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.
60. The Martian (2015)
This one deals closest to the real-world science of what it would take to survive alone on Mars. After being presumed dead by his crew Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind and must figure out how to send out signals for rescue and stay alive long enough for the signal to matter. Watching Watney run into a never-ending list of problems, and seeing him solve each with ingenuity and wit is simultaneously hilarious and tense. Taking advantage of the national resource that is Damon’s everyman charm, Ridley Scott made his most satisfying film in years with a little help from a smart script and an ABBA-heavy soundtrack. It’s a film about problem/solution and despite a pretty stellar cast (Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, and Chiwetel Ejiofor), it’s largely a one-man show.
59. The Iron Giant (1999)
I don’t knew what’s more impressive, creating something wildly original from your imagination alone or to take a well known story and tell it with such uniqueness, that it forever holds your stamp. I’m not saying anyone can create a world as in depth as Harry Potter or The Lord Of The Rings but the reverse is also true. Not everyone can take a dime-a-dozen story concept and turn it into gold. There’s a million alien invasion films and an equal amount of a boy and his dog storylines but there’s no idea from either subgenre that has made a film as half as good.
Brad Bird took the novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, changed its setting from the 60’s to the 50’s, injected it with Superman mythos and familiar tropes and still managed to create one of the most original films of the time. It’s a love letter to a bygone era, which isn’t to say it’s overly sentimental or nostalgic in anyway. Quite the contrary. It eschews nostalgia in favor of character. It’s clearly in love with its time period but it never lets anything over shadow it’s characters. It never uses nostalgia as a crutch. It’s a simple story, one of which we’ve heard a thousand times already but told in the most perfect way possible.
58. Total Recall (1990)
It’s a tribute to the strength of Phillip K. Dick’s ideas that they have managed to survive – even thrive – in interpretations as diverse as Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, The Man in the High Castle and this big, beautiful, bombastic, Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. With a long development period that included input from genre stalwarts like Dan O’Bannon and David Cronenberg, it took the big man himself to actually get the project greenlit – and he kept veto power over the director, producer and screenplay. It’s safe to say Total Recall wouldn’t be anything like the film milestone it is without Schwarzenegger’s influence – and it gave him room to express more range than he’d been able to in his previous films.
The film itself is a quintessentially 80’s action sci-fi film (though it came out in 1990), with action scenes, broad comedy (including the traditional action-hero one-liners), big-budget special effects (it was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time) and the almost-required score by Jerry Goldsmith. The essential story of a man, Douglas Quaid, who may be a mind-wiped spy or may simply be the victim of a ‘virtual Mars vacation’ gone wrong, is a robust framework to hang all the fights, gore and three-breasted prostitutes on. Director Paul Voerhoeven makes sure the thread of the plot manages to survive all the explosions and scenery chewing (shoutout to Michael Ironside). A loud and proud of it thrill-ride, Total Recall remains a blast to watch 30 years later. So “get your ass to Mars!” already!
–Bob Cram Jr.
57. They Live (1988)
I am constantly amazed by how sci-fi movies from decades ago seem so eerily relevant today as they were when they were made. John Carpenter may have been taking a swipe at the Reagan era with They Live but its study on conformity, inequality, media manipulation, fake news, and conspiracies still resound almost 40 years later.
The story of a drifter who discovers, through the use of special sunglasses, that the ruling class is aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media. Not only is this a great film but it also has two of the best 80s moments of that decade. Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David in one of the longest and most realistic one on one street fights ever and Piper delivering one of the greatest lines ever, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
56. The Host (2006)
Not to be confused with the dumpster fire that is Twilight + aliens, The Host is a Korean monster film that might be the greatest monster film since the original Gojira, depending on your definition of monster. Do the alien slugs from Slither count as a monster or an alien invasion film? Deadly Spawn? Tremors? What about huge ass animals like Night of the Lepus?
Whatever your definition is, The Host is probably better. Darkly comedic at times, the film plays sort of like a cross between The Royal Tennenbaums versus a kaiju but not played for laughs. This isn’t a comedy but there is humor. All the characters are well defined but their foibles make for some hilarious moments at times. At its core, it’s a rich character drama with well written characters that could easily fill up five seasons of a TV show but instead of a TV show, they get a huge ass monster and you get an amazing movie.
55. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Tom Cruise has maintained a very successful career out of playing a variation of the Tom Cruise persona he’s developed over the last three decades. He’s the stoic action man who will outrun the baddies and will probably do some crazy stunts along the way or he’s dramatic man who yells a lot. He changes it up occasionally but for the most part, he’s pretty much the same. Which doesn’t mean he’s bad, he just tends to pick projects that play to his strengths. Which makes Edge of Tomorrow all the more surprising.
The trailers made it seem like just another Cruise blockbuster but it’s actually way more entertaining than that. For one thing, Cruise isn’t an action hero in it. He’s a coward who’s forced to fight after unsuccessfully trying to weasel out of service. That by itself separates it from the rest of the pack but that’s not all it has going for it. There’s also its ingenious Groundhog Day meets Independence Day premise, its breakneck pace and strong female lead. It’s a fun puzzle box of a movie that, like all time travel movies, doesn’t make much sense if you think about it too hard but it makes up for it with imagination, spectacle and thrills to spare.
54. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan had a difficult job when tasked with following up on his Dark Knight trilogy in 2014. Interstellar was a departure from the dark and moody atmosphere of his previous work. The plot concerns a group of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity. It features a great ensemble cast including Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and Ellen Burstyn. However, it’s Matthew McConaughey who provides most of the memorable moments. His performance is exceptional and he’s involved in some really powerful scenes. The emotion he is able to portray at times is heartbreaking. The film itself is full of dazzling visuals as the astronauts explore outer space and venture to a number of different planets, all individuals in their presentation. On top of this, there is so much thematic ambition going on in the background, and even though I still can’t quite get my head around the ending, it’s an absolute pleasure to revisit.
53. Annihilation (2018)
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Alex Garland’s sci-fi action film and sophomore feature Annihilation features some stand-out moments of sci-fi horror which will most likely linger in your mind after viewing. It follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who embarks on a military expedition into The Shimmer, a zone of unexplained animal and plant mutation. Annihilation has plenty going on, leaving it open to interpretation regarding grief, memory, and climate change. My own current theory is that it’s about the destructive nature of heterosexual relationships, as evinced by the centrality of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s 3-part harmony “Helplessly Hoping” to the film.
52. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The curse of a mythical body of work is the ease of which certain titles fall through the cracks years later. No doubt this is the case with one of Spielberg’s masterworks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Decade’s after the fact this is the one that gets talked about the least when we rank our faves or venture into the career retrospective conversations of the notorious auteur. But that doesn’t take away from the potency of the film itself; it simply means it’s up to us to ensure the film gets its proper due.
For a blockbuster of this magnitude Close Encounters remains a genius stroke of subversive film-making in crafting a narrative that features aliens coming to earth and grounding it in rich, nuanced humanism. The absence of “big-budget action” and “high stakes adrenaline” is precisely why this film both works and remains a deeply emotional yet unique movie-watching experience. We don’t watch Close Encounters for disaster movie appeal; we watch it because it leans into the grand, unanswerable but ever-fascinating questions of, “what if?”, and laces them in a sense of wonder that can only be captured by a deeply imaginative craftsman. This one is as much a testament to the human spirit and primal sense of creativity as it is a solid installment of the alien invasion persuasion. I get it, Close Encounters is definitely more akin to a philosophy paper with a few laser lights than it is popcorn cinema … but as far as I’m concerned, it’s still breathtaking. And that first UFO encounter in Dreyfuss’ truck remains an incredible technical accomplishment. This one stands out as a key moment in 1970s American movie-making.
51. Them! (1954)
The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization. In a less competent director’s hands, this film could’ve easily ended up as an Ed Wood level farce seeing as its about giant killer ants but since Gordon Douglas plays it completely straight, it ends up being one of the best monster movies ever made. The special effects may not have held up over time, every other aspect of the production is still startlingly good. The high pitch screeches the ants make is still effective, as is the moody cinematography. Modern audiences may not be accustomed to this era of film (i.e., the lack of action and the over-reliance of exposition) but if they go in knowing it’s not like Avengers: Endgame, they might be pleasantly surprised. Or they might just think it’s a quaint curio of the past. Either way, I doubt they’d be bored by it. Its got giant ants for god sakes!
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!