Science fiction has been a mainstay of film since its creation, with 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon” being the very first in the medium. Over the course of more than a century, some of the most creative and unique writers, directors, and actors have tackled fascinating and thrilling concepts through the science fiction genre. Covering a huge scope of settings, ideas, and characters, countless sci-fi films have pushed filmmaking to its limits.
While the tools and effects used to bring extraordinary creatures and worlds to life have exponentially improved over the years, the quality of the ideas that propel sci-fi films are what truly make them special. And while this genre includes a vast amount of concepts and approaches, the best sci-fi films are some of the greatest films ever made.
So what are the best? From alien invaders to intergalactic adventures to meditations on the human soul, these 30 films are the best of what science fiction movies have to offer.
As a general rule, these films have to be primarily science fiction. While there are plenty of comic book and horror movies that contain sci-fi elements, most of these are not generally considered to be science fiction mainstays. Some of the movies on this list are a combination of the two, combining both of their elements for a potent blend.
For #15 to #1, read Part 2 of The 30 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies of All Time!
It’s a classic of the genre, but it does show the wear and tear of time, which keeps it from beating out many of its far more timeless cohorts in science fiction. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) gets sucked into the world of The Grid, where he teams with the heroic program known as Tron to free the computer world from the MCP and his villainous army. Brought to life with then-cutting edge graphics and a unique look, The Grid became an unforgettable Disney world. The light cycles and identity discs in particular are classic, with their vibrant imagery still instantly recognizable. It’s still fun and vibrant, but a little stiff by today’s standards.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Entering the world of computer programming for the first time, Kevin Flynn discovers a brand new world filled with heroes and villains, all living inside ENCOM’s servers.
One of several additions to the list from the year 2014, Snowpiercer is some of science fiction at its bleakest and most brutal. In the future, the world has been frozen over by an attempt to reverse global warming that went wrong and the last remnants of humanity are onboard the Snowpiercer, a train that runs a continuous loop across the globe to keep them alive. But the poor are kept in the back, living in squalor and abused by the upper class living in the front. So when the poor revolt to take over the train led by Curtis (Chris Evans), all of humankind is at stake. It’s filled with brutal violent action, inflinching deaths, and commentary on the classes today. In short, it’s really messed up. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so good.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: As the rebels fight their way up through the train, more and more secrets are revealed about what lies in each compartment, exposing dirty secrets and filthy opulence that repulse and shock.
28. The Matrix
It’s one of the single most influential science fiction films of modern cinema. Both in concept and execution, The Matrix has left its fingerprints all over many movies that have come in its wake. Hacker Neo’s discovers that the world is only a computer simulation, and that the real world is an apocalyptic wasteland ruled by robots. But Neo may be the chosen one, the person destined to free humanity and save the world. But first he must learn how to control his powers and defeat the evil Agent Smith. Combined with groundbreaking special effects, it’s a science fiction piece that is both smart and action-packed. No, the others don’t live up to the original, but how many sequels do?
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Awareness of what The Matrix truly is allows experienced rebels to manipulate artificial reality, allowing for superpowers, flying, and, of course, bullet time.
27. The Terminator
A grim vision of the future mixes with time travel and themes of both love and destiny. The Terminator rocketed writer-director James Cameron into the spotlight, as well as provided one of Arnold Schwarzennegar’s most defining roles. The unstoppable T-100 is a frightening villain while the team of Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese are doomed/destined love at its best. With a glimpse of a horribly bleak apocalyptic future, the fight to keep humanity’s last best hope alive is all the more desperate. But what can actually stop The Terminator? Some clunky special effects aside, The Terminator is still a must see.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: A robot sent back as an assassin blends in perfectly with everyone else by having its metal endoskeleton coated with living organic tissue, making its injuries far more disturbing and strange.
26. The Fly
It’s creepy body horror at its finest, with science fiction used as a way to explore the meaning of man and gross out audiences everywhere at the same time. Scientist Seth Brundle invents a teleporter and tests it on himself, only to have his DNA spliced with a fly that hitched onboard. As he begins to change, the newly self-proclaimed “Brundlefly” discovers terrifying new abilities while undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis. Those that love him are forced to confront these terrifying new changes while trying to save themselves and Brundle. It’s too bad that Brundle is all too happy to accept what he sees as the next stage in evolution. It doesn’t go well for anyone involved.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Does splicing genes with another species create a new and improved version of man? Not really. It just makes him really weird and growing grosser by the day.
Joss Whedon’s cult classic series is given new life and the chance for conclusion through a major motion picture! And it’s everything that’s needed to find resolution for the crew of the Serenity. Fans of the TV series Firefly quickly fell in love with the show, but its swift cancellation by Fox left them heartbroken. But Serenity gave the story of Mal Reynolds and his crew of lawbreakers justice, with the many storylines left up in the area finally wrapped up. On the run from the Alliance, the government that rules the galaxy, our heroes are given the chance to fight back. Sacrifices are made and battles are waged, but it’s all so satisfying.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Reavers – a swarm of mutilated and crazed intergalactic cannibals that lingers around the edges of civilized space, preying on anyone they come across. Their true origins are tragic and the key to Serenity’s conclusion.
24. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Yes, the one where the crew of the enterprise travels to San Francisco in the 1980’s to save the whales. It’s an incredibly silly concept, but that’s why it’s easily the most fun Star Trek movie ever made. While the Star Trek tv series had already played around with time travel, this was the first time it was used in one of the feature films. By throwing the crew of the Enterprise in ‘80s San Francisco to prevent Earth’s whales from going extinct and preventing a future cataclysm, the comedy flows freely and naturally. Of course, it’s all one giant commentary on environmental conservation and the power we have to save our planet while we still have time. Throw in Checkov’s insistence on finding the “nuclear wessels” and it’s filled with fun yet well-made moments.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: While the ideas on display aren’t groundbreaking, Spock’s 1980’s headband to cover his pointy ears is truly a fashion revelation.
