The science-fiction genre is as expansive as the galaxy. Ever since the age when technology meant little more than a lensed metal tube that could peer into the sky, we've used technological advances to realize our dreams and nightmares. Now a model spaceship or two can turn a Western into a sci-fi classic; an experimental process is all a romantic drama needs to become far-thinking speculative fiction.
That's why ranking the best sci-fi movies of all time is a difficult, even dangerous task. There's a good chance your favorite movie isn't on this list, or isn't ranked high enough for your taste. Many massively successful spectacles, such as Avatar, didn't make the cut. Other films, like District 9, boast excellent, even ground-breaking, effects, but didn't quite make the top 33. While you'll find multiple entries from a particularly notable director -- come on, pick one Spielberg sci-fi movie? -- there's only a single installment from any given franchise. And it might just be that I don't think your fave should be considered science fiction. The 33 films that follow are the best of the bunch -- at least in this reality.
33. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
David Bowie was dealing with the depths of his cocaine addiction when he tackled his first starring role in this tale of an alien who arrives on Earth looking for water to replenish his drought-ravaged planet. The gig was in line with Bowie's other intergalactic leanings, including his song "Space Oddity" and the concept of Ziggy Stardust, but Nicolas Roeg's chilly, gorgeous movie is even weirder and more inscrutable than the late singer's most eclectic jams. That sense of distance only enhances this portrait of an alienated alien; the film is as otherworldly as the character it creates.
32. Primer (2004)
This head-spinning time-travel tale focuses on two friends who stumble-build a machine that can send objects back in time. Soon they're throwing themselves in time loops, stock tips in hand, just to make a few bucks. Personal desires complicate what could be a basic get-rich-quick scheme, while nested time loops create multiple versions of each guy. Fans have made charts to keep track of all Primer's weird details, but even casual viewers will see this street-level head trip as proof of what a determined filmmaker like director Shane Carruth can do with very little.
31. Moon (2009)
The attention-getting debut from Warcraft director Duncan Jones is basically a one-man show for star Sam Rockwell, who plays the lone operator of a moon-based mining outpost. Nearing the end of his three-year shift, the guy starts to have problems. Not just the loneliness and stunning boredom you'd expect from solo life on the moon; more like big fractures in his life, which reveal far more troubling facts about his existence. The brilliant Rockwell is aided by the voice of Kevin Spacey as the outpost's AI helper, and by a minimal but effective score from Clint Mansell. Facing death alone on a cold rock in space shouldn't be this appealing.
30. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Before Sam Rockwell ever got there, our closest celestial neighbor took a shot in the eye in the first-ever science-fiction film. In this flat-out weird movie, a bunch of bearded old dudes (OK, fine, the "Astronomic Club") send a rickety ship straight to the moon, which is crawling with insectoid aliens. The quirky, colorful, hand-painted images from director Georges Méliès turn this Jules Verne-inspired story into a bizarre satirical storybook that pokes fun at 1900-era science, and the colonialist tendencies of the day.
29. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
A year ago, this spot probably would have gone to the second Mad Max movie, The Road Warrior, but that was before Fury Road defied all expectations with its commanding action sequences and the resounding appeal of determined War Rig driver, Furiosa. Franchise director George Miller returns to his ideas of wasteland denizens scrabbling for survival years after wars over oil, this time to tear down images of sexual subjugation and discrimination. Sounds like a message movie, but what Fury Road really wants to drive home is the War Rig, right into tyrant Immortan Joe's skull.
28. WALL-E (2003)
Sorry, R2-D2, your days as cinema's cutest robot are done. WALL-E, the last little trash-gathering robot on a decrepit Earth, is one of the most likable hunks of metal we've ever seen in a film (even if his best friend is a cockroach). We'd watch a whole series of films featuring nothing but this 'bot rolling around dead cities, dusting off doodads he finds interesting, but WALL-E has more grand ambitions: a trip to space, a cynical view of mankind's self-defeating laziness and consumerism, and hope that we can turn it all around.
27. Akira (1988)
An emerging young telepath wages increasingly more insane psychic battles against a future Toyko's military in this landmark anime. Sure, the middle third gets pretty talky, but between biker gangs, resistance agents, a secret group of powerful psychics, and big themes of government malfeasance and warmongering, the ambition and frequent effectiveness of Akira outweigh its shortcomings. Bonus points for the soundtrack, rich in percussion and chanted vocal rhythms, which is among the most distinctive in science-fiction film.
26. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Who unleashed the rabid virus that nearly destroyed humanity, and can an unbalanced prisoner sent back in time gather enough information to create a cure? Terry Gilliam makes time travel even stranger than usual by deploying a vision of creaky, unreliable technology inspired by Chris Marker's landmark short film, La Jetee. Then he throws together twitchy young Brad Pitt and a Bruce Willis who still cared about his work to tell a downbeat, but uniquely funny story about how we're all doomed to destroy ourselves -- despite our best intentions.
25. Godzilla (1954)
The horror of nuclear weaponry is manifested as movie history's greatest monster in the signature science-fiction film from Japan. Monster movies had been around for decades, turning common fears into cinema boogeymen, but there was nothing quite like a giant lizard with radioactive breath and an oddly pleasing roar as a symbol for the dangers nuclear weapons posed to man and nature alike. The fact that Godzilla was such a perfectly designed creature helped, of course. This first film set in motion a series of wildly inventive characters and stories that rolls on even now.
24. The Iron Giant (1999)
A young boy gets a lot more than a big pal when he discovers a giant robot chewing on an electrical station near his house. The amnesiac robot hides a secret -- he's actually an alien war machine -- but his true nature isn't concealed for long as a trigger-happy military confronts the robot, to the boy's horror. Vin Diesel is perfect as the voice of the Giant, and The Incredibles director Brad Bird, making his first feature film, guides the rest of the cast to spot-on performances as well. The film imagines that a boy's idealism could transform even the greatest destructive force on Earth; that itself is pretty incredible.
23. Back to the Future (1985)
Who says science fiction has to be super serious? There's nothing light about seeing yourself disappear from a family photo, but Robert Zemeckis' crowning achievement is great sci-fi even as it's funny as hell. Strip away all the comedy and "fish out of time, er, water" aspects of the scenario and you've got Marty McFly confronting his own limitations and the shortcomings of his parents. Back to the Future is a coming-of-age story for two generations at once, as neat and approachable a take on time-travel paradox as anyone has ever put on screen.
22. Starship Troopers (1997)
What if the beautiful people of Beverly Hills, 90210 lived in a future fascist society which recruited them to fight giant bugs in space? Paul Verhoeven's film version of Robert Heinlein's novel turns the book's genuine militarism on its head for a satirical take on pop culture, and gung-ho military service and sacrifice. Verhoeven is at the top of his game as he creates legitimately valorous heroes in splatter-filled battles, and turns Neil Patrick Harris into a madly creepy, Nazi-like intelligence officer. Wait, which side of this battle is the right one again?
21. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
We were still hopeful about the potential of life amongst the stars when this warning about atomic warfare arrived in the guise of a UFO movie. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, humanity has its first brush with aliens when a giant silver flying saucer lands in Washington, DC. The humanoid visitor on board, accompanied by a giant enforcer robot named Gort, has but a simple request: "Mankind, chill out a little with that nuclear power you're developing." No one takes kindly to a stranger telling them what to do, and worse when the alien disguises himself and walks among the people of Earth. Fortunately this galactic taskmaster is somewhat patient, and he's ultimately content to let us off with a warning. Robert Wise's film uses the appeal of shiny extra-terrestrial machinery to offer audiences a little perspective on our minor place in the universe's evolutionary order.
20. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Romance and love are nothing without the potential for loss and pain, but most of us would probably still consider cutting away all the worst memories of the latter. Given the option to eradicate memories of their busted relationship, Jim Carrey's Joel and Kate Winslet's Clementine go through with the procedure, only to find themselves unable to totally let go. Science fiction naturally lends itself to clockwork mechanisms, but director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman never lose the human touch as they toy with the kaleidoscope of their characters' hearts and minds.
19. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Your friends and loved ones could one day be replaced by identical but emotionless doubles if this stealth invasion story is right about our potential relationship with aliens. So much good science fiction is right on the line of becoming horror; this is one of many films where our dreams of extra-terrestrial life turn into nightmares. This incarnation of Body Snatchers is all political allegory derived from the "Red Scare" era, but its fears are just as applicable in the election era of 2016 as they were 60 years ago.
18. Jurassic Park (1993)
Sure, recreating dinosaurs from old DNA probably isn't a good idea, but who could resist? Since the earliest days of science fiction, mankind's aspiration to godhood has been a prime concern. Once we can build things, what stops us from creating life? Genetic tinkering was in its infancy when Michael Crichton conceived Jurassic Park; CG effects were in their early days when Steven Spielberg harnessed both story and computers for a jaw-dropping event film. The wonder of the park's dinos remains intact, and so does the potency of its warnings, delivered so perfectly by big personalities like Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm.
