Superb science fiction explores a wide range of topics, from the human condition to the future of mankind, with visually stunning and inventive content. This genre encompasses a wide range of material, including humorous, vibrant space adventures as well as somber dystopian catastrophes that take place in distant galaxies or in the present, distant future, or even the distant past. Beyond space.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Intrinsic space. Fresh realms. The technological frontiers. Artificial intelligence. Science fiction films that succeed in transporting us to fantastical worlds and making us believe in inconceivable futures unavoidably have an impact on the direction of real-world technical development.
You’ve come to the correct place if you’re looking for a list of The Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time; the Team Empire hivemind has collaborated in the cloud to compile a list of the most emblematic sci-fi films of all time, ranging from contemporary masterpieces to game-changing classics. With contributions from Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg, Scott, and Carpenter, this list of fifty has something for everyone. Proceed with prosperity.
Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, Ranked
High Life (2019)
If the plot about criminals aboard a spacecraft rushing towards a black hole sounds like a lost Michael Bay film, you’d be right. It was directed by Claire Denis and stars Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Mia Goth. Contrary to its title, Claire Denis’ sci-fi film is more in line with the hard-hitting existentialist fare of the 1970s.
Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, is one of a group of inmates that Juliette Binoche’s scientist uses to great advantage as experimental subjects. It’s a psychological journey into the abyss, dark and brooding with some extremely violent moments, full of tangible dread, disturbing sensuality, nightmare abstract imagery, and terrific, thought-provoking performances, especially from the always-great Robert Pattinson. This is adult science fiction at its finest: deep, dark, and devoid of space battles in favor of cerebral and emotional stakes.
Silent Running (1972)
Douglas Trumbull had previously applied his visual effects expertise to ground-breaking classics like 2001, but he was given free rein as a director for Silent Running, a prequel to Wall-E in which humanity faces the depletion of its natural resources. The film stars Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, and Ron Rifkin.
Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern, is one of many crew members aboard a greenhouse spacecraft that transports some of Earth’s few surviving plants. Lowell is told to destroy the vegetation and return to his spacecraft, but he rebels and continues to care for his plants with the assistance of three notable robot helpers. Read the Empire review to find out how it manages to be both a dramatic and contemplative environmental warning.
Snowpiercer (2013 )
Bong Joon Ho’s high-concept comedy, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-Ho, has received the broad UK distribution it deserves. Snowpiercer is a unique futuristic satire based on the French post-apocalyptic graphic book Le Transperceneige. In this story, humanity’s survivors are packed onboard a train that circles the surface of a deep-frozen Earth.
Tilda Swinton plays an outlandish Thatcher-like figure named Mason, and Chris Evans plays one of the poor schlubs on the tail end named Curtis, who is ready to overturn the system and fight back. It’s a genuine genre mash-up, like all of Director Bong’s films, with exciting action scenes and an offbeat sense of humor, but it’s also the Korean filmmaker at his most sci-fi in its approach to class problems by way of a fantastical not-so-far-future vision. Just don’t look for it to be shown at any upcoming Mother & Baby events.
Children of Men (2006)
How realistic can a science fiction picture be while still being a genre piece? Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a terrifying human dystopia that comes down to the wire with futuristic touches. In 2027, humanity will gradually become sterile. In the midst of global anarchy, Britain emerges as a relative haven, which is perhaps the most far-fetched idea in an otherwise prophetic picture.
Clive Owen’s bureaucrat is approached by a gang of suspected terrorists who seek his assistance in getting a young lady (Clare-Hope Ashitey’s Kee) to safety as immigration increases and the nation becomes a police state. To what end? As the Empire review puts it, “Cuaron delivers a poignant, urgent story” by taking a science fiction setup and developing it in a world that seems terrifyingly real, all while using some astonishingly immersive long takes.
District 9 (2009)
Bravura is a science fiction film showcasing Sharlto Copley and David James that gives a more literal understanding of the term “illegal aliens” and made director Neill Blomkamp a household name, balancing serious concepts with mech-fueled, gravity-gun-firing action. In a universe where alien ‘prawns’ have been stuck above the skies of Johannesburg for decades, the film follows Sharlto Copley’s frightened bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe as he tries to remove them from their ghetto. After meeting them and learning about their culture and technology, his outlook completely shifts. In its portrayal of a divided South Africa, there is actual significance underpinning the chaos. Read the Empire review to find out more.
