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The Final Frontier: The 30 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time

It's one small step for film, one giant leap for cinemakind. Looking at the the ultimate examples of the science-fiction genre, what do the great films all have in common?

By Tom ChapmanPublished 6 years ago 13 min read
'Forbidden Planet' [Credit: MGM]

It's one small step for film, one giant leap for cinemakind. Looking at the the ultimate examples of the science-fiction genre, what do the great films all have in common? They all ask big questions about the future — where are we going as a race? Is there any other life in the universe? Is time linear? — they all instill a sense of wonder in the universe and the future ahead of us, and finally, there is usually some unknown foe to test the survival of our species.

Think about the first time you saw a lightsaber, or an android, or a wormhole in a film. #SciFi has the power to make technological advances seem everyday and bring the future to the present. More importantly, the truly memorable sci-fi films act as a warning sign for a planet that is being lead down a treacherous path by these powerful technologies that fascinate us.

So, time to boot up the warp drive, slip into a sexy space suit and prepare your chest to burst with nostalgia. We've decided to compile the ultimate list of films that define the genre, but also films that push it into new territories. Are you ready to get lost in space?

30. 'Arrival'

Described as "the thinking person's sci-fi," Arrival instantly wowed critics as a film that redefined the genre. Almost as an homage to all the films that came before it, Arrival asked all the big questions that the likes of Close Encounters and Interstellar didn't quite go far enough to reach. Critics were almost unanimous that the film was one of the best things to come out of cinema in recent times, let alone in the genre, which isn't bad considering reports that sci-fi is in decline.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The mid-film "twist"
  • An Oscar-worthy performance by Amy Adams
  • The best film of 2016

29. 'Serenity'

'Serenitiy' [Credit: Universal]

Serenity feels timeless because it captures something that has been long lost in the genre: fun and adventure. Joss Whedon reminded audiences that sci-fi didn't have to get bogged down in pondering man's place in the universe or dwell on dystopian futures. It could be over-the-top, witty and intelligent without asking the big, philosophical questions.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Snappiest dialogue in all the land
  • Amazing cast
  • A faithful, big screen adaptation of Firefly

28. 'Snowpiercer'

Set in a dystopian future, the remnants of humanity are stuck on one long train that is powered by the workers in the back while the elite enjoy a life of luxury in the front. Snowpiercer is a perfect example of how science-fiction can be used as a powerful allegory to describe who we are as a society, and as a warning to stop us from falling into chaos.

3 reasons the film will be remembered:

  • The stunning battle scenes
  • The heart-breaking conclusion
  • Tilda Swinton plays the perfect villain

27. 'The Terminator'

There are many films to thank James Cameron for, however, few have been as influential on pop culture as 1984's The Terminator. Boosting Arnold Schwarzenegger to dizzying new heights and keeping him in films ever since, it all started with this one mechanical menace. While the Terminator franchise has had its ups and its downs, there is no denying that the first was a classic of cinematic greatness.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • "I'll be back"
  • Arnie being nude
  • The ultimate robot killing machine!

26. 'Primer'

'Primer' [Credit: IFC films]

Some films require multiple watchings to be fully appreciated. I've seen Primer seven times and I'm still struggling to wrap my head around this mind-boggling maze of time travel and multiple timelines. This little indie gem demonstrates you don't need a billion dollar budget and big Hollywood names to produce intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Still trying to figure out how the time machine works
  • Low-budget, high concept
  • Perfect ending

Based on the legendary novel by the Strugatsky brothers, Hard To Be God follows two scientists as they visit the planet Arkanar, that's stuck in a Medieval period, to rescue the intellectuals. Space travel usually involves humans on the brink of collapse encountering a superior life form. Here we see humans as the superior life form and watch as aliens bow at their feet. Hard To Be God asks important moral questions that would make most second guess interstellar travel.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Breathtaking, black and white cinematography
  • Dark sense of humor
  • The most realistic depiction of Medieval times to date

24. 'The City Of Lost Children'

'The City of Lost Children' [Credit: Canal+]

This French, retro-futurist classic begins with a cantankerous evil scientist, Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who feeds off the dreams of children to keep himself from death's door. The hulking circus strongman, One (Ron Perlman), must infiltrate Krank's intricate, steampunk kingdom to retrieve his kidnapped son. The City of Lost Children shows us a vision of the future by using the styles of the past, most notably from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Dystopia has never looked this beautiful.

