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.
40. The Thing from Another World (1951)
Since both took inspiration from the same source material, it’s almost impossible not to make comparisons to the John Carpenter remake, and while the remake is superior in every way, it’s still enjoyable to see what story elements are different (there are a lot of them) and what got changed for the better. It’s easier to approach both versions as their own thing, rather than trying to pit them against each other because the original really doesn’t stand a chance. And that’s not due to it being bad, quite the contrary, it’s because it has the unfortunate luck of being tied to the greatest remake of all time. Taken on its own terms, The Thing from Another World is a solid monster film. The pace is a bit slow but once they introduce the carrot monster around the halfway point, it really starts to pick up steam. It may not have the same game-changing special effects or awesome creature design but it does have an almost 7 ft tall James Arness dressed as a space vegetative causing havoc on an Arctic base and with Howard Hawks behind the camera, that’s enough.
39. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956-1978)
Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted numerous times. Once as a quintessential, black, and white B-picture, that was precisely-executed and packed with action by director Don Siegel, plus a scary musical score from Carmen Dragon and perhaps none are as famous or iconic as the 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The 1956 version was low budget film that was extremely effective at building tension and creating horror without the use of monsters. Minimal special effects and violence just show how effective Siegel was at telling a fascinating story.
The 1978 version has an incredible cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy as it blends sci-fi thrills, horror, and a harrowing sense of dread and anxiety. Philip Kaufman is able to blend an excellent horror story that permeates with social commentary revolving around the paranoia of post-Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal. This film gives credibility to the concept of remakes.
The story is already enough to frighten as friends and neighbors are essentially xeroxed and discarded like trash with hollow replicas taking their place, and themes of conformity and group-think double down on the terror leading to one of the genre’s great endings. Who do you turn to when you can only trust yourself?
38. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
I wonder what the cinematic landscape of today would look like if the directors of 1950’s sci-fi didn’t take their films seriously. You can draw a straight line from the big-budget MCU films to Star Wars to the schlock of the 50s. Films like Them! and The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Incredible Shrinking Man paved the way for everything you enjoy today. If they weren’t as smartly written and well made as they were, modern audiences might still consider genre fare to be nothing but cheese. I’m not saying Star Wars wouldn’t have been successful without this film but I am saying that without it, Star Wars may not have existed in the first place.
Richard Matheson’s epic story of a man cursed to constantly shrink (the title really doesn’t bury the lede) is one of the fundamental building blocks of the genre. It takes a ridiculous premise and injects it with actual gravitas and pathos. Not only does the shrinking man have to contend with giant house cats and spiders but also has to confront the existential dread of his situation. What is going to happen to him when he shrinks smaller than atoms? It’s an epic adventure about man vs nature but more importantly, it’s about man vs the great unknown. It’s a film that lives up to its title— the man shrinks and it is incredible.
37. Under the Skin (2013)
I have no idea whether or not Glazer was inspired by the film The Man Who Fell to Earth or if its themes of loneliness and isolation and what it actually means to be human are merely coincidental or accidental but either way, the parallels between the two films is undeniable. And while the same could also be said about Species (due to the fact that both films involve incredibly good looking female aliens who lure men to their deaths with the promise of sex), it’s presented in such a wildly different manner, any similarities are incidental. There are ton of films about extraterrestrials and while this one feels similar to others (like a couple of the films previously mentioned), it’s unlike any other in history.
Mostly due to the fact that it feels like it was made by one. As much as Johansson’s character is inhabiting the skin of a human to blend in, Under the Skin is inhabiting the shape of celluloid to pass as a film. The film is an alien masquerading as a movie. And a weird as hell alien at that. It is a psychedelic mind fuck that baffles as much as it mesmerizes. With unforgettable imagery and a score that’ll stay with you forever, Under the Skin is film who’s title is earned, in more ways than one.
36. Jurassic Park (1992)
As a kid I loved dinosaurs (probably as a result of watching re-runs of Land of the Lost). Ah, who am I kidding – I still love dinosaurs, though I can no longer tell you the names of each of them. In 1993 the possibility of seeing realistic dinosaurs with a Stephen Spielberg budget had me waiting in line, the first time I ever did that for a movie. I wasn’t disappointed – the dinosaurs were amazing, Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough were great and all the right people got eaten.
Jurassic Park is essentially a reboot of writer Michael Crichton’s first film – Westworld – but with dinosaurs, and it deals with the same basic themes. That mankind creates without responsibility. That we cannot control complicated systems, even if they’re ones that we created. That science is not inherently ethical (nor is nature). That our reach, to be more succinct, exceeds our grasp. It’s all about hubris, and the price of hubris is to be shot by our own robots and eaten by our own dinosaurs. Stephen Spielberg managed to take heady discussions of chaos mathematics, genetic engineering and the moral dilemmas involved and inject a human element into the center, making it more of a thrill ride.
