What exactly is science fiction? The answer is usually more intuitive than technical; we know when we see sci-fi without really knowing why the film comprises the genre. For the sake of this list, however, we need some hard and fast definitions. Otherwise, we’re gonna miss a lot of films and make angry a lot of folks. We’ll just say it now: Star Wars will not be on this list. Here’s why.
In a very broad sense, science fiction is an answer to the question “what if”? It’s a thought experiment involving capability. The question ends in some artificial development, some stage or singular event in mankind’s mastery over nature. What if we could enter other’s dreams? What if hyper real AI existed? What if we built a machine that could [fill in the blank]?
A more rigid definition of sci-fi would be strictly thematic. Taking everything we’ve watched and intuitively labeled science fiction, we might try to retroactively create a definition. What do these films include that makes them all of one category?
To help us here, we’re going to borrow a series of themes Argentinian writer (and sci-fi god) Jorge Luis Borges used to describe “fantastic literature”: “the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double.”
These themes ask two essential questions: What is real? (sometimes: how do we know what we know?). And, who are we? (sometimes: who were we and what might we become?).
By this definition, films like Star Wars don’t really fit into science fiction. Their scope is too large, their worlds are not so much filled in by one basic change as they contain encyclopedias of differences. (Wait, so what is Star Wars? It is a space opera—sometimes a space western—based on a samurai cinema). The same goes for the upcoming Dune (which, if accurately taken from the novel, is more of an epic space fantasy/opera).
For the point of this list, we’re narrowing it down even further and excluding two other categories: aliens and apocalypses. Both of these categories deserve their own ranking. We may break this rule once or twice, but only because we think the films demonstrate enough of the above themes.
So here we go. Here are the 31 best sci-fi films ever made. (With some caveats).
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Man from Earth (2007)
What if a man living today had been alive since before written history? How would we disprove it? What would he be like? What would he remember? Man from Earth is essentially this thought experiment played out among a group of friends. No robots, just head-scratching questions.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Another exemplar of the straight-forward premise-turned-thought experiment: a crew of people must deliver a nuclear bomb to the sun in order to keep it from burning out. The drama happens along the way.
The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 voyage through time and death may sound more mythical and fantastical than sci-fi, but what really is all sci-fi if not an obsession with death (and avoiding it by prolonging life) and time?
Mr. Nobody (2009)
A boy runs after a train to live with his mother. He stays on the platform to live with his father. In Mr. Nobody, both events happen. In Mr. Nobody, every event happens, every possible decision and all its possible consequences. It’s maybe the most ambitious film about choice ever made.
Wong Kar-wai’s 2004 sci-fi romance is basically indescribable. Based on the narrator’s various relationships turned sci-fi allegory, 2046 captures best what me be called “the work within the work”—it’s the story the other story (the film) is really about. Not the actions shown on screen, but the actions implied.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Though the film is maybe closer to the space opera genre, it tackles enough specifically sci-fi questions to make it a must-watch in the category. It’s also funny and bizarre in a way that counterbalances the Very Serious films on this list.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Genetic manipulation might have seemed like sci-fi in 1997, but now the questions are actual concerns in bioethics. How much of an unborn child can (and should) you change. Gattaca: everything.
Under the Skin (2013)
I know, I know: we said no aliens. But Under the Skin just doesn’t feel like any traditional alien movie. Instead, it feels like one of the most existentially dreadful experiences you’ll ever watch on screen. What is human, anyway?
12 Monkeys (1995)
A voyage through time to make Kurt Vonnegut proud, 12 Monkeys is the unexpectedly great sci-fi film you somehow didn’t see back in the 90s. Watch it now.
Minority Report (2002)
For maybe the peak of action sci-fi: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This film is all about “the contamination of reality by dream.” And also: the manipulation of dream by reality.
Finally, an A.I. story where tech isn’t trying to kill or enslave humanity. Spike Jonze’s Her has a different story to tell: tech manipulating human emotional boundaries and leaving us alone and crying. Much better.
District 9 (2009)
Its allegory of South African apartheid isn’t always clear at times, but it is still affecting. One of the first woke allegorical uses of sci-fi and still, with the exception of some recent films, probably the best.
The Truman Show (1998)
For more of “the work within the work” we have The Truman Show, a production about a production and the film to send you into a storm of existential dread. Today, the show is broadcasted by CCTV.
The Terminator (1984)
Because cyborgs can’t just make you fall in love with them over voice calls. Some are here to kill you. And The Terminator is the ultimate iteration of this genre. If you’re more a fan of T2, consider it in this spot as well.
The Matrix (1999)
Where do we even start? Not only did the first Matrix film launch a thousand copycats, it also explicitly injected (sometimes a bit too obviously) philosophy into science fiction, where it has stayed in popular culture ever since. What is real? What can we know? What is human? Does choice matter? Not all these questions have super sophisticated answers, but at least they helped raise the ambition of the genre.
I know, I know, I know, we said no aliens. Hear us out. Arrival is a film about language, about a feature that makes us distinctly human, but, as it turns out, not actually unique. As far as we know, sci-fi has never gotten so linguistic. We love it.
To talk about this movie would be to spoil this movie. Just know that it hits all our sci-fi themes and so much more. Moon also demonstrates how the sci-fi genre doesn’t need insane CGI budgets to be great. The film was made for $5 million.
Reinforcing the above rule: Primer was made for $7,000. It’s one of the most complex films ever created and perhaps the best demonstration of the sci-fi theme “the voyage through time.” It’s a time traveling movie. It’s the time-traveling movie. Looper can suck it.
Right, so Snowpiercer is technically post-apocalypse, but its premise is so singular that, to us, it feels more in line with strict science fiction: one train, circling the globe, full of the remains of humanity. That’s the capsule for one of the most unique images of history, class, and struggle put to screen.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine is a crushing film. If Tarkovsky worried sci-fi was too cold, too caught up with tech over feelings, this film demonstrates just how far the genre has come—and just what it’s capable of achieving.
Get Out (2017)
The horror genre might claim Get Out as it’s own (and it is certainly some kind of horror), but at it’s core, the film is pure sci-fi. Once again, we’re talking about “the double,” the thing that isn’t quite you but also somehow is you. The term for this in Get Out: “the sunken place.”
Blade Runner (1982)
It’s hard now to think of Blade Runner‘s original reception, which was, in a word: uninspired. Since then, