There have been some excellent sci-fi movies over the years. This list showcases 20 of the best.
Science Fiction Genre
Despite rarely being recognized as “real cinema” – much the same way as horror and superhero offerings – science fiction is a genre that stimulates our imaginations in a way that nothing else does. It deals with fantastic, futuristic, and highly imaginative concepts that we don't have – at least not yet – in the real world.
Watching sci-fi movies lets us see concepts like deep space exploration, time travel, advanced technology and weaponry, alternate/parallel universes, and various alien life forms.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
A bona fide masterpiece, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the finest and most influential movies ever made. Inspired primarily by Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 short story “The Sentinel,” it chronicles the discovery of an alien monolith and the subsequent voyage to Jupiter with the sentient supercomputer HAL.
It's incredibly atmospheric – to the point that it's almost hypnotic – and still receives praise for its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight. The movie's special effects were genuinely pioneering, and its beautiful cinematography is iconic (even if some of the artistic imagery is so ambiguous that it's confusing). If you're only going to watch one sci-fi movie in your life, it should be this.
2. Star Wars (1977, Directed by George Lucas)
Star Wars is arguably the most iconic sci-fi franchise. In all honesty, we could have chosen a number of the installments for inclusion here. However, we've opted for the original – which is also now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – because it was the movie that started it all.
The story centers around a group of freedom fighters called the Rebel Alliance. They embark on a mission to destroy the evil Empire's newest weapon, the Death Star. We are also introduced to Luke Skywalker as he attempts to control a metaphysical power known as “the Force” under the instruction of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's an action-packed epic of a movie with some fantastic combat scenes and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.
3. Alien (1979, Directed by Ridley Scott)
Masterfully combining sci-fi with horror, Ridley Scott's Alien terrified audiences worldwide upon its release. It still does now – it was that far ahead of its time. It focuses on the crew of a commercial spacecraft called the Nostromo. When they find a mysterious derelict spaceship on a previously undiscovered moon, they fight for survival against an aggressive and deadly extra-terrestrial known as a Xenomorph.
Sigourney Weaver gives the performance of her life as the resilient Ellen Ripley. This iconic role pioneered the idea that women are just as capable as men in action roles. The titular Xenomorph – inspired by the works of Swiss surrealist and artist H. R. Giger – is equally iconic and is now considered to be up there with the likes of Dracula and the Wolf Man in monster movie lore.
4. The Terminator (1984, Directed by James Cameron)
With elements of both sci-fi and action, The Terminator is a genuine classic of both genres. Arnold Schwarzenegger's now iconic T-800 cyborg – is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). His unborn son will one day save humanity from extinction by Skynet, a hostile artificial intelligence. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) also gets sent back to protect her.
The movie plays out like an unstoppable juggernaut – much like its high-tech antagonist. It's teeming with great action, a lot of tension, memorable dialogue, mostly decent special effects (we say “mostly” because one scene involving prosthetics is laughable), and subtle humor. The Terminator was undoubtedly the role Arnie was born to play.
5. Serenity (2005, Directed by Joss Whedon)
Written and directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Whedon in his feature directorial debut, Serenity probably isn't a movie you expected to see here, but it's worthy of its place. A continuation of Whedon's short-lived 2002 Fox series Firefly, it features the same cast as the show, which includes Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Set in 2517, it tells the story of the crew of Serenity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship, as they try to evade an assassin.
It's a space-based Western, and that mix of genres works brilliantly. It's fast-paced and energetic, the dialogue is witty and funny, the characters are eclectic and exciting, and the special effects are glorious. Serenity is a movie you should watch, even if you aren't familiar with Firefly.
6. Dune (2021, Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
The second big screen adaptation of the 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert, Dune, is the first of a new two-part franchise that will continue in 2023. This epic movie is far superior to David Lynch's 1984 version and follows Timothée Chalamet's Paul Atreides as his family – the noble House Atreides – is thrust into a war for the harsh desert planet Arrakis.
There's a reason this movie was so Oscar-laden – it won no less than six – because it's an absolute work of art. With its star-studded cast, it succeeds in almost every respect, providing great action, major thrills, and genuinely incredible visuals. As a result, the forthcoming sequel is unsurprisingly very eagerly anticipated.
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Directed by Don Siegel)
Adapted from Jack Finney's 1954 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers follows a small-town doctor in California who learns the people in his community are getting replaced by emotionless alien duplicates created by alien plant spores.
This movie is a chilling political allegory and is classic sci-fi horror at its best. It's very straightforward and was produced on a limited budget. Still, it's genuinely scary and remains one of the most influential of its kind. Incidentally, its 1978 remake is equally as good – which isn't something you can say very often!
8. The Thing (1982, Directed by John Carpenter)
The second movie is based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There? (the first being 1951's The Thing from Another World), The Thing is about a group of American researchers isolated in Antarctica. They encounter a parasitic alien life form that assimilates, then imitates, other organisms – the “Thing.”
Part of Carpenter's “Apocalypse” trilogy (the others being 1987's Prince of Darkness and 1994's In the Mouth of Madness), The Thing is existential horror done right. With gruesome body horror imagery, some of the tensest scenes in movie history, and an excellent performance from Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, this movie should be on any list of the best sci-fi and horror offerings.
9. Blade Runner (1982, Directed by Ridley Scott)
Blade Runner is a loose adaptation of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set in a dystopian Los Angeles in the then-future 2019. The movie sees burnt-out cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) reluctantly agreeing to hunt down a fugitive group of synthetic humans known as “replicants” – bio-engineered workers created by the powerful Tyrell Corporation.
A complex movie that was underappreciated initially, Blade Runner is now rightly viewed in a far more positive light and considered highly influential. With spectacular visuals and amazing special effects greatly assisting it, the movie provides mystery, great dialogue, addictive action, and some intriguing questions about humanity.
10. E.T. The Extra-terrestrial (1982, Directed by Steven Spielberg)
One of the most charming movies ever made, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is arguably Steven Spielberg's finest – which says a lot! It's about a young boy named Elliott who befriends an alien – E.T. – who gets left behind on Earth. Elliott and those close to him must find a way to help E.T. return home while evading the government.
This movie is breathtaking and heart-warming at the same time. People of all ages can enjoy it, thanks mainly to its excellent portrayal of childhood – everyone has been a child at some point, after all. It's touching and magical, with likable characters you want to root for. There's a reason it was the highest-grossing movie of all time for more than a decade.
11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Directed by Steven Spielberg)
Another Spielberg classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tells the story of Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary. A blue-collar worker in Indiana, Neary finds his life dramatically changed after witnessing a UFO fly very closely over his truck one night.
Although it's relatively slow-paced, this movie has enough standout moments to be exceptional anyway – and the ending is a pay-off worth waiting for regardless. Its conveyance of alien visitors as benign and peaceful beings makes it as suitable for children as E.T.; it also has some of the most exemplary cinematography in the genre – rightly claiming the Oscar in that category.
12. Barbarella (1968, Directed by Roger Vadim)
Based on the French comic series of the same name by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella‘s inclusion on this list may surprise you. Barbarella, the eponymous character played by Jane Fonda, represents the United Earth government. Her mission is to locate scientist Dr. Durand-Durand, who has created a weapon with the power to destroy humanity.
To put it simply, Barbarella is just a heck of a lot of fun. Admittedly, it's incredibly cheesy, but that adds to its charm. The visuals and set design are fantastic, and Fonda gives it her all, making it enjoyable to watch. Be warned, though – the mechanical dolls with razor-sharp teeth may give you nightmares!
13. The Planet of the Apes (1968, Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner)
Loosely based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle, The Planet of the Apes sees a crew of astronauts crash-landing on a strange planet in the distant future. They subsequently discover a society where apes dominate, having evolved into creatures with human-like intelligence and speech.
