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.
30. A Trip to The Moon (1902)
Trying to pinpoint the exact origin of film is a tricky proposition, with many pointing to either The Horse in Motion or Roundhay Garden Scene as the first film ever made. Which one is the true progenitor of the medium has been an ongoing debate that’s been going on since the 1800s and while both have a strong claim to the title, I would argue that cinema, as we know it today, was born with A Trip to the Moon. Directed by Georges Méliès and inspired by a story by Jules Verne, the film tells the story of a group of adventurers who, as the title suggests, take a trip to the moon.
While there, they run afoul of some moon men and after escaping, they crash back to Earth wherein they encounter an underwater civilization filled with mermaids. A masterpiece of efficiency, the short tells a complete story loaded with unforgettable moments at just twelve minutes. It’s a groundbreaking work of art that not only created the genre but has been ripped off and parodied so many times, that there’s homages of the homages.
29. Mad Max (1979)
Mad Max depicts a world on the edge of chaos due to an energy shortage. Ruthless gangs rove the nation’s highways, barely kept in check by a special police group called Main Force Patrol. The patrol’s most effective officer, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), has grown weary of the horrific events he witnesses on a daily basis and wants out. This changes when his wife and infant child are slain by a biker gang in revenge for Max’s part in the death of one of their members.
What George Miller was able to accomplish in his debut and with a shoestring budget is worthy of an entry alone. Miller helps give Mad Max a rough and ready-made feel, but the director also delivers undeniable energy and authenticity. Real bikers were recruited for many of the roles and damaged vehicles were patched up and re-used. “Do you see me Toecutter?!”
28. Children of Men (2006)
What Children of Men does better than any other sci-fi film I can think of, is portray a dystopian future that I can imagine living in. It’s nice to see spaceships, aliens, and neon lights, but the future that we see in this film is mesmerizing in a different way. It feels like we could really be experiencing it in a decade or two (or even less when looking at recent happenings around the world). Events take place in the UK in the year 2027. Women are no longer getting pregnant and after two decades of human infertility, society is on the brink of collapse. I won’t say any more to avoid the risk of spoiling things for anyone who hasn’t seen this masterpiece, but certain things happen and Clive Owen finds himself in the thick of revelations and conspiracies, with a chance to save mankind. One of the standout features in Children of Men are the long shot sequences captured throughout. They add a sense of urgency to the film with one lasting nearly 8 minutes long. I have to pause for a breath every time I watch it. And that happens to be quite frequently. A modern classic.
27. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Given the cold shoulder by critics and audiences at the time, Back to the Future Part II languished in underrated sequel purgatory for awhile. Occupying the same space reserved for unappreciated gems such as Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Psycho 2 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But eventually, enough people realized how good it was and it rightfully earned its status as a classic. Employing what might be the most satisfying time travel story in cinema history, Back to the Future Part II retains all the fun of the original but ups the ante in every other regard. The setting(s) is more fun, the stakes are bigger and the multiple versions of characters are all a blast. Back to the Future might be the quintessential 80’s film but Back to the Future Part II is the quintessential sequel. Which isn’t as impressive typed out as it was in my head but at least it’s something.
26. Wall-E (2008)
Any film lover will tell you that there’s three categories for film appreciation–the great films, the favorite films and the handshake films. The first two are self explanatory but the handshake films need a little bit of explaining. The handshake film is the film you use as your barometer to gauge a strangers taste. If they love it, they’re part of the “club” and if they hate it, your tastes will probably not align.
Wall-E is my handshake film. If you find the beginning of this film boring or complain about the lack of dialogue, I know immediately that we do not have the same taste in film. This film is so magical, it made me care about a cockroach.
25. Arrival (2016)
After twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, a linguist (Amy Adams) teams up with the military to communicate with the alien lifeforms in order to find out what their intent is. Do they come in peace or are they here to destroy us. The film interweaves its themes (that of memories and the concept of time) within the narrative in such a brilliant way, that the structure itself is the twist. It’s a perfectly constructed story executed flawlessly. And if all it had to offer was its ingeniously crafted story, it would still easily make the cut but Denis Villeneuve ain’t no one trick pony. On top of that, there’s the unique alien designs, the outstanding score, incredible cast filled with top notch performances and a surprising emotional center that’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Arrival has it all.