3 reasons why it will be remembered:

  • Easily the best steampunk film out there
  • Incredible homage to German Expressionist cinema
  • The best lair of an evil genius since '60s James Bond films

23. 'Donnie Darko'

'Donnie Darko' [Credit: Flower films]

Donnie Darko is the story of a mentally unstable teen who is led down the cosmic rabbit hole by a demonic, time-traveling Rabbit-man. On paper, the film sounds like the ramblings of a madman but this masterpiece instantly became a #cultclassic because no film has captured time travel with such flair and emotion. The young director, Richard Kelly, summons amazing performances from his actors, masterfully cuts up timelines and uses wormholes to explore troubling existential issues.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The mind-bending story
  • A novel spin on time travel
  • Frank the terrifying, evil bunny-man

22. 'Sunshine'

'Sunshine' [Credit: FOX Searchlight]

We are not so far from the future Sunshine exposes. A future where Earth has been depleted of its resources and humans are forced to attempt a suicide mission to harness the energy of the sun. Great science fiction has the power to connect a distant future with the desires and issues of today. Sunshine is a haunting warning sign for a future that can still be avoided.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The beauty of the sun close up
  • A real connection with contemporary issues
  • Amazing ensemble cast

21. 'Melancholia'

Melancholia is Lars von Trier's beautiful psychological drama about the end of the world and how two sisters cope with it in different ways. The premise is simple enough but von Trier uses the planet that will eventually collide with Earth as a potent symbol of the psychological state of depression. The closer the impending doom becomes the more the sisters have to dig deep into themselves until the harrowing conclusion erupts, bring all that was hidden into the open.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Stunning ending
  • A beautiful allegory for depression
  • Kirsten Dunst's best role

20. 'Galaxy Quest'

'Galaxy Quest' [Credit: Dreamworks]

Galaxy Quest follows a group of aging actors famous for their cult sci-fi show about a space exploration crew going boldly where no man has gone before. They reluctantly reform for a comeback but the story goes into hyper speed when they are actually abducted by aliens and forced into an interstellar conflict. You won't find a better spoof of sci-fi (in particular Star Trek) anywhere else as Galaxy Quest leaves no cliché untouched.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Hilarious parody of sci-fi TV
  • Stellar cast
  • Alan Rickman's alien scalp

19. 'Ex-Machina'

'Ex-Machina' [Credit: Universal]

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned by eccentric internet billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to participate in a groundbreaking experiment to decide whether Bateman's A.I. can pass for human. The android is so sophisticated that Caleb falls in love with "her," but he soon learns the dangers of falling for an amoral machine. In its brutal story, Ex-Machina suggests that an A.I. will become superior to humans the moment it realizes the futility of emotions.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • One of the finest twists the genre has ever known
  • The incredible dance sequence with Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno
  • Incredible set design

18. 'Westworld'

In the near future, guests can gain entrance to a Western-themed virtual vacation resort called #Westworld to act out their wildest fantasies in an immense simulated reality. The park is populated by sophisticated androids that override their programming and start fighting back. Westworld depicts humans as a greedy, exploitative race who have developed intelligent A.I. only to abuse it for sordid purposes.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The concept was so good, everyone wanted to go to Westworld
  • Yul Brynner plays one of the most iconic villains
  • Predicted the rise of VR

Under the Skin is quietly brilliant. Instead of spelling out the story, this chilling invasion drama wordlessly depicts Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human skin, luring men with her body and trapping them for demonic purposes. The story unfolds without much dialogue or scientific explanation but the oppressive atmosphere keeps the audience guessing about the protagonist. The actress subverts her star power and delivers what may be the performance of her career; laconic but menacing, beautiful but totally dehumanized.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The stomach-churning seduction scenes
  • The atonal soundtrack by Mica Levi puts the audience on edge from scene one
  • Possibly Scarlett Johansson's best performance

16. 'Forbidden Planet'

'Forbidden Planet' [Credit: MGM]

Revolutionary is the only way you can describe Forbidden Planet. Taking a doomed expedition to a doomed planet, it was the first film ever to depict a faster-than-light spaceship and a set entirely set off Earth. Robots were more than just a tin can that bleeped and booped in this adventure, tracking Nielsen's Commander John J. Adams as he attempted to discover the fate of a crew sent to the planet decades earlier. Sinister doctors, rocky planets, and out of this world monsters, what more could you want?

