We fly our geek flag high and proud around here, so when The Man told us to write an article on the 50 best science fiction and fantasy films of all time, we were delighted. Then we were pissed. Man, this stuff is hard.
In making this list, we decided to avoid super hero flicks, lean away from most monster movies, and allow as many sequels as necessary from deserving franchises. We also realized both genres offer a ton of viable candidates, so that meant more than a few great movies were left on the cutting room floor—our apologies in advance.
So hop in your space cruiser, set your blaster to stun, and check out our list of the 50 best sci-fi and fantasy films of all time—in no particular order.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Director: George Lucas
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Perhaps you’ve heard of this one? If not, let us fill you in. It’s about a guy named Luk—oh, come on it’s freaking Star Wars. Is there a more textbook definition of sci-fi than George Lucas’ legendary franchise starter? Probably not. The special effects and dialogue may not have fully stood the test of time, but the cultural footprint left by this universally loved space opera is arguably the largest by any movie of any genre.
The Wizard of Oz
One of the greatest films of all time, a masterpiece, and a beloved treasure for countless numbers of people, The Wizard of Oz simply does everything right. The stunning sets. The timeless songs. Pitch perfect Judy Garland and the stellar cast. It’s clear by now that no matter how much times passes or advances are made on the CGI front, nothing will ever dull the magic of learning there’s no place like home.
Author Phillip K. Dick was a sci-fi genius, and Steven Spielberg tapped into Dick’s short story for the supremely suspenseful Minority Report. Tom Cruise is chief of the PreCrime police force in the year 2054, nabbing criminals before they commit the crime by looking into their future. Besides being a top-notch thrill ride, the film also leaves you with a host of moral questions to ponder once it’s done. We like that.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Peter Jackson surprised a hell of a lot of people with his take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth masterworks. The scope and sense of immersion he established right off the bat with Fellowship of the Ring was ambitious and amazing. Even with the valid criticisms about the film’s runtime and laundry list of character names and places one gets bombarded with, this is still a standout achievement in fantasy filmmaking.
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
You don’t think tearjerker when you think science fiction, but E.T. pulls on the heartstrings as much as any film ever has. Steven Spielberg tells the story of a boy befriending an alien with superior skill, weaving suspense, comedy, thrills, and tears into a powerful 115 minutes. Young Henry Thomas is excellent as Elliott, as is the rest of the cast, and the stirring theme by John Williams.
Such a simple title: Alien. But in 1979, Ridley Scott took that title and with it, sci-fi horror to new levels with this tale of a commercial spaceship getting a smidgen more than they bargained for while exploring a distress call. The pacing and suspense is Grade-A, Sigourney Weaver is strong (and gets even stronger in Aliens), and the chest-popping scene is still shown in most major medical schools—or should be.
Planet of the Apes
Inspired by a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes manages to weave in poignant social commentary about racism, religion, science, and war, while still being a fun movie about apes beating the crap out of people. The great Rod Serling having his hands on the screenplay surely helped, and the last scene of the film still stands tall as one of Hollywood’s greatest gotcha.
After The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan may not have been able to equal that level of excellence, but with Inception, he didn’t fall off much. There’s so much drama, you could call it a dramatic film. There’s so much action, you could call it an action flick. But when the story involves a professional thief diving into the subconscious minds of his targets to get the goods, you know you’re in the world of science fiction as well.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Wondrous, scary, funny, tense heartwarming—Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a fantastic trip through a whimsical world where chocolate rivers run and little boys and girls with personality flaws get exposed in sometimes pretty damn harsh ways. Gene Wilder is freaking sensational, and we’re still waiting for the Oompa-Loompas’ spinoff.
Back to the Future
Ahh… the magical blend of comedy, action, and sci-fi that is Back to the Future. Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly is a joy to watch as he goes back in time to fix the present, and Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown is equally awesome. Even if the film’s take on what kind of tech we’d have in 2015 (ahem, hoverboards) didn’t materialize, we can’t hold that against this cherished classic.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Like many sci-fi classics, Godzilla not only delivers a spectacle to look at, but also a poignant message to discuss after. Less than a decade after Japan was hit by atomic bombs in World War II, the themes of nuclear radiation and mass destruction were delved into via this iconic monster movie. Even if its spawn of sequels and offshoots only further entrenched its B-movie status, there’s no denying the impact of this creature on film and pop culture history.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: 2001 is way overrated. When people say they hate it, we totally get it. Much of it is boring and (depending on who you talk to) nonsensical. But it’d also be criminal to not have it on this list for three reasons: 1) Its profound impact on future sci-fi films and filmmakers, 2) its ground-breaking special effects, and 3) its handful of magical moments created by Stanley Kubrick. If only there were more HAL 9000 and less gorilla suits.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Director: Irvin Kershner
Purchase: Amazon DVD
It’s the consensus choice for the best of the six Star Wars films to date, and yeah, it should be. The Empire Strikes Back was darker, more intense, and more emotional than Star Wars. It also yielded a heavy load of unforgettable characters and moments, from the introduction of Yoda and Boba Fett, to Darth Vader’s “I am your father” bombshell. Perhaps the greatest sequel of all time, and surely on the short list for the best sci-fi adventures.
