Science fiction is a varied and rich genre that has given us some classic films through the years. This is my attempt to provide a list of the absolute must watch science fiction films.
This list is deliberately eclectic, to try and give you some idea of the variety of awesome science fiction movies you could be watching.
It doesn’t include any films that have dated just because they are considered ‘classic’. So that’s why you won’t find the original version of Westworld in this list.
My Must Watch Science Fiction Movies
One of the darkest superhero films yet made. Watchmen has a bleak view of the human race and an even bleaker philosophy. Despite being created before the current crop of Superhero movies, Watchmen is actually the perfect antidote to the surgery sweetness of the Avengers.
This is, by necessity, an abridged and amended adaptation of the original graphic novel. Despite these tweaks, the ethos of the original remains.
A movie made of pure cool. This movie that brought the world bullet time and upped the special effects ante for every other movie. By every law of movies, a film like this should have dated horribly, but it absolutely hasn’t. It’s still as achingly awesome as it was when it first smashed its way into our collective consciousness.
The sequels never happened.
Very different from the book it’s based on but brilliant in its own way. A cinematic masterpiece that’s now widely considered as a classic. In many ways, this is Harrison Ford’s best role (or at least it’s my favorite). The real star is perhaps the world Ridley Scott creates around Ford’s Deckard. It’s pure cyberpunk, visually arresting and completely unforgettable.
Make sure you see the right version, i.e the Director’s or extended cuts.
There are aspects of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine that don’t quite work. The horror aspect lacks the element of surprise and the plot as a whole is predictable. Yet, the parts of Sunshine that work more than make up for those that don’t.
At times Boyle’s movie captures something of the majesty of the protagonist’s journey to the sun. Boyle’s characteristically beautiful cinematography working perfectly with John Murphy and Underworld’s music to create some transcendental movie moments that will stay with you long after you’ve watched the film.
The cast, led by the suitably otherworldly Cillian Murphy, is one of the strongest assembled outside of a Christopher Nolan or Coen brother film.
It may have dated since it hit the big screen, but it’s still a classic. Robocop is a cyberpunk movie that takes on ideas about the role of justice and capitalism in a dystopian society. For extra giggles, you can make a respectable drinking game out of picking out the Christ allusions peppered throughout the film.
Robocop is Verhoeven at his best: satirical, strange and hilarious.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
This film, set in a steampunk future of an alternate timeline, is full of wit, charm, and wonder. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow have a playful chemistry, but the real star is the world created by director Kerry Conran.
Perhaps not a classic science fiction film, it’s worth its place on this list due to its whimsy, lovability and well-realized steampunk aesthetic.
It takes a strange mind to make time-travel movies work and, unsurprisingly, Terry Gilliam’s mind is more than strange enough to do the job. 12 Monkeys is a disorientating look at the immutability of time.
The movie is remembered for great performances from both Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis as a time traveller and unstable eco-terrorist, respectively. Yet, what elevates this film, and what sticks in the viewer’s mind, is Gilliam’s signature weirdness.
Attack the Block
A horror comedy that’s pure South London. Perhaps now more notable for being the breakthrough role of John Boyega of Star Wars fame, Attack the Block is a cracking watch in its own right. Switching effortlessly between drama, action and a very British sense of humour, Attack The Block is an off-beat sci-fi gem that is certainly a must watch science fiction movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Volume 1
I had to include one of the recent slew of superhero movies in this list and, for me, this is the only one that deserves its place here.
Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t burdened with expectations in the same way as the more high profile MCU films were. And it shows in its inventiveness, wit, and charm. Essentially a buddy movie with a talking raccoon and a walking tree, Guardians is the ultimate feel-good movie. The cast, led by the magnetic Chris Pratt, crackles with the chemistry required for a movie about misfits becoming a team.
Beneath the humor and the action is a much more melancholic movie about a group of people coming to terms with the loss in their lives as they deal with a universe seemingly out to get them. Effectively it’s an underdog story in space. And what’s not to love about that?
Volume 2 was pretty awesome too, but it lacked the surprise factor of its predecessor. You can read more about why I loved Guardians of the Galaxy here.
Claustrophobic and haunting; Moon sees Sam Rockwell cope with the extreme solitude of life by himself on the moon. At least until an unexpected visitor turns up and he has the even harder task of dealing with him. This tense film was carried by a spectacular performance by Sam Rockwell and announced director Duncan Jones as a real talent.
