Top 20 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Garrett Alden
These are the science fiction movies that will forever stand the test of time. For this list, we'll be going over the greatest flicks in the genre. Our countdown includes “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, "Aliens", “The Matrix”, and more!
Top 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 20 best sci-fi movies of all time.
For this list, we’ll be going over the greatest flicks in the genre. To be clear, we won’t be including animated movies or superhero films, as those have lists of their own.
If there’s a futuristic movie you wish we’d had the foresight to include on our list, let us know in the comments!
#20: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)
“Star Trek” is one of the biggest names in sci-fi. The franchise’s most celebrated film is unquestionably its second. During “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk’s titular nemesis enacts a plan of revenge against the heroes on the Enterprise after being stranded for years. What follows is a Shakespearean struggle of rivals with plenty of lives on the line. All the drama of this space opera is kept grounded thanks to the personal and emotional stakes for both the heroes and the villains. Outside of the memorable and deep dialogue, the movie also delivers on the space action scenes. We have a feeling Spock would approve of this franchise film being singled out as a spectacular sci-fi flick. (suggested broll: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”)
#19: “Avatar” (2009)
While critics have pointed out that “Avatar” shares some plot similarities with other films, the James Cameron epic was still revolutionary. This early 2000s movie rocked the entertainment industry by taking visual effects to an entirely new level. Between innovative uses of 3D and CGI that will likely hold up for decades, the experience of exploring the world of Pandora is still incredible. These stunning visuals helped make Jake Sully’s quest to understand an alien species as humanity encroaches on their world feel like a fresh and original approach. And based on “Avatar’s” record-breaking office receipts, there’s lots of people that love that world.
#18: “Solaris” (1972)
While “Solaris” might not be as well-known to modern audiences as other interstellar flicks, those that have watched it can verify that it's one of the greatest space films out there. It follows a psychologist sent to evaluate the crew of a space station after they begin reporting bizarre experiences. All of the time the film spends on introspection and the examinations of its characters’ psyches make it far from a straightforward narrative. At the same time, the deep themes are exactly what make the movie stand out. Those who enjoy contemplating the human mind and the nature of reality while in space will find “Solaris” endlessly fascinating.
#17: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)
First contact with aliens in movies usually sees things go poorly for humanity. But “The Day the Earth Stood Still” takes a different tack. Klaatu and his robot Gort have come to Earth in peace and for peace. Their designs and motivations influenced tons of sci-fi movies that came after. And by watching their experiences on Earth and interactions with humanity, viewers get an opportunity to see themselves through alien eyes. Although the film was made in the 50s, its messaging on the drawbacks of war and mistrust are still surprisingly relevant today. The Day the Earth Stood Still” will likely remain poignant until humanity can put aside its self-destructive tendencies.
#16: “Her” (2013)
“Her” invites us to a not-too-distant future, where virtual assistants become self-aware. The film follows Theodore, a man who struggles with romantic connection, getting into a relationship with his A.I. assistant, Samantha. Watching the two form a tight bond despite never being able to physically connect is incredible. While Joaquin Phoenix delivers a great and vulnerable performance, Scarlett Johansson deserves a lot of credit for her layered voice-only role as Samantha. They co-star in a film that isn’t just a look at what relationships between humans and A.I. could look like, but also an examination of modern relationships in general. It makes viewers think about the drawbacks and triumphs of using technology to find love.
#15: “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Post-apocalyptic action movies are a dime a dozen, but “Mad Max: Fury Road” leaves most of them in the dust! In a hellish future, a man named Max unintentionally becomes a part of a quest to free imprisoned women from a warlord. The normally independent man must learn how to work with the dynamic and powerful Furiosa if he and his allies want to have any shot at freedom. The cinematography and effects are jaw-dropping. And when it does slow down, “Fury Road” features profoundly poignant character moments. It’s a rare film that can balance tragic, emotional scenes and high-octane violence. The way “Mad Max: Fury Road” blends all those elements should be “witnessed” by all.
#14: “Planet of the Apes” (1968)
While there have been many brilliant “Planet of the Apes” films over the years, the original remains a beloved classic for good reason. When astronauts find themselves in a world ruled by intelligent apes, they must struggle to survive in a world where humans are marginalized. This setup allows the movie to dive deep into themes about prejudice and misuse of authority. The movie was also widely celebrated for the phenomenal makeup work done on the ape actors. Despite being covered in prosthetics, their performances are just as powerful and emotive as leading man Charlton Heston is. “Planet of the Apes” is such a standout sci-fi movie that we would’ve been “maniacs” if we ignored it.
