There are more than a few bona fide science fiction film classics that everyone has seen, but for the most part, much of the genre’s best offerings have only been watched by a select few. The vast offerings of sci-fi encompass a litany of beloved cult classics.
Let’s see if we can expand some horizons and run through the greatest of them all, ranked by Rotten Tomatoes critic’s scores. (A note: ties were broken by overall audience scores.)
25. The Blob (1958)
Widely remembered as one of the genre’s early B-movies, the original The Blob film depicts teenagers in a small Pennsylvania town who are up against a growing alien substance that landed on Earth in a meteorite.
Starring a young Steve McQueen in his first leading role, the film is a classic to many a genre-fiend. There have been talks of a future remake (beyond the unnecessary 1988 version), but only time will tell.
24. Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers is a triumph of text versus subtext, as Paul Verhoeven uses a rah-rah science fiction setup to satirize the fascism inherent in our society and especially, our wars. The story focuses on a graduating group of friends heading off to war, an essential rite of passage in their militaristic society.
The surface level story revolves around the soap opera-esque shuffling between relationships and a simplistic war against a race of alien bugs. But a closer look reveals a world of disturbing implications, defined by and dependent upon perpetual war (sound familiar?) and xenophobia that is controlled by government-approved media releases.
Neil Patrick Harris is a highlight — and one of the only cast members who seems to be aware of the film’s subtext — as a friend who disappears for much of the film, only to resurface as a Himmler-esque evil scientist.
23. Logan’s Run (1976)
Hundreds of years in the future, overpopulation is such that no one is allowed to live past their 30th birthday. Or, that’s the idea of Logan’s Run, a film about a sandman who “puts people to sleep,” and his choice to flee the dystopian society he is a vital part of when he is forced to face his own mortality.
The film features several scenes that can only be described as hokey, but the underlying messages of sexual freedom and youth-oriented culture are intriguing. Overall, the movie manages to be both entertaining and meaningful, making it timeless.
22. Barbarella (1968)
Whether or not you enjoy Barbarella depends on a few factors. On the surface, it’s a campy, directionless flick thats primary focus is showing you how sexy the main character is. Even at the time, there were critics who deemed it sexist.
But in retrospect, it’s a time capsule of the mod era. Jane Fonda’s eponymous space heroine could now almost be considered a parody of how men see women in lead roles. And the effects are cheesy, yes, but a cheesy visual feast at that.
21. The Thing (1982)
Audiences at the time of The Thing’s release were more interested in cuddly aliens like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. than they were in monstrous, shape-shifting ones, which explains the critical and commercial failure of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Thankfully, viewers have rediscovered the film, which stands as one of the greatest horror and science fiction films.
An Antarctic outpost of men struggles to identify and destroy an alien that can assume the form and personality of any living thing it consumes. The men, led by a never-better Kurt Russell, act competently in facing the threat, making it all the more terrifying when they can’t stop it.
There’s mounds of existential tension and paranoid distrust to go around in the icy and isolated setting. Carpenter knows how to play off the tension brilliantly, using some of the most tactile and creatively terrifying practical effects in cinema history, courtesy of Rob Bottin.
20. They Live (1988)
With They Live, director John Carpenter transformed the goofy visuals and themes of beloved ‘50s sci-fi films into something quintessentially ‘80s, substituting Reagan-era corporatism for communism. Roddy Piper’s grizzled drifter discovers a mysterious pair of sunglasses that allows him to perceive the disturbing messages behind advertisements and the inhuman monsters beneath the fancy suits of the rich and powerful.
The film has a campy streak a mile wide and includes one of the most grueling, needlessly lengthy fight sequences of all time, but the humor doesn’t distract from the film’s scathing central message against consumerism. Carpenter deftly uses genre conventions to explicitly critique American society as he saw it, a world wherein a self-serving upper class holds all the power and the lower classes are turned into mindless, idle consumers.