The Abyss (1989)
Most science fiction films go to outer space for indications of new life. This picture, directed by James Cameron and starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn, is no exception. James Cameron has always looked to the unfathomable depths of the water, long before Avatar. The Abyss stands out from the crowd of space operas because of its unique blend of Jules Verne-esque undersea creatures and state-of-the-art visual effects.
The story revolves around a group of professional divers who are recruited to locate a lost nuclear submarine but instead stumble into something much more intriguing. Here, Cameron reveals his passion for diving and his environmentalist side, setting the framework for much of what he has done since, from the waterworks of Titanic to the bioluminescent world of Avatar and the long-promised waters of Pandora in the impending Avatar sequels. It didn’t do as well at the box office as Cameron’s other films, but you should still see it. Get an opinion on Empire here.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s unique indie debut has Jake Gyllenhaal and Patrick Swayze in the lead roles, and the director toys with time and flexible reality to show that idea-driven science fiction can succeed without a blockbuster budget. Kelly mixes none-more-sci-fi themes into a low-key character drama with head-scratching talking points and wonderful music, and it became a major cult smash because of its time-looping storyline, suburbia wormhole, and apocalyptic visions of a glowy-eyed bunny-man.
Donnie Darko is a trippy, atmospheric, and Gyllenhaal debut that will leave you wanting more, but you shouldn’t go looking for the random non-Kelly sequel, S. Darko. Check out the review of Empire. production and a whirlwind shot, but the movie ultimately talk for itself, if only in one-liners and army jargon, until things become stunningly, spine-tinglingly gruesome.
Tarkovsky’s work, directed by him and starring Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy and Anatoly Solonitsyn, is not often known for appealing to a wide audience. Stalker is a great illustration of this since it follows three individuals (a writer, a professor of science, and the Stalker himself) as they explore a mystery zone that has been damaged by what seems to be extraterrestrial infiltration.
The tale is an investigation of religion, science, and the arts, and the images are hazy and stark, replete with post-nuclear symbolism. If you’re not in the correct frame of mind, you won’t be able to get through it, but the payoff for persevering is enormous. In addition to the films on this list, Alex Garland’s Annihilation adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel also contains elements from this film.
Body Snatchers (1978)
Films based on the premise of aliens replacing humans with pod people, usually featuring the likes of Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams and directed by Philip Kaufman, abound. Instead of the typical ’50s cliches of blobs and gigantic bugs, Don Siegel’s 1956 adaptation skillfully twisted into a parody of paranoia, notably America’s fixation with its ideologically opposite competitors.
The 1970s classic starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, with stunning alien effects and a depiction of a post-Nixon sense of distrust and malaise in the comedown of the free-loving ’60s, is Philip Kaufman’s version, one of the rare great remakes. In addition, the finale is one of the most terrifying ever.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s ’90s classic stars Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe and features time travel, a dystopian future, and the spread of a fatal virus; hence, it may not be the most reassuring picture to revisit in the year 2020.
An excellent performance by Bruce Willis as the incarcerated James Cole, who is sent back in time to investigate the origins of the Army of the 12 Monkeys and how they came to be responsible for the global pandemic they helped cause, and who is left in a constant state of confusion and panic as he tries to keep track of where he is and, more importantly, when it is.
As the mysterious Jeffrey Goines, who may or may not have been engaged in the pandemic, Brad Pitt displays his own kind of eccentricity. Gilliam’s signature aesthetic and flair for the bizarre are on full display here, as he toys with reality and morality in a convoluted storyline that, once unraveled, makes perfect sense.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Memory manipulation is often seen in amnesiac thrillers and mind-bending action films with stars like Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet and directors like Michel Gondry. Eternal Sunshine, on the other hand, is an examination of the human condition, particularly grief, and was directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman. When romance turns sour, what usually occurs?
What if, however, you were able to permanently remove all memories from your memory, both good and bad? Is it something you’d really do? Jim Carrey’s character, Joel, makes the decision after realizing that his former, Clementine (Kate Winslet), already has. But as he investigates what brought them together and what drove them away, he gradually comes to terms with the fact that he still cares for her. Even though the film’s technology is fictitious, the feelings shown in Eternal Sunshine are not.
Movie: “If It Bleeds… We Can Kill It” by John McTiernan, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Kevin Peter Hall. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Dutch, a fierce commando, and his military squad face off against an unseen opponent using cutting-edge weapons and thermal vision in John McTiernan’s pumped-up actioner.