#13: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
If you could forget someone, would you? “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” answers that question with a heartbreaking narrative. In the movie, Joel and Clementine both pay to have the memories of their relationship removed after their breakup. As their shared past is erased, we see snippets of different parts of their relationship replayed out of order. The film features incredible practical effects to convey the way memory works. And although it may deal with how people can fall out in love, “Eternal Sunshine” is incredibly romantic. Melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic, the film uses its sci-fi concepts to show that love does not always end when it’s forgotten. If only we could erase our memories of “Eternal Sunshine” and watch it with fresh eyes.
#12: “Back to the Future” (1985)
You don’t need to travel to 88mph to reach one of the best time travel movies in the entire genre. After the teenage Marty McFly inadvertently uses Doc Brown’s Delorean time machine to travel to the 1950s, the kid accidentally changes the past and threatens his own existence. The temporal traveler ultimately must play matchmaker for his parents so he isn’t erased from the timeline. While Marty and Doc scramble to prevent a bad future, they throw out tons of quotable lines about everything from determination to destiny. Both characters also have fantastic comedic timing that can turn even the most mundane moments into laugh out loud hilarious scenes! Even if it’s not 100 percent scientifically accurate, this time travel adventure is definitely fun.
#11: “Inception” (2010)
Although people put ideas in each other’s heads all the time, “Inception” takes that concept to its most literal extreme. The film follows a motley crew of dream specialists who must race to plant an idea in the mind of a sleeping executive before he wakes up. Every time they dive into a deeper layer of their target’s subconscious, they face new challenges and awe-inspiring setpieces. While director Christopher Nolan uses CGI to make all the dreams we see a reality, he also blows us away by incorporating stunning practical effects and camera tricks. And none of the visuals distract from the intricate plot and questions about how we define reality. This mind-bending adventure ends with a scene that’s beloved and hotly debated.
#10: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
Steven Spielberg has done a lot of exceptional sci-fi movies we could have included on our list, like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (XREF) or “Jurassic Park.”(XREF) But we’re going with the childhood classic, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” The story of a young boy meeting an alien and trying to get the otherworldly visitor home is a timeless tale of friendship. “E.T.” is as funny as it is heartwarming and as nerve-wracking as it is wondrous. Thanks to this alien, we craved his beloved Reese’s pieces snack and wanted our own bikes to fly into the sky. The film shows why first contact with alien life could be best if a child did it. Sometimes, kids demonstrate the best of humanity.
#9: “Forbidden Planet” (1956)
When a spaceship crew visits the world of Altair IV, they discover a scientist and daughter are the only survivors of an expedition. The new arrivals soon figure out why when a mysterious assailant starts messing with their mission and equipment. While the plot seems like it will fully focus on an unseen antagonist, the movie also serves as a cautionary tale. The choice of whether or not to harness advanced alien technology drew parallels to discussions about nuclear weapons. Outside of “Forbidden Planet’s” great social commentary, its aesthetic, sets and costumes greatly influenced everything from “Star Trek” to “Star Wars.” The way the movie executed its out of this world premise made a huge impact on the sci-fi landscape.
#8: “Children of Men” (2006)
What would happen if humanity became infertile? “Children of Men” paints a bleak future where a man named Theo struggles to live in a world where there are no more babies being born. However, he gets a shot of hope when he’s pulled into a mission to protect a pregnant woman. As they flee from place to place, their extremely perilous journey comments heavily on refugee crises and the nature of human conflict. “Children of Men '' also depicts these events with stunning cinematography and jaw-dropping longshots. The beautiful filmmaking helps viewers keep a sense of optimism in a world that is on the brink of giving up all hope.
#7: “Aliens” (1986)
Look, we love the original “Alien” too. It’s fantastic sci-fi horror. [xref] But the sequel somehow managed to improve upon an already amazing concept. After surviving an encounter with dangerous Xenomorphs, Ellen Ripley is asked to help a group of marines who are pursuing more aliens. What follows is a tense and action packed adventure that sees a reluctant heroine jump back into a fight she thought was over. This sequel brought back its predecessor’s aesthetic and grim atmosphere while including more action, expanding the world, and introducing memorable characters. Ellen’s climactic battle against the Xenomoprh Queen is also epic and unforgettable. As of 2022, no “Alien” prequel or followup has topped this legendary sequel.