Science fiction has always allowed subversive statements to reach the masses, and Carpenter uses it to savage the realities of the present world. RIP Roddy Piper.
19. Donnie Darko (2001)
The young stars of 2001’s Donnie Darko have gone on to do very well, but many are still remembered for their role in this beloved, yet underperforming, sci-fi cult classic.
The film’s eponymous teenager has a premonition that the world will end in less than a month. Over the next few weeks, Donnie learns about time travel, while his family grows concerned about his seemingly delusional behavior.
Young people especially found the film’s theme of finding your place in a dark world to be captivating, along with the strong visuals and remarkable performances featured.
18. Battle Royale (2000)
This futuristic and dark Japanese film is often referenced when describing the plot of The Hunger Games franchise. It’s understandable, as the concept is very similar: Teenagers are forced to “play a game” and fight to the death until only one remains.
Due to its graphic nature, Battle Royale was never officially released in the U.S. Despite the controversy it brought, American critics praised the film for its social commentary and gripping narrative. Even its fighting scenes are highly regarded, with acclaimed action director Quentin Tarantino citing it as a great inspiration of his.
17. RoboCop (1987)
Described as a “cyberpunk action film,” ‘80s classic RoboCop sees a police officer who is killed in a violent dystopian future. He is then “recreated” as a robot using the technology of a major corporation that has taken control of the police.
Like most of the other films on this list, this thriller is a lot more than meets the eye. The themes of corporations controlling our government and the fear of technology taking over are obvious, but deeper than that are issues that are consistently relevant, including masculine identity, gentrification, and human nature as a whole.
16. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis star in 12 Monkeys, a dark, sci-fi time travel film that explores the parameters of reality. In the year 2035, a prisoner is selected for a dangerous mission: To travel back to 1996 and get ahold of the virus. However, he ends up in 1990, and is treated as a mental patient.
The film jumps back and forth in time, but coherence is held together by Willis as James Cole. The film was a box-office success, and even spawned a TV series on the Syfy network.
15. Moon (2009)
Despite a robot companion and old recordings of his family, Sam Rockwell is the only truly human presence in Duncan Jones’ existential 2009 film about an astronaut counting the hours until his three years of solitude are up and he can return home.
It’s nearly impossible to say anything further about the film’s plot without spoiling something. Rockwell is brilliant, as always, imbuing a touch of his comedic talents as a truly desperate and lonely man reaching the end of his rope. The production design creates a convincing space station while the cinematography accentuates the soul-crushing loneliness of the location.
There’s an original story to be told here, and Jones is smart enough to use it to raise some of the most worthwhile questions in sci-fi history. What makes us human? Do we have any purpose, or must we create our own? Most importantly, why aren’t there more movies like this?
14. Blade Runner (1982)
Set in 2019, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi action flick Blade Runner suffered from classic cult-hit syndrome. It was misunderstood by many critics, did poorly at the box office, but was later recognized for its powerful themes and fully realized dystopian world.
The film stars Harrison Ford, a “Blade Runner” who tracks down and “kills” replicants — which are bioengineered beings that are easily mistaken for humans. What many find most appealing is the way in which the film spans genres: There are concrete film noir elements, as well as typical science fiction themes, such as the consequences of developing technology.
Since its release, Blade Runner has collected unique accolades such as inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry, being deemed visually influential by the Visual Effects Society, and was rated the top sci-fi film by a poll of actual scientists back in 2004. Its permanence in popular culture prompted a 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
13. Mad Max (1979)
Long before Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron embarked on Mad Max: Fury Road, Mel Gibson starred in the original Mad Max. A story about an Australian cop who will stop at nothing to take down an insane motorcycle gang, the film is often best remembered for its powerfully dramatic visuals utilizing practical stunts.
