After exploring many well-loved classics and new entries into the realm of science fiction film, we’ve arrived at the Top 15! Ranging from ground-breaking entries from decades ago to brand new takes on the genre that have immediately left their mark, these sci-fi films take the strengths of the genre and find new ways to tell original yet deeply human stories.
Through elements such as time travel, alien life, and robotics, these movies explore important and deeply-resonating ideas. Throw in a few awesome action scenes, some mind-bending twists, and jaw-dropping special effects, and you have stories that illustrate not only the power of the science fiction genre, but what movies as a whole can do.
These are the best if the best. The science fiction movies that show the true heights that the genre can reach and what can be possible when ideas and imagination are backed with true talent and creativity. Read on for the Top 15, featuring fantastic sci-fi movies from across the decades.
Click here for Part 1 of The 30 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies!
15. Source Code
Merging time travel with mystery, Source Codepacks a punch because of the investment in its characters. U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens wakes up in a program that sends him back in time to relive the final eight minutes of a train passengers life in order to discover who blew up the train and plans on exploding a dirty bomb in Chicago. Forced to relive the scenario again and again, Stevens explores new sides to the scenario while exploring what happened to him before being put in the Source Code program and growing close to a now-dead passenger. The simple premise is propelled by the human story beneath it all as the time loop twists in on itself.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The ability to relive the last eight minutes of a person’s life allows for the exploration of a mystery from every angle. But what is thought to be a simulation turns out to be the creation of alternate realities.
14. Children of Men
Not for the faint of heart, director Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is an exercise in unrelenting bleakness. In the near future, humanity can no longer give birth. No reason is given (it really could be the result of anything) but the result is that mankind has lost all hope. Humans will be completely dead in decades, so the world is quickly descending into violence and chaos. But when former activist Theo is entrusted with taking care of the first pregnant women in years, he’s forced into a chaotic race to get her to safety. This Earth is bleak and unrelentingly brutal, but the spark of hope could be enough to bring the world back. But what cost must be paid?
Best Sci-Fi Feature: When mankind is no longer able to reproduce, the humans resort to chaos and despair. But can the hope of new life bring back hope for humanity?
13. Tron: Legacy
It’s a trip back into The Grid decades later, with enormous advances in special effects and an instantly classic soundtrack making this an unforgettable trip into a vibrant world. Decades after the original Tron, Sam Flynn is sucked into The Grid when searching for his long-missing father Kevin. But this time, the rules have changed and this computer world is more dangerous than ever. The sequels has ideas of Buddhism, self-creating life, and the bond between father and son. But it’s the sights and sounds that make Tron: Legacy fantastic. Plus, thrilling chase scenes and the Daft Punk soundtrack make this infinitely rewatchable.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The world of The Grid is brought to more vivid and enrapturing life than ever before, with a neon-lit and stormy world equal parts inviting and mystifying.
12. The Thing
Disgusting, repulsive, terrifying, and fantastic in every way, John Carpenter’s The Thing will suck you in again and again, only to frighten you with nonstop body horror. When a science outpost in the Arctic is infiltrated by a recently unfrozen alien lifeform, the quickly dwindling group of survivors must fight for survival. But the alien can change itself to look like any living creature, allowing it to copy and kill any unfortunate victim. With anyone possibly the alien, The Thing manages to be consistently terrifying, with hero McReady’s blood test scene easily being one of cinema’s most terrifying sequences. Get ready for blood, gore, terror, and sci-fi awesomeness.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: A slithering and disgusting creature that can perfectly disguise itself as any other creature only means that anyone could be The Thing at any moment. And once the alien is found out? That’s when things get crazy.
When alien refugees land above Johannesburg, South Africa, they are corralled in the camp known as District 9. A metaphor for South African apartheid comes to life in a vivid and emotional manner, as themes of prejudice and understanding are explored through the idea of alien segregation. Government worker Wikus van de Merwe is part of the effort to move them into the new District 10, but is drawn into a vast conspiracy when he’s exposed to a toxin that begans morphing him into one of the Prawns and works to free the aliens. Transitioning from documentary style to full-blown action film, District 9 deftly balances social commentary with adrenaline-pumping action. It’s a sci-fi movie that doesn’t pull its punches.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Prawn may look repulsive, but their strange appearance and behavior expose the prejudice of audiences. As we get to know them, we understand the real world toll of racism.
