The 25 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Of All-Time

In Honor of Prometheus – Which I Hope Will Make This List

25. Metropolis (1927)

Let me say at the start that while Metropolis is undeniably brilliant and light years (see what I did there?) ahead of its time it has also become overrated. Well, maybe overrated isn’t the right word, more like it has been misrepresented. This isn’t an uncommon thing to happen to older films, particularly sic-fi flicks, we give them a pass based on what they had to work with from a technology point of view. I mention this only because if you haven’t seen it and your idea of sic-fi is Avatar this movie may not live up to what your expectations. The visuals are spectacular, but not James Cameron spectacular (because it was made in 1927) and its in German. The story though… the story is something. Metropolis is a utopian society where its wealthy citizens live carefree lives not knowing that the city is powered by masses of people running the machinery that keeps the city working. Sociological and philosophical debates ensue as the plot unfolds.

24. Dune (1984)

Many have said that this movie makes absolutely no sense unless you have read the book. That may be true. If you have read the book this movie brings a lot of what you loved to life in very interesting ways. It is often dismissed because it massively underperformed at the box office and that disappointment bled into people perception of the quality of the movie. I say give it another chance, I think you will be surprised.

23. They Live (1988)

If you haven’t seen this John Carpenter campy classic starring none other than “Rowdy” Roddy Piper you really should. It is really funny, really fast and enjoyable from beginning to end. Quick side note – man has Keith David been in a ton of movies; good movies, bad movies and everything in between.

22. Starship Troopers (1997)

She Was So Close To Being
Really Famous

OK, Casper Van Diem and Denise Richards are two of the worst actors who have ever been asked to play leads in a major motion picture. Also, Dina Meyer may be the ultimate “almost famous” actress (look her up on IMDB and you will see what I mean). This movie is hokey and frankly has a message that seems more than a little pro fascism but it is also really funny (perhaps unintentionally).

21. Total Recall (1990)

Who can say why this movie was so good. Three boobs? Maybe. Kuato coming out of Marshall Bell’s stomach? Maybe. Arnold’s goofy face when he is about to explode in the atmosphere of Mars? Possibly. Young Sharon Stone kicking Arnold’s you know what? Loved it. It was so many things, so many moments, the entire movie was a happy accident of genius.

20. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Is This Too Low On My List?

First, there are only a handful of movies that in their time were visually mind blowing and T2 was definitely one of them. Linda Hamilton’s transformation is the stuff of movie legend.  My eight year old son says “hasta la vista baby” and he has never even heard of this movie. My only problem is they totally mess up the whole time travel thing (you can’t go back in time and create yourself, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work).

19. Aliens (1986)

I’m sure a few months from now I will look back on this list and think myself a moron for not having Aliens higher on it. Young James Cameron really knew how to make a good Sci-Fi movie (as he did with T2 and Terminator). He doesn’t bother as much with the existentialism and philosophical forays that some in the genre have embraced, but what he does do is make really entertaining movies. That’s what Aliens is, a really entertaining, pulse pounding, scary, exciting, movie.

18. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Is it the least bit shocking that Tim Burton made this movie right after making Ed Wood? This is an Ed Wood movie made well and it is really funny. The Martians are a hoot and all of the actors play it “straight” which ad to be nearly impossibly hard given what they were playing. Kudos Mr. Burton, you did what Ed Wood never could, made one of “his” kind of movie really good.

17. District 9 (2009)

The blurb IMDB has (and I’m sure it is the same blurb you would find almost everywhere) describes this movie like this”

An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent who is exposed to their biotechnology.”

For those of you who have seen the movie you know that while you could argue that is a technically accurate description of District 9 it somehow manages to miss the mark entirely. The point of the movie seems like a moving target throughout and as a viewer you are never at ease (in a good way) because you are never quite sure where it is all going or who you should be rooting for.

16. Planet of the Apes (1968)

They Were On Earth The Whole Time!

Plenty of movies have had “reveals” at the end. Usually they aren’t too shocking. You either guessed it or you were at least ready for something close to it. But when I was a kid and I saw Charlton Heston’s expression and the camera pan to see the statue of liberty, I was blown away. I am sorry for those who are younger and never got the full affect of that reveal because it was awesome.

15. Super 8 (2011)

This is a movie that seems to keep growing on me. Yes, it is an overt homage to Spielberg and his ET and Close Encounters movies, but I’m not sure it isn’t better than the classics it is referencing. JJ Abrams does a terrific job with time and place and isn’t afraid to build the tension slowly.

14. WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E is not a kids movie. I know it is made by Pixar and its animated and it looks like a kids movie and kids may even like it but that does not change the fact that WALL-E is not a kids movie. Andrew Stanton created a terrific movie that beautifully marries social commentary, Sci-Fi wonder and a truly compelling and touching love story (between two robots, go figure).

13. Serenity (2005)

My Favorite Crew
Of All Time

I know I really like a movie when I find myself writing about it more often than I thought I would have. Serenity is absolutely that movie. I find myself subconsciously looking for excuses to write about Serenity. Yes, I thought the series (Firefly) may have been better than the movie (Serenity), but they are both terrifically fun and funny.

12. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

You’re a little surprised aren’t you? You thought Empire would be Top 10 for sure and possibly Top 5. So how did it fall to 12? Well, Empire had two things going against it. First, all 11 movies ahead of it on this list are really, really good. Second, all of the movies ahead of Empire can and do stand on their own. It has always been my sole critique of Empire, it assumes you have seen Star Wars and that you will see Return of the Jedi. If you dropped an alien down from the sky with no knowledge of anything Star Wars and had them watch The Empire Strikes Back they would be confused throughout. Is Empire the best Star Wars movie? Yes, if you have seen them all. But the fact that you have to have seen them to really get Empire really hurts it on a rating scale like this.

11. The Terminator (1984)

See my rant on The Empire Strikes Back to see one of the reasons The Terminator is ranked higher than T2. Also, I have always felt that the tension level was somehow higher, maybe because it was lower tech. Arnold just keeps coming and coming and coming and he’s not coming after the badass Sarah Connor of T2, this is someone who, like you the viewer, are dropped into this world and are forced to survive it with nothing. As for the time travel logic I’ll just say the flaws here are debatable where in most time travel movies the flaws are beyond debate, so that has to count for something.

10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)

KAHN!!! This is what every Star Trek movie should be.  Kirk, Spock and Bones struggling through an impossible situation that appears to be going south again and again and yet the somehow find a way in the end to survive. If that isn’t enough you get to hear Herman Melville quoted in the most awesome way ever.

9. The Matrix (1999)

I’ve heard and seen some people dismissing The Matrix a little bit lately and when I hear why I realize it is entirely because of the sequels. Look, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are not good and expose that the deep mining of philosophical questions may have been a wee bit overstated. Having said that, the disappointment of those two films does not change how fun this movie was to watch in 1999 and it still holds up today. Which pill would you take? I’ll choose living in blissful ignorance.

8. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Forget, if you can, the Keanu Reeves version from a couple of years ago. The big problem with the 2008 version is that we don’t have the societal paranoia and guilt we carried in 1951 (don’t misunderstand, we still have plenty of societal paranoia and guilt, just not the same kind of paranoia and guilt). This movie taps into that, stressing that it is our development and deployment of the Atomic Bomb that has labeled us dangerous and put our existence at risk. It is our paranoia at the outset that increases that risk as the soldiers go for the “shoot first, ask questions later” tact when the visitors come on a piece mission. This film also stands as a great example of how special effects aren’t necessary to create conflict, fear or doom.

7. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eight Dimension (1984)

I Make No Apologies
For Loving This Movie

I believe I made this identical statement when I made my list of comic book movies but I don’t think and top 10, 20, 100 list or best of list or anything of this ilk rings true unless there are some purely personal choices on them. Movies are subjective, to pretend that anyone could or ever should try to separate themselves from that fact is, well, stupid. I love this movie. I loved it in college when I first saw it as a midnight movie. I’ve loved it watching it with my brother Chuck when we were teaching his then young boys how awesome this film is. I’ve loved this movie for 27 years and I will always put in on “best of” lists when ever I can.

6. The Thing (1982)

There have been a few directors that not surprisingly have kind of dominated this list. James Cameron (Terminator, Aliens and T2), George Lucas (Star Wars), Ridley Scott (you’ll see) all could have and probably should have been predicted to have been all over a list like this, but what about John Carpenter? Not only are They Live! and The Thing firmly on here, but if my mind hadn’t been focussed as strongly on other wordily Sci-Fi Escape For New York would definitely be on this list (I kind of discounted the futuristic Sci-Fi because I think of that as more of a subset which is why Escape From New York and A Clockwork Orange didn’t make the list). Carpenter approaches Sci-Fi differently than most of the other directors working in this genre, he comes at it firmly from a horror/monster movie angle and does it brilliantly. The remake/pre-quel that came out last year wasn’t bad, but this version of The Thing is great.

5. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

How Is It Not #1?

It is not a hard argument to make that this should be #1 on this list. It may be the most popular movie of all-time (I broke down all of the gaudy Star Wars numbers in my look at the summer of ’77 here). It certainly launched the single biggest movie phenomena is history. No film has done a better job of transporting the viewer to a new world (or worlds as the case may be) and I would argue that Star Wars has the single best opening sequence in movie history (space ship flying across  an infinite galaxy and the screen is suddenly enveloped by the monstrous space ship that is pursuing it). So why isn’t it #1? Well, while Star Wars does most of what we look for in a Sci-Fi classic brilliantly it doesn’t attempt to do one of the things that is a hallmark of the best of the genre, utilize the new time or space to explore questions that aren’t easily asked in more reality based genres. Time travel, the nature of man, what is a soul, when do we exist, how do we know what is real — anyone who took philosophy 101 in college recognizes all of these questions as do all of the Sci-Fi fans out there (and for those of us who are both Sci-Fi fans and philosophy majors in college its a double whammy). This is what Science Fiction does, it uses scientific theories, both physical science and social science, to explore new ideas. Star Wars doesn’t do that (I can’t believe I am arguing against Star Wars, my son may sneak into my room when I am sleeping and kill me).

4. Alien (1979)

Have I mentioned how excited I am about Prometheus coming out? This movie is why. If you haven’t seen Alien (or haven’t seen it in a good long while) do yourself a favor and see it again before going to see Prometheus. This movie is scary and exciting and thought provoking and generally brilliant.

3. Brazil (1985)

Yes, Terry Gilliam Is A Bit
Out There

A little trivia for you, did you know that Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead) co-wrote the screenplay? You can see it when you watch it, the dialogue flows in ways that some of Terry Gilliam’s other movies don’t (and I say that as quite possibly the world’s biggest Gilliam fan). Still, this movie is Gilliam through and through. The story of a bureaucrat in a technologically advanced future who finds himself longing for escape to something simpler and running for his life from the bureaucracy that he has long served is chalk full of the kind of triply visuals and storytelling that make Gilliam’s best works (The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Baron Munchausen) so distinctive and refreshingly unique.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I hadn’t seen 2001 in a few years and I started to wonder if it was one of those films that we remember better than it was. You know, those movies we throw praise on because we know we should but we don’t see frequently enough to remember clearly. So I watched 2001 again and let me assure you it is more than worthy of all the praise that has ever been heaped on it. It is methodical, moody, ask questions with no answers, visually stunning and will stick in your brain for weeks after viewing it. Every time I think I get, that I think I know what it means or what it is trying to say, a new thought pops into my head and makes me question it all, all over again.

Before I unveil my #1 Sci-Fi flick here is a quick list of the movies that almost made it on to my top 25 (so you know which ones to be mad about that didn’t make it). In no particular order:

  • Solaris (1972)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • RoboCop (1987)
  • Predator (1987)
  • Independence Day (1996)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • Children of Men (2006)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Sorry, neither Avatar or ET were even close for me.

Now, without further ado, the greatest Science Fiction Film of All-Time is…

1. Blade Runner (1982)

Was There Ever Really A Doubt?

One of the things that surprised me as I was doing my “research” for this list was how much in agreement all of the sites were on the top of this list. IGN, Total Sci-Fi Online and MSN’s Parallel Universe all did their lists of the best Sci-Fi movies and all ended up with 2001 at #2 and Blade Runner at #1. Total Film was unique on their list because they had 2001 at #3, but Blade Runner was still #1 (Empire Strikes Back was their #2). The rest of the lists were as disparate as you would imagine, but the top seems to be the one thing we can all agree on. In the end, it was #1 for two reasons. First it has everything you would ever want in a Sci-Fi flick; stunning visuals, a completely engrossing new world and reality, philosophical and ethical questions at the plots core and pulse pounding excitement. The second reason, it is simply my favorite Sci-Fi movie ever.

Other FFG lists you may enjoy:

The Top 10 Comic Book Movies of All-Time
The 25 Greatest Pirate Movies of All-Time
Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies Part 1
Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies Part 2
Top 50 Book to Film Adaptations Part 1
Top 50 Book to Film Adaptations Part 2