A mind-bending hard science fiction novel about time travel. I’m pretty sure you need a Ph.D. in Maths or Quantum Physics to understand this movie fully but, even so, it’s still a compelling movie for us laymen.
If you liked the sound of Primer, then you should watch Timecrimes, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s knotted time travel movie. The story begins with the protagonist (Hector) being stabbed by a strange bandaged man while out investigating his neighbour. What follows involves a time travel machine and a well managed but convoluted time travel plot. The film has its own mischievous sense of humour and is also great fun to think about after you’ve finished watching.
Some had issues with the plot of this film, but it’s still the most scientifically accurate science fiction blockbuster since 2001: A Space Odyssey. The depiction of the black hole was truly awe-inspiring and is surprisingly close to how astrophysicists think one would actually look. Interstellar is one of those rare films that gives the viewer a glimpse into the scale and majesty of the universe beyond planet Earth. As you can see from our review, we loved it.
A film that pokes fun at all the normal Star Trek tropes and preconceptions, but does so with love and charm. The plot sees the bitter and ageing cast of a show not unlike Star Trek being abducted by aliens who think the on-screen exploits are real. This leads the barely functioning troupe of actors on a hilarious interstellar mission.
A stellar cast including Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell help make this a memorable comedy.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Mumblecore classic Safety Not Guaranteed only just qualifies as science fiction, but it’s worth including because it’s just so damn good. The film hinges on the relationship between Mark Duplass (from The League) and Aubrey Plaza (best known to Parks and Recreation fans and Legion fans). This soft science fiction movie is a touching character-driven piece that shows how science fiction doesn’t have to be dark to be powerful. You can find our review of Safety Not Guaranteed here.
Total Recall was directed by Paul Verhoeven, so you know it’s going to be pretty odd. It’s an existential musing on the nature of memory and identity wrapped in a mental movie with three breasted prostitutes, memorable mutants, and some interesting special effects.
While these effects may have dated, the movie itself still holds up and is worth a watch.
Mars Attacks! is a stupid, stupid film. But it’s still funny. Mars Attacks! mixes parody with satire and just plain Tim Burton wackiness to create something as memorable as it is insane. The film doesn’t as much have stars as it has a long list of cameos, but it’s clear watching it that all those involved had a great time.
If you can spot the satire, Starship Troopers is great fun. Set in the 23rd century, Starship Troopers follows a group of teenagers as they go to another planet to fight alien insect swarms. The action is well handled and the movie is far more intelligent than it appears on first viewing. It also answers the question: What would the film Zulu have looked like if it was set in space and the Zulus were giant bugs?
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
The best Star Trek movie ever made, and that includes the rebooted series. Wrath Of Khan may be best remembered for Ricardo Montalban’s powerhouse of a performance and its famous emotional punch. But it’s a success more because of the chemistry between the original cast members. It’s clear that they understood their characters and their colleague’s characters completely.
Though often parodied, even ridiculed, there are many reasons Star Trek is revered by so many; it showed humanity both as it is and how it should be, it was a great story, and it had Spock. Wrath of Khan brought all of this together and more to create a truly great film that’s still worth watching.
A psychological horror that touches on themes of birth, penetration and pure primal fear; Ridley Scott’s Alien redefined how we imagined long-haul space travel. Instead of shiny ships and brilliant space captains, we see a group of average workers just trying to get by. This simple idea helped ground the film in the grit and the grime of everyday life.
The Geiger inspired Alien and aesthetic alone would be enough to make Alien an iconic movie; that it is filled with classic scenes and compelling characters cements its status as a science fiction great.
Aliens is still regarded as one of the best sequels ever, and it’s easy to see why. Ripley is joined by a group of marines to go to the Zeta Reticuli moon. Once they’ve arrived it’s not long before it’s the marines vs the Aliens. A simple plot, but one elevated to the status of a masterpiece by James Cameron’s deft directorial touch.
When watching Aliens it’s important to remember that this was before the days of big-budget sequels, so the budget for this movie probably wouldn’t have covered one of Iron Man’s shin pads. Yet Cameron creates a world that will sear itself into the pathways of your brain.
By making Terminator 2, James Cameron created one of the building blocks of the modern action blockbuster. Without this adrenaline-fuelled powerhouse of a movie, I doubt films like Mad Max: Fury Road would exist. Many of its special effects still hold up today and, more importantly, work with the script rather than simply as an add-on. Something many subsequent summer blockbusters could have learned from.
