When it comes to science fiction, there's no shortage of thrills and chills on the big screen. But how do you narrow down your picks of the greatest sci-fi movies? Well, we've attempted to do just that. Spanning decades, we've gone back to the '60s and worked our way through to the present day, looking to Hollywood and beyond.
You'll find plenty of classics in this directed by the greats, from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott to the Wachowski sisters, but we've also looked further afield to releases that may have slipped under your radar. From alien invasions to space travel and time-hopping, it's all here in our guide to the greatest sci-fi movies to grace our screens.
32. The Fifth Element (1997)
Bruce Willis is a taxi driver with the fate of the planet in his hands in The Fifth Element. After a mysterious young woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) – literally – falls into Korben Dallas' cab, he joins forces with her to help find four mystical stones. Without these stones, there's no way to protect Earth against an imminent attack from a deadly, alien force led by the villainous Zorg (Gary Oldman). When it was released, The Fifth Element was the most expensive European movie ever made, and its campy, outlandish style won't be to everyone's tastes. If that sounds up your alley, though, it doesn't get better than this.
31. Attack the Block (2011)
If aliens were to ever invade Earth, Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that New York City is likely to be the target. But, what if, alien invaders picked a south London council estate as their target instead? That's the premise of Joe Cornish's debut feature Attack the Block, which stars John Boyega in his breakout role. Putting a fresh spin on the genre, the movie follows a gang of teens who have to protect themselves – and their community – from dangerous alien forces. It's funny, fresh, and features Jodie Whittaker fighting aliens almost half a decade before she became the Doctor.
30. Blade (1998)
Marvel movies will never get cooler than Blade. Wesley Snipes plays the titular character, a vampire hunter who also happens to be half-vampire himself. His mother was attacked by a vampire while in labor, which means that he has all the strengths of a vampire but none of their weaknesses. His path crosses with Karen (N'Bushe Wright), a hematologist searching for a cure for vampirism. It's bold, funny, and downright iconic. The rave scene at the start of the movie, where vampires dance while blood sprays from the ceiling? Chef's kiss.
29. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Sci-fi sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane brings a claustrophobic twist to the world established in its predecessor, 2008's found-footage film Cloverfield. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, who crashes her car after fleeing an argument with her fiancé and wakes up in an underground bunker under the care of a man named Howard (John Goodman, serving up a chilling performance). He tells her that he brought her to safety as the air outside had become poisonous and everyone else had died. Initially distrustful, Michelle discovers evidence to support Howard's theory, but not everything is as it seems.
28. The Invisible Man (2020)
Leigh Wannell's remake of the 1933 movie The Invisible Man (based in turn on HG Wells' novel) puts a modern sci-fi twist on a classic horror-tinged tale. Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, a woman who escapes an abusive relationship but believes she's being stalked and harmed by her ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seemingly died by suicide shortly after her escape. As an optics engineer, Cecilia believes Adrian has found a way to make himself invisible. No one around her believes her, but when her loved ones start to suffer too, Cecilia must take it upon herself to stop Adrian once and for all. Moss gives a powerhouse performance as an abuse survivor taking her fate into her own hands.
27. The Host (2006)
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho's 2006 foray into sci-fi, The Host, takes the form of a monster movie epic. Song Kang-ho stars as Gang-du, a hapless slacker working in his father's shop, whose teenage daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) is kidnapped by a monster that emerges from the Han River. The monster mutates from the river's wildlife as a result of the US military dumping bottles of formaldehyde into the river, and Bong was inspired by a real-life scandal in South Korea in the early '00s. The movie was a hit at the box office upon its release, smashing South Korean records.
26. Fantastic Planet (1973)
Now for something a little more experimental. Set in the distant future, the surreal, psychedelic Fantastic Planet is set on a planet where humans (AKA Oms) are treated as animals by giant blue creatures called Traags – some are kept as pets, while others live in the wilderness and are occasionally hunted to control the population. When Terr, an Om, escapes from his Traag owner, he falls in with a band of radical Oms resisting their oppressors. The movie uses distinctive cutout animation techniques and incorporates an atmospheric jazz soundtrack that's been sampled by artists from Run the Jewels to Madlib.
25. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Set in the near future where humanity has been pushed underground due to a deadly virus, 12 Monkeys stars Bruce Willis as James Cole, a convict sent back in time to find the disease's origin and help scientists find a cure in exchange for reduced jail time. A group known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys is thought to have engineered the virus, but Cole is drafted to find the truth. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the movie was inspired by La Jetée, a French short film from 1962. It also stars Christopher Plummer and Brad Pitt, the latter of whom was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
24. Annihilation (2018)
Based on Jeff VanderMeer's bestselling novel of the same name, Annihilation follows biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman). After her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), the only survivor of an expedition to 'the Shimmer', is taken sick, Lena is recruited to join another mission to explore the mysterious zone. While the cause of it is unknown, the Shimmer causes the animals and plants inside it to mutate – and Lena and her team are quick to find out that this often has dire consequences. As their expedition grows more and more treacherous, Lena is desperate to find out just what, exactly, happened to Kane.
23. Moon (2009)
Sam Rockwell stars in Moon, the directorial debut from Duncan Jones. He plays Sam, who's nearing the end of a three-year solitary stint on the moon mining helium-3, an alternative source of fuel. His communication channels to Earth are plagued by technical difficulties, so his main source of contact is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), his robotic companion. With only two weeks to go until he can return home, Sam starts to experience vivid hallucinations that prompt a personal crisis. Moon is a stark, thoroughly human film that's pretty impressive as far as directorial debuts go.
22. Ex Machina (2014)
Before Annihilation, Alex Garland made his directorial debut with AI psychological thriller Ex Machina. Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a search engine programmer who wins a competition to spend a week at the luxurious, isolated home of the company's CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, though, he learns that Nathan has bigger plans for Caleb, involving a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb grows closer to Ava, he grows increasingly wary of Nathan – and his plans for Ava. Garland's movie is genuinely chilling, with a closing scene that will leave you feeling positively queasy.
21. Nope (2022)
Nope, Jordan Peele's third movie, may be a different beast from his previous two offerings (2017's Get Out and 2019's Us), but it's no less worth your time. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star in this Spielberg-esque blockbuster as siblings OJ and Em, who train horses for movie productions on their late father's ranch. When they notice a mysterious flying object above their home, they set out to capture photographic proof – by any means necessary. Steven Yeun shines in a supporting role as former child star Ricky Park, who has his own plans for the UFO.
20. Avatar (2009)
Director James Cameron is known for pushing boundaries in his movies, but he changed the game with Avatar. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine sent to help explore Pandora, a far-off moon that humans are attempting to colonize in order to gain resources for a depleted Earth. When Jake falls for Neytiri, a Na'vi native to Pandora, he finds himself torn between following orders and his heart. The movie led to a meteoric surge in 3D cinema, as well as becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time and launching a franchise. Not bad going.
19. Predator (1987)
Director John McTiernan spawned a franchise with in 1987 with Predator – including some crossover Alien movies in the '00s. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Dutch, a Vietnam War veteran whose tasked with leading a rescue team to save a group of hostages somewhere in South America. Expecting to come up against political insurgents, what the group doesn't anticipate is the Predator, a highly skilled and technologically advanced alien hellbent on hunting them down. Despite an initial mixed reception, the movie has become known as a classic of both the sci-fi and action genres.
18. Dune (2021)
Enter sandworm. Denis Villeneuve's take on Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic sees Timothée Chalamet take on the role of chosen one Paul Atreides. When his family's rule of the planet Arrakis is cut short by a brutal betrayal from long-held rival clan House Harkonnen, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) find themselves at the mercy of the dangerous desert and its distrustful native people, the Fremen, as war for control of Arrakis looms over them all. Shot in IMAX by Villeneuve, Dune is best viewed on the biggest screen possible.
