What is the best sci-fi movie of all time? Is it one chapter of a larger saga, like The Empire Strikes Back or Wrath of Khan? A standalone banger in the vein of District 9 or Children of Men? Maybe an early classic, a las Metropolis or A Trip to the Moon? We’re going to settle this once and for all!
Okay, we’re not actually going to do that. That would be an impossible Sisyphean challenge. And get us yelled at a lot in the process.
Still, it’s a question that hounds sci-fi fans and is the source of endless debate—that’s one of the joys of fandom, sitting down with a bunch of like-minded weirdos and arguing which of our favorites truly reigns supreme.
So, how do we plan to determine this? If we tried to come up with our own list amongst our staff it would probably end in a fistfight, or at least a slew of deeply hurt feelings and lingering resentment.
Instead of staging such a knock-down, drag-out nerd brawl—and to minimize how much we get yelled at—we decided to look to the masses. We based this list on the user ratings of sci-fi movies..
Admittedly, it’s not a perfect system. There’s obvious recency bias going on, which makes sense, given the demographics regularly using such an online tool. There’s also the potential for skewed results as fans have been known to pile on reviews for films, positive or negative. However, while flawed, it offers a decent look at popular opinion on the matter at hand.
As usual, we attempt this with some ground rules and caveats. First, also as usual, we’re excluding comic book/superhero movies unless they’re explicitly hard sci-fi. (Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War, among others, would show up if we did not do this.) We’re also going to cut it off at movies with 500,000 votes. Otherwise, it turns into an unwieldy beast, and given that there are plenty of films in the million-votes-plus range, we feel comfortable with this limit.
Here they are in ascending order, the best sci-fi movies of all time according to viewers.
12 Monkeys | 8.0
In 1995, Terry Gilliam took the concept of La Jetee, an experimental French short film from the 1960s, and expanded it into an inventive, off-kilter time-travel adventure. Bruce Willis plays a man sent back in time from a dystopian future to discover the source of a plague that decimates the human race. Strange, funny, and darkly gorgeous, 12 Monkeys offers a harrowing, inventive meditation on fate, free will, and the future.
Donnie Darko | 8.0
A moody teen, a six-foot-tall rabbit, and a stray chunk of a passenger jet are just a few pieces of Richard Kelly’s original, striking debut, Donnie Darko. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the title character, a gradually unraveling young man beset by dark visions and urges as he navigates the rocky shores of adolescence, a small town, and mental illness. All wrapped in sci-fi trappings with a time travel bow. Funny, compassionate, and earnest, this is an ambitious film, one that, understandably, turned its lead into a major star.
Her | 8.0
Leave it to Spike Jonze to take an idea like a lonely man falling in love with his artificially intelligent operating system and turn it into a sweet, delicate, emotionally pummeling romance. Simultaneously bittersweet and optimistic, one of Joaquin Phoenix’s best performances, playing a man who writes love letters for other people, anchors the film as he acts opposite the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson. Lovely and quiet, Her delivers a not-so-distant future not so different from our own.
The Martian | 8.0
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” proclaims Matt Damon’s astronaut, Mark Watney, in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. And does he ever. Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the film follows an astronaut’s struggle for survival after being abandoned on Mars. Full of Robinson Crusoe-style survival-against-incredible-odds adventure, the film is a thrilling, effects-driven tentpole that also tells a small, human story. It’s one of Scott’s best recent films and Damon has rarely, if ever, been this good, carrying the whole picture on his shoulders.
The Terminator | 8.0
A murderous robot from the future sent back in time to kill the mother of the future leader of the human resistance to the machines, and the soldier sent back to protect her. In the hands of James Cameron, this all adds up to one of the greatest movies, science fiction or otherwise, ever made. A near-perfect blend of action, bleak horror, and sci-fi, The Terminator takes a lo-fi, B-movie aesthetic and crafts a harrowing nightmare of what’s to come.
Blade Runner | 8.1
Surprise, surprise, another Ridley Scott movie on this list. A popular and critical flop upon release in 1982, Blade Runner has ascended to classic status, and for good reason. Scott takes a base from Philip K. Dick and uses it to build an immersive, lived-in dystopian noir. Harrison Ford plays a futuristic cop, one tasked with tracking, identifying, and eliminating replicants, rogue synthetic people hiding among the population. Foreboding and bleak, Blade Runner presents a profound look at what it means to be human.