It’s sci-fi, horror, and action all rolled into one, with an extra helping of Schwarzenegger thrown in for good measure. What starts out as a macho military action flick shifts gears into science fiction horror as a military squad composed of the toughest guys around are slowly picked off by an alien hunter in the depths of a South American jungle. The Predator itself is a vibrant and brilliantly designed creature, being slowly revealed throughout the film and great enough to be as memorable as Schwarzenegger. Just as a monster movie alone, Predator is a fantastic movie. But it’s the organic yet ingenious way that the many genres blend together that makes the movie so consistently enjoyable. And it all ends with one of the best fights in film history!
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The idea that humanity is just another animal is taken to new extremes, as the toughest men around are hunted for sport by an alien far more dangerous than anything on Earth.
22. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
While the first Terminator introduced so many fantastic ideas, T2 was all about making things bigger and better. A decade after the first installment, future savior of mankind John Conner is now a punk teenager. But John and mother Sarah are targeted by another Terminator, only to be rescued by the same model Terminator that once hunted Sarah. Turning the original villain into a hero is a brilliant twist that allows for the sequel to go to new and more inventive places, like the Terminator becoming a father figure, while allowing both robots to duke it out in some fantastic fights and chases. It’s slick and stylish while still having heart. While many think of it as an action classic, the science fiction elements firmly in place make it one of the genre’s finest.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: After averting Judgment Day once, is there truly any way to permanently prevent the future apocalypse? Or is destiny unavoidable and only temporarily paused?
21. Star Wars
It’s one of the seminal science fiction features in film history. Its iconic imagery has been burned in the minds of people around the world. And it’s been improved on. But Star Wars is still irreplaceable. Luke, Han, Leia, Obi Wan, Vader, every character in the original Star Wars is a well-loved classic. While the story of a young boy who rises up to defeat an evil Empire is not exactly original, it’s the many science fiction elements that bring the story together that strengthen the tale. The many creatures, planets, and spaceships on display are some of the greatest ever introduced in fiction. The series would hit higher points and many lower points, but the first Star Wars film will always have a special place in movie history.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The lightsaber, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. These sci-fi/ancient weapons captured the imaginations of audiences everywhere and became an iconic image of the genre.
What is love and what is a soul? Through a warm and quiet exploration of a new kind of romantic relationship between one man and an operating system, ideas on what we find in relationships are given truly relatable clarity. Theodore Twombly finds solace in forging a relationship with brand new self-aware operating system Samantha. While it takes place in the near future, where our technology has continued to change our relationships, it’s a subtle difference that only helps to enhance the idea of what our relationships mean today. Every actor puts in an amazing performance in this subtle and soft love story that uses minor sci-fi ideas to put a new and very real focus on what relationships mean, how love grows people, and the beauty of heartbreak.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: A truly sentient being, no matter what its origins is capable of love. And the experience of falling in love forever changes who a person, or operating system, truly is.
If you had a chance to meet your past self, what would you change? If you had to kill your future self to save yourself now, would you? In the year 2024, Joe is a “looper,” an assassin who kills and disposes of people sent from the future mob, but will one day have to kill his future self to “close his loop.” But when his future self comes back in time and escapes in order to change the future, Joe is determined to kill his future self in order to save himself in the present. Joe also runs into a single mother and son when on the run who are far more than they seem. This twisting and turning tale is weaves an intricate web until the very end. Read more about Looper here!
Best Sci-Fi Feature: A unique take on time travel puts the present and the future side by side, showing the immediate and retroactive effects of changing the past, aka the present, and what that means for a person’s destiny.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s everything that’s fun about both comic book movies and science fiction all rolled up into one stylish adventure that is filled with heart and memorable characters. The ragtag criminal team of Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, and Drax are forced together to not only save themselves, but the entire galaxy from the mad Ronan the Accuser. Director James Gunn’s anarchic direction, the film’s throwback soundtrack, and the strength of each character make this the Star Wars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians is all about how much fun you can have in science fiction and how quickly anyone can come to love the strangest characters.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The potent combination of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, two strange otherworldly creature who steal the show and the hearts of audiences with affection and kickass action.
17. Back to the Future Part II
With the first entry plucking Marty McFly and throwing him for a loop with a trip into the past, Back to the Future Part 2expounded on the many complexities of time travel in as fun of a way as possible. First travelling to the future to stop Marty’s future children from ruining their life, then to the past to relive the events of the first film and undo a dark timeline they accidentally helped create, Doc and Marty go on a massive adventure. By having past, present, and future collide, Back to the Future Part II is a dizzying trip through time. Plus, there’s a flying DeLorean and a hoverboard.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Biff changes the past with knowledge of the future leading to the dark alternate timeline of “Hell Valley,” forcing Marty and Doc to travel to the past and undo the damage they have accidentally allowed to happen.
16. The World’s End
The trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost conquered horror with Shaun of the Dead and action with Hot Fuzz, so their foray into sci-fi was only another crowning achievement for the team. Five friends are reunited to relive a pub crawl they did in their youth, only to discover that their lame home town has been taken over by alien invaders. It’s all really a metaphor for the perils of trying to relive your youth and what it takes to grow up and move on. Of course, there’s also plenty of insane action scenes and loads of humor thrown in as well, making The World’s End a dizzyingly insane take on the alien invasion genre.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Blanks – extraterrestrial robots that replace any human who does not join their cause. Think of them as an intergalactic Starbucks, with rigid conformity showing humanity’s messiness to be a virtue.