The term ‘dystopian’ gets thrown around a lot, but nowhere is it more fitting than with Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller. Loosely based the Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is film noir set fantastically in the future. Its vision of the future is bleak, dark, dangerous, and believable, with a moral tale about humans and technology too. We think it’s a smidgen overrated, but it certainly belongs on this list.
Wanna see a sci-fi classic and get some Shakespeare under your belt at the time? Set aside 98 minutes for Forbidden Planet, a landmark bit of sci-fi that leans heavily on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s 50s sci-fi at its stereotypical best, with terrific special effects (for the time period, of course), suspense, and a rich cheesy goodness you don’t mind getting all over you. Casting bonus: Leslie Nielsen!
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Two Towers tops our list of the three Rings films because of its fierce action, brutal battle scenes, fantastic special effects, and of course, Gollum, who really should’ve spun off into his own NBC sitcom by now. Andy Serkis and the CGI wizards who created Gollum really steal the show, creating one of the most memorable non-human characters in film history.
Coming straight of leftfield in 1999, The Matrix is a sci-fi/action mashup that will forever be remembered for its stunning fight scenes, killer effects, and above all else, “bullet time.” When you saw Keanu Reeves bending backwards to avoid the hot lead spray, at that moment you didn’t care if he simply said “whoa” for the rest of the movie. The Wachowski Brothers built a crazy deep (and yeah, crazy confusing) world that gave sci-fi lovers everywhere a massive Wachowski in their pants. The mushy money-grab sequels however, won’t be making this list.
The grandfather of all science-fiction films, bar none; this silent movie is where it all started. German director Fritz Lang took audiences far into the future with amazing set design and ground-creating visual flair. And despite it being older than bubble gum, canned beer, and the ballpoint pen, the themes of the film – class warfare and love – are as fresh as ever.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Aliens don’t have to be sinister bastards—it just makes it more fun that way. But one exception to that rule came hurtling into theaters in 1977 with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss is great as the dude whose run-in with a spaceship leaves him obsessed with learning more about what he experienced. The soothing five notes played by the alien spaceship almost makes the anal probing worth it!
The screenplay might have all the originality of a Garfield comic strip, but what the highest-grossing movie of all time lacks in plot, it makes up for in thick layers of immersive fantasy. You can’t quibble with the fact that Avatar is an absolute visual spectacle, and perhaps the greatest use of 3D ever seen. On those merits, it sits somewhere in the latter half out our top 50.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Director: Richard Marquand
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Return of the Jedi finished off the original Star Wars trilogy in grand style, with more space swashbuckling and alien encounters. The first half of the film, with Luke Skywalker’s mission to free Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt’s clutches, nicely carries over some of that edgy bite found in The Empire Strikes Back. The final battle between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor helps to make up for all those unfortunate Ewok shenanigans.
James Cameron doubled down on the action in this sequel to the much slimmer original from ’79; so much so that Aliens really works more as sci-fi action, whereas we see Alien as being sci-fi/horror. Regardless, Sigourney Weaver earns her stripes as one of the fiercest female action heroes of all time as she goes womano-a-womano vs. the alien queen. Great pacing, big thrills, and one of the best sci-fi films of the 80s.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
This golden oldie rests comfortably in our sci-fi hall of fame thanks to its timeless message about war and peace, told in a mature and suspenseful way. Expecting maturity from sci-fi back then was nearly unthinkable, but director Robert Wise nails it, despite being limited by the constraints of the time period.
Kong. The 8th wonder of the world. One of the greatest achievements in cinema history, the original King Kong is a flat-out masterpiece, especially on the technical front when you consider the film was made during the infancy stage of the motion picture industry. It’s the story of man’s ill-fated attempt to make money off of a giant ape, but it’s also an inter-species love story, perfectly blending fantasy, action, and drama, and in one.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
Choosing the final Harry Potter film to represent the series on this list is kind of like our version of the Best Picture Oscar going to the final Lord of the Rings film. Even if you don’t think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was the best of the eight films, it’s hard to dispute the notion that the series mostly got better as it went along. Daniel Radcliffe turns in perhaps his best performance yet, and the record-breaking box office run ends with a swell of intensity and emotion.