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Compared to William Shakespeare's The Tempest
  • One of the first sci-fi films ever
  • Robby the Robot

15. 'Children Of Men'

'Children of Men' [Credit: Universal]

In Children of Men, humanity is on the brink of extinction after 18 years of infertility. When unsuspecting Julian (Clive Owen) is tasked with escorting what may be the last pregnant woman to safety, all the forces of order and chaos chase him down for the coveted child. Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece is a breathless and eye-opening vision of the future.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Powerful story
  • One-take action sequence
  • A powerful warning sign for what may come ahead

14. 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind'

'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' [Credit: Colombia]

Close Encounters focuses on a small town in middle America that is suddenly visited by an alien life force. Government officials and UN experts are perplexed by their presence, but a blue-collar average Joe, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) begins to crack their code. Spielberg finds the human touch in alien encounters by creating a family drama out of the sci-fi genre.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The iconic location of the alien landing (pictured above)
  • The genius method the humans use to communicate with the aliens
  • Made us believe in aliens

13. 'Gravity'

'Gravity' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

The premise for Gravity is simple yet efficiently devastating. What happens when an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) is working on the outer hull of a space station that is struck by micro-meteors? Everything flies into oblivion and she must find some way back to Earth or risk floating into the void. Many films have tried to put the viewer in the subjective position of an astronaut but none have come close to the gripping, immersive experience of Gravity.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Possibly the best IMAX experience ever
  • Truly captures the terror of being lost in space
  • Poses the question: Are humans ready for space travel?

12. 'Twelve Monkeys'

'Twelve Monkeys' [Credit: Universal]

Sent back in time to stop the army of the Twelve Monkeys from releasing a poison that would wipe out most of humanity, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is not well received by present-day Earth and is chucked into an insane asylum for spouting apocalyptic nonsense. Director Terry Gilliam, knows how to bring the audience into the mind of a madman with his surreal style and clever plot twists. However, he uses this deranged point-of-view as a space to question the reality around us.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Time travel doesn't always work out
  • Brad Pitt's demented performance
  • Beautiful presentation of a post-human Earth

11. 'Minority Report'

'Minority Report' [Credit: Fox]

Minority Report takes place in a future where people can be arrested for crimes they haven't yet committed thanks to the help of three gifted minds that can predict the future. Spielberg's classic is a ballsy action film, an unpredictable thriller and a haunting think-piece that affirms that no one is innocent.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Introduced the floating screen
  • Innovative action sequences
  • Poses tough, moral questions about policing

Tom (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist trying to cure his wife's cancer. Tom is also a 15th century conquistador on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth in the jungles of South America for his love, the Queen of Spain. Tom is also an astral traveler, attempting to bring the Tree of Life to Xibalba, otherwise known as heaven. Darren Aronofsky's passion project ties together these three disparate timelines in an epic and gorgeous story of love, the limits of science and the quest for immortality.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Perfectly links three disparate time lines together
  • Stunning soundtrack by Clint Mansell
  • Merges Sci-Fi premise with religious experience masterfully

9. 'Moon'

'Moon' [Credit: Sony]

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) enlists to be the solitary watchman of a lunar mining facility for the long haul. His personal identity is thrown into the breach when he discovers his doppelgänger on the base. The two wrestle over who has the right to call themselves Sam Bell and try and discover how this deranged experiment occurred. Duncan Jones's economical sci-fi thriller gets 10/10 for scientific realism as the attention to detail in representing life in space is perfect.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Perfectly captures life in an isolated space station
  • Kevin Spacey's voice as the friendly robot
  • Sam Rockwell's incredible performance

Luc Besson's The Fifth Element presents a vision of the future that isn't all doom and gloom but full of color and life. The chemistry between wise-cracking taxi driver Dallas (Bruce Willis) and alien anomaly Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is irresistible as they work together to foil evil bounty hunter Zorg's (Gary Oldman) quest for the ancient, evil weapon that could destroy everything.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Flying car scene
  • Outlandish style
  • A vision of the future that isn't totally bleak or dystopian

7. 'Star Wars Episode VII: The Empire Strikes Back'

