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.
50. Brazil (1985)
Combined with Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil bookends a loose trilogy about dreamers. This wild adventure takes us through an authoritarian world the blending of outlandish dreams and reality produce incredible images and quirky characters that are fascinating.
It’s the story of the small man up against a huge, faceless bureaucracy, in a 1984-style future awash in stifling rules and regulations. But the rules don’t work, the technology is prone to breaking – causing explosions blamed on “terrorists”, a tag also applied to those who bend or break the rules, such as the freelance plumber played by Robert de Niro. Beautifully staged, in many now demolished buildings that formed Britain’s industrial landscape, Brazil is Monty Python meets George Orwell and it’s as clever, witty, and subversive as that sounds.
49. THX 1138 (1971)
Using his immense clout, Francis Ford Coppola convinced Warner Brothers to bankroll a feature-length film adaptation of his buddy Lucas’s earlier student short and the end result would prove to be a disaster. It was a box office dud that the studio hated to such a degree, that the entire debacle almost killed both their careers. This is almost ironic considering the film is an Orwell and Huxley-influenced fable about individualism versus all-powerful totalitarianism, or in the case of Lucas: an artist going up against a money-hungry studio.
It was a David vs Goliath story that ultimately ended badly for David but only for a little bit because once Star Wars came out, everyone who loved it (and I mean really loved it) went back to his previous film and found a different kind of sci-fi masterpiece. There were no aliens or space opera action or mumbo jumbo force magic but in their place were sparse, icy cold interiors, a shaven headed-cast, and an oppressive story about free will and free love overcoming a government that has completely asserted total control over the lives of its citizens. It’s a bleak film that’s not always pleasant to watch but it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in minimalist filmmaking, anyone who loves meat and potatoes sci-fi, and anyone who wants to see the origins of arguably one the most important directors of all time.
48. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam gives his signature “wacko other-worldly” touch to 12 Monkeys, elevating it to the mountain tops of science fiction. The film is chock-full of comedy, drama and thrilling action – making it an absolute joy to watch. It’s no doubt that 12 Monkeys is one of the most inventive films of the Sci-Fi genre. Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and a young Brad Pitt all give excellent performances, building the picture with nuanced acting. The ending of the film is also one of Sci-Fi’s best.
47. District 9 (2009)
Is it possible for a film to earn a Best Picture nomination and still be underrated? Through a mix of found footage filming, fresh faces, razor-sharp editing, and unapologetic storytelling, 2009 gave us not just another installment in the dystopian/Sci-Fi flick wave but a social commentary as timely as any of this era. And it’s pretty much all killer no filler with a sub-two-hour runtime. Perhaps what cuts the most is how incredibly re-watchable this one has become through the years.
Seeing it in cinemas, it’s easy to grasp the weight of it all. A true mustached everyman in Johannesburg finds himself on a Campbell-esque hero’s journey gone terribly wrong as the cerebral-action-thriller paints for us an unfiltered take on refugees, equality, and government-enforced socio-economic status. The concept of art holding up a mirror to society is overt with this one. Yet, with Peter Jackson’s creative influence and Neil Blomkamp’s keen eye, District 9 delivers one of the top-to-bottom finest sci-fi experiences, the 21st Century has to offer. The weight is a hefty one to carry, but it’s one we don’t mind shouldering in the slightest.
Imagine Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner meets George Miller’s Mad Max saga. District 9 because it checks all my boxes–it challenges us to think, to assess things we may or may not hold to be true, and it accomplishes the feat through grade-A entertainment value.
46. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
One would assume that since they’re commonplace, sequels would have as much money and resources thrown at them as original IP (intellectual property) but as much as Hollywood loves making them, they sure don’t give a shit if they’re good. The logic makes sense – there’s no reason to spend oodles of dough if the fanbase is already there. It seems as though the only good sequels come from a place of passion, which is obviously a problem because who could get passionate about a cash grab? Which brings us to Blade Runner 2049. Nobody wanted it besides the director who wanted to make it. The studios weren’t hot on the idea, due to the first one being a notorious flop and audiences didn’t want it because the first one was a perfect film. But what everyone forgot or didn’t take into account, was the fact that Villeneuve is a goddamn genius.
Rolling the dice on a property doomed to fail, Villeneuve cashed in all of his goodwill chips in order to do his take on Ridley Scott’s world and it’s a hell of a take. Blade Runner is a pioneer in SFX and is declared by every critic in the world one of the best-looking films of all time and Blade Runner 2049 might top it. With the impeccable set design, eye-popping colors, and unreal cinematography by Roger Deakins as well as a fantastic performance from all involved (yes, even Leto), Blade Runner 2049 might be the first anti-cash grab sequel in existence.