This imaginative and engrossing movie is fast-paced and has enough action and suspense to entertain viewers. It doubles up as a brilliant social commentary about a world turned on its head – and its ending, originated by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, is one of the most famous in movie history. The 2001 remake, however, should be avoided.
14. Back to the Future (1985, Directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Back to the Future is arguably the most quintessentially 1980s movie. The film, set in 1985, flawlessly combines sci-fi with comedy and features Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly.
McFly is sent back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean built by his eccentric scientist friend Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd). But unfortunately, his actions there inadvertently threaten his existence.
This movie is one of the most watchable ever made. Despite its inaccurate portrayal of time travel (according to most modern scientific theories), it still endures. It's funny, charming, and brilliantly acted by its entire cast – and the chemistry between Fox and Lloyd is right up there with the best in cinema history.
15. District 9 (2009, Directed by Neill Blomkamp)
District 9 is a Best Picture Oscar-nominated movie partially presented in a found footage format. Beginning in an alternate 1982, it sees a population of sick and malnourished aliens appearing on a ship over Johannesburg. The South African government confines them to an internment camp called District 9. However, the bulk of the movie is set twenty years later when the government attempts to relocate them.
This complex movie explores themes like humanity, xenophobia, and social segregation – and it's undoubtedly superb. It's incredibly emotional, highly imaginative, action-packed, and technically brilliant.
16. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Directed by Robert Wise)
Based on the 1940 science fiction short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, The Day the Earth Stood Still is about a humanoid alien visitor who arrives on Earth. Along with a powerful robot, he has to tell humans they must live peacefully or die.
It's the first of two movie adaptations of Bates' story and by far the best. Although it's a little moralistic and wordy, the story is brilliant, the acting superb, and the special effects impressive. The Day the Earth Stood Still keeps viewers on edge from start to finish.
17. Tron (1982, Directed by Steven Lisberger)
Disney's stylish Tron follows a computer programmer and video game developer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Flynn gets transported inside a mainframe computer and interacts with its software as he attempts to escape. It's as fun as you'd expect a Disney offering to be.
This movie is dazzling even to this day. The “light cycle” scenes are iconic with their spectacular sound and light display. In addition, Tron boasts a string of engaging and energetic performances from its excellent cast, who surprisingly acted their scenes out on a darkened sound stage.
18. The Matrix (1999, Directed by the Wachowskis)
One of the finest movies that ever combined sci-fi with action, The Matrix depicts a dystopian future in which humans are unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality. At the same time, intelligent machines use their bodies as energy sources. Hacker Thomas Anderson, AKA “Neo” (Keanu Reeves), uncovers the truth and joins a human rebellion against the oppressive machines.
Boasting groundbreaking special effects, beautiful visuals, and spectacular action, The Matrix is an incredible movie-watching experience. It is highly complicated, and some might find it challenging to follow. Still, it's so nifty it'll probably hook them anyway!
19. The War of the Worlds (1953, Directed by Byron Haskin)
The War of the Worlds is the first of five (so far) feature-length movie adaptations of the 1898 novel by H. G. Wells. The movie retells the novel as it moved the setting from Victorian England to southern California in 1953. In the film, Martians invade Earth, and scientist Clayton Forrester tries to assist in the counterattack by finding a weakness in the invaders.
Sure, the special effects look dated today, but the movie rightly received the Academy Award in that category. It remains the best adaptation of Wells' novel, as it's brilliantly acted, incredibly suspenseful, and, at times, genuinely terrifying.
20. Predator (1987, Directed by John McTiernan)
An action movie with a sci-fi twist, Predator is an absolute blast about an elite paramilitary rescue team – led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Alan “Dutch” Schaefer. The team is on a mission to save hostages in a Central American rainforest when they encounter a technologically advanced alien who stalks and hunts them down.
While its plot would never help it win any Oscars, there's more than enough tension and energy in Predator to keep audiences wholly hooked. Arnie is brilliantly assisted by a versatile and quirky supporting cast, providing many memorable quotes. The now-iconic creature is both terrifying and formidable in equal measure.