The film’s dark tone, mostly silent hero, and dystopian look at humanity were all equally important to its success, which led to it becoming the most profitable film of all time, a distinction it held for 20 years. Mad Max’s cultural significance and improbable success is surely what led to the remake, which updated the original material while still holding on to the things that made it great.
12. The Dead Zone (1983)
Acclaimed horror filmmaker David Cronenberg is one of many who has elected the difficult task of adapting a Stephen King novel. The Dead Zone is a remarkable adaptation, telling the story of a man who awakes from an accident to discover that he has psychic abilities, which he uses to change the future.
The science fiction concept is grounded with performances from Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. While not overtly a horror flick, the movie allows the viewer to see a darker side of the psyche. Even King himself was reportedly happy with the end result.
11. Galaxy Quest (1999)
While many films within this genre have comedic elements, Galaxy Quest is first a comedy, then a sci-fi flick. Drawing inspiration from Trekkies and the influx of nerd culture in the ‘90s, the movie depicts the cast of a former popular Star Trek-like series who are abducted by actual aliens in need of their help. The group are forced to use skills they don’t have to save the day.
The actors we know now are delightful as has-been performers, with an all-star group including Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and the late Alan Rickman. While it did relatively well at the box office, Galaxy Quest’s true claim to fame is its cult status as a beloved parody.
10. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The original film that has sparked numerous sequels, remakes, and reboots, Planet of the Apes is considered a classic in the sci-fi genre. Lauded for both its visuals and its brutal look at humanity’s evolution (or lack thereof).
Crash landing on a planet 2000 years in the future, a group of astronauts discover one striking difference between this world and the one they know: Apes are the intelligent leaders of society, and humans are their slaves. The chilling final reveal of the film is one of the most memorable and meaningful of any before or since, and fans of The Twilight Zone wouldn’t be shocked to learn that creator Rod Serling wrote a draft of the screenplay.
9. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Cult films are known for often being a little strange, but Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange blows all of them out of the water. Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, the film depicts a dystopian London in which the leader of a gang is captured and tortured in an attempt to rehabilitate his proclivities toward “ultra-violence.”
Dealing with themes such as morality and behaviorism, the film is remembered as a classic, despite its excessive violence and original X MPAA rating. It remains timeless due to its commentary on teen rebellion and totalitarianism.
8. The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg has long been held as a modern master of body horror and oozing practical effects, but who knew he was a master of tragedy as well? The Fly is his most commercially successful film and likely the most deeply felt.
Jeff Goldblum plays a likeably nerdy scientist who finds love with journalist Geena Davis. They have a brilliant on-screen chemistry that cements the tragedy to come. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, in a moment of weakness, tests his teleportation device on himself and in doing so fuses his own DNA with a housefly. Brundle tries to refuse the process, but his fate is sealed.
The film isn’t about his struggles to live, but about the crushing pain of watching a loved one deteriorate into something unrecognizable. The sci-fi story may revolve around a monstrous mutated man-fly, but Cronenberg uses it to tap into something heartbreaking and human.
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers has been remade time and time again. Though the McCarthyism-era 1950s film was the most topical and timely adaptation, the ‘70s remake may have the original beat in terms of plain quality.
Donald Sutherland leads a stellar cast of San Franciscans slowly noticing the ways the people around them are beginning to change somehow, as though they are no longer themselves. Leonard Nimoy often steals the show as a psychologist soothsayer, and a young Jeff Goldblum radiates resentment as a writer with a chip on his shoulder.
The film is stunningly well crafted as both a technical exercise and as a story. It’s a masterwork of mounting and inescapable dread as our protagonists realize they alone can’t fight this forcible conformity. The danger escalates and escalates without release until it finally ends with a single image and sound effect more terrifying than the entirety of most horror films.
6. Re-Animator (1985)
Darkly comedic in nature, this feature film follows a Frankenstein-like premise: The brilliant doctor Herbert West, who discovers a reagent to bring the dead back to life, moves in with an ordinary med student, Dan Cain. Soon, Dan and his fiancee Megan, are wrapped up in West’s disturbing experiments.