The first half of WALL-E can stand to-toe-toe with just about any science fiction film ever created—impressive stuff for an animated flick. WALL-E and EVE’s romance is 50 times better than anything rom-com rehash, and while the poignant magic is lost a bit in the much louder and busier second half, there’s no denying the greatness Pixar and director Andrew Stanton nailed here.
The first film to really do huge, jaw-dropping things with computer-generated imagery, Jurassic Park is a roller coaster ride that’s still worth the trip more than two decades later. For the most part, when you see a full shot of a dinosaur, it’s CGI; when it’s a close up, it’s an animatronic creature. The combination of Steven Spielberg’s direction, Stan Winston’s animatronic dinosaurs, Industrial Light & Magic’s effects, and John Williams’ score all add up to a spectacular fantasy flick.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Considered by many trekkies to be the best Star Trek film in very lengthy series, The Wrath of Khan hits the mark on many fronts: action, adventure, solid special effects, and – gasp – the (apparent) death of a Star Trek mainstay. Ricardo Montalban as Khan is great cheesy fun, and with a sharper focus on the characters that millions grew to love, it hits the sweet spot for young Baby Boomers or older Gen-Xers.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Was it a political allegory for McCarthyism and the anti-communist movement? Or just a great alien invasion flick? Probably the latter, but either way you slice it, this paranoia-filled gem scares the dickens out of us, even though we haven’t had a dickens in us since… well, let’s just stop that awkward sentence right there.
Along with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon has his face carved into the Mount Rushmore of sci-fi. While Flash’s film serials started in the 1930s, we’re choosing the tongue-in-cheek approach taken in the 1980 campy cult classic—think Adam West’s Batman in space and you’ll get the idea. There’s lots to like, with an array of memorable characters, impressive visuals, and that fun little soundtrack by Queen. Flash! Ahh-aaahh!
Another Philip K. Dick-inspired story from the future, this time with the laughable but still entertaining Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold plays Douglas Quaid, a construction worker whose virtual vacation to Mars kicks off a whole mess of thrills, violence, and fun. Sharon Stone never looked hotter than she did when kicking his ass in their apartment. Plus, how many other movies give you not one, not two, but three breasts?!
War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds might be the world’s most famous and influential work of science fiction ever created. It was published back in 1898, but it was really put on the map in 1938 when Orson Wells read it on the radio and freaked a ton of people the hell out. The finest adaption of the book came more than a hundred years later with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning trying to survive a hostile alien invasion. Steven Spielberg creates a thrilling and tense spectacle that falters a bit in the second half, but still stands tall.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron absolutely crushes his first film in this series, The Terminator, with T2, thanks to the new tech at his disposal—a little something called computer- generated imagery. With evil shape-shifting robots, plenty of chases, explosions, and Arnold Schwarzenegger doing what he does best (destroying stuff and not talking much), T2 is an action sci-fi hall of famer.
Skewing big business, greed, pop culture, and the media, Robocop manages to work in a number of heady references while also delivering an exciting piece of sci-fi action. Peter Weller plays the Detroit cop who gets gunned down, only to return as a cyborg, programmed to clean up the streets. A thought-provoking guilty pleasure that plays a lot smarter than it sounds.
If you’ve ever sat at your desk, toiling for the man, wondering what it would take to break free of his oppressive grip on your life, Brazil should speak to you. From the excessively eccentric mind of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys), Brazil certainly isn’t for everyone, but its unique blend of dark humor and an engrossing, Orwellian vision of the future make for a cult favorite and a sci-fi success.
In the immensely creative hands of David Cronenberg, this remake of the 1958 version jacked the gore, intensity, and horror up considerably. The Fly is also just a plain great film. The charmingly odd Jeff Goldblum is entirely believable as scientist Seth Brundle, a man who – in retrospect – should’ve really invested in can of Raid or two. Unforgettable visual: maggot baby.
J.J. Abrams was surely given the reins to Star Wars: Episode VII because of how well he handled the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Satisfy 45-year-old trekkies and 14-year-old adrenalin-seekers is no easy task, but this origin story manages to do just that. Fleshing out characters from scratch, characters that everyone already knows, could easily sink a blockbuster, but not here. The casting is on point, the pacing is crisp, and if you enjoy lens flares, this is your dream come true.
Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Director: George Lucas
Purchase: Amazon DVD
If you can put aside your disappointment with the prequel trilogy – remember, most of us saw Episodes IV, V, and VI as kids — then you can easily see how The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are all good sci-fi movies. The last was the best of the bunch, with state-of-the-art effects and a mostly satisfying conclusion to the finest sci-fi series of all time.
One of the first films to use computer animation, Disney’s Tron was years ahead of its time when it hit theaters in the summer of ’82. Video games were still a new phenomenon, and Tron put you (and star Jeff Bridges) inside a game more than any round of Asteroids could. While critics have taken to task the film’s story, its themes foreshadowed the future of man’s love-hate relationship with computers. That’s one reason why Tron now enjoys cult classic status, and those lovable light cycles are surely another.
Here’s a movie that a lot of people missed in theaters (and on DVD), but if you did see it, you can understand why it’s taken on cult classic status for many sci-fi fans. Rufus Sewell plays a man suffering from amnesia who’s being pursued by both the police and a shadowy group called the “Strangers.” Director Alex Proyas creates a mesmerizing, noir-inspired universe that gets fleshed out even further in the 2008 director’s cut.
The concept of aliens as refugees being forced into hard labor by humans is a compelling one, and writer-director Neil Blomkamp does a superb job of exploiting it. With great action, some impressive effects (especially given the film’s relatively modest $30 million budget), and a creative mix of use of documentary-style footage, District 9 is one of the best works of sci-fi so far this century.
They don’t just hand out exclamation points for free in Hollywood, ya know. You have to earn it. Them! earns its extra punctuation as one of the all-time great B-movie creature features, with everybody’s favorite picnic pest, ants, getting more than a little out of control in New Mexico. It may be MST 3Kesque now, but its closing message about the perils of the Atomic Age were a lot more sobering in 1954.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Some people call this the best of the Rings trilogy, but those were the people who weren’t trying hold in a large Sprite for the last 40 minutes. Despite the 27 false endings or so, Peter Jackson’s final chapter is a monumental success, with an extra helping of dazzling visuals, roof-rocking sound, and superb attention to detail. The Academy may have given it Best Picture (and Jackson Best Director) to salute the three-year body of work, but Return of the King is still a triumph, any way you slice it.
Given the pedigrees of the people behind A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the expectations were probably set too high. Legendary director Stanley Kubrick handed the concept off to fellow legend Steven Spielberg, who did nothing with it until Kubrick died in 1999. ‘Pinocchio in space’ is your elevator pitch here, with the superb Haley Joel Osment in the role of David, a robot-boy hybrid. While A.I. is not a masterpiece, we do think it is one of the best visual interpretations of the future ever seen on film, as well as one of the most emotional sci-fi flicks.
Somehow, even with Bruce Willis in it, Looper is a sleeper. This action/sci-fi/thriller blend crackles with tense time-traveling action, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hitman who has to deal with his future self. Sure, the plot gets (starts?) a little confusing, but there’s an original mix of morals and madcap action that’s worth high praise here.
Bruce Willis is James Cole, a convict in the year 2035, and with Earth in a heap of disease-related trouble, Cole gets sent back in time to try to stop the plague before it starts. That right there sounds pretty straightforward, but under Terry Gilliams’s direction, 12 Monkeys becomes much more. Inspired by the French short film La Jetee, this dark, tense thriller may not have all its ducks in a row, but its intensity is palpable. It’s probably also your best chance at convincing your girlfriend that Brad Pitt isn’t a sexy beast.
Men In Black
With a gaggle full of spectacular gadgets and grotesque creatures, plus excellent special effects and plenty of laughs, Men in Black makes for a textbook definition of summertime popcorn blockbuster. It’s light and breezy, yet filled with plenty of action and thrills to satisfy the hardcore crowd too. The mismatch approach to chemistry works well with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. That song sucked hard though.
A Clockwork Orange
Putting a complex, disturbing novella like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in the hands of Stanley Kubrick was like giving Disney World to the Joker. Malcom McDowell is callously terrifying as Alex, a thug who finally gets caught and subjected to a different brand of torture. A dark, twisted, and nasty trip into the near future, the film was first slapped with an X rating due to its in-your-face violence. An important milestone in cinema and science fiction history.
If you don’t bring your typical sci-fi expectations to Solaris – that is, don’t expect a cavalcade of amazing special effects and action – then you can see why it’s considered one of the genre’s finest films. This is complex, slow-paced movie about a psychologist’s mission to a space station to see what’s caused the other cosmonauts there to go insane. It’s understated, introspective sci-fi at its best.
The Princess Bride
One of the most quoted movies in pop culture history, The Princess Bride delivers an inconceivable mix of laughs, romance, and swashbuckling action. Director Rob Reiner has a ton of fun spoofing the adventure genre, while still providing a thoroughly enjoyably adventure at the same time. Casting bonus: Andre the Giant!
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