Jetpacks, lazers, walking eyes — Is there any genre of film as infinitely creative as sci-fi? Since most films within the genre deal with non-existent technology, filmmakers are limited only by their imagination and because of this, we’re gifted with a wide assortment of different stories. From time-traveling to robots to alien invasions and even the occasional space opera, sci-fi is the epitome of cinematic freedom. Science fiction is what happens when the real meets the almost real and in the middle of that lies boundless opportunities. This list is the definitive ranking of films that best represent both halves of the equation.
This is The 100 Greatest Sci-fi Films Of All Time.
10. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A New Hope was Lucas’ attempt at reimagining the sci-fi serials he loved as a kid. He couldn’t get the rights to remake Flash Gordon, so he created his own Flash Gordon. With a dash of the Hidden Fortress and with a little bit of Buck Rodgers and Metropolis thrown in, Lucas crafted the single most important work of art released since the Lord of the Rings. And yet, I’d argue the sequel, is even more important. Because if it sucked, no one would’ve given a shit about the low budget space opera that proceeded it. It would’ve become another Planet of the Apes; a great film sci-fi nerds love that was somewhat tainted by a subpar follow-up. But as you know, the Empire Strikes Back didn’t suck nor did it flop. This is the point where Star Wars went from fun, popcorn entertainment to a mainstream hit that appealed to everyone. Kids weren’t the only ones dying to see this anymore. Now, it was the entire world. Star Wars created nerd culture but Empire made it almost acceptable to admit to liking nerd shit. Nerds wouldn’t take over the world for another thirty years but without this movie, they never would have.
09. Metropolis (1927)
Metropolis came out in 1927. Let that sink in for a second. That’s two years before the great stock market crash, twelve before the start of World War II, and forty-one before 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh and then fast forward more than a half-century to get to today.
Fritz Lang’s undeniable masterpiece Metropolis is a movie of its time but also a story of time itself. Make no mistakes, Metropolis is challenging viewing for even the most patient watchers, but it remains an essential Sci-Fi movie for all film lovers.
08. The Matrix (1999)
A hodgepodge of influences, the Wachowskis pulled from everything including anime, comic books, Kung Fu flicks, and even religion to create their cyberpunk masterpiece. Hitting at the exact right moment, The Matrix is a perfect time capsule of the dawn of the Internet age. Just like how Fight Club spoke to aimless millennials (or mocked them, either or), The Matrix touched a nerve with an entire generation who was ready to break out of its long-held programming.
When Neo (Keanu Reeves) woke up from his simulated reality and accepted that he was, in fact, the “one”, the quest he does on — to bring down the Matrix and free the rest of the “slaves” — instantly made him a real-life hero to many that suffered from malaise and were tired of being controlled by the man. Neo is more than just Jesus with a trench-coat fetish, he’s the hero Orwell feared and Huxley pretended didn’t exist. He was taking down the internet, which wasn’t the biggest baddie at the time but would prove to be the greatest villain of them all. The Matrix is an era-defining action extravaganza filled to the brim with interesting ideas, a unique world, and one of the most iconic and ripped off scenes in movie history.
07. The Terminator (1984)
Spawning five sequels, a television series, multiple video games, and iconic pop culture references, The Terminator’s influence is plain for anyone to see. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, a cyborg assassin sent back in time from 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose son will one day become a saviour against machines in a post-apocalyptic future. It’s a basic set up but the beauty is in the execution. The oppressive atmosphere created is one of the best the sci-fi genre has ever seen. Of course, it also spawned the catchphrases ‘I’ll be back’ and ‘come with me if you want to live’. The Terminator helped launch James Cameron’s film career and went a long way to solidifying Arnie’s status as a leading man in Hollywood. A position he held for many years to come. Sometimes dwarfed by its older brother T2, for me, there is something raw and exciting about the original that means it will always be my preferred go-to from the franchise.
06. Back to the Future (1985)
Is this one of the most universally loved movies of all-time in any genre? I think that’s a hard yes. Back to the Future has everything. It has some of the greatest characters in film history with Marty McFly and Doc Brown played superbly by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Along with stellar side characters and an all-time villain simply helps round out a fantastic cast. A kick-ass soundtrack. One of the sweetest rides that’s arguably the real star of the movie. It’s ability to perfectly capture the 80s and the 50s at the same time in different ways with commentary on both eras. The way it invaded pop culture even to this day. The list goes on and on and we haven’t got to the coolest part of the movie yet…time travel.
Back to the Future is one of the rare blockbusters to fill like a thrill ride and also feel intimate with plenty of heart. It is quick-witted, fast-paced, and extremely smart. The story of a teenager from 1985 who accidentally travels back to 1955 in a DeLorean where he accidentally keeps his parents from meeting and instead causes his own mother to start showing him the affection meant for his father which begins to erase his own future would go on to be a box office hit, critically acclaimed and sci-fi movie for the ages. Director Rober Zemeckis was able to craft a perfect movie that is entertaining for all ages and hasn’t aged a bit.
05. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
The Mad Max franchise is one of the most consistently enjoyable series in history, with only one dud among four films (and honestly, Beyond Thunderdome isn’t all that bad) and yet, the success of its first sequel was not a guarantee. In retrospect, it’s obvious the most popular Australian film of all time would get a sequel but at the time, no one could predict a film about a crazy cop dealing out extreme justice in the outback would or even should get a follow-up. Max Rockatansky’s arc was pretty much done after the first one. He got his revenge on the people who murdered his family, so where do go from there? The answer is: you turn him into Zatoichi.
You change Max from a lawman into a wandering mercenary but you keep the crazy. Miller essentially stripped him of any arc or character and just made him a catalyst for the action. He walks into town, finds out the town needs help, and begrudgingly agrees. And in the process, regains a bit of his humanity, but in the interim, drives a bunch of cars real fast and kills a whole lot of people. The first film created the post-apocalyptic genre but this is the one that perfected it.
04. Alien (1979)
Everything about this film just clicks and works extremely well on so many levels. With the sci-fi aspect, we have the space ships, android, and technology. On the horror side, we claustrophobic dread and awful monsters. Unlike most horror movies, however, the viewer can’t yell at the people on the screen what they should or shouldn’t do. The usual advice is “why don’t they just run or leave?!” Well, the Nostromo crew had nowhere to run when they went up against a sneaky killing machine aboard a spaceship. Alien is essentially a slasher movie set in space with incredible special effects, Roger Christian’s fantastic sets and H.R. Giger’s creature designs that still hold up to this day.
Ridley Scott would direct a damn fine sci-fi horror film that had a palpable sense of claustrophobia while also giving us one of the most unexpected horror scenes when an alien burst through a poor crew member’s chest. We would also be treated to one of the best and most iconic female heroes in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as she would go up against the frightening Xenomorph.
03. Blade Runner (1982)
Ask someone to think of sci-fi in any form of entertainment or popular culture and Blade Runner will be one of the first things that come to mind. The opening scene with a burning dystopian skyline reflected in an eye. The age-old debate of whether Deckard is a replicant or not. Rutger Hauer’s tears in rain monologue. The word epic doesn’t do it justice. Yet at the same time, there is something intimate about Blade Runner. It’s a fun spectacle to watch but the real brilliance is in the various complex themes bubbling under the surface. Replicants, the antagonists of the film, start out as just that. But as things go on we are manipulated into seeing them as not necessarily the bad guys. Our hero Deckard has questionable morals that he himself begins to question, along with his own humanity.
It was a game-changer back in 1982 and the sci-fi genre wouldn’t be where it is today without its influence. Considering the fact that it’s only been improved upon with the various cuts released in the years that followed (culminating in The Final Cut), it’s one of the greatest films ever made, regardless of genre.
02. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Up until Star Wars, Sci-Fi was a relatively niche genre. Although shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had considerable viewership, they never quite broke through to worldwide audiences. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The War of the Worlds were groundbreaking, but didn’t attract casual fans of film. But in 1977, a little passion project from the mind of George Lucas changed the landscape of science fiction forever.
Star Wars (1977) is not only significant for being a genre pioneer, but it’s also a great film in one of the most storied franchises in cinema. Star Wars, now dubbed Episode IV – A New Hope tells a tight story with good resolution and an unforgettable villain in Darth Vader. It would go on to inspire films like no other while creating one of the most dedicated fanbases of anything ever. Conventions, cosplay, toys, spinoffs, imitations, etc. And as such, the original Star Wars will forever be one of the great Sci-Fi movies ever made.
01. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick didn’t set out to make the ultimate sci-fi film, nor was he interested in making a cult item of WTFery, he simply wanted to make a film that covered everything and with the help of Arthur C. Clarke, he did. A thought-provoking and mind-bending trip through time and space, 2001: A Space Odyssey covers so much – the dawn of man, the space race, the arrival of artificial intelligence, greater space exploration, and a journey into the cosmic unknown. Open to endless interpretation, the film is just ambiguous enough that every viewer has a theory of what happened at the end and that every theory that isn’t their own sounds plausible.
Before the underrated sequel explicitly states what happened in the end, the giant space baby was cinemas first great mystery. It’s an indelible image that boggles the mind as well as forces the viewer to think. In addition to its delightful ambiguity and trippy visuals, it also boasts some of the most impressive camera work and SFX of any genre film before or since. Kubrick’s direction is impeccable, with every frame looking visually gorgeous and some being museum level perfect. From its gigantic rotating sets to its use of classical music in key scenes (it’s impossible to hear Strauss’s The Blue Danube and not think of this film), to its groundbreaking climactic light show, 2001 is an audio-visual marvel. It assaults the viewer with cutting edge effects, twists their minds with its insane story, and made them afraid of technology decades before Crichton or Cameron. Film today wouldn’t be the same without Star Wars but Star Wars wouldn’t exist without 2001.
Do you agree with the ranking? What is your favorite sci-fi film? Comment down below and let us know!