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 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.
100. Avatar (2009)
Director James Cameron has acknowledged that Avatar has many influences, from the jungles of Tarzan to the themes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series. But, typically, Cameron went and did it bigger and better than anyone else. Having come up with the idea in his Titanic days, he literally waited for technology to catch up, requiring seriously sophisticated motion-capture photography and effects to plunge us into planet Pandora, along with the avatar of earthly soldier Jake Sully.
Let’s be honest, this isn’t good and the only reason it is even considered a top sci-fi movie is because it helped the 3-D initiative and that ungodly box office intake. That is why it barely slips into this list at entry 100.
99. Barbarella (1968)
An erotic sci-fi action film with comic book roots (it’s based on a French series about a sexy outlaw astronaut from the 41st century), Barbarella is what happens when pulp adventure crashes head first into high camp. Although a critical and commercial failure, it eventually became a cult classic who’s visual style is still seen in films today. With its over the top set design, outlandish costumes, one of a kind creatures and groovy aesthetic, the film is a cartoon come to life. An extremely naughty cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. A feat which most comic book movies still haven’t pulled off.
98. Demolition Man (1993)
A full-blown entertainment juggernaut that rides the line of campy comedy and high-octane action to near perfection. What other movie could give us swole Stallone squaring-off against Wesley Snipes and his blonde hair? Toss in an early career Sandra Bullock, some Denis Leary snark, and a brief Rob Schneider appearance and you’ve got yourself an action picture. Lest we forget these glorious gems:
- “He doesn’t know how to use the three seasons shells.”
- “Now all restaurants are Taco Bell.”
- “Send a maniac to catch one.”
- Oh, and self-driving cars!!!
One thing I’ve always appreciated about this title is how much time we spend with Snipes’ menacing character Simon Phoenix (what a name!). We journey through his thawed-out bewilderment as much as we do John Spartan’s (Sly). An interesting narrative choice that keeps us on our toes in-between President Schwarzenegger references and Jessie Ventura cameos. And if that’s not enough, the final showdown takes place in a cryogenic prison. Demolition Man is every bit as comedic as it is energetically entertaining. It may not have moved the needle in terms of Sci-Fi influence, but the world is much more fun knowing it exists.
97. Fantastic Planet (1973)
“What suggests is superior to what shows. Movies today show more and more. It’s paranoid dictator cinema. What we need is schizophrenic cinema.”
That quote perfectly encapsulates the films of René Laloux. The man only made three films but he only really needed one to prove he was one of the most interesting visionaries to ever make a film. A cinematic drug trip masquerading as social commentary, Fantastic Planet is like licking toads that were already tripping on acid whilst listening to a professor give a series of lectures, including: the role of humans in nature; cohabitation and coexistence of different species, chiefly what makes which species superior and which one savage and the invisible line that separates them. It’s wild, it’s unique and it’s unlike any other animated movie in existence.
96. On the Silver Globe (1988)
Visually extravagant and utterly incoherent, On the Silver Globe is the best sci-fi film Terrence Malick never made. Which is to say you’ll either find it a pretentious bore or an unquestionable masterpiece. Where you land on that scale will depend solely on your threshold for ambiguity and nonsense. As is often the case in Zulawski’s films, the story only exists as a thin framework in which to hang amazing images and inventive ideas, both of which this film is filled to the brim with. Since it was never finished, there are large sections you’re going to have to piece together yourself but if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll be rewarded with an enigmatic puzzle of a movie I guarantee you’ll never forget.
95. Attack the Block (2011)
Long before he was wielding a lightsaber in the Star Wars universe, John Boyega was slaying a different kind of enemy. In Attack the Block, he and his street gang find themselves tasked with defending their South London council estate from alien invaders. It was Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, a familiar face on British shores. His dry humour really shines through, even with crazy fights and explosions going on all around. It was also Boyega’s acting debut and it’s pretty obvious his performance here went a long way to securing him his role in the most recent Star Wars trilogy. He oozes charisma and even though his character Moses starts off as pretty dislikeable, he really starts to grow on you by the conclusion. Although it didn’t perform well at the box office, critics loved it and it has gone on to become something of a cult classic. It’s easy to see why.
94. Gattaca (1997)
Andrew Nicchol’s Gattaca is a study on class warfare with a Romeo and Juliet romance mixed in a futuristic world where “genes” are as important than wealth. Reproduction has been reduced to taking the absolute best traits of the parents in order to produce “valids” and the traditional methods of conceiving produces “invalids”. Ethan Hawke’s “invalid” Vincent Freeman tries to accomplish his goals of space traveling and getting the lovely Uma Thurman.
In a world where discrimination or ‘genoism’ is technically illegal, we still employers make hiring decisions based on blood samples. Niccol twists the language to startling effect while the rebellious Hawke is dubbed a ‘degenerate’. The film succeeds so well because it’s not content simply to be just about the relevant division of class but adds escalating tension when an unrelated murder investigation threatens to uncover the protagonist’s masquerade.
93. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can be categorized as many things. It’s a love story, character drama and dark comedy. It also has a vein of sci-fi running through it that’s critical to the entire story. That sci-fi element concerns a machine that allows the user to clinically erase memories. Through a non-linear narrative, we follow Joel and Clementine as they begin a relationship after a chance meeting during a bus journey, with both being unaware that they had previously dated for 2 years. A large chunk of the story takes place in Joel’s head during the memory-erasing procedure. The structure is fantastic as we witness memories literally disintegrating around Joel and after a change of heart, he tries desperately to keep hold of the ones that matter. It’s a really interesting premise and a Charlie Kaufman film through and through. In the end we are left with the question, is it better to live and learn from our mistakes and hardships, even if we had the choice to make ourselves forget it all?
92. Re-Animator (1985)
Loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft novel of the same, Re-Animator is Stuart Gordon reworking the Frankenstein mythos in the craziest way possible. Filled to the brim with the most demented shit 80s censors would allow (not the least of which includes a scene that redefines the term “giving head”), the film puts the mad in mad scientist. And speaking of mad, it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the delightfully unhinged performance of Jeffery Combs.
Giving one of the all time great horror performances as Herbert West, his loony scientist with a deep obsession with bringing the dead back to life is so much fun to watch, It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. Which is saying a lot considering the bug nuts insanity that transpires within. And that’s a testament to his abilities as an actor, that he’s the main focal point when there’s literal insanity going on around him. It’s an iconic character in an infamous movie brought to life with an equally iconic performance.
91. Logan (2017)
With hundreds of comic book movies in existence, superheroes have encountered just about every kind of advisory and world ending calamity you can think of. Whether it be a giant laser that shoots up into the sky (there’s a lot of those), a super powered megalomaniac that wants to conquer and enslave the planet or a corrupt businessman that wants to sink half of California in order to create a new West Coast, super villains come in all shapes and sizes but none have been as terrifyingly real as the one found in Logan. Because, for the first time in the genre, a superhero has to contend with life’s mightiest foe: the inevitability of getting old.
Set in the far future where most mutants have been eliminated, Logan is a bleak sci-fi dystopia that focuses more on the human element than providing non-stop thrills. It’s a film where all the heroes have died and all that remains are the ones that lived. Heavily inspired by Shane and Unforgiven, the film tackles themes of getting old and dying, outliving ones usefulness and coming to terms with the fact that perhaps every choice you made was the wrong one and that everything you did in life was pointless. But It’s also a film about how hope weighs more than the burden of regret and how sometimes all we need is one last job to give our lives meaning. Logan is the only comic book film to be nominated for best adapted screenplay for a reason – it’s brilliant.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!