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From epic space battles to musings on why we’re here, these are the best sci-fi movies of all time.
Sci-fi is the epitome of escapism. Sure, we can dream up all sorts of alternate realities, awash with unknown lifeforms, set in the deepest, darkest points of space, but what about when world-class directors and big name actors bring these realities to the big screen? From the dystopian dread of Blade Runner to traveling through the time and space continuum in Back to the Future, our list of the best sci-fi movies of all time has something for everyone.
There’s a plethora of captivating stories playing our in cinema, which makes our job rather hard, but fortunately, we’ve whittled down the masses to this collection of 15 of the best sci-fi movies that should hopefully span the different themes across the genre; from horror, to comedy, to forming friendships where seemingly impossible.
Whether it’s aliens, robots, interstellar travel, or a melancholic love story, this list exhibits just how deep the sci-fi genre really goes, and also how far. Unsurprisingly, some of our movies are parts of wider, incredibly successful franchises that can also be explored once you’ve picked up the thread here.
Without further ado, let’s get into it. Whilst our list of the best sci-fi movies of all time consists of 15 of the greatest picks, if you find yourself searching for more titles to be added to your must watch list, then we’ve got our list of the best space movies, as well as the best sci-fi TV shows if you prefer the small screen.
- Release date: June 12, 2009
- Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott
A sci-fi movie centered on isolation, Moon follows astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) as he nears the end of his three-year mission mining for Helium-3, an answer to Earth’s energy crisis, on the moon. But, whilst he dreams of returning home, he becomes unwell and suffers an accident that brings him together with a younger version of himself.
Losing himself to the depths of space, Moon is very thought-provoking and focuses on the more psychological aspects of the sci-fi genre as viewers watch a man struggle to separate the real from the unreal.
14. Ex Machina
- Release date: April 10, 2015
- Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Glesson) wins a contest to spend a week at the home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of the internet company he works for, but all is not as it seems. The competition has stipulations, and Caleb learns he is there with a purpose – to converse with Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent robot and to discover how real she really is.
Ex Machina is an incredible look into the possibilities of artificial intelligence with little distraction from the plot as we hole up in a mountainous lodge, isolated from the rest of existence. This ominous thriller twists and turns through the idea that the self-awareness of machines is not to be underestimated.
13. RoboCop (1987)
- Release date: July 17, 1987
- Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy
From the director behind other sci-fi greats, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop offers the ultimate revenge story set against a backdrop of corporate greed in a dystopian future. Police officer Alex Murphy (Paul Weller) rises from the ashes after being killed in a brutal gang attack as he’s transformed into cyborg law enforcer, RoboCop.
The dystopian reimagining of Detroit is wrought with crime and corruption. Luckily, RoboCop is a heavily-armored robot with a penchant for inflicting great pain on wrongdoers and throughout the movie, he does just that. An 80s sci-fi success, although censored in some countries for its extreme violence, RoboCop was followed up by two sequels and a reboot, but none of them come close to the original
- Release date: November 5, 2014
- Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
A classic sci-fi trope lies in the dystopian reimagining of life on Earth. For Interstellar, Earth has become uninhabitable due to a plague called ‘the Blight’ that has ravaged pretty much all of the world’s food sources, as well as a Dust Bowl causing a drought. Forced into space, a group of research astronauts fronted by Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must go through a wormhole to travel across the galaxy and find humans a new home.
Director Christopher Nolan builds this iconic sci-fi movie around themes of loneliness, isolation, love, and what humanity would do to survive when teetering on the brink of extinction.
11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- Release date: November 16, 1977
- Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr
Steven Spielberg created Close Encounters of the Third Kind right after iconic movie Jaws and just before E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (also featured on our list). With a director of that caliber at the helm, this movie was bound for success. Close Encounters tells the extraordinary tale of how Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has his life turned upside down when he has a, you guessed it, close encounter with a UFO. One minute he’s fixing the electrical lines in the state of Indiana, the next minute he’s traveling across the States led by his obsession and looking for answers.
Whilst encountering another lifeform could instill fear in many, in true Spielberg fashion, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a story of optimism and discovery and one that brings Roy into a group of people on a journey to discover more about humanity.
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Release date: April 3, 1968
- Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Like many on our best sci-fi movies list, 2001: A Space Odyssey summons you to think. A dark monolith is uncovered on the moon that releases a radio signal. Years later, the film follows a deep space mission of two astronauts and an AI computer called HAL 9000 as they try to unearth the truth behind the monolith. HAL begins to demonstrate a self-awareness that begs the question of humanity and what defines us, a rich sci-fi topic that has only been expanded upon since 1968.
The movie was in fact made alongside a book of the same name by both director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, so it’s also earned a spot in our best sci-fi movies based on books list.
- Release date: November 11, 2016
- Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
When aliens suddenly land at various locations around the globe, the military calls upon linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to figure out how to communicate with the visitors. What follows is an intelligent and introspective movie leans heavily into that language theme – how would we communicate with lifeforms from another world. Arrival received significant praise (opens in new tab) from academics for its portrayal of linguistics.
