Science fiction is inherently speculative, an imagination's attempt to make sense of the vast, unmapped territories of outer space, technology, and human consciousness. Curiosity is ironed into the fabric of its stories, an earnest desire to wrestle with philosophical questions about man's relationship to God, to artificial intelligence, and to the unknown. As computers and AI thrust themselves ever deeper into our daily routines, it's perhaps more vital than ever that we ask the weightier questions about what it means for humanity.
This list compiles some of cinema's scariest, funniest, and most provocative stabs at those deeper questions. Perhaps it's a fool's errand to try and pinpoint the best sci-fi movies of all time, but the 30 films listed below encompass a multitude of genres — comedy, drama, horror, noir, crime, action, and more — that represent everything weird and wonderful about one of fiction's most satisfying (and challenging) genres.
<i>Dark City</i> (1998)
"When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?" It's such a chilling line, and one that teases the mysteries at the heart of Alex Proyas' masterful Dark City. Set in a murky metropolis that echoes the paintings of Edward Hopper, the film stars Rufus Sewell as a man who, after waking in a hotel bathtub with no memories, stumbles upon the puppet masters who have long manipulated his surroundings. The pale, floating beings are called Strangers and their goal is to rebuild their dying alien civilization by unlocking the secrets of the human soul via frequent experimentation. That means injecting their subjects with new memories and rebuilding the city to explore new possibilities. It's eerie, gripping stuff, a sci-fi noir that raises the biggest question of all: How much of our lives are truly ours?
Available on: Kanopy, Amazon
<i>The Fly</i> (1986)
The Fly is disgusting. It's also beautiful? Because you're rooting for Seth (Jeff Goldblum) and Ronnie (Geena Davis), and it's unfair that an errant fly joins Seth inside his new teleportation device, fundamentally altering his DNA and destroying his mind and body. People love to talk about David Cronenberg's penchant for body horror, but The Fly amounts to more than mere goopiness, serving as a gutting allegory for the ways physical and mental illness can ravage a relationship that was once beautiful.
Available on: Paramount+, Amazon
Made for just $7,000, Primer took home Sundance's Grand Jury Prize with what's got to be the most normcore depiction of time travel ever put to film. Writer, director, composer, editor, and star Shane Carruth elides exposition and layman's speak for realism, relying instead on scientific shorthand, technical jargon, and elliptical storytelling to spin this story of two not-so-eccentric engineers who somewhat accidentally invent a time machine. The 78-minute thriller is chilly and often opaque, but Carruth's narrative restraint allows the dread dripping from its philosophical implications to sink in that much deeper.
Available on: Amazon
Though the two filmmakers weren't fans of each other's meditative space epics, Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris both touch on a singular notion: What we perceive as reality on Earth takes on a different shape in space. In Solaris, a psychologist played by Donatas Banionis is sent to a space station orbiting a distant planet to diagnose whatever malady appears to have fallen upon its inhabitants. It isn't long before the strange affliction takes hold of him as well, spawning visions (or are they?) of his deceased former wife. Solaris demands patience from its viewer, but its philosophical explorations of human interiority and the manifestations of our most painful memories are deeply rewarding.
Available on: HBO Max, Criterion, Amazon Prime
<i>Back to the Future</i> (1985)
It's wild that Back to the Future is one of the most beloved movies of all time, one that families still gather around the TV to watch, given that its story centers on a teenager who unwittingly travels back in time only to threaten his existence after his mother gets intensely horny for him. In other hands, the uncomfortability would overwhelm, but Robert Zemeckis' clever, fleet-footed direction and Bob Gale's inventive yet impeccably structured script endear us immediately to this world and its eccentric characters. It's a shockingly emotional movie, using its time-hopping adventure to witness that pivotal moment when a child learns to see their parents as, well, people. And, like any time travel narrative, it touches on the fragility of our realities, the notion that our fates hinge on the smallest of moments. One small move and the entire house of cards collapses.
