Listing fifteen of the best sci-fi movies is another drop in the bucket for a genre with ties to the birth of film. Still, within just fifteen sci-fi films, we can see the extraordinary versatility of the concept.
One of the best things about science fiction as a movie genre is the enormous potential to screw around with things. Without getting into a serious debate about the qualifications of a sci-fi movie, we can at least agree on some basics. Science fiction can emphasize the science, focus on the fiction, or endeavor to walk the nearly-non-existent line between both of those concepts. Advances in science and/or technology are standard. You may or may not leave the planet to run into some aliens, which almost never seems to work out.
Occasionally, of course, the bastards can also come to us.
Science fiction can be audacious in showing us the future. It can be terrifying in its ability to depict worlds shifted by massive social or environmental changes. Science fiction also loves to make use of time travel.
A good sci-fi movie doesn’t have to have all these elements. It doesn’t have to be pure horror, or deeply depressing. Science fiction can express frustration, joy, and our endless fascination with things that can probably kill us. We aren’t really built to last, but we can’t stop wanting to push that to the limit in one way or another. That is just one of the many themes you can find in dozens upon dozens of dramatically varied science fiction movies.
While we can’t celebrate all of them, we can move through a history that dates back to 1895. That was the year in which La Charcuterie mécanique was released by the Lumière Brothers. Many would argue that is the first science fiction film. There have been hundreds released since. Like horror, science fiction is a durable genre. It isn’t always fashionable, but it’s never not present. Sometimes, science fiction elements can exist without the audience at large even realizing it.
Those movies, as well as many others, can be found along this chronological ranking of the fifteen best science fiction movies ever made. And just so no one gets upset down the road, the list is avoiding the following:
1. Star Trek 2. Star Wars 3. Superheroes
I like all those things, but I also feel like movies from any of those categories could very easily dominate a list of the best sci-fi movies. To be sure, we have some of the greats here, but hopefully there are at least a couple you’re just now hearing about.
The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time
1. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Directed by the legendary film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is in fact a short film. While I haven’t said so, these lists tend to stick with feature-length releases. In this case, an exception must be made to this unspoken rule.
A Trip to the Moon is special. It is one of the most influential movies of all time. You can find that influence, as well as Méliès’ intoxicating desire to invent and explore, in tens of thousands of films. Not just science fiction either. Even if you don’t care about history, A Trip to the Moon remains weird and wondrous.
Watch if: You want to see where it basically all started. Avoid if: Silent films, even short ones, make you sleepy and/or confused and/or angry.
2. Metropolis (1927)
Another example of science fiction paving the way for the human imagination, as far as filmmaking is concerned, Metropolis is a dizzying assault of surreal visuals and extraordinary ideas. It tells the story of a glorious, futuristic society that is powered by people forced to toil beneath paradise.
If that story sounds familiar, it’s because that plot has been utilized a number of times over the years. Metropolis is worth watching for its visual brilliance, but it should also be appreciated for what it means to not only science fiction movie history, but movie history in general. Despite many imitators/remakes/tributes, few have the spectacle of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Considering the movie is 92 freaking years old, that is awfully impressive.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most visually-arresting films ever made. Avoid if: You skipped A Trip to the Moon for the crime of being a silent movie.
3. The Invisible Man (1933)
Even after 86 years, 1933’s The Invisible Man remains the best film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel. A lot of that comes from Claude Rains as the titular invisible man, but don’t forget this was also directed by James Whale. The man who also directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein for Universal gives this movie a sardonic wit, combined with genuine tension.
The special effects hold up nicely, as well, although one might describe them as minimal. Look for a damn-near strapping John Carradine in an early bit role.
Watch if: You want to see one of the coolest science fiction movies of all time. Avoid if: You prefer to see your protagonists.
With sophisticated, genuinely disconcerting gems like The Day the Earth Stood Still, it isn’t hard to see why the 1950s are now regarded as a golden age for science fiction. Like a lot of genre films from this period, the film uses science fiction to make some fairly strong political arguments, particularly with regards to the subject of xenophobia.
As one is impressed by the still-potent visuals and performances of this film, keep in mind that the movie is very clear on its view of humanity. We want to explore, but we also don’t want to deal with anything we don’t understand. It is a mentality that has cost us unmeasurable progress.
Watch if: You want to see a true classic in science fiction film history. Avoid if: You don’t want to be extremely depressed afterwards.
5. Alphaville (1965)
In the long, varied, and endlessly weird career of French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Goddard, Alphaville might be the auteur’s most wacked-out effort of all time. Alphaville is strange and relentless. It also has a sense of humor that is quite possibly too depressing even for the gallows. At the same time, it is also so absurd, one can’t help but laugh at times.
Alphaville features pitch-perfect performances from Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina, as they try to make something of their glossy, dystopian surroundings. Alphaville also uses elements of noir films to create a sense of dread that comes from a place of the truly unknown. Oddly enough, the movie suggests on several occasions that the unknown is an entity unto itself. Existing all around us, it is constantly hungry.
Watch if: You want to see some strange, strange stuff. Avoid if: You have a mini-stroke every time you encounter a foreign language.