The science fiction genre has been one of the most consistently thrilling to explore throughout the history of cinema. The way a visual medium like film can depict futuristic worlds or alternate realities means that almost anything which can be imagined can be depicted on-screen. Since the silent era, filmmakers have been using the medium to their advantage, commenting on humanity’s present and hypothesizing about its future through the science-fiction genre.
There are countless great sci-fi movies that have been released since the birth of cinema as an art form, and it’s ultimately futile to try and name every single amazing one. There are simply too many top sci-fi movies, and it’s a genre that’s still thriving, with new potential classics released seemingly every year. The following are among the best of the best, being classics for their entertainment value, excellent technical qualities, and historical significance, and are ranked below in order from great to greatest.
Updated July 3, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
Being an ever-popular genre, every new year sees additional films being added to the canon of best sci-fi movies of all time. The following are some of the absolute greatest, and undeniably count as some of the most exceptional, when it comes to the best sci-fi movies.
30 ‘District 9’ (2009)
Though some are clamoring for a sequel that will probably never arrive (never say never, unless you can cowardly include a “probably” in there), District 9 still stands on its own as a great film regardless. It’s part mockumentary, part action movie, and part body horror, detailing what happens to an alien ship that becomes stranded over the city of Johannesburg.
It’s also packed with social commentary regarding race and how refugees are mistreated in real life, considering in this movie, it’s the aliens who find themselves in the middle of a large-scale refugee crisis. It’s thought-provoking, unique, exciting, and one of the best science-fiction movies of the 21st century so far.
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29 ‘Stalker’ (1979)
One of the most acclaimed films of 1979, Stalker is also among the best-known titles in Andrei Tarkovsky‘s filmography. It follows three men who are trying to find a mysterious location known only as the Zone, as it’s rumored to grant great power to anyone who can locate it.
It unfolds in a way that’s very slow, but also surprisingly absorbing. It’s an intensely psychological sort of science fiction, exploring the minds of its characters more so than putting them in a series of exciting set pieces or action scenes. It’s the kind of approach to sci-fi that might not be for everyone, but it is undoubtedly interesting.
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28 ‘Moon’ (2009)
One of many great science-fiction movies released in 2009, Moon is about one man dealing with isolation while being the sole person at a manufacturing facility on the Moon. Things take a turn into the unexpected as he’s about to return to Earth, though, throwing the film’s events into an entirely new direction.
The less said about the rest of Moon, the better, but it’s fair to say that it’s certainly engaging and surprising in all the best ways. It’s also a showcase for the talents of Sam Rockwell, given he maintains a compelling presence on-screen, even though he doesn’t really have any other actual actors to appear alongside, and act with.
27 ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)
Before taking a turn into horror by directing movies like Annihilation and Men, Alex Garland had his directorial debut with the sci-fi film Ex Machina. It’s a unique look at artificial intelligence, revolving around a series of experiments in a remote location with a new, unnervingly smart robot, the creator of said technology, and a young coder who’s won a competition to visit said location.
It’s an eerie and engaging look at familiar science-fiction tropes and ideas, presenting the familiar in a way that’s confined, realistic, and eye-opening. It’s small-scale, personal science-fiction done right, and though it’s not particularly old, it feels like the kind of movie where it’s safe to say it will age well, and continue to hold up in years to come.
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26 ‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Minority Report is set in a future where surveillance has become so widespread and powerful that the crime/justice landscape has completely changed. Violent crimes can now be predicted before they even happen, leading to people being arrested and charged for crimes they didn’t actually commit, but were ultimately going to commit, or so those in the business of “Precrime” say.
It’s an uneasy and thought-provoking premise, and was explored in a way that ensured Minority Report ranked among the best movies of its year of release. It’s getting on in years, but what it has to say still feels relevant and unnerving, and time will ultimately tell how relevant it’ll continue to feel, and how unsettling its premise will feel for viewers even further in the future.
Watch on Showtime
25 ‘Interstellar’ (2014)
While Interstellar isn’t Christopher Nolan‘s only great science-fiction movie, it might be his most pure sci-fi effort, given Inception‘s action-heavy nature and Tenet feeling like an espionage thriller with sci-fi elements. Interstellar‘s also one of his longest movies, making it a true sci-fi epic in every sense of the word.
