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The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

Open the pod bay doors, HAL

spinner image Side by side images of The Matrix, Jurassic Park and 2001 A Space Odyssey
Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection; Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection; Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

With the fantastic new film Dune just out in theaters and on HBO Max, it seems like we now have our latest addition to the pantheon of all-time great sci-fi movies. Like snowflakes, however, no two masterpieces in the future-shock genre are exactly alike. The best of the bunch not only whisk us away to strange new worlds and galaxies, they also reckon with our own here and now. Which future worlds rocked our worlds the most? We’ve shot the moon and named the 15 best sci-fi movies of all time. Read on to see if your choices match ours….​​

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis wasn’t the first science fiction movie (Georges Milies’ A Trip to the Moon predates it by almost 30 years), but it is arguably the first true masterpiece in the genre. Inspired by the New York City skyscrapers that began climbing to the heavens in the 1920s, German director Fritz Lang envisioned a nightmare city of the future where human worker-bees toiled on the ground and their privileged and powerful masters high above them. The film’s message is about as subtle as a jackhammer, but Lang’s black-and-white images are still as stunning and harrowing as they must have been nearly a century ago. ​

Thing that (almost) came true: Communism.​

Watch it: Metropolis, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

“Gort…Klaatu…Barada…Nikto!” That may sound like goofy gibberish, unless of course you’ve seen this '50s sci-fi classic. Made during a decade that was teeming with B-movie allegories about the atom bomb and the Cold War (not to mention McCarthyism), The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few that still packs a punch. Michael Rennie is the alien who lands in Washington, D.C., with his robot sidekick Gort carrying a warning for all of humankind: Seek peace or else! Naturally, the military aimed their guns at him. But a sympathetic (and wise) Patricia Neal knows better. Worth checking out for Bernard Herrmann’s score alone.

Thing that (almost) came true: A lasting agreement between the U.S. and Russia to freeze the building of nuclear weapons.​

Watch it: The Day the Earth Stood Still, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory epic is the ultimate cinematic head trip. Some think it’s head-scratchingly oblique; others consider it a mindblower that’s super deep. Like all movies this far out and ambitious, your mileage may vary. Either way, there’s no denying Kubrick’s vision in this tale (based on an Arthur C. Clarke short story) about an alien monolith and man’s quest for knowledge since the Dawn of Man. The beautiful bulk of the film traces a space exploration and the friendly-then-combative relationship between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and his on-board computer operating system, nicknamed HAL. Their friendship ends badly. Kubrick’s 2001 is bursting with big ideas, exquisitely rendered. And even if you walk away from it puzzled, you’ll at least be sure that you’ve been on a trip.

Thing that (almost came) true: Groovy space stations, check. Computers that can think and talk, check. Eating processed meals in zero gravity, check. Now, if they could just come up with one of those rotating ferris-wheel treadmills to run on, we’d be set!​

Watch it: 2001: A Space Odyssey, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Don’t Miss This: Stream the Best Movies From the 1960s

Planet of the Apes (1968)

“Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” Charlton Heston hams it up mightily as an astronaut who lands on a world where apes rule. What humans there are, are herded like animals in chains. They’re the ultimate alpha monkeys. Oh, the irony. Speaking of irony, the film’s rug-pulling finale (penned by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling) remains one of Hollywood’s all-time great twist endings.

Thing that (almost) came true: At last check, the Statue of Liberty was still in tip-top shape. As for our ape brethren, gorillas have been able to use sign language for a while now. Can talking be far behind?​

Watch it: Planet of the Apes, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas created a thrilling space adventure full of droids, Wookiees, and lightsaber-wielding Jedis and changed the face of popular cinema. I was 8 when Star Wars came out and, like millions of others, it’s impossible to overstate the impact Lucas’ epic had on my generation’s imaginations. Is The Empire Strikes Back technically a better film? Yes. But A New Hope is the match that first lit the fuse. Watching it now, even in my early 50s, it’s hard not to feel as wide-eyed and excited as a kid from Tatooine named Luke Skywalker.

