Is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, or an overhyped, overlong, and largely pointless visit to the far-flung reaches of space? Few films are as debated and discussed as this one. That goes standard with most of Kubrick’s films, but A Space Odyssey is something else altogether.
Despite the fact that this is very much a movie, and an extraordinary one at that, 2001 has a tendency to feel like an actual being. You don’t watch this movie, so much as you simply let it grab you by the wrist and pull you slowly into an abyss, one which heaves with the faintest possibility of stars on the other side.
Watch if: You want to get that song stuck in your head. Avoid if: You don’t have at least 3 hours to kill.
7. World on a Wire (1973)
Over a career that lasted less than 20 years, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed an astonishing 40 feature films, among other projects. World on a Wire, originally released as a two-part miniseries, might be one of the most accessible films in the library of one of the most controversial filmmakers who ever lived.
In broad terms, World on a Wire is about the potential of reality. Specifically, it is about the potential for more than one. That will be one of the few things that comes easily with watching this 205-minute titan. World on a Wire is dry humor and terrifying possibilities, combined with great performances from its cast. Eddie Constantine shows up on our list again, although this time in a much smaller role.
Watch if: You want to lose touch with reality for a while. Avoid if: You like your science fiction neat and tidy.
8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Whether you like his work or not, few filmmakers have shaped science fiction as Steve Spielberg has. His best sci-fi movies are a singular combination of countless influences.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes some of the basic concepts of The Day the Earth Stood Still, adds longer character studies, and puts the whole thing under a considerably brighter light than most movies about alien visitors.
The ending of this film remains a spectacle of the greatest order, but the journey that gets us to that point is pretty remarkable in its own right.
Watch if: You’d like to see more movies with aliens who aren’t dicks. Avoid if: You can’t really imagine a positive outcome to close encounters of any kind.
9. Blade Runner (1982)
Any conversation about science fiction should at least mention author Phillip K. Dick. While director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford (as well as breakout performances from Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, and Sean Young) take Dick’s story in a fairly different direction, the desperation and loathing inherent in humanity’s creations is a consistent theme.
Blade Runner is as beautiful as it is tragic. While the movie’s aesthetics and soundtrack are iconic nowadays, there is also a great story, unique pacing, and career-defining performances from the cast.
Watch if: You want to see a vision of the future you can truly believe. Avoid if: You hate it when movies take a while to get to the point.
Quite possibly the best movie about time travel that has ever, or will ever, be made. Back to the Future is so pleasing, it’s understandable why some found the sequels, as entertaining as they are, to be a little overwhelming. Back to the Future never delves too deeply or darkly into the story of a teen who is transported back to the 1955 via a DeLorean.
It simply powers through on the enthusiasm of a legendary cast, particularly Michael J. Fox as the teenager who finds himself stuck in a bygone era. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt either. There is also something to be said for the best-case scenario of any occasion in which we start screwing around with the timeline.
Watch if: You want to get Huey Lewis stuck in your head. Avoid if: Unintentional almost-incest makes you feel weird.
11. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Why has every sequel in this franchise since T2 maintained a consistency of being largely disappointing? It is probably because Terminator 2: Judgment Day was indeed the final word on these characters and this universe.
The movie shifts Arnold Schwarzenegger from killer cyborg to protector, pitting him against a superior machine (the endlessly awesome Robert Patrick) with early-90s Los Angeles as their battleground. You also get Linda Hamilton as a Sarah Connr without equal.
Watch if: You want to watch, quite possibly, the greatest action movie of all time. Avoid if: You have a low threshold for grating pubescents.
12. The Matrix (1999)
Forget about the sequels. While the movie can’t help but feel slightly dated, or at least odd, since its style was copied and ripped off literally hundreds of times after its release, The Matrix is still one of the all-time greats.
It gives Keanu Reeves a vehicle that works well for his stoicism and quiet fury, and it tells a story that explodes into an even bigger universe within our imaginations. The fight scenes hold up extremely well, and it’s pretty difficult on the whole to not get pulled in by the ferocious energy the Wachowski sisters brought to their most famous work.
Watch if: You want to see some pretty impressive fight scenes. Avoid if: You’re worried you might be tempted to see the sequels.
Science fiction and anime work well together. There are dozens of examples of this fact in feature films alone. While Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is not the most famous anime movie of all time, it is nonetheless one of the most incredible achievements in animation history, and one of the best sci-fi movies as well as a result.
A sprawling story of realities, madness, dreams, and desire, Paprika is a dazzling descent into overwhelming sights and sounds. Some swear Christopher Nolan ripped this movie off for key scenes in Inception.
Watch if: You want to sink into a world of danger and wonder. Avoid if: You’re having enough trouble with reality as it is.
14. Children of Men (2006)
Few visions of the future are as bleak as this unsettling depiction of the world in 2027. As our own actual future seems to be in constant doubt, it is easy to be wrapped up in something that feels real in every sense of the word.
Children of Men isn’t just depressing. It is a suffocating, hopeless conversation about the days to come. The scariest part? The way things are going, a timeline like this could be taken as a best-case scenario.
Watch if: You really want to see Clive Owen struggle against an impossible tide of biology and fascism. Avoid if: You don’t want to be depressed for the rest of the week.
15. Ex Machina (2014)
Beyond a haunting, uncomfortable performance by Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina gets into some pretty heady topics as one of the best sci-fi movies around. Some would argue it’s a bit high-minded, but there is no question that Ex Machina explores some essential topics, including evolution, the relationship of humanity to machines, and what that means to the relationship humanity shares with itself.
Ex Machina also offers some of the most quietly impressive visuals and special effects in recent memory. It is a striking indication that much like the horror genre, science fiction will likely never run out of things to say.
Watch if: You’re pretty sure people are never going to not suck. Avoid if: You don’t like a whole lot of philosophy in your science fiction.