It’s a genre-fied Vietnam metaphor, complete with a steamy jungle setting and American troops losing to an invisible adversary, but with a happy ending in which military power triumphs. Although Arnie is the star of the picture, the famous Predator design has been used to inspire several spinoffs, reboots, and even series crossovers even without his presence. John McTiernan’s Predator may have had a grueling
Katsuhiro Otomo’s explosive anime, starring Mitsuo Iwata and Nozomu Sasaki, together with Miyazaki’s work, helped to propel Japanese animation into mainstream Western pop culture awareness, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a gripping mix of brutality, cyberpunks, and mutants, set in a future epic where the tattered cities and mutilated corpses are entwined with the roots of Japan’s history.
Complex events like motorcycle gangs, government intrigues, and scientific experiments that transform one of the bikers into a mental psychopath all play out in Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after an explosion devastated the old metropolis. Read the Empire review to find out why Hollywood has been attempting to recreate this film for years (Taika Waititi is now connected but constantly busy) and how much money would be needed to match the budget of the original, whose breathtaking visuals revolutionized the science fiction genre.
Pandora, the planet of bioluminescent vegetation, vivid blue wildlife, and enormous floating rock formations, was created for James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver. James Cameron’s record-breaker is none-more-JC, and it has elements from all of his previous films, including the mechsuits from Aliens, the colorful animals from The Abyss, the epic grandeur (and primary love story) of Titanic, and the pioneering technology advancements in every one of them.
Humans are the alien invaders, consciousness is transferrable, and technology and nature are equal and opposed forces in this narrative, but everything else is an A-movie blockbuster, even the knowing B-movie quality of the corny language and Dances With Wolves-inspired plot. Even while the Avatar reaction persists in certain quarters, betting against Cameron’s crop of planned sequels would be foolish. Read the Empire review.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal in a film directed by Robert Wise and starring both of them. Typically, the alien visitor’s only purpose on Earth is to cause mayhem. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and Gort (Lock Martin, in a metal suit) arrive on Earth in Robert Wise’s 1951 classic and warn mankind to “wind its neck in.”
The rest of the galaxy will have no option but to smash Earth into tiny little pieces if we humans don’t stop being so destructive and violent. Read the Empire review to learn more about The Day the Earth Stood Still and how its cosmic message of peace and unity set against the backdrop of atomic bombing remains subversive, deeply influential in its imagery, and with a phrase that has permeated pop culture at large: “Klaatu barada nikto.”
Under the Skin (2013)
There have been many movies about alien invasions, but not many in which the alien takes on the appearance of Scarlett Johansson and roams the streets of Glasgow, picking up lonely guys in a van. Director Jonathan Glazer stars. One of the most stunning images in Jonathan Glazer’s baffling science fiction horror is Scarlett Johansson, who plays a part completely different from her normal blockbuster roles and appears in a pale face mask, an untidy black bob, and a heavy fur coat.
As the primary (unnamed) alien character, she lives outside of human society; is she learning more about mankind via her relationships with the men she sacrifices? Jonathan Glazer, like other contemporary filmmakers who have a spiritual and aesthetic connection with 1970s cinema, recognizes the importance of ideas in addition to plot. The Empire review states that Under the Skin is not a feel-good film but rather a mood piece with something to say about male and female relationships and, well, the deadly characteristics of odd black pools.
Sunshine was directed by Danny Boyle and starred Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and Chris Evans; switching genres has always been one of Boyle’s strengths. With stars like Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and more on board, it should come as no surprise that the good ship Icarus II has a smooth sailing experience.
As the Icarus crew gets closer and closer to the sun, or maybe the face of God—or both—the film becomes a catastrophe flick, a slasher film (especially its contentious final act), and an existential examination. Read the Empire review to find out how Alex Garland’s script corrals both brain-food science fiction and hazardous human instinct, while cinematographer Alwin Küchler gives some startling images of a light-drenched spacecraft and the spinning solar surface.
A.I. Intelligence Artificial, 2001
The story of how A.I. came to be is tantalizing in and of itself; it was originally Stanley Kubrick’s project, as he had wanted to adapt Brian Aldiss’ short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, but after Kubrick’s death, the project was passed on to Steven Spielberg, who finally wrangled it onto screens after years of frustrating development.