Jurassic Park was also a revelation, filmmaking wise, in that it really put the CGI in the forefront in a good way. The 1990’s were the decade in which CGI first flexed its muscles and there was good (Terminator 2, The Matrix’s ‘bullet time’), and bad (The Lawnmower Man, Star Wars ‘Special Editions’). Jurassic Park showed how it could be used judiciously to enhance and supplement a film without being glaringly obvious or overwhelming (with a few exceptions). A lesson a few more modern filmmakers could still stand to learn.
–Bob Cram Jr.
35. Inception (2010)
I think we take Nolan for granted. Sure we love his films and we all look forward to his next project but I don’t think a single one of us realizes how special it is that he does what he does. What a gift to cinema this man is. Big budgeted, high concept genre films are such a rarity, and since he’s pretty much the only one doing them, his films are almost a genre unto themselves. His brand of blockbuster — the crowd-pleasing popcorn flick with a brain — has been done before but they’re almost always one-offs. Nolan has been making them for damn near his entire career.
Mashing up every kind of film the director loves, Inception is a cinematic chimera of awesomeness. It’s a heist film with James Bond and William Gibson-esque elements set within dreams. It’s a heady sci-fi flick with some of the best and most inventive set pieces since The Matrix. It’s smart, it’s entertaining and it’s wildly original. His films, Inception in particular, are operating on such a different level than everything else at the time and that came before, the adage “they don’t make them like they used to”, doesn’t even apply to him. That adage is true for Hollywood in general but history will have a new saying after Nolan is gone: “They didn’t make them like Nolan.”
34. The Quiet Earth (1985)
A scientist awakens to find himself alone in the world. While searching for any other survivors, he does whatever he can to keep what little sanity he has left. How much of a film has to be perfect for it to be considered a masterpiece? Because I’d argue if a film is consistently good throughout but has an all-time great ending, it could easily be considered a masterpiece. Take The Wicker Man for example: nobody cares that 95% of it is average at best because the ending is so spectacular, it trumps everything else that came before it. The Quiet Earth is kind of the same way. The ending is so mind-blowingly good, it would be a masterpiece regardless of the quality of the rest of the film but unlike The Wicker Man, the rest of the film is actually great.
It starts off as a last man on Earth story and then, without getting into spoilers, it transitions into a completely different type of film. While I preferred the first half more, the second half is still enjoyable in its own right. In fact, both halves of the film are the best versions of their respected sub-genres. The first is unquestionably the best last man on Earth story (sorry Vincent Price) and the second is the best post-apocalyptic tale that doesn’t include a madman named Max.
33. The Fly (1958/1986)
The 1958 version of The Fly is well-scripted, features some excellent performances, and has a grandiose musical score by Paul Sawtell. Bathed in saturated color tones, while enjoying the scale of CinemaScope photography, The Fly is an elegant horror story of ambition and grave mistakes. Pretty much everyone knows the iconic “Help me!” scene.
The 1986 version is a gory and oozing remake of the classic follows the simple premise of an eccentric scientist’s experiment going wrong and watching him slowly turn into a fly-hybrid creature. David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a deeply unsettling Greek tragedy about what it is like to witness a loved succumb to disease, addiction, or obsession.
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis give remarkable performances as the doomed couple combined with Cronenberg’s incredible direction and stellar practical effects that will haunt your minds for a long time after the final frame. There are not too many horror films are that end up on best movies of the year lists, however, The Fly is one of the few that is not only a great horror movie but is a great film in general.
32. Predator (1987)
I’m willing to put money on this being the most quotable sci-fi movie of all-time. ‘I ain’t got time to bleed’, ‘Stick around’, ‘Something’s got Billy spooked’, ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’ and, of course, the immortal ‘Runnnn, get to da chopper!!’
Predator also boasts intelligent direction from the underrated John McTiernan. The fact that there is a claustrophobic feel to a film set outside in the jungle is amazing. A memorable score courtesy of composer Alan Silvestri, and universally strong performances from its cast of muscle-bound 1980s actor stars led by Arnie himself.
Lastly, there is the title character itself, a massive extra-terrestrial with dreadlocks and an arsenal of hi-tech weapons and cloaking devices. Designed by FX wizard Stan Winston, the predator remains a genuinely menacing presence all these years later, despite the endless slew of sub-par sequels and lazy spin-offs.
31. World of Tomorrow/World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2015/2017)
A heady mixture of sci-fi tropes and philosophical concepts, World of Tomorrow (I’m combining both shorts into a single film because after the third entry comes out, Hertzfeldt will do the same) is Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious project yet; which is saying a lot considering he made an entire short examining the meaning of life. Emily is an infant from the present day who meets an adult clone of herself from the future. The malfunctioning third-generation clone time traveled for two reasons: 1) To tell the extremely disinterested child what life will be like in about 100 years and 2) To retrieve a memory from the child the clone can no longer remember. Hertzfeldt’s vision of a world made up of scientifically created orphans, human life cycle as an art exhibit, and romantic entanglements with a rock, is the most cerebral and profoundly moving depiction of the future I’ve ever seen.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!