24. Aliens (1986)
While working on the set of Galaxy of Terror, a young James Cameron noticed that everything from the cast, to the crew, to the sets, were as low quality as possible and wondered why they weren’t trying to make a film as good as Alien. The crew, having worked on many a Corman production beforehand, were used to banging out cheap knockoffs made solely to chase a hot trend but Cameron couldn’t fathom why. If they were going to a movie anyways, why not make the best movie possible? Cut to five years later and that same set designer who had to make a futuristic set out of spray painted Styrofoam containers he bought from McDonald’s, was helming Aliens.
Cherry picking the best elements of Alien, Cameron took what worked in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece and ditched everything he didn’t like. Namely the haunted-house-in-space setting and slower pace, and adding in action hungry space marines, while also fleshing out the xenomorphs biology and giving Ripley some much deserved emotional weight. The xenomorph queen is a brilliant creation and say what you will about Cameron as a writer but Weaver was nominated for a reason. Ripley is finally given something to do outside of opening and closing doors or arguing with men and Weaver attacks the role like a hungry dog. She’s spectacular in it and amazingly, the film is worthy of her performance.
23. Escape from New York (1981)
“I thought you’d be taller.” Escape From New York is a wild and wonderful sci-fi action film from John Carpenter that somehow grows more entertaining and relevant the more you see it. A world wracked by conflict and crime in which the police force has been nationalized and the largest urban center turned into a blighted, city-wide prison? That’s obviously commentary on the 1970’s, but it’s something that echoes today as well. Don’t worry about heavy-handed speeches and symbolism, though, Carpenter is too good a storyteller to let the subtext become overt. Instead he gives us one of – if not THE – greatest antiheroes of all time in Snake Plissken. That Carpenter recognized the darkness in child-star Kurt Russell and let it loose in films like Escape and The Thing is probably one of his greatest contributions to cinema.
Escape From New York itself is a dark fantasy thrill ride, an apocalyptic combination of Omega Man, The Warriors and westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The bleak outlook on the future that permeates other late 70’s/early 80’s sci-fi films like Mad Max and The Terminator is leavened in Escape by a black sense of humor – the President (Donald Pleasance) has a British accent for crying out loud – and a great supporting cast, including Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau. The result is an entertaining dystopia, one you’re happy to visit, and just as happy you get to leave behind. For now, at least.
–Bob Cram Jr.
22. RoboCop (1987)
A dystopian future, questions of identity and what it means to be human, the effect of memory on personality, free will vs determinism – these are themes that other sci-fi films like Blade Runner address with subtlety. Robocop addresses them head-on while adding gore, corporate fascism, militarized police, jabs at consumerism and pop culture (“I’ll buy that for a dollar!”) and plenty of cathartic ultra-violence.
Murphy (Peter Weller), a Detroit cop, is brutally murdered by a gang of thugs. His remains are used to create a new breed of law enforcement – the Robocop. While the project responsible for his creation is really only interested in programming the leftovers it becomes apparent that something is wrong with their creation. He may be remembering who he was. Murphy’s memories – fleeting and disjointed – might as well be recovered or implanted, like those in another Verhoeven film on this list, Total Recall. His wife, his kids – none of that is accessible to him anymore. They’re as gone as if they never really existed – all that’s left is their influence on who Murphy is, and who he wants to be.
Is Robocop Murphy? Or is he a machine that remembers being Murphy? Is that question too esoteric for you? Then don’t worry, this is a Paul Verhoeven film after all and there will be plenty of shootouts, explosions, huge killer robots and gore to distract you. Maybe you can ponder deeper questions after that guy gets liquefied across the hood of that car. So cool. So gross.
-Bob Cram Jr.
21. Ex Machina (2014)
Chosen to participate in a ground-breaking experiment, a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked with evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I. to see if she can pass as human. Written and directed by the premier sci-fi filmmaker of the 2010’s, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a tense, pulpy sci-fi yarn that starts off as a simple Turing test but turns into something more. An examination of what it means to be human and how difficult it would be to prove you actually were, the film raises a lot of interesting questions and while it doesn’t answer them all, it never feels annoyingly cryptic. It gives the audience a series of difficult math problems and enough resources for them to solve them. It’s smart sci-fi done right.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!