10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
It’s the crowning achievement of the Star Trek film series, one that continues to stand as the story that all other Star Trek tales are measured against. And with good cause. Tying into an episode of the original Star Trek series, Kirk’s decision to strand the ancient warlord Khan Noonien Sing and his people on peaceful planet comes back to haunt him. Khan and his people survived their planet going nearly dead and now he is hellbent on revenge. Khan and the crew of the Enterprise engage in a high stakes game of chess, culminating in interspace warfare and the Spock’s devastating sacrifice to save his friends. Easily Star Trek’s greatest movie.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Genesis Device – a device that terraforms uninhabitable planets to accommodate new life and colonization. In Khan’s hands, it’s a devastatingly destructive bomb.
9. Edge of Tomorrow
A deft balance between humongous action and fantastic characters with lots of laughs thrown in for good measure, Edge of Tomorrow will only continue to climb the lists of best science fiction movies in years to come. Major William Cage is thrown into the frontlines to fight the invading aliens known as the Mimics, but when he dies in combat, he turns back time. Every time he dies, the day resets, forcing him to find a way to stop the Mimics with the help of hero Rita Vertaski. Director Doug Liman and writer Christopher McQuarrie create an amazing balance between character and plot, taking full advantage of the time travel concept. Add in the awesome mech suits and stellar performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, and this is an instant classic.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Reliving the same day over and over and forced to relive your horrific death is a curse and a gift. Rebirth, redemption, and renewal in a bombastic action adventure!
The story of a little robot destined to change the world and an indicting commentary on where humanity is heading manages to be heartwarming and artistically explosive all at once. With the Earth abandoned for hundreds of years due to pollution, little robot Wall-E has been slowly cleaning up the planet while dreaming of love and a greater purpose. So when he finds signs of life returning, he’s whisked off on a grand adventure with his new love Eve. Beyond the story, Wall-E is a technical marvel, with the entire film being absolutely gorgeous. It’s almost entirely wordless first act is a testament to Pixar’s storytelling abilities. Combined with immediately lovable characters, Wall-E is a masterpiece.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Axiom. It may have helped turn humanity into jelly that actually evolved to have fewer bones, but it’s automated systems and food production kept billions of people alive. It’s one of the best spaceships ever!
Director Christopher Nolan’s epic mind heist is not just a blockbuster spectacle, it’s a thrilling exploration of dreams and what our memories can do to our lives. Following dream thief Cobb and his team, we follow a heist inside the mind, with the team forced to try and implant an idea in the deepest recesses of a target’s dreams. Inception has so many ideas going on at once, with multiple levels of dreaming happening at the same time that it forces the viewer to interact with the film to a degree that few others have ever reached. The structure of the movie itself is almost like a puzzle, which complements the maze-like challenges the characters themselves face. It’s a height that may be difficult for Nolan to ever reach again in his career.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The shifting realities and layers of dreams within dreams makes Inception’s story a complex experience while appropriately blurring the lines of reality.
If Alien is a perfect blend of horror and science fiction, Aliens throws in elements of epic action for a bigger and more bombastic movie. When Ellen Ripley is awoken from a 50-year cryogenic sleep after the events of Alien she’s drawn back into conflict with the horrifying Xenomorphs when she learns that their planet has been colonized by humans. But the Colonial Marines she’s with are hopelessly outmatched and slaughtered. Director James Cameron’s Aliens is an exercise in tension, ratcheting up the stakes and squeezing the breath out of audiences with every subsequent scene. Chocked full of terrifying monsters, amazing characters, and countless ideas that have been copied, Aliens is one of sci-fi’s most influential films. Plus, Ellen Ripley is one of fiction’s greatest heroes of all time.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Colonial Marines meet Xenomorphs, and the chaos that ensues shows the true danger of this unknowable terror from outer space. Good thing they have Ripley.