The film stars Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. Spielberg’s secret weapon was The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment, who moved from dead people to bot humans—something Kubrick had never imagined a youngster could honestly do. Spielbergian as the narrative of a robo-kid inspired by Pinocchio’s yearning for human connection may seem, the picture is far more icy and brutal than his normal fare, full of human cruelty, technological torture, and a gloomy ‘fairytale’ conclusion. Although it divides audiences, this blend of Speilbergian and Kubrickian elements is interesting.
Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg brought one of Philip K. Dick’s most cinematic books to the screen without caring about being perfectly authentic. The film starred Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, and Colin Farrell. Tom Cruise portrays futuristic police officer John Anderton, who works for a squad where psychics can anticipate crimes before they happen—at least until they foresee Anderton killing someone.
Spielberg depicts a future where invasive advertisements follow us wherever we go (not really science fiction anymore), self-driving vehicles are commonplace (increasingly conceivable), and police officers fly about on jetpacks (likely a few decades off, but still possible). It’s a thought-provoking action flick that also invents the concept of gesture-control touch displays. Nifty. Get an opinion on Empire here.
The Fly (1986)
Based on a concept from a 1950s B-movie, David Cronenberg’s stomach-churning body horror stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis and is a classic “man meddles with nature” sci-fi tale. Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, is a greasy scientist who develops a pair of teleportation pods, only to unwittingly merge with a housefly while testing one of them.
Thus begins the dramatic descent into which Brundle rapidly descends, becoming Brundlefly, a rotten, acid-spewing creature on the outside who is fundamentally, tragically human. The picture keeps faithful to its philosophical foundations, which center on the terrible hubris that comes from playing God, even if it’s the really terrifying monster effects that end up sticking in people’s minds.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter, introduced the idea of a planet (spoiler: it’s Earth!) taken over by our hairy brethren long before Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves came along to explore how the world got to the point of simian domination.
It’s a tad campy, but Charlton Heston is at his gruff best when he’s fighting those nasty apes. Michael Wilson and, tellingly, Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone adapted the book. And of course, it contains one of the most famous climax surprises in film history. The concept of another species taking over has always plagued humans, and this was impressive enough to impress moviegoers and spawn a series (of various quality). Collectively, let’s say, “You maniacs!”
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
A music-loving space slacker, a green assassin, a hulking warrior, a talking tree, and a raccoon (who isn’t a raccoon) all entered the fray and raised eyebrows when Marvel announced it. Director James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista. And what about James Gunn, who has worked with Troma in the past and is renowned for writing horror screenplays, Scooby Doo flicks, and weird movies like Slither?
It turned out to be a brilliant move, with Gunn’s sense of humor giving the cosmic figures a dash of levity. The pacing is excellent, the ending delivers an emotional knockout blow, and the film effortlessly gives birth to a series in which the Guardians will play a significant role in future films. We eagerly anticipate the release of Volume 2 since science fiction seldom has as much wit and color. It’s number 3 whenever Gunn has time to read the review in Empire.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The idea of cloning animals or humans sounded dated by the 1990s, even in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum. The cloning of dinosaurs, for example. Keeping the story’s sci-fi credentials—man messes with forces of nature and reaps the unpredictable ramifications of chaos theory—intact, Steven Spielberg adapts Michael Crichton’s novel into a game-changing, groundbreaking blockbuster about a prehistoric theme park gone wrong, and the result is a dino-spectacle. With Spielberg as the master creator at the center, the film manages to conjure big-screen animals that nonetheless look and feel wonderfully genuine, resulting in an endlessly exhilarating adventure movie that emerges from some surprisingly convincing cod-science. Smarty pants, check out my review of Empire.
After completing his at-trilogy, director Christopher Nolan returned to his own original work, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain. Some may perceive Interstellar as just another frigid Nolan experience, focused only on the philosophical questions raised by space travel and the mysteries of wormholes, but the film is really far more than that. This is Nolan’s love letter to love itself, especially the love shared by dads and daughters.
The film is scientifically rigorous (or as rigorous as can be achieved with experimental physics, following the advice of Kip Thorne), but that doesn’t mean it lacks heart. The emotional response of Matthew McConaughey’s character, Joe Cooper, who is on a mission where time passes differently for him than it does on Earth when he receives a message from his grown daughter is a major factor in this. Read the Empire review to see how masterfully Nolan weaves everything together and gets great performances from his ensemble cast, which also includes Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.