#6: “Blade Runner” (1982)
Dripping with a neon-lit atmosphere and sporting one of the most imaginative futuristic worlds, “Blade Runner” is so incredible that following up on it seemed impossible. While its sequel did exceed expectations, it still couldn’t top the classic. [xref] In the grungy future of “Blade Runner”, Rick Deckard hunts down human replicants in a futuristic Los Angeles. The gruff protagonist eventually starts to question whether he’s on the right side of this conflict. Throughout the movie, the real and artificial beings examine what it means to be human. The amazing production design and haunting score also help transport us to this dark world. While viewers may disagree on which of “Blade Runner’s endings” is best, they can all agree that this movie is a sci-fi great.
#5: “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Three years after “A New Hope” completely changed the game for blockbuster movies, its sequel showed everyone how to follow-up on an amazing story. After the heroes scored a big win against the Empire in the first film, they’re all backed into a corner by their enemies. But the protagonists refused to let the overwhelming odds, betrayal, and questions about their identities stop them. “Empire Strikes Back” greatly expanded upon an already huge universe in exciting ways. It also features some of the most iconic dialogue in not just sci-fi, but cinema! And the film’s major twist is arguably one of the best turns in movie history. “Empire Strikes Back” is easily one of the best space operas the galaxy has ever seen.
#4: “Metropolis” (1927)
An expressionist silent film from the ‘20s, “Metropolis” is an operatic tale of two lovers from high and low society in a futuristic, mechanized world. The straightforward premise of “Metropolis” is accompanied by imagery and commentary that made it legendary. Echoes of its gothic and art deco set design can be found in tons of sci-fi movies and other genre films of the last century. “Metropolis” marks one of the first depictions of a humanoid robot on screen. Additionally, the film also taps into the fears of an overly industrialized world. Its themes about the struggle between classes have remained tragically relevant for nearly a century. A lot of aspects people love about the sci-fi genre can be traced back to this 1920s film.
#3: “The Matrix” (1999)
This film took the world by storm and had us all saying – “Woah.” Influenced by everything from cyberpunk to anime, “The Matrix” is a perfect blend of high concepts and high action. In this adventure, Hacker Neo learns the whole world is a simulation created by machines. After awakening to the cold truth, he learns how to take advantage of everything the Matrix has to offer. The wild narrative makes for a gripping and endlessly fascinating film. Viewers were also hooked on the incredible action and the hugely influential bullet time effects. “The Matrix” also programs thought-provoking philosophical concepts into its memorable story. While you might question reality by the end, you won’t doubt that you saw an incredibly cool and important sci-fi movie.
#2: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
The first “Terminator” got the franchise off to a fantastic start. [xref] But “T2” is the clear peak of the franchise. In the second outing, an artificial terminator aims to protect humanity’s savior from a more advanced killer robot. Both the action and special effects have managed to hold up for over 30 years and counting. Underneath the spectacle, the actors give great performances that hit every emotional beat. As they struggle to prevent a dark future, they’re forced to question if just a handful of people can change the fate of the planet. When you add all these elements up, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is a sci-fi film whose brilliance and epic action will always bring a tear to our eyes. (suggested broll: “I know why you cry…i can never do”)
Before we get to our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
“Dune: Part One” (2021)
A Story Once Thought Impossible to Adapt Turned Out to Be Unbelievably Good
A Digital Adventure with Effects That Were Far Ahead of Their Time
It Presents An Absurdist Dystopian World That’s Funny & Scary in Equal Measure
“The War of the Worlds” (1953)
One of the Most Recognizable Alien Invasion Movies of All TIme
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)
This Remake About Undercover Alien Invaders Managed to Surpass the Original
#1: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
“2001: A Space Odyssey'' chronicles humanity’s interactions with strange monoliths from our earliest origins, to our first steps into outer space. Additionally, it features an ill-fated mission ruined by a rogue A.I. Stanley Kubrick’s film was widely celebrated for its accurate depiction of how space travel works and groundbreaking effects. Even modern audiences may wonder how half of the shots were achieved. But what truly makes “2001” a masterpiece is how its ambiguous ending allows each and every audience member to take something different from the story. While it may be subtitled “A Space Odyssey,” the movie is a veritable space symphony of spectacular music and ideas about the wonders and dangers of what reaching for the stars could bring.