The unknowable terror from outer space is given startling and frightening life as the defenseless crew of the Nostromo desperately tries to stay alive. Ridley Scott’s Alien takes a multitude of fears and forces both characters and the audience to face them in the form of an inescapable monster. The future brought to life here is far from glamorous, with workers travelling the cosmos to mine distant planets. But these ordinary men and women are forced into conflict with a creature they never imagined. The concept of an alien is explored in numerous fashions, with the Xenomorph, androids, and even the self playing the role of unknowable creature to great and horrific effect.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The Xenomorph – an alien parasite that grows inside its victims until violently bursting from their chests. The mix of interstellar and body horror combine many of man’s fears into one single horrifying beast.
4. Jurassic Park
After all these years, director Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is practically its own separate genre, but it’s truly a science fiction film at heart. Spielberg’s film takes Michael Crichton’s classic novel and turns it into a tale that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and fear-inducing. Seeing dinosaurs brought to life and placed squarely in modern times (especially for a young kid in the early ‘90s) is something unforgettable. Add to it that characters like Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and Richard Hammond are so fully-formed and unforgettable, and Jurassic Park is far more than just spectacle. There’s nothing to not love in this entire movie.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Given advancements in genetics, mankind is now able to bring back long extinct species. But just because we can give life doesn’t mean that we can control or understand it. Life finds a way.
3. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Yes, the first Star Wars movie changed the movie industry, but it’s The Empire Strikes Back that turned the series into a mythic and truly epic adventure that is still filled with vibrant life today. Think of all the elements at play here: Hoth, Yoda, bounty hunters, the asteroid field chase, The Force, the Cloud City duel, Vader’s revelation, and so much more! All of these combined into a cohesive, compelling, and dark story where the bad guys win and the good guys get frozen or have their hands chopped off! Episode IV may be a classic tale of good defeating evil, but Empire is Shakespearean in depth and Greek in breadth, all spread across a brilliant galaxy. Put together, it’s the crowning achievement of the Star Wars series.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Cloud City, a floating megacity in the clouds of the planet Bespin. It’s a breathtaking visual and it’s depths provide a fantastic backdrop to the many betrayals and battles.
2. Back to the Future
Fantastic characters, a perfect plot, an iconic car, and countless classic moments make Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Futurean irreplaceable sci-fi film and one that continues to enthrall today. Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown’s first trip into the past is about as perfectly formed as you can get on film. It’s a lean and thrilling story that devotes just enough time to each character while still enthralling audiences with the sci-fi time travel aspects that propel the plot. It’s hilarious through repeat viewings and the simple idea of meeting your parents when they were your age does not get old. As the stakes get higher and higher, the pure joy of the movie never diminishes. Plus, the throwback elements of the film’s then-current ‘80s setting add new fun!
Best Sci-Fi Feature: The DeLorean Time Machine. Not only is it the key plot motivator that sets everything in motion, it’s easily fiction’s coolest car! An unforgettable piece of cinema history.
1. Blade Runner
It’s an exploration of the human soul through futuristic science fiction concepts and a noir detective story that refuses to conform to the confines of typical Hollywood filmmaking. Set in a desolate future Los Angeles, Blade Runner Rick Deckard is tasked with hunting down the escaped humanoids known as Replicants, but is forced to confront his own identity and what life truly means. Director Ridley Scott’s quintessential sci-fi movie is a quiet meditation on the soul, filled with moody atmosphere, Vangelis’ beautiful score, and nuanced performances. It’s a movie with countless layers that reward repeat viewers, further immersing viewers in its world. For more on why Blade Runner is the best sci-fi film ever, read Part 1 and Part 2of my analysis.
Best Sci-Fi Feature: Life is far more precious than we care to believe. Those who struggle for their right to live are those who are able to see its true and fragile value.
Honorable Mentions: The Iron Giant, Cowboy Bebop The Movie, Akira, Primer, Moon, Ghostbusters, Star Trek (2009)