Wall-E, conceived by seasoned creative type Andrew Stanton and starring Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, is a future satire about how we treat the earth and one other, but you know, for kids. The gamble paid off handsomely, as the picture went from a very quiet opening on Earth’s desolate, trash-filled ruins to a blazing cosmic adventure to preserve the planet’s only viable plant life.
Wall-E’s startling prologue is just the beginning of the film’s unflinching grave eco-warnings and biting satire of humanity’s wasteful consumerist habits. Read the Empire review to find out how Wall-E’s plot tugs at your emotions with its swooning robo-romance, musical moments, and still-relevant message for all of us.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Shaking off the constraints of its icy sci-fi beginning on the big screen, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek (starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Ricardo Montalban) rediscovered the pleasure by remembering to make it more about the people. And what a narrative it is:
Nicholas Meyer delves into the series’ archives to provide a gripping, introspective tale of retribution in which Ricardo Montalban’s crusading, augmented ego Khan Noonien Singh attempts to get revenge on William Shatner’s James T. Kirk for their tumultuous past. Even if Khan isn’t exactly the sanitized, pristine paradise that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, there’s still plenty of possibility for tremendous drama. It’s everything Star Trek might be while staying true to its roots. And the fundamental conflict arises without the key characters even being in the same room together. Wow, that’s quite a feat…examine the critique in Empire.
Denis Villeneuve, who directed the film and starred Oscar Isaac, Timothée Chalamet, and Rebecca Ferguson, is no stranger to science fiction or to films that present seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Having doubts? To learn more, watch Blade Runner 2049. In his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, he found success where David Lynch had failed. Lynch’s work has its admirers, but Villeneuve’s Dune soars, anchoring the campy parts and conveying a picture of a massive alien desert globe that has become the center point of a far-future galaxy.
The film wisely (though dangerously) decides to divide the massive plot in two in order to satisfy its purposes, keeping what is necessary and discarding what isn’t. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard, Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, and a plethora of others are among the cast. So, it’s a good thing the risk paid off since the sequel isn’t expected for another couple of years.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Denis Villeneuve directed the film, which starred Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Ana De Armas, despite the fact that it seemed impossible to top Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking science fiction classic about futuristic ‘Replicants’ being hunted down in Los Angeles. Cinematographer Roger Deakins deserves most of the credit for this since he was responsible for framing some of the most memorable scenes in recent decades of science fiction cinema.
One such scene has Ryan Gosling as the replicant Blade Runner K, who is faced by a large pink projection of Ana de Armas’ wish fulfillment robot Joi. However, in other places, Villeneuve provides a subversive take on the typical ‘chosen one’ storyline while still exploring the human condition. The biggest achievement of 2049 is that it successfully harnesses the unique vibe of the original while developing into its own completely realized work. And the review in Empire says: Bravo, Villeneuve
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Beyond Akira, Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk masterpiece starring Atsuko Tanaka and Akio Tsuka is Japan’s greatest contribution to the science fiction genre. It is a cyborg story whose DNA was re-encoded into everything from The Matrix and A.I. to Ex_Machina. The film follows Motoko (also known as the Major), a cyborg police officer in futuristic Japan who is trying to uncover the identity of the hacker known only as “Puppet Master.”
In the early days of the internet, Ghost in the Shell tapped on the possibilities of the information age, technological advancements in robotics, and the resulting philosophical problems regarding the nature of ‘ghosts’ (or consciousnesses) and the ‘ shells’ they occupy. Read the Empire review, and you’ll see that the film was also very accurate in its visual representation of cybertechnology and future metropolitan landscapes.
Sorry, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, but we’re going with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s original, starring Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk. Which is considerably icier and less transparent than usual, given the director’s usual reflective tone in his SF films. But if you’re willing to delve, you’ll find a treasure trove.
All but three of the people living on a space station circling a faraway planet have died, so a psychologist named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent there. It’s his duty to discover the reason, but things take a bizarre turn as soon as he arrives. If you like films that make you question the truth of the world they’re set in (and maybe the one you live in), then this one will stick with you.
Paul Verhoeven’s satirical science fiction, starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, and Dan O’Herlihy, depicts a frighteningly plausible future in which a multinational company practically owns a community. But it’s also the tale of a police officer killed in the line of duty who is resurrected as a cyborg officer and is tormented by memories of a prior life his creators sought to erase. The terrifying realization that man has become a commodity never loses any of its genuine chill. Read the Empire review to find out more about the film’s gore, cruelty, humor, and compassion, all presented in a polished visual manner that belies its 1980s roots.