Thing that (almost) came true: Luke's Landspeeder uses hover technology not far off from the kind now being developed for hoverbikes; the film's anthropomorphic droids like C-3PO are simply more advanced forms of current humanoid robotics prototypes.​​​​

Watch it: Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, on Amazon Prime, Disney+, iTunes, YouTube

Don’t Miss This: Every Star Wars Movie, Ranked

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

After the blockbuster success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg looked to the skies and came up with this haunting-but-hopeful story about a group of Earthlings (chiefly Richard Dreyfuss) who become obsessed with the search for answers after witnessing UFOs. Nowadays, Spielberg is rightfully considered the maestro of sci-fi cinema. But this is where his reputation in the genre began. Close Encounters is full of metaphysical grandeur and then-groundbreaking special effects. But it’s also full of humanity. It makes you look up to the stars and ask some big questions.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Well, depending on your outlook, UFOs?​

Watch it: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

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Alien (1979)

​The crew of a space cargo ship are awakened when the on-board computer detects faint signs of life on a nearby planet. The rules of their charter insist that they go down to the planet and check things out. Big mistake. Because what they inadvertently bring back with them is a terrifying alien parasite with a tendency to suction-cup onto its victims’ faces, lay eggs, and have those baby aliens burst out of the unlucky host’s chest. Director Ridley Scott introduced a new kind of sci-fi horror film with Alien — one that was modeled on the old things-go-bump, haunted-house formula. The suspense in the film is downright excruciating. But best of all was Scott’s decision to turn one of the crew’s female members (that would be Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley) into the film’s toughest and most competent human hero.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Women running the show. ​

Watch it: Alien, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

The Thing (1982)

​John Carpenter’s vise-tight (and gruesomely gory) take on Howard Hawks’ '50s sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World is a masterful exercise in sub-zero dread. Kurt Russell leads an all-male ensemble playing American researchers whose Antarctic base is infiltrated by a wild dog that has been infected by (and becomes the host to) a murderous alien being. Released the same summer as E.T., this otherworldly entity is anything but cute and cuddly. It’s a bloodthirsty parasite that passes from one person to the next and won’t have accomplished its ultimate goal until every member of the team is basically Xeroxed and turned inside-out. Yes, The Thing is heavy on gooey, gross effects. But beneath the splatter is a haunting meditation on paranoia and trust.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Flesh-eating viruses.​

Watch it: The Thing, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Blade Runner (1982)

​Speaking of The Thing, here’s a fun fact: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner opened in theaters on the same day in the summer of 1982. And as hard as it may be to believe now, they both bombed with critics and at the box office. Of course, now both are enshrined in the sci-fi canon. Based on a pretzel-logic Philip K. Dick novel, this stunning future noir stars Harrison Ford as a detective pursuing four on-the-run androids while grappling with the thorny mystery of what it means to be human and whether we can believe our own memories. There are several versions of the film (chiefly one with Ford’s Bogart-esque voiceover and one without), but regardless of which you watch, this gorgeous puzzle box of a film will leave your jaw on the floor and your mind reeling.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Numerous tech companies are developing flying cars not unlike Harrison Ford’s. Also, artificial intelligence.​

Watch it: Blade Runner, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

The Terminator (1984)

If you were casting a hulking, expressionless killing machine sent back in time from the future, it’s hard to imagine coming up with a candidate as perfect as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forget Conan the Barbarian, this was the movie that made the Austrian bodybuilder a bona fide action hero. Thanks to director James Cameron’s dark visionary genius, The Terminator remains one of the great — if not the greatest — action flicks from a decade of great action flicks. But beneath all of its heavy-metal eye candy, the movie also has a lot on its mind as humanity is threatened by its own intellectual hubris. And if that’s not enough, there’s also this: It provided the '80s with one of its most indelible catchphrases, “I’ll be back.”​