It centers on a group of astronauts who explore space through a wormhole, as humanity is in danger on Earth and may need to find a new planet to live on. On the technical side of things, Interstellar is spectacular, with amazing visual effects and a phenomenal Hans Zimmer score. It’s a long but rewarding film, and in contrast to some science-fiction, also contains a surprising amount of heartfelt – maybe even sentimental – emotion.
Watch on Prime Video
24 ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978)
It’s rare for an already good movie to get a remake that’s equal in quality or even better, but 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those rare movies. It’s longer and a little darker than the 1956 original, though both center on a unique alien invasion where the invaders replace human beings with duplicates that mirror individuals physically, but not emotionally.
It’s also notable for having a very strong cast, with Donald Sutherland being top-billed, and icons of the sci-fi genre – including Star Trek‘s Leonard Nimoy and a very young Jeff Goldblum – included in the cast. It’s absolutely worth watching the original, too, but this might be one case where the second go-around was slightly better.
Watch on Prime Video
23 ‘Solaris’ (1972)
One of the best Russian language movies of all time – Solaris – also happened to be directed by one of the best Russian filmmakers of all time: Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a slow and dense sci-fi movie, largely taking place on a space station a psychologist is sent to, as all who live on there have fallen into an inexplicable state of emotional distress.
Tarkovsky’s a filmmaker who was known for taking his time, so viewers should be prepared for Solaris to have a fairly methodical pace, to put it lightly. Pacing-wise, it makes the somewhat comparable 2001: A Space Odyssey feel like a John Wick movie, but patient sci-fi fans will likely be rewarded with the unique atmosphere and intense philosophical questions found in Solaris.
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22 ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951)
Unlike the case with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still is one classic 1950s sci-fi movie where the original trumps the remake. Viewers are better off going back further into the past – to 1951 instead of 2008 – for this sci-fi story, which follows an alien coming to Earth, accompanied only by a robot, claiming he has an important message for the human race.
It’s interesting for its look at an alien visitation that’s not a traditionally violent or invasive one, and for having themes that can be linked to the Cold War, and the general anxiety around nuclear weapons. Many sci-fi films from the 1950s and 1960s have this sort of subject matter, but few explore it as compellingly as The Day the Earth Stood Still.
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21 ‘Arrival’ (2016)
Denis Villeneuve wasn’t always closely associated with the sci-fi genre, as before 2016, he mostly specialized in dramas, psychological thrillers, and crime movies. That’s seemed to change since 2016’s Arrival, as the next year he was behind Blade Runner 2049, and then directed 2021’s Dune as well as the upcoming Dune: Part Two.
Arrival centers on a mysterious alien craft that lands on Earth, with the U.S. Army employing a linguist to try and communicate with the beings, and find out why they’ve visited. It’s another “aliens coming to Earth” movie that certainly isn’t an action movie, instead using its sci-fi premise to comment on things like grief, belonging, and humanity’s space within the universe.
Watch on Prime Video
20 ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ (1982)
Star Trek was a TV series that originally aired in the late 1960s before several movies continued the adventures of the original crew, and then various other shows and movies set within the universe followed. The first of those was 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which got a considerably more action-packed and exciting sequel in 1982 with The Wrath of Khan.
It brings back the titular Khan, who had appeared in the original series, only here, he’s even more of a threat to the crew of the USS Enterprise. You don’t even have to be a particularly big Star Trek fan to enjoy this classic movie, though it likely helps make the film’s action sequences and emotional moments hit even harder.
19 ‘WALL-E’ (2008)
The sci-fi genre hadn’t properly been explored by Pixar before WALL-E, and it’s similarly interesting to notice how Disney didn’t tackle it particularly often either (it’s far more common to see an animated Disney film in the fantasy genre). WALL-E helped change things, though, showing that science-fiction should be explored more often in big-budget animated movies (at least since 2008, there have been others, like Big Hero 6 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).
It shows a future that has been significantly harmed by out-of-control consumerism, and an Earth that’s been deserted because of its inhospitality. It’s not all doom and gloom, thankfully, seeing as the titular robot – one programmed to clean up garbage – may hold the key to restoring Earth to its former glory. It’s funny, charming, and heartfelt, and explores plenty of interesting sci-fi concepts and themes in a family-friendly manner.
Watch on Disney+
18 ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Making history for being the first sci-fi movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Everything Everywhere All at Once is an ambitious and thrilling movie. Of course, given its title that promises a maximalist experience, calling it “just” sci-fi wouldn’t be accurate, but that’s certainly one of the genres the film falls into (along with adventure, action, comedy, and drama, among others).