Jurassic Park | 8.1
Whoever had the idea to combine Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs is a genius. The man has made some great sci-fi movies, and Jurassic Park is one of his best. Based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, the story of a theme park that brings dinosaurs back to life, only for them to then run amok, combines spectacular practical effects with groundbreaking digital wizardry to create a world where humans and dinosaurs coexist. And the result is epic and thrilling makes you feel like you’re in the heart of the action, running from a T-Rex.
Mad Max: Fury Road | 8.1
It took forever and for a while it seemed a vengeful god had it in for the production—the original shooting location was wiped off the map by freak storms, among other significant hurdles—but George Miller’s return to the post-apocalyptic wastes he first visited in 1979 was worth every second we waited. Mad Max: Fury Road offers wall-to-wall visceral action, death-defying practical effects, highly stylized production, and a more thoughtful take on the apocalypse than you might imagine. And all of this with a title character who has roughly 20 lines.
2001: A Space Odyssey | 8.3
Has any sci-fi movie ever been as debated and picked over—especially by stoned college kids with Pink Floyd posters on their walls—as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Esoteric, psychedelic, and dense to the point of obfuscation, there’s certainly much to delve into and discuss. The film pushes technical and narrative boundaries as it examines the constant evolution of humanity’s relationship with technology. Heavy on symbolism, short on obvious or explicit answers, there’s a definite reason this film remains such a focal point of conversation.
A Clockwork Orange | 8.3
Based on Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange examines violence, social control, and morality through a sharp, satirical near-future lens. The film revolves around a young punk, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his gang of all-white-wearing “droogs,” as they embark on a violent rampage.
It shocked audiences on its initial release in 1971 and remains a conversation piece and source of controversy even today as audiences debate the true meaning behind the film—as well as Kubrick’s choice to cut off the final chapter of the book, which offers a more redemptive, less bleak outlook.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | 8.3
At one point in his career, Jim Carrey was best known for talking out of his own butt on screen. Thanks in part to movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others, we’ve all seen what he can do with more dramatic material and more restrained characters.
Directed by Michel Gondry, co-starring Kate Winslet, and written by Charlie Kaufman, the story of a decaying relationship, where the couple each attempts to erase their memories of each other, is surreal and whimsical, and bittersweet and achingly romantic. It’s a charming, earnest fever dream of a love story filtered through an endlessly inventive visual lens.
Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi | 8.3
It wouldn’t be a “greatest sci-fi movies of all-time” list without a Star War or two. 1983’s Return of the Jedi wrapped up George Lucas’ epic space opera—at least until the prequels. The saga’s sweeping finish picks up with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and all your other favorites. Themes of family and friendship, freedom and tyranny mix with swashbuckling space action as the rag-tag forces of Rebellion mount one final assault against the looming galactic dictatorship of the Empire. And it has Ewoks, for whatever that’s worth to you.
Alien | 8.4
Few films inspire as much is-it-horror-or-is-it-sci-fi debate as Ridley Scott’s Alien. But come on, it takes place in space and features a vicious, acid-blooded extraterrestrial monster. Sure, it’s terrifying, but how is this even a conversation? Anyway.
When the ill-fated crew of the deep space mining ship Nostromo encounters a distress signal, it sends them down a path of face-huggers, chest-bursters, and xenomorphs. Scott dials up the slow-burn tension and puts Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley through all kinds of hell as she battles for survival.
Aliens | 8.4
How do you follow up a stone classic like Alien? You hand the reins of the franchise to James Cameron, stand back, and let him do his thing. And what he does with Aliens is throw Ellen Ripley headfirst into a chaotic nightmare, replacing the atmosphere of dread of its predecessor with straight-up action.
Instead of one xenomorph, we get a slew. Instead of a handful of humans for the aliens to munch on, there’s a whole battalion of space marines and a ship full of colonists to serve as alien fodder. Sharing the screen with Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, and Lance Henricksen, this cements Sigourney Weaver’s status as one of the great movie badasses ever to grace the screen.