Available on: Amazon Prime
<i>The Day the Earth Stood Still</i> (1951)
To watch Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still today is to view it through the prism of film history; it's near-impossible for a modern audience to separate the movie (and Bernard Herrmann's score) from the iconography it helped popularize. Flying saucers, space lasers, hulking silver humanoids — to this day, they continue to manifest in homage, parody, art, and subversion. It's worth a revisit, though, as Wise's film, based on a short story by Harry Bates, remains an enduring (and fittingly cynical) work of satire. Nearly 75 years later, the thought of a unified front and nuclear disarmament remains as elusive as ever. Klaatu would stand even less of a chance.
Available on: Hoopla, Amazon
Set on a speeding train in a post-apocalyptic world undone by hubristic climate engineering, Snowpiercer's tale of class warfare is thrilling, bloody, and not quite what it seems. Directed by genre alchemist Bong Joon Ho, who would revisit similar themes a few years later with the Academy Award-winning Parasite, the film melds action with horror, humor, and a healthy dose of queasy drama. Chris Evans is as good as he's ever been as rebel leader Curtis, but Tilda Swinton steals the show as a toothy, grotesque spokesman for the upper crust.
Available on: Tubi, Amazon Prime
<i>Night of the Creeps</i> (1986)
Fred Dekker's cult favorite opens on some of cinema's goofiest-looking aliens before spiraling into a feverish homage to the B-movies of yesteryear. As hilarious as it is grotesque, Dekker uses its extraterrestrial threat as a springboard to a whole host of familiar horrors, from slack zombies and demon dogs to axe murderers and feather-haired frat bros. Horror legend Tom Atkins gets the best one-liners — "Thrill me" — and the chance to flex his flamethrowing skills. It's classic, Spanky.
Available on: Amazon Prime
<i>Dune: Part One</i> (2021)
Frank Herbert's Dune has bested not one, but two of cinema's best storytellers. David Lynch's '84 adaptation, though it has its defenders, was a critical and commercial dud, while Alejandro Jodorowsky crumbled beneath the weight of his own vision. In his adaptation of the first half of Herbert's novel, Denis Villeneuve opts for a sober approach that wisely emphasizes story and character over eccentricity. He also, though, understands that the grandeur of Herbert's vision is part of what makes Dune so uniquely, well, Dune. Everything from the architecture to the sandworms that swim through these sweeping desert vistas is as massive as the spice war's impact on the saga's political and religious machinations.
Available on: HBO Max
The Sun is dying and a bomb the size of Manhattan is all that can save it in this thrill ride from protean filmmaker Danny Boyle. Penned by Alex Garland, Sunshine transcends its sensational premise by grappling with how the vastness of space exposes the fallibility of man, forcing him to reckon with the prospect of an all-knowing creator. Boyle's dazzling, eye-melting direction finds beauty and terror in juxtaposing the smallness of man against the monolithic Sun.
Available on: Paramount+
Robert Zemeckis' ambitious adaptation of Carl Sagan's 1985 novel is that rarest of films: a philosophical blockbuster. Jodie Foster is steely yet open-hearted as Ellie Arroway, a scientist who discovers schematics for a single-occupant space vessel buried in transmissions from a distant star system. As the vessel is constructed and Ellie prepares for first contact, a stacked ensemble — Matthew McConaughey, Angela Bassett, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt — navigates the tensions between science and faith with charm and nuance. Zemeckis, meanwhile, balances the script's bigger questions with white-knuckle awe.
Available on: Hoopla
It's the endless expanse that sets the stage, the sense that, despite being surrounded by so much open space, there is absolutely nowhere to run. There's no dialogue for the first six minutes of Alien, nor is there music. It's just ambient sound, as cold and alienating as the crowded, grimy halls of the Nostromo, cinema's most notorious intergalactic haunted house. All the crew — an out-of-this-world ensemble consisting of Tom Skeritt, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, and, of course, Sigourney Weaver — has is each other, so when a worm bursts from their buddy's stomach and begins picking them off one by one, the ugly, pipe-strewn walls close in. Director Ridley Scott embraces the claustrophobia, embedding his Xenomorph into the fabric of the ship and, by extension, our nightmares.