It was directed by Fritz Lang and starred Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich; the picture is widely recognized as the first science fiction feature. Fritz Lang’s masterwork served as an inspiration for other films, many of which directly or indirectly borrowed from its visual style. The cast and crew of this Lang classic—a meditation on industrialism and the crushing divide between classes—had it just as rough as the people they portrayed. True fire while you’re being crucified? That kind of dedication would be looked down upon in modern society.
After working as a writer for several filmmakers, Alex Garland finally had the opportunity to direct his own film, and the result is a complex and oftentimes twisted tale of artificial intelligence that stars Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. and hostility. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finally meets his company’s secretive and enigmatic CEO, he feels he’s earned the chance of a lifetime.
The determined Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, has a surprise in store for him when he finds out that his employer wants him to test a new artificial intelligence in the form of the stunning Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ex_Machina is a magnificent debut picture, with an Oscar in its trophy cabinet for its visual effects, that takes a serious look at humanity’s inhumanity to what many feel might be the next step in evolutionary intellect. Get an opinion on Empire here.
Inception (2010 film)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Elliot Page, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Inception” is a Bond-esque heist picture in which Nolan, ever interested in the structure of the human mind, externalizes the subconscious into physical landscapes.
Inception is a film directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in which the main character, Dom Cobb, uses dream technology to infiltrate the minds of their sleeping marks and steal information from them before being given the much more difficult task of implanting an idea into his next target. Psychological science fiction epic that will baffle minds for decades to come, thanks to Nolan’s embracing of dream logic, subversion of physics, and orchestration of collapsing realities. Read the Empire review.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s adaptation of the classic shape-shifting alien story, starring Kurt Russell and Keith David, has chilling chilling visual effects that finally do justice to the genuine terror of the extraterrestrial invader. Carpenter’s version of the 1951 B-movie The Thing From Another World, which was based on the novella Who Goes There by John W. Campbell Jr., exploits all the paranoid potential of a setup in which no one can be trusted, with the titular “Thing” picking off the researchers at an Antarctic research base and imitating them to cause maximum confusion.
In addition to morphing into a variety of terrifying mutant monsters, the Thing is most famed for taking the shape of a severed head and walking on spider legs. The monster effects by Rob Bottin are famous, Kurt Russell is reliable as the film’s level-headed commander, RJ MacReady, and the film’s climactic stand-off is a classic. It’s funny to believe it came out the same summer as a friendlier alien…Check out the review in Empire magazine.
After the high school noir Brick and the narrative of two con artist brothers in The Brothers Bloom, director Rian Johnson was startled by this time-traveling assassin drama starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt. The title character, “Looper” (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a mafia hitman who is sent back in time to eliminate witnesses to a crime that occurred 39 years in the future. However, future Joe (Bruce Willis) is able to get away when Joe’s next target is his own elder self (closing the loop being the destiny of all Loopers, who are rewarded well for their work).
Johnson expertly navigates the subsequent turns in the cat-and-mouse game. Johnson takes a risk by having Gordon-Levitt (wearing prosthetics) and Willis play the same character, but the move pays off, and the film benefits from the abundance of originality it introduces. Get an opinion on Empire here.
Moon is an adventurous first feature film for filmmaker Duncan Jones, and it stars Sam Rockwell. Jones may not have intended for Moon to be his first picture. Sam Rockwell impresses in the lead role of Sam Bell, who works for three years in a lunar mining colony.
Sam, going a bit insane from the lack of human interaction, finds a surprising revelation that alters his perspective on his profession and who he is as a person. Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker concoct an engaging plot, and the production crew makes the most of their resources to create an intense, confining atmosphere. Read the Empire review to find out more about how the classic science fiction theme of cloning is presented here in a manner that makes the ramifications seem all too real.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Given his status as a pioneer in the genre throughout the last four decades, it should come as no surprise that Steven Spielberg’s name appears many times on our list (and much more when you include the films he produced). And this groundbreaking, unforgettable picture reflects one of his early preoccupations: meetings with extraterrestrials.
The dramatic narrative of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who gets entangled in an incident he can’t fully explain but which affects his life forever, is as powerful now as it was when Close Encounters was released in 1977. Read the Empire review to find out what else this film has to offer beyond the mash mountain and the musical tones for which it is known.