WALL-E | 8.4
Robots aren’t always rampaging killing machines. Sometimes they’re adorable, lonely, animated garbage droids who just want a friend. And leave it to Pixar to make a near-silent machine a moving, empathetic lead in a movie that grapples with the human race’s increasing reliance on technology and the environmental impact that creates. Full of delight and wonder, WALL-E manages to look forward to the future, keep an eye on the past, and tell a story about robots that’s deeply human and relevant to the present.
Back to the Future | 8.5
Few if any movies on this list are as straight-up fun as Back to the Future. Come on, it has time travel and peak Michael J. Fox. Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film mixes laughs, heart, and sci-fi stakes.
When high school student Marty McFly accidentally jumps 30 years back in time, he encounters young versions of his parents and has to make his way back to his time, in the future, without causing irreparable harm. Though the film appears light and fluffy at first glance, it’s a tight, meticulously crafted adventure without a wasted moment.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day | 8.5
Sequels are often a dicey proposition. So few of them live up to the original. But then there’s Terminator 2, which is not only one of the greatest sequels ever, it’s near the pinnacle of greatest sci-fi movies of all time. It’s so good, we continue to line up for the parade of lackluster-at-best sequels that have followed, clinging to the hope of maybe, just maybe.
The 1991 blockbuster expands the world, further develops the themes and characters from the original, introduces a fantastic new villain, and turns Sarah Connor into one of all-time best action heroine’s ever as she attempts to change the fate of humanity.
Interstellar | 8.6
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is flawed, for sure, but it’s also big and ambitious in every way. Overflowing with stunning visuals, it’s one of the most breathtaking sci-fi movies of all time—if you saw it in IMAX, it was nearly impossible not to gawk with bugged-out eyes and a sense of awe.
It’s an immersive experience of the highest order, even if the story about a team of astronauts, led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, traveling through a wormhole in an attempt to find a new home as Earth dies, doesn’t always land. That said, what works is absolutely incredible.
Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope | 8.6
Is there any film franchise that’s had a bigger, longer, deeper impact on modern popular culture than Star Wars? If so, the list is short. George Lucas’ sweeping adventure of a backwater farm boy in search of adventure helped change the landscape of movies and usher in an era of blockbusters like nothing we’d seen before. And A New Hope is the one that started it all.
Using heroic mythological archetypes, Lucas combined influences from western serials and samurai movies, among others, with intricate special effects work. He created a galaxy-spanning saga of good versus evil and delivered some of the most memorable characters in movie history, sci-fi or otherwise.
Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back | 8.7
Another of the rare sequels that, at least in the opinion of many, surpasses the original, we have The Empire Strikes Back—the second or fifth installment in the Star Wars saga, depending on how you count.
We pick up with Luke, Leia, Han, and the rest in dire times. They’re a bit more grizzled and experienced, and the Rebellion is in for a rough go. Easily the darkest chapter of the original trilogy, thanks in part to that stone bummer of an ending, it still hits all the high-adventure marks of the original while it ups the stakes and includes one of cinema’s all-time greatest reveals.
The Matrix | 8.7
The Wachowski Sisters’ The Matrix is one of those rare works with weighty themes at the forefront of its mind, but that also delivers an absolute ass-kicker of a sci-fi action movie. Stuffed full of literary allusions, religious references and influences, themes of transformation and living as your true self, and philosophical arguments ranging from Plato to Kant, to name a few, it never bogs down in the ideas.
All of the philosophy and psychology come wrapped in a highly stylized, hugely influential action package as Keanu Reeves fights to free humanity from the grasp of nefarious machine overlords. Seriously, how many times in the years since have we seen some variation on or spoof of Neo dodging bullets in slow motion? But no matter how many imitators arise, the original remains pretty damn impressive, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.
Inception | 8.8
Christopher Nolan has a penchant for films with layers and puzzles and mysteries, and no single work combines all of these traits as successfully as 2010’s Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio leads a gang of thieves that invade dreams to steal and plant ideas. The deeper they delve into the levels of a subject’s subconsciousness, the more harrowing and dangerous their quest becomes.
Based on Nolan’s original idea, the film is a spectacular mix of inventive action (that hallway fight), eye-popping special effects (that city folding in on itself), and grandiose philosophical ideas. But is it all, in the end, a dream?