45. Her (2013)
After years of directing nothing but Charlie Kaufman penned screenplays, Spike Jonze finally decided to write one of his own. The end result being Her, a charming and sublime romance that has a premise so strange and unique, it’s easy to make parallels to his former collaborator’s work due to his penchant for the fantastical but while the film is out there, it never alienates the audience. It’s a love story between a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) and an A.I. operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that’s played completely straight. Much like the equally bizarre love stories at the center of The Shape of Water or Spring, you never once question the romance. Because Phoenix is so earnest and lovably lonesome and because Johansson is so supportive and caring, you immediately buy why and how a man, this man, could fall for his phone. Her is the definitive love story of the technological age.
44. Primer (2004)
Two engineers engaging in “garage entrepreneurship” accidentally develop a limited form of time travel as a side effect of their primary research. Faced with extensive moral and ethical questions about free will, the use of time travel to affect current and past events, and how their actions may affect themselves, others, and even the nature of reality, Aaron and Abe do what any normal person would do. They fuck it up. Primer is a low-budget movie with a high-brow premise that actually manages to deliver. The effects are nothing special – the machine is literally a simple box as if they were emulating a Calvin and Hobbes comic – but it’s the interaction between the characters and director’s refusal to dumb things down that make it memorable. It feels real, it feels possible – and in that realism lies horror and pathos.
Filmmaker – and costar – Shane Carruth has made only one other film so far, 2013’s Upstream Color, and based on only those two films he appears to be a filmmaker that’s interested in the effects of supernormal events on normal people. This is what keeps Primer grounded during the initial technical gobbledygook and the increasingly complicated series of time loops that lead our characters into conflict and possible madness. If you really need to keep track of the loops there’s a handy chart on the Wikipedia page, but really it’s the characters and their choices that matter – even if they can’t stop making the wrong ones.
–Bob Cram Jr.
43. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
If there was a holy trinity of anime, Ghost in the Shell would totally be the son or at the very least, the holy ghost. Whichever one is the least important. It doesn’t have the extreme imagery of hentai nor the iconography of an Akira but Ghost in the Shell is one of the founding fathers of the genre. Coming out long before the Pokemons and Naruto’s made anime mainstream, Ghost in the Shell was far ahead of the curve in terms of filling that niche. And fill that niche it does.
This film and its universe have been ripped off so many times, that the live-action version was cursed from the start. Imagine a world without The Matrix. Because that film doesn’t exist without them being “inspired” by this film first. Who knew a film about a naked Japanese robot would prove to be so popular.
42. Moon (2009)
Quietly devastating isn’t exactly the experience you’d expect to find on a list of Sci-Fi titles, but here we are. Certainly, there is likely none more intimate than this essentially one-man-show approach to outer space movie making. Moon almost feels like a deep-feeling indie darling from the 90s, but you know, on the moon, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.
We toil through each lonely day with Sam Bell as he works tirelessly to cultivate resources for Earth. It’s a testament to the inherent isolation and small confines that ironically accompany the expansive great unknown. In a career-defining performance, Sam Rockwell balances the mission-minded protagonist and utter heartbreak of an abandoned man to an impeccable degree. Rockwell, an underrated, Herculean talent himself, has never been better. But perhaps the crowning achievements are found within Duncan Jones’s direction and Clint Mansell’s subtly haunting score. The juxtaposition of the expansive arena and intimate framing allows Mansell’s music to serve as a current of symbolic yet damaging discovery Moon is atmospheric in the same vein as Ad Astra but packs a twist epitomizing what it means to devastate through cinema.
in a list filled with big-budget event flicks, massive set pieces, action sequences, and cerebral explorations one that breaks the cycle with unfiltered feeling and loss is artistically welcome.
41. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
An alien and a robot land on Earth and tell mankind to be peaceful or face destruction. Since the film is essentially one long lead up to a message at the end, it would’ve been so easy for this film to become soap box-y or preachy but it never tilts into that direction. The film ultimately boils down to “stop being shitty or face obliteration” but it wisely decides to not give a solution as to how. The man character’s alien race uses an army of fascist super robots that are programmed to kill at the first sign of aggression and while that works for them (for the most part), the film never tries to sell you on that idea. He even says it himself, “we’re not perfect.” He knows (or at least the film does) that that might not be the best message to end the film on. That the Messianic figure at the center of the film tells you that the only way to peace, is through fear. The film does not suggest this as a practical solution so much as a condemnation of human pettiness, which is where it succeeds. It’s not saying this alien superiority is ideal. It’s just saying we need to quit being so Goddamn awful.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!