The Terminator (1984)
Only slightly overshadowed by its sequel (more on that later), James Cameron’s breakout killer cyborg thriller announced his intention to rock the genre with a relatively low budget (by today’s standards, at least) and some real invention, even layering in a complicated rumination on time and how the future can be altered for good and ill.
Man-mountain Arnold Schwarzenegger is the villain, while future soldier Michael Biehn and harassed Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, are the story’s beating heart. Read the Empire review to see how Cameron manages to keep the tale tight and the action fresh, all while using a pulsating soundtrack by Brad Fiedel that has stayed with us for years.
Time-bending short tale by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner Eric Heisserer writing for this one Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Together, the top-notch performances of Jeremy Renner Amy Adams, and the rest of the cast pack a powerful emotional and intellectual punch.
Expanding on the first contact theme that has interested mankind for years, this story has aliens arriving in enormous spacecraft and human beings trying to interact with unusual species. The passage of time becomes malleable, and you’ll want to return to the setting and the plot more than once to really absorb both.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The film is a coming-of-age story about a young kid and his extraterrestrial buddy. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Dee Wallace. In a story about lonely children and outsiders that deals with the emotional fallout of divorce, suburban American kid Elliott becomes best friends with an interplanetary creature mistakenly left behind on Earth by his family.
Even while corrupt officials in the government pose a danger E.T. must return home (after first calling), with memories of childhood fun with Elliot’s brothers and their plant-based pal looming large. Aerial shots of Elliot and ET are included. One of the most iconic scenes in all of cinematic science fiction is when he rides his bike in front of the moon, and the film’s outstanding John Williams music is still quite moving.
It can’t be easy to take over a film series that was begun by such an iconic picture as Alien, but James Cameron makes it appear simple. The cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Carrie Henn. The realm of the human vs. Xenomorph battle is expanded and deepened in Aliens, as new techniques are found to make the aliens menacing.
The combination of body horror and battle works well; after all, this is just another interplanetary Vietnam allegory, and Cameron’s use of the creatures as a hive is a metaphor loaded with potential. It takes the potential of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and turns it upside down by stranding her and a squad of soldiers on a colony planet overrun by slavering creatures. Read the Empire review to see how Cameron makes many different types of troopers more than just faceless aliens.
Back to the Future (1985)
Time travel and the repercussions of altering the past are challenging ideas to depict on film. The cast of this film includes Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, and it was directed by Robert Zemeckis. Yet there aren’t many movies with as flawless of execution as the original Back to the Future. Some will inevitably attempt to find fault with the story, but they won’t find many.
Even though large portions of the film had to be reshot when the casting of initial lead Eric Stoltz didn’t pan out, Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale crafted a story that is so gratifying to see. Michael J. Fox, who took up the part, rode it to superstardom with the help of the stellar supporting cast, making the film tick like a well-honed timepiece. Even though subsequent time-bending films have attempted to discredit it, it is important since it established the most widely understood paradigm of fictional time travel.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
After setting up a clever time-loop scenario in the first Terminator, director James Cameron cranked everything up for the sequel, introducing a new liquid-metal android antagonist, reprogramming Arnie as the good guy, and plotting a new plan to disrupt the future and halt the imminent nuclear “judgment day.”
The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Edward Furlong. The end product is one of the best sequels of all time, with exhilarating action, a more determined Sarah Connor, and a menacing nemesis in Robert Patrick’s shapeshifting T-1000. Thoughts on machine learning are also in play, as Schwarzenegger’s affable T-800 develops feelings for Edward Furlong’s young John Connor and changes as a result of his encounters with him. I recommend the review of Empire.
Star Wars (1977)
It’s more of a space opera than a pure science fiction film, but George Lucas directed it, and Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher star in it. Where would science fiction be without Star Wars and its groundbreaking opening shot of the Star Destroyer towering above the camera for what seems like an eternity?