Available on: Tubi
<i>The Empire Strikes Back</i> (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back didn't need to be this good. Even if director Irvin Kershner, working off a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, had recycled everything that made George Lucas' Star Wars such a hit, it still would've drawn audiences in droves. But Empire, the gold standard of a sequel that surpasses its predecessor, turns a potential franchise into an honest-to-goodness saga. As Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) comes into his own as a Jedi, Kershner guides us through fresh locales rich in potential lore, punishing snowscapes and colorful cloud cities, while Brackett and Kasdan complicate an otherwise simple story with conflicted notions of good and evil. There's also that twist and the downer of an ending that chases it; decades later, the franchise is still trying to recapture that magic.
Available on: Disney+
<i>Under the Skin</i> (2013)
In different hands, this stark and disquieting adaptation of Michel Faber's 2000 novel could have been an effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle. Jonathan Glazer, the English visionary behind Birth and Sexy Beast, saw a different story between the pages, one about a predatory alien's (Scarlett Johansson) drift towards empathy on a planet whose citizens are only growing more isolated. Mica Levi's violent, viola-forward score will give you nightmares.
Available on: Showtime, Kanopy
Sometimes you just want to see the strongest, sweatiest men get their asses handed to them by an alien. John McTiernan's beloved brawler stars a never better Arnold Schwarzenegger as the leader of a paramilitary rescue team sent to rescue hostages in a guerrilla-held territory of a Central American rainforest. There, flitting between the trees, is a humanoid creature with a plasma cannon and an invisibility cloak that proves more formidable than any guerilla grunt. Yeah, it's funny — "Stick around" and "Get to da choppa!" are all-time Arnold one-liners — but McTiernan gets his hands dirty, too, immersing us in the jungle's exotic terrors while building to a killer climax that strips away the technological frippery in favor of old-fashioned fisticuffs. Grisly, relentless, and dripping with machismo.
Available on: Tubi
Filmed before self-awareness defanged much of '50s sci-fi genre, Them! is a relic of the "nuclear monster" era that, nearly 70 years later, retains much of its original glow. Sure, it's about big ants terrorizing the States, but it's also about normal people grappling with their justified fears of a post-nuclear world in which everything they've come to know has been tainted and made dangerous. Those ideas ripple, but there's also a queasy revulsion baked into the idea that the pests we've spent much of our lives stomping could do the same to us.
Available on: IndieFlix, Amazon
<i>Ghost in the Shell</i> (1995)
James Cameron, whose fingerprints will forever be imprinted on modern sci-fi, called Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell "the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence." Anime stans will surely take issue with such a sweeping statement, but his endorsement speaks to both the film's crossover appeal and the magnetism of its ideas. It follows Motosko Kusanagi, a cyborg public security agent in 2029 Japan, as she pursues a hacker known as the Puppet Master, but the film isn't about the hacker's threat so much as our fear of it. What happens when technology overwhelms humanity? Is it to be feared or embraced?
Available on: Roku
<i>Close Encounters of the Third Kind</i> (1977)
There's plenty of jokes to be made at the expense of Roy Neary, the UFO obsessive played by Richard Dreyfuss in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He abandons his wife and family for aliens! What a dad! But isn't this what makes Spielberg's movie so interesting, the idea that mysteries are sometimes so compelling that one can't help but chase them to the outer reaches? Like so many films on this list, it's a testament to the lure of science fiction, to a reality that exists outside society's portrait of a life well lived.