17. Metropolis (1927)
The story of strife between the 1% and everyone else, this forward-thinking tale visualizes a futuristic city divided into wealthy, ruling titans of industry and the teeming masses of a hard-working underclass who keep the city ticking. Strife explodes between the classes, fueled by one young woman with the vision to unite the classes, and her robot double, created to sow conflict and unrest. The film bombed on release, and was even panned by sci-fi godfather H.G. Wells, but its singular imagery and piercing vision have cemented it as a cornerstone of sci-fi cinema.
16. Gattaca (1997)
We always dream that we can rise above our limitations, but what if those barriers were based on our genetic code? Vincent just wants to be an astronaut, though in a future where everyone is designed to be fit for a profession, he was conceived outside the genetic selection program. But, in Gattaca, you can't keep a good man down, especially if he has a steady supply of hair and fingernails from a more "superior" person, and the willingness to scam an entire society on a daily basis. Director Andrew Niccol's controlled vision avoids an excess of details and is all the more compelling for keeping things simple.
15. The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron's first major film as director is a lean, brutal vision of machines run amok, dressed up with the complications of time travel. Cameron probably would have had a great story without the bizarre charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the heavy-metal insanity of Stan Winston's robot effects, but with all those elements in place, The Terminator is a "lightning in a bottle" moment that demonstrated just what Cameron could do.
14. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
A rollicking riff on Moby Dick that surfs on James Horner's ringing score, The Wrath of Khan amplifies the Kirk-Spock friendship and elevates the Star Trek TV villain Khan into a major movie player. Star Trek II is a big Navy movie in space, but also concentrates on every wonder-seeking aspect of Gene Roddenberry's original TV series, along with some super-strange stuff (those ear parasites!) to boot. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a hardcore science-fiction film, occasionally even a good one, but The Wrath of Khan is a great time at the movies, with a powerful exit scene from Leonard Nimoy.
13. Blade Runner (1982)
Director Ridley Scott went out of his way to imagine 2019 Los Angeles as a pretty terrible place to be, and yet the look, sound, and feel of the world are so seductive that we want to visit regardless. Same goes for the story; Blade Runner's plot is a barely warmed-over detective yarn with Harrison Ford in the role of the hard-boiled investigator, but we can feel glimmers of the pain and confusion of artificial humans who realize they are powerless against their pre-determined fate. The movie is a triumph of world-building that still makes a mark on viewers and filmmakers 35 years later.
12. RoboCop (1987)
Great science-fiction novels often have an air of irony; as great as new technology might seem to be, we're all pretty much screwed thanks to the unchangeable aspects of human nature. Paul Verhoeven tapped right into that spirit with RoboCop, awash with bleak comedy and gooey ultra-violence. The film combines vicious parody of the corporate world with glimmers of hope for a safer future under the watchful eye of technology. With Peter Weller adding soul to the film's robotic enforcer, and some of the most memorably vulgar lines in all of filmed sci-fi, RoboCop blows holes in pretenders.
11. The Matrix (1999)
Movies about technology pushing mankind to new places often do the same in the special effects department. The "bullet time" effect in The Matrix was one of 1999's most-copied concepts. (Never mind that it was created with old-fashioned, 35mm still cameras.) The Wachowskis synthesized comic books, hardcore sci-fi, and religious concepts to create this pitch-black portrait of a society so deeply in thrall to technology that it had, in effect, become tech for the machinery.
10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The story of the most powerful five-note jingle ever written is also the ultimate UFO movie. Here, those odd lights in the night sky really are from another world, and they start a roller coaster ride through uncertainty, terror, wonder, hope. As a regular guy who has his own close encounter with a non-human craft, Richard Dreyfuss carries us right into that zone where fascination becomes obsession. Spielberg slowly but masterfully draws together character threads to a convergence point at Devil's Tower in Wyoming, where humanity's ability to communicate is tested and ultimately validated in grand wordless conversation with a superior intelligence.
9. Solaris (1972)
Scientists on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris are experiencing minor problems such as mental instability and death. When a psychologist arrives, he finds that the planet itself is exerting an influence on the station, creating "visitors" from memories of those on board. Those visitors include the psychologist's late wife... and they're not quite exact copies of the original person, nor mindless clouds built from memory. Both the original Tarkovsky version and the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh are chilling and compelling, but Tarkovsky's cinematic mastery makes the original a genre essential.