Everything Everywhere All at Once explores the idea of a multiverse better than any other sci-fi film or TV series so far, and involves a plot where one woman – and her alternate selves – may be the only one who can stop a mysterious being from ending all reality. It’s fast-paced, fun, fresh, and exciting, and stands as the best sci-fi movie of the 2020s so far.
Watch on Paramount+
17 ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
An uncomfortable and horrifying movie – despite not belonging to the horror genre – A Clockwork Orange is one of the darkest and most disturbing sci-fi movies of all time. It presents a dystopian future where crime is rampant, and those who are expected to deal with criminal violence resort to equally horrifying measures to combat the problem.
It raises difficult questions about free will, and whether taking it away from someone can be considered an act of violence, even if it’s intended to prevent violence. It’s a movie with no side that can be seen as “good,” making it a bleak but thought-provoking watch, and one that combines the sci-fi and crime genres to thrilling and memorable effect.
16 ‘Back to the Future’ (1985)
Few sci-fi movies are as popular, entertaining, and beloved as the first Back to the Future. The sequels are good in their own way, but the original is far and away the best, and has earned its reputation as one of the best time-travel movies of all time.
The plot follows a teenager accidentally traveling 30 years into the past, and there, he also meddles with past events in a way that stops his parents from falling for each other. This could lead to him not existing in the future, so he has to make them fall in love and then get back to his present – or “the future” – afterward. It’s aged amazingly well, and remains a compelling 1980s classic that’s probably impossible to dislike.
15 ‘Children of Men’ (2006)
Of all the science-fiction futures seen throughout the genre’s history, few seem quite as nightmarish as Children of Men‘s. It takes place in the late 2020s in a world where global infertility is such a huge problem that no new child has been born in 18 years, though that changes when a single young woman – a refugee in the U.K. – is discovered to be pregnant.
Various groups of people want access to this woman for various reasons, which kicks off a tense plot involving the main character needing to escort her to safety. It’s an amazing-looking movie, and is filled with ambitious long takes, tense action scenes, and an overall emotional story that’s very easy to get invested in.
Watch on Starz
14 ‘The Thing’ (1982)
The Thing was so effective as a horror/sci-fi movie that upon release, people didn’t exactly gravitate toward it. It may have been too gory and disgusting for critics and audiences at the time, but it’s since gone on to become a beloved classic of both genres, and maybe even one of the best movies of the 1980s full-stop.
It follows a team of researchers in Antarctica who are targeted by an alien lifeform that can perfectly shapeshift into any living being it comes into contact with. This kicks off an intense wave of paranoia, as no one at the isolated base can trust anyone else. The Thing explores this simple premise perfectly, and retains its power to this day, more than 40 years on from release.
13 ‘Godzilla’ (1954)
There have been plenty of wild Godzilla movies released since 1954, though funnily enough, the original is quite down-to-earth and serious-minded. It’s a horror/sci-fi movie more than a light-hearted sci-fi/action movie, which is one way to categorize many – though not all – of its sequels.
Here, the titular monster is a stand-in for nuclear weapons and the immense damage they can do. It’s an unexpectedly dark and somber beginning to a series that’s usually a great deal of fun, but for being the first Godzilla movie – and for being an effective exploration of a serious topic – it excels and endures as a classic.
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12 ‘RoboCop’ (1987)
A darkly satirical and surprisingly funny crime/action/sci-fi movie, RoboCop works as both straightforward entertainment and an indictment of aggressive, violent police tactics. It follows an officer who’s reborn as a cyborg after a grisly encounter with a criminal gang, and the way he patrols the streets in his new body as the titular RoboCop.
It feels like a product of the 1980s, but at the same time, effectively criticizes and satirizes attitudes that were at their most prevalent during that decade. Its sequels and remake pale in comparison, but the original holds up brilliantly, and it marks a high point in the eclectic and always interesting filmography of its director, Paul Verhoeven.
Watch on Prime Video
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial wasn’t Steven Spielberg‘s first or last sci-fi movie, but it’s definitely one of his best. It centers on an alien that gets stranded on Earth before befriending a young boy, with the two working together to get the alien reunited with its parents.
It’s one of those sci-fi movies that’s so simple yet so satisfying, and it represents Spielberg’s sentimental and emotional side in the best way possible. The design of E.T. seems to be a dealbreaker for some (he’s really unnerving to some viewers), but if you can get beyond that, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is charming, entertaining, and moving all at once.