'The Empire Strikes Back' [Credit: Fox]

The Empire Strikes Back needs no introduction. Its influence is ubiquitous and the quotes are etched into our minds forever. It left so many iconic images in our mind: Han Solo frozen in agony, Luke Skywalker's crushing realization, and a lightsaber battle that would have us all dreaming of owning one of our own. For most of us who first watched it as a child, this film taught us about loyalty, betrayal and accepting that there is darkness and anger in everyone.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Han Solo captured and frozen is the greatest cliffhanger of all time
  • Darth Vader's revelation is the greatest twist of all time
  • Debatably the best chapter in the #StarWars saga

6. 'Solaris'

'Solaris' [Credit: Mosfilm]

When humanity first discovered Solaris, they believed it to be a hospitable planet. Little did they know that the "planet" was actually a sentient life form that attempted to communicate with the researchers by accessing the deepest recesses of their thoughts. Solaris proves that the biggest obstacle between man and interstellar travel is man himself.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Proves communication between humans and alien life is nearly impossible
  • When you come back to Earth after space travel, it's never the same
  • Humanity's place in the universe is microscopic

5. 'The Thing'

'The Thing' [Credit: Universal]

John Carpenter marries the horror genre with sci-fi seamlessly in the stomach-churning The Thing. The story centers on a team of scientists in an Arctic research base who come across a parasitic alien life form that takes over its host's body and mutates into the most demonic forms. Paranoia builds to a boiling point as the alien picks off the team members one at a time, and by the end the audience isn't sure if they can trust humans or aliens.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Possible the most terrifying alien life form in film history
  • The isolation of the Arctic Research station
  • Taught us to trust no one

4. 'Stalker'

'Stalker' [Credit: Mosfilm]

Directed by Russian visionary Andrei Tarkovsky, and written by the legendary sci-fi novelists the Strugatsky brothers, Stalker tells the story of two men who have paid a great price for a guide to lead them into a highly guarded "unknown zone." Their final destination is a room within the zone that is reported to grant wishes to anyone who enters, but along the way the men learn that one must be careful what one wishes for. Three actors, incredible dialogue and sumptuous cinematography is all Tarkovsky needs to explore man's place in the universe and the limits of his expansion.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Asks difficult philosophical questions most films wouldn't even think of
  • Proves there are some things humans should never know
  • Despite scientific advances, humans are still animals driven by fear

3. 'Alien'

'Alien' [Credit: Fox]

Alien taught us a valuable lesson: Not all extra-terrestrial life forms come in peace. In fact there are some that want nothing more than to search and destroy. Ridley Scott told the macabre story of a crew isolated on an alien spacecraft, unaware of the deadly beasts that hide in the shadows. The director, together with surrealist artist H.R. Giger, conjured a vision of alien life that continues to give people nightmares.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Still manages to give people nightmares
  • H.R. Giger's set and costume design
  • Immeasurable influence

Blade Runner is full of style and substance. It presents a complex story filled with moral dilemmas and does so using stunning, jaw-dropping cinematography. Ex-police officer Decker (Harrison Ford) is commissioned to hunt down renegade androids who have infiltrated the human population and go unnoticed. The androids were produced to be slaves but the Tyrell Corporation proudly describes their A.I. workforce as "more human than human." In the future, how will you tell who is human and who is an android when androids are this sophisticated?

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • Showed how overpopulation will affect Earth
  • Are we morally responsible for the A.I. we create?
  • When A.I. is this sophisticated, should they be treated as humans?

1. '2001: A Space Odyssey'

'2001: A Space Odyssey' [Credit: MGM]

Some films are applauded for adhering to the rules of a genre to a tee, few films actually manage to revolutionize the genre. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey establishes and illustrates the most pervasive themes in contemporary science-fiction: Our place in the universe, the dangers of A.I., the possibility of an afterlife, where will evolution lead us? It does it all in a language that is pure cinema, almost wholly visual.

3 reasons it will be remembered:

  • The monolith
  • HAL, the epitome of A.I. gone wrong
  • The next step in human evolution

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About the Creator

Tom Chapman

Tom is a Manchester-based writer with square eyes and the love of a good pun. Raised on a diet of Jurassic Park, this ’90s boy has VHS flowing in his blood. No topic is too big for this freelancer by day, crime-fighting vigilante by night.

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