Where Cameron excels is unleashing the fury behind the Terminator concept, this idea of fighting fate and the future despite the apparent futility of your actions. Cameron also found the perfect vehicle for this fury in Linda Hamilton’s ferocious portrayal of Sarah Connor. Arnie may have got the kudos and the best lines, but the film is Hamilton’s.
John Carpenter’s The Thing plays on everybody’s inherent claustrophobia and paranoia to create a horror that will send shivers down your spine. The famous special effects may be what is most referenced and repeated about this movie, but they are not its key element. Its key element is the baseline of nervous paranoia that pervades every scene.
This film also contains Kurt Russell’s best role, with the possible exception of Big Trouble in Little China. He’s the gritty American hero facing the unknown with nothing but his brass balls and his never say die attitude. It’s a character that has become cliched but still works well when done properly. And Russell nailed it.
A monster mash-up where giant mechanized Jaegers face off with Godzilla-style Kaiju. This is an idea so dumb only one director could pull it off. Luckily that director was Guillermo del Toro and he was at the helm for this film. Don’t expect a lot of subtlety from Pacific Rim, but do expect a lot of fun.
Children of Men
Children of Men is a film so near-future it’s barely sci-fi. Its premise is simple: the year is 2027 and there has not been a new human born in 20 years. This planet-wide infertility has led to a dystopian future where the UK is one of the last stable governments in the world. Clive Owen plays an activist turned bureaucrat dragged into a plot full of backstabbing and intrigue. The pace of the story and the gritty realism of the movie make this film as fun to watch now as it was in its year of release.
Serenity is a space opera western that delivers enough of a cool factor to knock any viewer off their feet. The film expands upon the characters of the TV series it was based on (Firefly) and gives us the excellent new villain ‘The Operative’. Like all good space operas, it takes the viewer across the galaxy to places they would never imagine themselves. And all in the company of an interesting crew containing mercenaries, killers, and a telepath.
WALL-E showcased Pixar’s seemingly endless creativity yet again. It brought the grace and wonder of silent movies into modern animated movies. The first dialogue is only spoken around 45 minutes into the film, and it’s this first 45 minutes that is the strongest. WALL-E, the last trash compactor robot on Earth, is one of cinema’s cutest protagonists and is much more relatable than the humans that eventually show up.
Its message may be simple, and some of the plot predictable, but WALL-E is worth its place on this list simply because of its artistry.
Planet of the Apes
A 60’s science fiction movie that still holds up today. The apes may be what you remember, but this is a very human-focused satire. Created at a time when nuclear holocaust was a real threat, Planet of the Apes shows humanity’s direction of travel and (through the politicking of the ape castes) how we’re going to get there.
While it may lack the special effects of its glitzier successors, it possibly has the strongest message of all the Ape films. And the best ending, of course.
The Fifth Element
So colourful it may make your eyes bleed, The Fifth Element is a visual rollercoaster as enthralling as it is weird. Bruce Willis plays a hard-boiled ex-soldier who falls for the angelic Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). It’s the extra visual flourishes from director Luc Besson that have made it a timeless film. Each scene is packed with extra details that combine to create a film full of splendour.
9 is a haunting post-apocalyptic steampunk animation directed by Shane Acker. The star-studded cast includes Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, and John C Reilly. The film sees the tiny stitchpunks battle for their existence in a world devoid of life, following a war between humans and robots.
The robots are as terrifying as they are steampunk, while the stitchpunks are certainly cute enough to tug the coldest of heartstrings. We reviewed 9 here.
This mindbending film started as a cult movie but soon became a phenomenon. When it came out, it was the film everyone talked about and everyone asked you if you’d seen. Much like Stranger Things, Donnie Darko perfectly recreates the feel of the 1980’s through both the set and the soundtrack, before giving it a weird science fiction twist. It also features Frank, the scariest rabbit outside of Watership Down.
Donnie Darko is achingly cool and has an undeniably dark core. Yet, somehow, you will also remember the sweetness that shines through the movie.
I don’t know much about Repo Man director Alex Cox, but after watching this movie I’m pretty sure he’s an actual alien. The movie follows rookie repo man Emilio Estevez and his grizzled partner Dean Stanton as their path intersects with secret government conspiracies, alien bodies, punks and a glowing Chevy Malibu.
Like all great cult films, Repo Man is eminently quotable and full of scene-stealing supporting characters. Yet its greatest aspect is, perhaps, its sheer wow factor. Watching this movie is like having your neck snapped back by the acceleration of a sports car: a visceral joy that hurts just a little.