With the feel of a B-horror flick, the science fiction element falls by the wayside, as the screams and gory effects become more important to the story than the practicality of such a “cure.” Still, it’s easy to see why this movie has become a cult classic — it’s a simple, entertaining watch, perfect for re-airing annually on Halloween.
5. Snowpiercer (2013)
With almost all of his films, Bong Joon-ho uses dark humor and political satire to subvert the expectations of Hollywood genre films. Snowpiercer sees him injecting a bit of cynicism and surrealism into a classic dystopian setup. It’s a messy film full of ideas and amazingly realized set pieces that refuses to conform to expectations.
With the help of a high-ranking hostage (Tilda Swinton) and a Korean lock-picking specialist (Song Kang-ho), Curtis (Chris Evans, subverting his own all-American hero persona) leads the have-nots in a rebellion to take control of a speeding train that contains the only human survivors of an apocalyptic global warming experiment.
Most directors would opt for the obvious happy ending, but Joon-ho refuses to make things easy on his characters and audience. The result is a head scratcher of a science fiction film, populated by fascinating characters, visually rich symbolism, and a whole lot of moral gray area.
4. Alien (1979)
Few sci-fi series have had the impact of the Alien franchise, which all began with the original in 1979. Ridley Scott’s tale of a space crew that encounters alien life and must fight for their lives has gone down in history as culturally significant, and spawned a phenomenon that continues to this day.
While the screen is shared by many, the hero of the story is Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, hailed by many as the first true feminist heroine of modern cinema. It would be hard to overstate the impact of Ripley and the series: Not only did the original and its sequel, Aliens, earn multiple Oscars each, but arguably every genre film since has been at least partially influenced by Scott’s world.
3. Repo Man (1984)
With such a title, it’s hard to imagine that Repo Man could be a sci-fi flick, let alone one of cult status. But despite its relative anonymity outside of the genre, the Emilio Estevez-led picture has been praised many times over.
The simple premise follows Estevez’s Otto as he accepts a job as a repossession agent, and his life is complicated by the arrival of a car that is a lot more than it seems. With a fitting punk rock soundtrack and Los Angeles setting, this movie is little more than a fun adventure, but that’s really all it aims to be.
2. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Forbidden Planet looks like a relic through modern eyes, with its clunky robotic designs, cheap powder blue spacesuits, and shiny steel saucer spacecraft, but it was a forward-thinking revelation upon its release. It’s the first film to show humans traveling in a spaceship of their own creation, and one of the first to have an almost entirely electronic score.
Pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen stars as a no-nonsense spaceship commander who crash lands on a planet inhabited only by a suspicious father and his flirtatious daughter. If only for its era-defining production design, experimental score, and animated effects, Forbidden Planet has secured its place in film history.
What truly elevates it to classic status is its central idea, one of sci-fi’s most essential themes, elucidated in the climax: No matter how brilliant and technologically advanced humans may become, we’ll always be haunted by the animal within us, by “monsters from the id.”
1. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam perfected his blend of comedy and surrealist nightmare with this ruthless dystopian film, which came out a year after the setting of its obvious inspiration, George Orwell’s 1984. Gilliam isn’t as interested in an all-knowing evil, but instead focuses on a banal sort of evil founded on bureaucratic incompetence. The oppressively gray film is nonetheless filled with visual panache, with stress-inducing wide-angle shots and striking visual imagery like a man being literally consumed by paperwork.
Despite the obvious comedic instincts of Gilliam, a former member of Monty Python, Brazil ranks as one of the angriest and most depressing films ever made — no wonder Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg tried to cut the film’s downer ending. It falters in trying to deal with romance, but its retro-futuristic vision of an industrialized world wherein creativity is stifled and simple tasks are made impossible by irresponsible officials remains relevant more than 30 years later.
Additional reporting by Becca Bleznak.
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