17. Gravity (2013)
Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's nail-biting sci-fi thriller. She plays Dr. Ryan Stone, an engineer on her first space mission to help service the Hubble Space Telescope. While out on a spacewalk, her crew's ship is endangered by a cloud of debris. Unable to get to safety in time, Stone and her commander (George Clooney) find themselves stranded in space. What follows is a nauseatingly tense odyssey as Stone attempts to get herself to safety back on Earth, with Bullock giving her all in what's essentially a one-woman show.
16. Arrival (2016)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival stars Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks. She's recruited by the US army to help decipher the language of a pair of mysterious alien arrivals on Earth who communicate with circular symbols. Haunted by memories of her young daughter's death, Louise works with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to work out why the extraterrestrials have come to Earth and discover what they want before the US – or any other nation – declares war. It's a heartbreaking film with a gut punch of a final twist, grounded by Adams' stand-out performance.
15. ET The Extraterrestrial (1982)
After bringing killer sharks and whip-wielding archeologists to the big screen, Steven Spielberg turned his sights to a family-friendly tearjeker with ET The Extraterrestrial. After an alien expedition accidentally leaves one of their own behind in suburban California, the creature crosses paths with 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas). He and the alien develop a bond and, along with his siblings (one of whom is played by a very young Drew Barrymore), he concocts a scheme to help him return home – which includes that bicycle scene. ET was a huge hit, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. It held this title for 11 years until another of Spielberg's movies took the crown: Jurassic Park.
14. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Before he directed Dune, Denis Villeneuve took over from Ridley Scott for the sequel to Blade Runner (although Scott was still on board as an executive producer). Set 30 years after the original movie, Harrison Ford reprises his role as Rick Deckard and he's joined by Ryan Gosling stars as K, a young replicant blade runner working for the LAPD. When he discovers a long-buried secret that threatens to destabilize everything he knows, K decides to track down Deckard, who's been missing for three decades. It's a tough task, but Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the original and the sequel can more than stand on its own feet.
13. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
We're talking about the 1995 anime here, not the 2017 live-action remake – although that should go without saying. Ghost in the Shell follows Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), a cyborg who works in anti-cybercrime law enforcement and who's tasked with hunting down a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. Although it was well-received when it was first released, Ghost in the Shell was considered a flop at the box office. However, the film went on to achieve cult status and provided inspiration for both the Wachowskis for The Matrix and James Cameron for Avatar.
12. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Before the reboot series of the 2010s and Tim Burton's 2001 remake, there was the original Planet of the Apes movie. Based on the 1963 French novel, Franklin J. Schaffner directs the story of a group of astronauts who crash-land on a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are seen as nothing more than vermin. The movie's twist, revealed in the closing shot, has become an iconic image in sci-fi movie history, and it was groundbreaking at the time for its use of prosthetics to transform actors into apes in a pre-CGI world.
11. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Before there was Lucasfilm's sprawling canon of movies, TV shows, and animated series, there was A New Hope. The original Star Wars movie, directed by George Lucas, did more than make household names of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. The story of the Rebel Alliance's fight against the Death Star paved the way for a new generation of big-budget blockbusters and high-concept genre movies, with Lucas' work influencing directors from James Cameron to Ridley Scott. Without A New Hope, it's not just sci-fi cinema that would look very, very different – it's Hollywood as a whole, too.
10. Metropolis (1927)
Let's wind it back. Metropolis, a silent, black-and-white film released in 1927, is thought to be one of the first feature-length sci-fi movies ever made – and one of the most influential. Directed by Fritz Lang, Metropolis is set in a class-divided dystopia where Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of a wealthy industrialist, falls in love with rebellious working-class Maria (Brigitte Helm), and the pair attempt to unite the city's downtrodden workers. It took almost a year and a half to film back in '20s Germany and was extremely costly to make for the time (the equivalent of over €20 million).
9. Solaris (1972)
The king of slow cinema Andrei Tarkovsky takes on sci-fi with Solaris. The movie takes its name from a fictional planet and the story follows the crew of space station in its orbit. When their mission stalls due to the emotional crises of the crew members, a psychologist is sent to help – but finds himself meeting the same fate. When making Solaris, which is based on the Polish novel of the same name by Stanisław Lem, Tarkovsky felt that sci-fi movies leant too heavily on technology and neglected emotional depth, using its almost three-hour runtime to delve into the psyche of its characters.
8. Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson prowls the streets of Glasgow, Scotland in Under the Skin, an alien disguised as a human woman looking for prey – and human connection. Directed by Jonathan Glazer and soundtracked by Mica Levi's discomfiting score, the film shows a previously unseen side to Johansson as she leads men to grisly deaths in a disquieting void. Human life begins to take its toll, and her descent into loneliness is heartbreaking and nauseating in equal measure. It's a quiet, clever take on the '(wo)man who fell to Earth' subgenre.
7. The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron may be a titan of Hollywood, but it was The Terminator that cemented his name in the spotlight. The sci-fi actioner involves a time-traveling cyborg assassin, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's sent back to the '80s by AI superpower Skynet to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before her future son can lead the human resistance against the machines. Arnie's not the only time traveler, though, as Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier from the future, has also been sent back to protect Sarah. AI cautionary tales only become more prescient, and Cameron's has the added bonus of being a near-perfect action flick, too.
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg's first sci-fi feature laid the groundwork for much of the director's later work – and for the genre as a whole. Richard Dreyfuss is Roy Neary, a blue-collar worker from rural Indiana whose life is changed irreparably after a close encounter with a UFO. Unable to get the experience out of his head, Roy becomes increasingly obsessed with UFOs to the point where his personal life begins to unravel. The movie's visual effects had a budget of over $3 million and were a pioneering moment for the use of motion control photography, which involves combining multiple bits of footage from the same camera into a composite image.
5. Akira (1988)
Plenty of iconic sci-fi movies can credit Akira with some of their most memorable scenes (looking at you, The Matrix and Nope). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on his manga of the same name, the animated film follows Shōtarō Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), the leader of a biker gang in a dystopian version of Tokyo in the year 2019. When his childhood friend Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaki) gains telekinetic powers after a motorcycle accident involving a secret government project and threatens to destabilize the military rule of the city, only Kaneda and his gang can help him. Painstakingly traditionally animated, it's widely regarded as an anime masterpiece.
4. The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski sisters may have made a name for themselves with their debut movie, 1996's Bound, but they established themselves as genre trailblazers with their second film, The Matrix. The movie, inspired by anime and kung fu cinema, stars Keanu Reeves as Neo, a programmer and hacker who discovers that reality is a lie and humanity is actually trapped inside a simulation while their bodies are being used for energy by intelligent machines. The use of 'bullet time' in the film's action sequences changed the game for action movies – and on-screen representation of leather coats and tiny sunglasses has never been so good.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott brings Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to life in Blade Runner, a cornerstone of sci-fi's cyberpunk subgenre. Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, a cop tasked with hunting down a group of rogue replicants – androids manufactured to work on colonies in outer space – who have escaped and made their way back to Earth. The deeper Deckard gets into the mission, however, the less certain his reality becomes. As well as being an impressive feat of cinema, it's also soundtracked by a standout score from Vangelis – just make sure you watch the Final Cut.
2. Alien (1979)
The award for scariest movie set in space (and best cat in space) goes to Alien, Ridley Scott's tense, groundbreaking sci-fi horror. Sigourney Weaver is at her best as Ellen Ripley, an officer on commercial spacecraft the Nostromo. When the ship picks up a distress signal from a nearby planet on its way back to Earth, the crew stops to investigate. It's not just the crew that comes back on board, though – they've picked up a monstrous stowaway in the form of the Xenomorph. Ripley is an all-timer of a character, and that scene (you know the one) remains unmatched on screen, even decades later.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In a stacked filmography that includes A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, 2001: A Space Odyssey may be Stanley Kubrick's finest work. It's also one of his more impenetrable films, but it's well worth any sci-fi fan's time. From the movie's opening scene, involving a tribe of ancient apes and an alien monolith, to the chilling AI presence of sentient supercomputer HAL, 2001 has been referenced, parodied, and paid homage to throughout the genre. Arguably the first sci-fi blockbuster, Kubrick's epic about a voyage to Jupiter, with its groundbreaking visual effects, is the bricks and mortar that helped the majority of the other films on this list.