What are the best sci-fi movies of all time? It’s a question that has no easy answer, with a whole host of incredible films taking a leap of imagination to tell challenging, exciting and fan-favourite stories over the last few decades.
Do the big blockbusters of the ’80s hold a place in your heart, or do you endure agonising waits for standalone new releases? And where do you draw the line between sci-fi, fantasy and imaginative action?
Whichever way you class them, sci-fi movies allow us to examine the troubles and stories of our own times through a different lens, sometimes giving us a greater clarity on the issues of the day – and sometimes just telling a rollicking, high drama storyline full of cool robots.
But which ones are most worth a watch? At RadioTimes.com we’re here to help, enlisting our team of writers to pick their favourite sci-fi movies, ranging from high-concept far-future stories to romantic fantasies, offbeat relationship dramas to high-octane war movies and much, much more.
These aren’t the only sci-fi movies in the world, but they’re our favourites – so if for some reason you haven’t seen any of them yet, why not take the chance, dive into a strange new world and enjoy.
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of a Philip K Dick story (the less snappily-titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) took a brilliant concept and spun it into sci-fi gold, delivering a moody, stylish and challenging drama that could be the best example of what science fiction can do on the silver screen.
Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, the titular Blade Runner whose job it is to hunt down rogue Replicants (human-like robots) led by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty – but really the film is led as much by the production design, performances and atmosphere as this plot, following a languid path as Deckard slowly tracks down his prey.
Over the years Blade Runner has often become reduced to tired debates about whether Deckard himself is a Replicant and fans quoting Hauer’s legendary, semi-improvised “tears in rain” monologue, but really it’s about so much more than both these (admittedly great) moments. There’s never really been another film like it (barring a solid sequel starring Ryan Gosling), and it’s impossible to imagine it being made today.
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Bloody-gobsmackingly-gargantuan. That’s probably the best way to describe writer/director Chris Nolan’s space odyssey, truly one of the boldest and most beautiful sci-fi films of all time.
And we don’t only say this due to Interstellar’s ambitious story, which follows a team of astronauts led by Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as they blast through a wormhole to the very limits of space-time in a search for a new home for mankind. The sheer goal of exploring intricate scientific ideas – interdimensional travel, artificial intelligence, supermassive black holes, time dilation, general relatively and gravity – within the very human themes of love, sacrifice and family is staggeringly huge. Yet it all somehow works.
It’s a phenomenal balancing act achieved by resplendent directing tricks from Nolan, plus a tear-jerking performance from McConaughey, who delivers one of the finest pieces of acting ever seen in the genre. Similarly co-stars Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine also provide an emotional weight that pulls the film’s complex narrative back to Earth.
Combine all this with a blaring Hans Zimmer organ soundtrack, a secret A-list actor appearance and mind-melting visuals, Interstellar is a much-watch for fans of great sci-fi and drama alike.
Just don’t expect to understand it all during your first viewing. Or twelfth.
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The Truman Show (1998)
Produced long before the boom in reality television and social media, The Truman Show is an eerily prophetic slice of sci-fi. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man blissfully unaware that his entire life is a fabrication created for a TV series broadcast all over the world. Although everything appears perfectly nice, he senses an artificiality that fills him with a profound emptiness.
For Carrey, it was a rare dramatic role and perhaps the best of his career. He utilises his natural comic ability in a number of scenes, but his performance is at its strongest in the raw emotional moments. As Truman’s world comes crashing down around him, the sheer existential horror on his face is truly heartbreaking, making his quest for answers all the more compelling.
Laura Linney is superb as Truman’s “wife”, Meryl, delivering one of the finest product placement parodies to ever grace the screen. Noah Emmerich is even more malignant as “best friend” Marlon, whose affable demeanour is alarmingly convincing.
Inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone, The Truman Show embodies the thoughtful, philosophical sci-fi of the legendary Rod Serling. It questions what it means to really live and warns us not to accept any substitute.