8. Star Wars (1977)
Sure, it's basically a Western in space, but no other Western rewrote the entire landscape of the movie business as Star Wars did. The influence George Lucas and his space opera had over movies as a whole is due not only to his independent spirit and controlling business sense, but his love of classic stories and ability to spot a killer character design a mile off. Those first years developing Star Wars were a time of creative and financial roadblocks more than resounding success, and Lucas poured all his energy into a scrappy space movie, especially as represented by its roguish hero Han Solo.
7. Alien (1979)
With a bunch of blue-collar stiffs just trying to get home, Ridley Scott's 1979 movie is, like many of the best sci-fi films, basically another genre kitted out with science-fiction elements. But what elements they are: that dingy ship, which suggests the future isn't so bright for regular slobs like the crew of the Nostromo, and the vicious killing machine found on a cold, dead planet. That alien, complete with a grossly sexual life-cycle and particularly violent tendencies, is one of the greatest creations in any film, a horrifying representation of all the things we simply have to fight, even when the battle seems futile.
6. Frankenstein (1931)
Modern medical science was in its infancy when Mary Shelley wrote about a doctor spawning new life out of dead old tissue. Her gothic novel is a prototype for whole swaths of science fiction; what could be more sci-fi than electrified technology enabling a man's godlike ambitions, and catastrophic results reminding us of his very un-godlike position? James Whale's 1931 film version isn't the first Frankenstein movie, but it is still among the very best, with a vision of the monster -- and the technology that creates him -- that is still persuasive almost a century later.
5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
One of Steven Spielberg's most elegant films breathes life into a squished and stranded little alien -- among the greatest examples of movie magic. You might remember the cute and heartwarming aspects of E.T.; watch it again to appreciate just how amazing-looking and weird it can be, as when young Elliot gets drunk at 10 years old thanks to a psychic link with the beer-swilling E.T. Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore are impressive as the two kids who bring us together with the visitor, but it is Spielberg's sense of hope that makes the movie a classic.
4. Brazil (1985)
It's cute to think we can build systems that would make society run smoothly or create safer and better lives. If Terry Gilliam is right -- and he probably is -- those systems will eventually crush us all, and not by design, but through error and paperwork. Brazil envisions a wheezing, failing future where technology and government are woven into a societal prison where people are further apart from one another than ever. Mistaken raids like the one that kicks off the film happen all the time in our world, but Gilliam's vision remains potent and scary because the smothering creep of bureaucracy could still sneak up on us, and we'll probably think it is for our own benefit.
3. The Fly (1986)
From the beginning of his career, director David Cronenberg luxuriated in empathy for his mind's most bizarre creations, whether the "children" of The Brood or the telepathic not-quite-X-Men of Scanners. Still, he's rarely forged a connection as deep as the one built between audiences and Jeff Goldblum's inventor Seth Brundle, whose impatient rush to test teleportation technology gives him an unexpected injection of house fly DNA. The guy's transformation into BrundleFly is every bit as freaky and weird as you'd expect from peak Cronenberg. Yet the film's triumph is making us feel the pain of Seth's transformation, rather than turning him into a monster we'd love to swat.
2. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Let's face it: eventually we'll ruin everything. Planet of the Apes pitches one possible demise. Four astronauts leave Earth in 1972 and crash-land on an unknown planet. There, they find rudimentary human life and a ruling class of intelligent, warlike apes who believe themselves to be naturally elevated over the dumb, grunting humans. You know the twist, but the film's power is in the details, especially the vivid characterizations of the ape characters. Planet of the Apes flips the script of mankind's existence on Earth to reveal assumptions about our own place in the world, creating a believable simian society to torment Charlton Heston's arrogant, misanthropic "hero" before tearing it all down. The film's basic concept, a flexible metaphor for many divisions in human society, has kept the Apes brand vibrant through sequels and reinventions, but the original remains extremely potent.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A work of boundless inventiveness and imagination, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film aims at nothing less than depicting the process of human evolution. Crafted in an era of crude special effects, the movie looks incredible, even now, with artificial images of spaceflight compelling enough to convince conspiracy theorists that Kubrick helped fake the moon-landing footage. With a big-picture view of human existence that sees little practical difference between a bone cudgel and a space station, 2001 envisions our biggest evolutionary leap as one that leaves technology behind to enter a realm of pure consciousness. Enjoy the grand and bitter irony of our greatest science-fiction film being one that imagines we eventually won't need technology at all.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.