Like Hunger Games, but brilliant. Battle Royale is a film that screams into the abyss. Set in a near future Japan, a school class are marooned on an island and pitted against each other in a battle to the death. Behind the strange set-up, Battle Royale is a character study and social commentary. The history of cinema is littered with films that have set out to shock, few have managed to be as affecting as Battle Royale.
Inception was an instant classic that got everyone talking.
You can’t watch this film without having an opinion about it and wanting to share that opinion. Like all Nolan films it looks amazing, the dream worlds we are taken into managing to be simultaneously totally believable and completely fantastical.
Christopher Nolan may be our greatest living director. He simply does not make bad films and every film he makes is worth multiple viewings. Nolan is also the master of getting the most out of an excellent cast, and each scene is filled with subtle acting choices that elevate the movie to the status of masterpiece.
Watching Inception is an awesome experience, that every science fiction fan should have.
Not a subtle film, but when you’re talking about apartheid there really is no need to dance around the point. Set in South Africa, the aliens in District 9 came to earth to find refuge but have only found derision, segregation, and persecution. District 9 is part buddy movie, part action film and fully a statement against the dehumanization of others.
Mad Max: Fury Road
It’s hard to believe that any single film could contain this much pure adrenaline. Almost the entire film is one long chase. But what it lacks in subtly it makes up for in insanity. I’ve got no more to say on this movie except: ‘You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.’
“That Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”
This description (from Kyle Reese) describes the unstoppable being that was the Terminator. And it gives you some idea of the force that was unleashed on an unsuspecting world by this movie.
Unlike pretty much every other testosterone-fuelled 80s movie, I doubt The Terminator will ever date. It’s just too taut, too in your face and too damn aggressive to ever fade away the way films like Predator have done.
This is the movie that truly launched Arnie’s movie, and ultimately political, career. But you shouldn’t hold that against it, it’s as awesome today as it was in 1984.
The Martian is more than just an Oscar-nominated film backed by a huge marketing juggernaut. It was one of those rare beasts, a hard science fiction movie that went mainstream. The plot is effectively Cast Away on Mars, but the film is much more than that. There’s humour amongst the survivalism and Matt Damon was a perfect casting choice.
No 80s kid, like me, could leave Ghostbusters off this list. If you saw this film when you were growing up, then you probably watched it multiple times. It was the film you quoted in the playground. The character you probably quoted was Peter Venkman, played by the incredible Bill Murray. By all rights a film like this, with its 80s humour and ropey special effects, should have dated horribly. Yet, largely due to the natural comedic ability of the cast, it’s still funny and very watchable today.
Turbo Kid scrapes onto this list of must-watch science fiction movies by dint of its charm. It’s not perfect, but if you liked 80s post-apocalyptic science fiction then you’ll love this offbeat homage. If you’re the type of person that reads science fiction sites like Stranger Views, then chances are you’re the type of person who could watch Turbo Kid and cherish all of the cool geeky references.
Another entry from the inimitable Terry Gilliam. Brazil mixes dreams with reality to create unsettling images that have seared themselves into science fiction history.
A sci-fi movie set in a dystopian future, Gilliam’s work pits the individual against the broken bureaucratic machine. Like the best satires, the comedy is dark and brutal.
Our protagonist dreams himself a warrior that is rescuing a beautiful woman. Yet he’s just a bureaucrat in the pay of an oppressive government. What’s most interesting about this bureaucratic body is its sheer ineptitude. Unlike the brutal efficiency of the Government of Orwell’s 1984, this one is riddled by insane regulations and broken tech. Anyone who has worked in a large company undergoing a wide-ranging tech upgrade will understand this situation: everything advances, but nothing works.
Brazil is a bizarre film, that sadly may prove somewhat prophetic.
Films That Didn’t Make My Best Science Fiction Movies List …..(that you will probably hate me for)
Science fiction is a broad church, but Star Wars still does fit in it. It’s pure fantasy, it just happens to involve spaceships and aliens. And, whisper it quietly, the dialogue is occasionally ropey and the whole incest thing weird.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick’s movie may contain some amazing cinematography and iconic scenes, it may make film students swoon, but I just don’t find it as interesting or as magnificent as the rest of the world seems to. Apologies.
I hope that, at the very least, this list will give you some ideas for the next film you watch. I’m sure not everyone will agree with my choices. So, if you think I’ve missed a film off this list, let me know. If I agree with you: I’ll add it. If I don’t, I won’t. And, if I haven’t seen it I’ll make sure to watch it next.