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1984’s The Terminator might be a perfectly formed cat-and-mouse thriller and its 1991 sequel a breathtaking visual spectacle, but for me, nowhere does Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic screen persona fuse as perfectly with the sci-fi genre as in 1987’s Predator.
The tale of an elite paramilitary unit who encounter an invisible and seemingly unvanquishable alien foe in the sweltering jungles of Central America, Predator delivers the Arnie tropes we know and love – post-mortem wisecracks (“Stick around!” his character Dutch quips after pinning an enemy guerrilla to the wall with a large knife) and memorable catchphrases (“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” “GET TO DA CHOPPAH!!”) are peppered throughout.
But what elevates it above lesser Schwarzenegger fare are the wholly convincing and compelling sci-fi elements – chiefly the Predator itself, an all-time-great creature design from special make-up effects creator Stan Winston, the practical elements of which still look phenomenal over three decades later and outshine many of the CGI nasties seen in contemporary sci-fi cinema.
Throw in a dash of the “team movie” formula to this Arnie/alien fusion – Schwarzenegger spoke at the time of his desire to break away from the one-man army cliché and evoke something closer to classic Western movies like 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1969’s The Wild Bunch – and you’ve got yourself an almost absurdly entertaining science-fiction film classic.
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Ex Machina (2014)
Before he blew our minds with Annihilation and TV series Devs, novelist-turned screenwriter and director Alex Garland knocked it out of the park with Ex Machina, a stylish and unsettling take on the Turing test that went beyond simple questions of what it means to be human.
Starring an on-the-rise Alicia Vikander as a realistic robot called Ava, Oscar Isaac as her amoral creator Nathan and Domhnall Gleeson as the programmer employed to test her humanity, Ex Machina always keeps you guessing. Is Ava genuinely terrified of her predicament, or is she manipulating Caleb (Gleeson) for her own ends? Are their private chats really an escape from the troubling influence of Nathan, or all part of his grand plan?
Tautly plotted and with a skeleton cast of just four main characters, Ex Machina is a perfect piece of storytelling that’s more than the sum of its android parts. And by the end, you may never look at your Amazon Echo the same way again…
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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was unfairly overlooked during its original release; a box office disaster shrugged off by many critics. However, the film is destined to become a cult classic, presenting a vibrant and colourful sci-fi universe which is a true wonder to behold.
Based on a French comic book, the film follows galactic peacekeepers Valerian and Laureline as they investigate a crisis on a heaving space station called Alpha. What follows is a delightful romp through fascinating alien cultures, with some of the best production design, visual effects, and action sequences of any film in recent memory. An ambitious heist split across multiple realities, an exciting chase through Alpha’s distinct sectors, and a dangerous underwater expedition are among the varied thrills that await you.
Of course, there are some flaws. Dane DeHaan is awkwardly miscast in the title role, failing to portray the roguish swagger of Han Solo or Star-Lord, as was clearly intended. There are some clunky lines of dialogue, spelling things out a tad too clearly to the audience at home. Yet these shortcomings only play into the offbeat charm of Valerian: a unique sci-fi epic that provides a much-needed breath of fresh air from Hollywood’s often generic output.
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Never Let Me Go (2010)
Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same title, Never Let Me Go is like a dystopian chick flick. Combing sci-fi elements and romance, this film will have you awestruck and reaching for the tissues at the same time.
It follows the lives of Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Kiera Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who attend Hailsham boarding school in 1978. Here, the children are made to create lots of artwork to get into The Gallery run by a mysterious woman called Madame. One day, however, a new teacher reveals to the students they’re all destined to be organ donors and will “complete” (die) in their early adulthood, and it then becomes known they are clones and have been created simply to give up their organs.
Incredibly moving, Never Let Me Go tackles with what it means to be human, as Tommy, Ruth and Kathy try to avoid “completing” as they near the donation stage. Rumours swirl that if you can prove true love, you won’t have to donate and will be able to live a full life, which is when Tommy thinks back to the artwork they were made to produce in school, believing it is the key to proving they have souls.
