come close – especially the risible Terminator: Genisys.
Most iconic moment: In the first film, it’s the police station invasion scene, in which Arnie coins the first “I’ll be back” of his career. In Terminator 2, it’s the “Hasta la vista, baby” freeze and shatter of the liquid metal T-1000. Or the bike vs. truck chase. Or the opening bar fight. Look, both films are comprised almost exclusively of iconic scenes. Pick one for yourself.
6. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The movie: If anyone tries to tell you Star Wars was the original sci-fi movie franchise, ignore them. Planet of the Apes got their nearly a decade earlier and, while the sequels and spin-off TV show were mostly examples of the law of diminishing returns, the 1968 original is undoubtedly one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. The idea of a planet where humans and apes have swapped places in the evolutionary hierarchy is a powerful one, but the movie is so much more than two hours of “what if?” Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and the other ape actors give incredibly nuanced performances despite being buried under inches of immobile latex, while Charlton Heston was never better than he was as marooned astronaut Taylor. And then there's the small matter of that earth-shattering twist...
Most iconic moment: It's over 50 years old so we don't think it counts as a spoiler any more, but the final shot of the Statue of Liberty – and the revelation that Taylor’s been on future-Earth all along – remains the ultimate shock ending.
5. 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 “The Sentinel”, 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: When one of humanity's simian ancestors uses a bone as a tool and tosses it into the air, Kubrick shifts focus to a spacecraft in orbit – the most famous match cut in cinema history encapsulates thousands of years of human evolution in a split second.
4. The Alien trilogy (1979 - 1992)
The movies: The Alien trilogy is the textbook example of how to evolve a series. Allowing each entry its own identity and unique take on the core material, and wrapping it all around a hell of a three-film character arc for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – if there there was an Oscar for best performance over the course of a series, she'd have been a shoe-in – Alien excels in blending profound, unknowable cosmic dread with real, believable, everyday human grit. Taking Ripley from desperate survivor to vengeful warrior, and then on further to the morose stock-taking and character-drama fallout of Alien 3, the Alien trilogy is an all-time great for reasons that go beyond even the legendary design and atmosphere its reputation is founded on. And yeah, David Fincher's Alien 3 is brilliant. Grossly misunderstood and under-rated at the time of its release, but more than vindicated by hindsight and the extended Assembly Cut, it’s the final, downbeat, personal and emotive end-note that ultimately makes Alien a complete, cohesive story – Ridley Scott’s recent prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, did little to add to that mythos.
Most iconic scene: John Hurt’s Kane starts to feel ill over dinner after an away-mission in the original Alien. It’s not food poisoning.
3. The Back to the Future trilogy (1985 - 1990)
The movies: Dispel the notion that Back to the Future is a film and a couple of sequels. In truth, it’s one long, six-hour-plus movie of deliciously playful complexity and giddy creativity. The first film’s twisting, looping, self-aware causality is a fantastic feat of writing, pacing, and wit, but that the sequels then continue to reverberate and expand on its events over a whole century of time-jumping adventure is a frankly mind-boggling achievement. But for all that, it’s the small-scale, human factor that makes Back to the Future so good. Where other sci-fi movies will hinge everything on galactic conquest and the saving of entire worlds, the stakes in Back to the Future never get bigger than protecting one family and maintaining a friendship. And it’s all played so wonderfully by its versatile cast that you regularly forget that half the trilogy’s characters are played by the same people.
Most iconic moment: Doc Brown zip lines down from the clocktower to repair a faulty connection as Marty accelerates to the magic 88 mph that'll take him back to the future – a scene so great it appears in all three movies.
2. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 (1982 and 2017)
The movies: Both films are stunning, atmospheric works of deep intelligence and profound emotional impact, but each is also more for the existence of the other. And that’s not something even the most hopeful fan could have seen a sequel to Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner (a regular presence at the top of lists of the best sci-fi movies) accomplishing. Exploring similar questions of how it’s possible to maintain humanity in an increasingly nihilistic, synthetic, commodified universe – while also pondering what humanity actually is, what’s real, and what’s really valuable) – the first film tells a tight but philosophically profound detective story. Meanwhile, Blade Runner 2049 continues to explore a world gone past the point of no return, digging into even deeper, sadder, and potentially more beautiful material while maintaining steadfast causal continuity with its predecessor. Both are mind-blowing individually, but together they’re a work of rare wonder.
Most iconic moment: In Blade Runner, it’s the opening flight through L.A.’s neon-drenched hellscape of bursting flame and monolithic corporate temples. In 2049, perhaps that shot you’ve seen from the trailers, in which Ryan Gosling’s K confronts a giant, pink-and-blue hologram of Joi. When you understand the context… Well, you can discover that for yourself.
1. The original Star Wars trilogy (1977 - 1983)
The movies: 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, it turned out George Lucas had plenty more story to tell, as three years later The Empire Strikes Back redefined what a movie sequel could do – not only did the follow-up expand the galaxy Lucas had built (Yoda! AT-ATs! A city in the clouds!), it turned out to be the middle act of a wider tale, ending on a downer and the ultimate Hollywood cliffhanger. Even though trilogy closer Return of the Jedi can’t quite live up to its predecessors (there’s a few too many Ewoks for that), it still wraps up cinema’s definitive space opera in style. For their hand in creating the modern blockbuster, their cultural impact, and simply for being wonderful stories, the three Episodes of the original Star Wars trilogy deserve the title of best sci-fi movies of all time.
Most iconic moment: Luke finding out about his parentage after losing his hand to Darth Vader. Imagine what it was like waiting three years to find out what happened next...