Arrival is not about assuming threat or destruction, but exploring the possibilities of life and what the discovery of intelligent alien life would mean for humanity. Director Denis Villeneuve made his sci-fi debut with Arrival and has since gone on to direct both Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, all three of which have received critical acclaim.
- Release date: June 11, 1982
- Cast: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote
Truly unlike any other film on our list, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial tells the tale of a young boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), who finds an alien who has been stranded on Earth. Taking E.T. home to his brother and sister, they keep its existence under wraps in their suburban Californian home. Director Steven Spielberg brought space to Earth and surrounded it with hope and love, and tore fear away from the prospect of there being something else out there.
Shot mostly chronologically to evoke real emotion from the young cast to the backdrop of an incredible score by composer John Williams, E.T. will always be a beautiful part of sci-fi movie history. And, with a budget of $10.5 million, it took almost $800 million at the box office which by any standards is an incredible feat.
7. Back to the Future
- Release date: July 3, 1985
- Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompon, Crispin Glover
You didn’t need to be a time traveler to know this was going to be on the list, did you? Back to the Future is an absolute icon of 80s sci-fi, offering a perfect blend of comedy and sci-fi.
Back to the Future sees teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) thrown back in time in a souped-up DeLorean built by his scientist friend, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). While there, he inadvertently prevents his parents from falling in love, threatening his own existence in the future. He’s then forced to play matchmaker for his own parents to get them together to save his existence, and the future he knows.
Back to the Future spawn two sequels that are both pretty good, but none of them can hold a candle to the original.
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
- Release date: July 3, 1991
- Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick
Hasta la vista, baby! One of the most iconic lines in all of cinema, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day is more than just a quote machine, it’s a genuinely fantastic sci-fi movie and a rare case of a sequel that surpasses the original movie.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the T-800 in a redemption arc that sees him transformed for the better. He’s back 10 years on to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from a new threat, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick).
It’s an extraordinary sequel to a sci-fi franchise full of great movie moments. It’s just a shame that every other Terminator movie since then has kinda sucked- check out our Terminator movies ranked, worst to best guide, to see what we mean
5. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
- Release date: May 21, 1980
- Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
We couldn’t write a best sci-fi movies list and not include at least one of the Star Wars movies. To back up this entry, we’ve provided a further explanation in Star Wars movies ranked, worst to best.
The second part of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back is famed for taking the franchise to new heights with epic battles, an iconic movie plot twist, and enthralling moments between main characters, Leia and Han. Praised for its focus on storyline, The Empire Strikes Back sets an expansive stage for the movies that follow it.
4. Blade Runner
- Release date: June 25, 1982
- Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Another dystopia on our list is director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an ex-police officer who has been brought back on side as a Replicant hunter, meaning he hunts down genetically engineered humans (Replicants) that pose a threat to society. Scott himself compares the 1982 movie to that of our current day world with big technology corporations holding strong positions in society.
A slower paced movie with a melancholic love story, on the backdrop of some incredible set design, creates this timeless sci-fi movie that’ll leave you feeling uncertain about the nature of humanity.
3. The Matrix
- Release date: March 31, 1999
- Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
“You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” An iconic quote from The Matrix as viewers are invited to follow Thomas Anderson aka Neo (Keanu Reeves) down the rabbit hole into the Matrix, a simulated reality entrapping humanity and Neo himself. Humans are being used for their energy by AI machines and we watch as Neo takes on an underground battle to freedom.
The Matrix was a groundbreaking movie for special effects harnessing CGI in new ways to showcase a unique combination of the sci-fi movie genre with martial arts. Not forgetting the fact that The Matrix is so cleverly made and told that it leaves viewers pondering their very existence.
- Release date: May 25, 1979
- Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
Whilst returning from deep space, the crew of the Nostromo are awakened to a distress signal from a nearby ship. Upon investigation, they are unnerved to uncover a nest of eggs of an alien species that do not come in peace. Prolific director Ridley Scott breathes life into this sci-fi epic which began a franchise spanning six films in total from 1979 to 2017 – if you’re thinking of running through them, check out our complete list of Alien movies, ranked worst to best.
Alien is unapologetically sci-fi horror at its finest. The basic premise plays wonderfully into the age-old setup of humans versus aliens and fills it to the brim with suspense and action that will have you gripping onto your seat.
1. The Thing
- Release date: June 25, 1982
- Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
A team of researchers in Antarctica come into contact with the “Thing,” an extra-terrestrial that can take over the form of others. With a power like this, the team quickly turns on each other with no-one sure if their companions remain friend or foe. The Thing is a depiction of perfect 80s cinema that almost makes things seem more real given the limitations of technology and CGI.
Competing with another entry on our list at the time, E.T. and The Thing were released at the same time but were world’s away from each other in terms of themes, despite them both being sci-fi. The Thing wasn’t immediately welcomed by viewers, but became a cult classic later in life.