Thing that (almost) came true: Machines becoming sentient and taking over the world; accidental apocalypse.​

Watch it: The Terminator, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Jurassic Park (1993)

Adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, Steven Spielberg’s giddy special-effects spectacular became the ultimate E-ticket blockbuster of the '90s thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s deadpan chaos theorizing, a rampaging T-Rex, and a couple of crafty velociraptors that could turn door knobs in the pursuit of a pair of terrorized children. The plot, about a lavish theme park that clones dinosaurs from ancient strands of DNA, was a monster-mayhem metaphor for science run amok. But it was hard to focus too much on the film’s message when we were all so busy trying to catch our breaths. ​

Thing that (almost) came true: Mapping the human genome has breathed new life into the dream (or is the nightmare) of cloning.​

Watch it: Jurassic Park, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves plays a clueless, mild-mannered computer programmer who ventures down the rabbit hole and enters an alternative universe (or is it the only true universe?) and is rechristened as Neo, a would-be digital messiah recruited to save humanity from its mind-fogging tech overlords. Beneath the surface of the Wachowskis’ high-tech action-movie fantasia, The Matrix feels more and more like a sinister cautionary tale about our willingness to hand ourselves over to the shadow world of the internet where the line between our real selves and our online avatars gets blurrier every day. Plus, Laurence Fishburne kung fu!​

Thing that (almost) came true: Virtual reality has been around for a while, but recent advances in VR technology are pushing us closer and closer to a day when we will all be able to decide whether we want to take the blue pill or the red pill and exist in the real world or the world of ones and zeroes. Also, the dark web.​

Watch it: The Matrix, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s brain-teasing heist spectacle, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who can enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets, feels like a movie version of one of those M.C. Escher prints that college students used to hang on their dorm-room walls. Nolan is a master at turning Big Ideas into blockbuster entertainment, and this twisty caper that imagines cityscapes folding in on themselves not only works as a tight thriller, but also the ultimate futuristic head trip.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Corporate espionage and identity theft. This didn’t almost come true, it’s been true for a while now, costing billions of dollars in damage and forcing you to change your passwords way more frequently than you’d like.​

Watch it: Inception, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, HuluiTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Snowpiercer (2013)

After Earth has completely frozen over and a climate nightmare has killed off most of our planet’s population, the only survivors are housed on a speeding bullet train that circles the globe. The wealthiest, most elite class live at the front of the train while the soot-covered poor reside in the grim steerage section near the rear. Directed by Bong Joon Ho, the Oscar-winning director of ParasiteSnowpiercer is an action-packed workout (thanks to proletarian hero Chris Evans) and also darkly funny (courtesy of a very strange Tilda Swinton). You won’t look at your next Amtrak trip in quite the same way.​

Thing that (almost) came true: Popular resentment against the world’s richest 1 percent; the creepy crawly nutrition bars eaten by those in the back of the train will feel familiar to those who advocate eating insects as a source of protein to aid the world’s hunger crisis. Also, climate catastrophe.

Watch it: Snowpiercer, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube​​

Dune (2021)

Forget David Lynch’s strange and silly 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult novel about a distant desert planet loaded with a priceless psychedelic substance called “spice” and the battling tribes that fight for it. Because director Denis Villeneuve’s new eye-candy take on the material is an instant classic. Timothee Chalamet is outstanding as a visionary young seeker named Paul Atreides who may or may not be the messiah that the inhabitants of the planet Arrakis have long been waiting for. Villeneuve packs every frame with breathtaking, hallucinatory images without sacrificing the richness of Herbert’s narrative, giving us the most transporting sci-fi film in years.

​​Thing that (almost) came true: If you substitute “oil” for “spice,” the film’s ecological metaphor feels eerily prescient. Also, the film’s “box of pain” feels a lot like a more sinister version of a modern-day lie detector test. Still waiting on those helicopters with grasshopper wings, though.​

Watch it: Dune, on HBO Max

Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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