But how different are they really to humans anyway? Just like them, humans will eventually “complete”….
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In the time since Arrival was released back in 2016, Denis Villeneuve has turned his attention to sci-fi on a grander scale – with his tremendous Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Dune adaptation – but this slightly more intimate affair remains the Canadian director’s most beguiling movie to date.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and boasting a remarkable performance from Amy Adams, Arrival focuses on the sudden appearance of mysterious spacecraft in twelve seemingly unrelated parts of the world, each housing bizarre aliens referred to as Heptapods.
With government’s the world over having declared the event an emergency, linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is hired in an attempt to force understanding with the aliens, and as she begins to interpret their unusual language she makes some startlingly profound discoveries.
It’s a film that’s about so much more than an alien invasion: it is a stunning, contemplative work focusing on communication, collaboration and the nature of time, while there are clear echoes of the work of revered sci-fi novelist Kurt Vonnegut. A masterpiece – and well deserving of its Best Picture nomination at that year’s Oscars.
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This epic blockbuster is a true masterpiece and arguably James Cameron’s best film to date. Tasked with crafting a sequel to a suspenseful horror flick, the prolific director wasn’t content with merely doing the same thing again. Rather, he shifts to a more action-oriented approach, while not losing sight of the compelling characters that made Ridley Scott’s original a groundbreaking success.
Sigourney Weaver gives an incredible performance as Ellen Ripley, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, which is very rare in the sci-fi genre. Traumatised by her experiences aboard the ill-fated Nostromo, she is furious to discover that the sinister Weyland Corporation doesn’t believe a word of her story. Her sharp commentary on corporate greed establishes her as a working-class icon.
Cameron gradually ramps up the tension, withholding his first action sequence until an hour into the runtime. It’s a genius move that allows ample time for us to get acquainted with the supporting cast, including Lance Henriksen’s android Bishop, Michael Biehn’s noble marine Dwayne Hicks and Paul Reiser’s loathsome executive Carter Burke. When the action does kick off, it’s well worth the wait, packing some of cinema’s most memorable setpieces.
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The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott and Matt Damon transformed Andy Weir’s hit novel The Martian into an oddly feel-good movie about a futuristic Robinson Crusoe, that combined real science with some hair-raising action scenes to create a brilliant blockbuster.
Starring Damon as Mark Watney, a botanist who’s accidentally left behind when a manned mission to Mars goes awry, the film could have gone for a downbeat story about isolation – but instead The Martian is more optimistic, with Watney using ingenious methods to “science the sh*t” out of his situation, grow crops on Mars and eventually jerry-rig a way off the Red Planet to rejoin his crew (including actors like Jessica Chastain, Rooney Mara and Sebastian Stan).
Featuring a glossy cast including the above astronauts, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean the film’s a great ensemble piece, but in the end it’s Damon who carries the whole thing. If you want a film that entertains, teaches you something and makes you feel good about humanity into the bargain, The Martian is that rare sci-fi film that does all three.
Though we would still have to warn about the disco music.
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Look, I know there are a lot of valid reasons to dislike Twilight. And I know it is the butt of many boring jokes: “Still a better movie than Twilight”, people say, over and over again on the internet, virtually slapping each other on the back. But! I am ready to admit: I kind of love Twilight. I read and re-read the books as a teenager, and the 2008 movie came out at exactly the right time for 16-year-old me to become secretly obsessed.
For pure escapism and fantasy, what better than a tale of an ordinary, lonely, awkward, clumsy girl (Bella, played by Kristen Stewart) who falls in love with a beautiful, rich, emotionally aloof boy (Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen) – who then turns out to be a vampire? A vampire who loves Bella back, but is trying to resist temptation (in more ways than one)?
Add in a love triangle with a werewolf, plus the battles with other murderous covens of vampires, and you might even say, in the (corny) words of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), that this movie is “like my own personal brand of heroin.” (And I don’t want to break the addiction.)
Eleanor Bley Griffiths
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Want something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide