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.
20. Planet of the Apes (1968)
We’ve lived within the orbit of this movie for so long it’s easy to overlook as a monumental achievement. But, in many ways, this is the title that set the tone for much of what would come in its wake. The trope of being held captive is as old as any in storytelling, although with Planet of the Apes the convention elevates to a more visceral yet entertaining level than many of the like-minded predecessors. Not to mention the twist ending remains an all-time “what just happened?!” moment. One of which many say they wish to go back and watch for the first time again. Mythical status and all, we treasure this one because it gifted us prime Heston battling the likes of those iconic intelligent, talking Apes on a distant planet. That’s enough to earn a spot in the pantheon of Sci-Fi titles.
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Redefining the term “epic”, Fury Road is George Miller’s third sequel in his Mad Max series and boy howdy is it a doozy. Mirroring Max’s slow descent into madness in the first one, the series gets progressively more out there with each installment until it hit its autogeddon apex with this movie. As close as any film has come to non-stop action; it’s essentially a two-hour car chase but bigger and more bombastic than any before or since. In addition to the balls to the wall excitement, there’s the cast that’s as hot as the desert they’re filming in.
Tom Hardy does a magnificent job of replacing Mel Gibson and Hugh Keays-Byrne is fucking great as the villain but the real MVP is Charlize Theron. With just one movie, she made Furiosa a character as iconic as Max himself. You immediately understand her motivations and without knowing anything about her, you root for her to succeed. Unlike Max who’s character arc ended after the first movie, Furiosa has an actual goal you care about. She’s a badass warrior who’s fighting for more than just revenge or survival, she’s a savior who’ll risk her life to save others. In addition to being the best thing in the movie (which is saying a lot), she’s the best character in the franchise.
A rarity in Hollywood in that it’s a dream project with a blank check that doesn’t suffer from producer meddling and isn’t a colossal misfire (See: Lady in the Water, Jupiter Ascending, The Razor’s Edge, Toys, Etc.), Fury Road is 100% Miller’s vision, which is both great due to the movie being an absolutely astonishing piece of art but depressing because there will never be another film like it. There’s no other director like Miller and a studio will never bankroll something this audacious ever again. Fury Road is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can never be duplicated and I doubt any action film will ever come close to topping.
18. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)
We’re still a couple of years off from the Avatar sequels (which very well could be career-ending megaflops) but as of right now, James Cameron is the undisputed king of the sequel. His approach is simple yet highly effective: keep the toys, change the sandbox. Both Alien and the Terminator were suspense heavy horror thrillers about an unstoppable inhuman force killing all in its way until a badass heroine takes it down in the triumphant third act. Both are perfect films for what they are but Cameron, being the visionary that he is, saw room for improvement. He kept the characters but just moved them into a new genre.
Ripley was no longer all alone in the deep recesses of space with a murderous alien, now she’s surrounded with Marines as well as a shit ton of aliens. She went from horror to action without skipping a beat. And Cameron did the same with Sarah Conner. In the first Terminator, Sarah was constantly on the run from a Michael Myers-Esque android, and in this one, that death-dealing killbot becomes the second protagonist. She jumped genres and he went from the bad guy to the good guy. It’s one of the most radical changes in any sequel and boy does it pay off. T2 is a sci-fi action extravaganza that only stops injecting adrenaline straight into your eyeballs long enough to tell a legitimately heartwarming story about a boy without a father bonding with his robotic bodyguard. There’s a reason Harlan Ellison sued Cameron over the first movie and not this one–not even he, one of the best sci-fi writers of the 20th century, wrote anything nearly as good and he knew it.
17. Akira (1988)
It’s ironic that the film opens with a massive atomic blast because that’s the most accurate representation of what this film did to western audiences when it first debuted. Americans weren’t ready for this shit. We were accustomed to films about cute woodland creatures, not telekinetic monster fetuses. This came out the same year as Oliver & Company and there’s a reason nobody remembers that film exists. The Disney way was dead.
1988 was the year that anime finally hit our shores and it hit us hard. We got the one-two-three punch combo of My Neighbor Totoro, The Grave Of The Fireflies, and Akira. The only thing those three films have in common besides their country of origin is the fact that they proved that there was a whole other world out there making films that we had no idea existed. It blew our minds and we’ve embraced Anime ever since.
It’s hard to say which one of those films is the official film that introduced us to anime but regardless of who got there first, Akira was the only one at the party anyone was talking about. My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t become huge till VHS a year later and hardly anyone outside Japan had seen The Grave Of The Fireflies but even if both were hits, it still would’ve been Akira. It pushed the envelope in every way imaginable and destroyed our minds in the process.
16. The Thing (1982)
Based on the novel Who Goes There? Which was later adapted into The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter’s take on the story is a horse of a different color. Gone are the communist undertones of the original and are now replaced with a smartly written allegory for AIDS, The Thing is the greatest film about paranoia ever devised. Since the alien entity can be anyone or anything, no one is to be trusted. It’s a premise Tom Clancy or John Le Carré get erect just thinking about.
When John Carpenter makes a film, all the credit goes to him. He’s an auteur and that’s just how that shit works but The Thing is the only film in his oeuvre that he can only claim half the credit for its success. As amazing as the camera work is in this film, and as amazing as the score is, the second star of the film is undoubtedly Rob Bottin. His FX work in this film is literally second to none. There are effects in this that not only stand the test of time but are so good, I still have a hard time figuring out how they work. Together with Carpenter’s impeccable direction and use of dread, Bottom’s horrific monster designs make this the greatest horror film ever, the greatest alien invasion film ever and the scariest sci-fi film of all time.
15. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Good sequels restart the hero’s journey set by their predecessor but offer exciting new challenges for the protagonist. Great sequels do the same but also expand upon themes touched upon in the first, while also fleshing out the old cast of characters and introduce new ones that are just as good. The Wrath of Khan is one of the only sequels that is so far past the first one in quality, it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with other part 2’s. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is like watching a kid learn to play basketball; he can’t dribble for shit, he can’t get the ball anywhere near the net and he falls down every other time he tries but goddamn is it entertaining watching him fail. You can see the passion and desire but the skill is wildly off. The Wrath of Khan is that kid in three years dunking on kids twice it’s size.
The jump in quality from one film to the next must-have felt like watching Magic Johnson first alley-oop the fuck out of someone in the 70’s – it was mind-blowing sorcery the likes of which were nearly incomprehensible, and what’s even crazier is, the other team getting their ass handed to them was their own first movie. The script is nearly flawless, the acting is substantially better, the set pieces are more memorable, the villain is an all-timer and the ending is still amazingly effective. Khan took the Motion Picture to court and made it its bitch.
14. Stalker (1979)
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker because it was the first time I felt like I had experienced a movie instead of just watching it. By the time the credits started to roll, I couldn’t tell you if I was entertained or even how much I enjoyed it. It was simply like a moth to a flame, I was pulled in and entranced by the images and sounds surrounding me. There is a particular scene where every time I watch it, I feel almost hypnotized by the duration and the sound of the scene. For those who have seen it, they know exactly what I’m talking about. There is a hypnotic and surreal feel to this film that lingers a long time after you are done viewing it.
Tarkovsky’s masterpiece deals with three men’s journey through a strange wasteland as they search for a room that grants the heart’s desires. It is an interpretive dystopian look behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union whose aesthetic of the ‘Zone’ would go on to influence numerous other dystopian films and TV shows. Some that are even on this list. The troubles of the film behind the scenes are a story of their own but nothing would deny this masterwork from making an impact in the sci-fi cinema landscape for generations.
13. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
When I think sci-fi I usually envisage something dark, gritty, and dystopian. With a good helping of violence. But there is definitely room for more family-friendly creations, and when it comes to that category there isn’t much better out there than E.T. As a child I was initially creeped out by the strange little alien bumbling around on the screen. That feeling didn’t last long and eventually the desire to reach out and hug the creature was immeasurable. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I was emotionally affected by a film and when I watch it today it still feels like a big comfort blanket. From a critical standpoint, E.T. is an excellently crafted piece of entertainment with Spielberg DNA running through it. It has its fair share of laugh out loud moments, great music, fantastic performances from the youngsters, and overall, it’s just a great example of feel-good cinema done right.
12. Godzilla (1954)
The original and still one of the best of the massive creature films ever. Godzilla (or Gojira if you’re nasty) is an interesting post-war commentary as the King of Monsters represents the fallout of nuclear holocaust in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly a decade earlier. Created as a consequence of the bombs and radiation, Godzilla rises to wreak havoc upon mankind. The dark side of the Atomic Age, Godzilla is a large, destructive, and irradiated dinosaur that appears out of nowhere with the sole purpose of destroying mankind with his radioactive breath and big ass feet. Unlike the sequels that turned him into a world-saving superhero, the Godzilla in this is destruction incarnate. Much like Fatman and Little Boy, he came without warning and destroyed everything he saw. He’s one of the world’s most recognizable characters, the ultimate anti-nuke PSA and the legacy he built off of this film is so strong, it would go on to spawn one of the longest-running movie series in history for a total of 33 films. All hail the king (lizard).
11. Frankenstein (1931)
To be considered a great genre film, one needs only to check the requisite boxes. Horror films need either perfectly constructed jump scares and/or copious amounts of blood and guts. Sci-fi needs futuristic tech and a smidge of social commentary. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film is perfect on a technical level. There’s a huge difference between a great genre movie and a great film. As long as they deliver the baseline of what is expected within the genre in an entertaining way, fans will forgive the technical limitations. A “great” film doesn’t get the same leeway. Other films don’t get a pass just because there’s some good gore, A+ titties, or a cool looking robot. A “great” film needs every component to work. From the directing to the acting, to the sound.
Frankenstein is a perfect film which also happens to be a great horror and a great sci-fi film. It’s the ultimate genre film. Although dated significantly since it’s release, the scares within undeniably influenced every horror film for the next two decades and its plot, which involves a mad scientist obsessed with bringing the dead back, basically invented sci-fi. It’s an iconic film starring an equally iconic character and it might be the most important and influential film until the release of Star Wars.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!