George Lucas took the classic hero’s journey narrative (Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is the simple farm boy who discovers he’s got a much bigger destiny out in the world) and transplanted it into a vastly imaginative galaxy far, far away, full of aliens and hyperspace travel, mystical religions, space princesses, and lovable rogues. Everything about the original Star Wars, from the fantastic model work to the cosmic dogfights to the aesthetic of the opening crawl as it drifts out into the stars, has been altered, and science fiction as a whole has felt the Force ever since.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Talking about the big picture: Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain in a film directed by Stanley Kubrick The Space Odyssey, a monumental piece of science fiction by Stanley Kubrick, may not have much in the way of a palpable linear storyline, but it covers so much ground: the beginning of humanity, the space race, the advent of artificial intelligence, further exploration of space, and a voyage into the cosmic unknown.
It’s heady stuff, realized with technical boldness by Kubrick, available for unlimited interpretation, and with just enough story to keep things interesting. While its studies of human development and what could lie ahead have already proven prophetic, 2001 is also an audio-visual masterpiece, with its giant rotating sets, usage of Strauss’s The Blue Danube, and stunning finale light display. An exceptional work that has had a profound impact on film in the decades since its release and which trusts the audience to follow along on an intuitive, sensory level
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski sisters, directors Lana and Lilly, gave Hollywood science fiction a huge improvement at the beginning of the Internet era, starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne. The sisters drew inspiration from cyberpunk anime, philosophy, and religion to create a story that would come to define an age and reflect the generational angst, technological advancements, and the desire for social change among pre-millennials. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a hacker who finds out that the world is a computer simulation called the Matrix and that he and the rest of mankind are being used as fuel for sentient robots.
Learning about this unreality, however, gives him the tools to escape it, whether by defying the rules of physics, cracking the code, or storing kung fu skills in his brain through upload. It’s one of the most stylish and forward-thinking movies ever filmed, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking innovations of bullet time and the stationary camera gear that made it feasible. It has been reevaluated as a work of blockbuster queer cinema, with a whole new depth of significance added since it was made by two trans people who are investigating the concept that one’s internal and exterior realities may be different. Read the review in Empire, and let me just say, wow.
In many respects, Ridley Scott’s Alien—starring Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, and John Hurt—feels unknown, with parts that feel really, well, alien. Once the Nostromo’s quarantine precautions are undone, chaos ensues as the human crew finds itself completely out of their element on the wrecked surface of LV-426 and in the presence of a strange hall full of extraterrestrial eggs.
A cautionary note might be seen there. From the dismal, foreboding halls of its space freighter to the instantly recognizable nightmare settings of H.R. Giger to the introduction of Sigourney Weaver’s courageous Ripley, the original Alien is still a groundbreaking work of science fiction, let alone horror. If it’s a space slasher at heart, then it’s full of sexual images and concepts, from impregnation to the violent release of a newborn gushing with blood. Some works of science fiction inspire us to reach for the stars. Alien forewarns of the absolute anarchy and violence that lay ahead in the uncharted depths of space.
Blade Runner (1982)
What other science fiction picture can compete with Ridley Scott’s Alien, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young? His other genre masterwork, Blade Runner, is an unrivaled masterpiece that has endured the test of time and many recur to become the gold standard of cinematic science fiction.
A take on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In Harrison Ford’s ‘Blade Runner’ Officer Rick Deckard searches for a gang of Replicants, human-engineered beings who have fled back to Earth from a functioning colony in the year 2019, Blade Runner paints a dismal picture of Los Angeles in the year 2019.
As he retires each one, he begins to doubt his own humanity in the broadest sense. Blade Runner is pure concept-driven science fiction, with a focus on the human condition. But it’s also a visual treat, with its depiction of a future cityscape (complete with huge TV displays, neon lights, and busy streets) remaining stunning.
The combination of the chilling “time to die” monologue delivered by Rutger Hauer as Replicant Commander Roy Batty and the eerie synth soundtrack by Vangelis makes for an almost unbeatable combination. Read the Empire review.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Empire, directed by Irvin Kershner and starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, expanded the scope and depth of the Star Wars universe. With the success of the first film under his belt, George Lucas teamed up with Irvin Kershner for the sequel. This time, they told the narrative of Luke learning the ways of the Force from Master Yoda, Han, and Leia traveling to Cloud City, and Darth Vader delivering the granddaddy of all twists.
The scale was increased in Episode V, which included more impressive model work, dizzying dogfights, the snowy Hoth battle, and a fierce lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader. Its downer finale and game-changing family disclosures make it a major cultural touchstone in its own right, making it simply greater and better than the original Star Wars. Read the Empire review to find out why this sci-fi film isn’t the cinema of ideas but has near-unrivaled blockbuster spectacle.