Available on: Amazon Prime, Vudu
<i>Blade Runner: The Final Cut</i> (1982)
Pluck any quote from the mouth of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty and you'll land upon a classic. "It's not an easy thing to meet your maker," for instance. He speaks as a human-engineered replicant, of course, but try turning that concept back on ourselves—what would we do if we met our creator? The ideas overflow in Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece, a flop upon its release that, after receiving numerous director's cuts, has firmly planted itself in the cultural consciousness. But it's not all philosophy; Blade Runner is a spectacle, its choked, dystopian, post-capitalist cityscapes growing more and more familiar as the years pass. The film's exquisite clutter extends to its eccentric ensemble, a collection of enigmas that brim with weariness and wonder.
Available on: HBO Max, Netflix
Though very different movies, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker shares with his previous Solaris a concern with the otherworldly as it impacts the imperfect soul of man. Dense and dogged in its philosophical exploration, the film follows a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) as an oddball known as the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) guides them through a mysterious, perilous, and heavily guarded site ominously called the "Zone." There, beyond a wasteland that can't help but summon visions of nuclear fallout, lies a room that's said to grant a person's innermost desires. It's this grand notion of human desire that's interrogated across the film, and while Tarkovsky offers no simple conclusions, it's the accumulation of the debate that lingers, that longing to know ourselves.
Available on: HBO Max, Criterion
<i>Starship Troopers</i> (1997)
Fascist imagery and thudding allusions to World War II-era propaganda films permeate Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, but because the provocative Dutch filmmaker didn't explicitly spell out his satire, it went over the heads of many upon its release. But time has been good to the action-comedy, perhaps because its gleefully cynical portrait of nationalism and a war-hungry populace would resonate that much more in the years following 9/11 and the Iraq War. That said, those interested in the simpler pleasures of watching bugs go splat will also find plenty to like, from its gnarly, goo-slinging action set pieces to CGI effects that stand up to today's technology.
Available: Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max, Tubi
One of the first feature-length science-fiction movies doubles as one of the most influential films of all time. Fritz Lang's stunning Metropolis unfolds in a futuristic urban dystopia, one heavily influenced by Art Deco architecture and flooded with Biblical imagery, where the rich live carefree lives above ground while workers toil below. It's the son of the city's leader, who has fallen for a working-class woman, that hopes to bring unity between the classes, a notion so naive that Lang himself scoffed at it in his later years. Still, the film's primitive effects dazzle to this day, as does the sweep of its imposing cityscape.
Available on: Roku, Hoopla, Kanopy, Flix Fling
<i>Galaxy Quest</i> (1999)
One of the first comedies to pay homage to the legion of sci-fi diehards that flooded the early internet, Dean Parisot's hilarious Galaxy Quest stars Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver as the senescent stars of a bygone Star Trek-like phenomenon who are unwittingly swept up in an honest-to-God sci-fi adventure. Thinking Allen's Jason Nesmith and Weaver's Gwen DeMarco are really the characters they play on TV, the intergalactic Thermians are relying on these conceited actors to save them from an all-too-real adversary. By positing the aliens as fans and offering these performers a real moment to be heroes, Galaxy Quest both satirizes and celebrates fandom, acknowledging the genuine impact fictional touchstones ultimately have on their most devoted consumers.
Available on: Amazon
<i>The Terminator</i> (1984)
The "unkillable killer" is a given by this point in genre filmmaking, but the sci-fi staple —think of The Day the Earth Stood Still's Gort— cemented its place in modern action cinema with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose massive, marbled physique may as well have been carved in another dimension. It's difficult to imagine anyone but the Governator playing the namesake in James Cameron's breakthrough blockbuster, which pits Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and a time-traveling soldier (Michael Biehn) against a relentless cyborg assassin (Schwarzenegger) that slaughters without thought or remorse. It's thin gruel, but Cameron's eye for carnage is as poetic as his humor is wry. It's chaos that winks, a blueprint for many a cinephile's favorite era of action filmmaking.
Available on: Amazon Prime, Roku, Hoopla, Tubi
<i>E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial</i> (1982)
Who needs adults? E.T. is a marvel of popular genre — a vibrant, sweet, funny, and magical movie. But one of director Steven Spielberg's most inspired choices is to cloak many of the film's authority figures (parents, teachers, government stooges) in shadow and silhouette. Why? Because a leathery little scamp like E.T. is lovable only in the uninhibited mind of a child; fear, distrust, and paranoia are born of experience and disappointment. It's not that adults are evil in the world of E.T., it's just that their curiosity isn't rooted in compassion. Why help a creature phone home when there's use for him here? Kids don't think that way. E.T. doesn't, either.
Available on: Amazon
<i>The Thing</i> (1982)
Though reviled upon release, John Carpenter's vicious remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World, itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There?, has established itself as one of the genre's most inventive, resonant, and gut-churning visions. Kurt Russell stars as MacReady, one of a handful of American researchers in Antarctica who encounter an alien parasite with an uncanny ability to infest and imitate its host. And while the assimilation process is plenty frightening in itself — the memes flood social media to this day — it's the ensuing paranoia that pervades, dividing this tiny community with an escalating litany of fears that mirrors any number of political and spiritual obsessions.
Available on: Amazon
<i>Planet of the Apes</i> (1968)
If concerns about white nationalism and immigration have taught us anything over the last several decades, it's that white Anglo-Saxons are increasingly scared of losing their status as the dominant force in the United States. Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes satirizes that anxiety, telling the story of an astronaut (Charlton Heston) who crash-lands on a planet in which apes are the dominant species, having adopted a human-like intelligence and speech, only to discover that (gasp!) the planet is a future version of the Earth he's always known. It's been parodied time and again — most hilariously as a musical on The Simpsons — but the film remains an entertaining and well-constructed adventure, a hair above the numerous sequels and spin-offs it spawned.
Available on: Criterion, Tubi, IndieFlix
<i>WALL-E </i> (2008)
Pixar's ninth feature begins by indulging our most cynical fears: The world as we know it will one day be overrun by garbage, undone by corporate monopolization. A touch rich coming from a Disney-owned company? Sure, but WALL-E's heart is in the right place, its story of an adorable trash-collecting robot alerting young viewers to the perils of environmental disregard and unchecked human consumption. Director Andrew Stanton treats his youthful audience as equals, elevating the animation with complex shots that mimic live-action cinematography and allowing them to unfold across long stretches that feature not a single line of dialogue.
Available on: Disney+
<i>Invasion of the Body Snatchers</i> (1978)
Yeah, it's a remake, but Philip Kaufman's spin on Don Siegel's 1956 film (and Jack Finney's 1955 novel) trades Cold War anxiety for post-Vietnam paranoia in ways that strengthen and sharpen the source material. The plot is more or less the same: A Bay Area health inspector (Donald Sutherland) discovers humans are being replaced by alien duplicates that possess none of the pesky emotions that make life lovely and unbearable. A blessing, perhaps? It was hard not to live in a state of distrust following Vietnam, Watergate, Chappaquiddick, and the assassinations of JFK and RFK. The true horror of Kaufman's Invasion, though, is that acquiescence gives way to McCarthyism; in conformity, old friends become new enemies. Also, what's the deal with that Robert Duvall cameo?
Available on: Amazon Prime
<i>2001: A Space Odyssey</i> (1968)
Like so many of the best films on this list, 2001 feels alien. It has shape, weight, and a clear sense of itself. We leave it knowing we've seen something truly awesome, even if we can't quite articulate what exactly we saw. Stanley Kubrick's dizzying achievement towers in the pantheon of film like the monolith that beguiles its cast, a lush and indelible exploration of ideas that, more than a half-decade later, continue to fascinate: artificial intelligence, space exploration, the evolution of consciousness. So, too, do its audio and visual elements: the awe-inducing blare of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," the space station's humbling grandeur, and the lonely drift of an unleashed astronaut, lost to the cosmos. One of a kind in any genre.
Available on: HBO Max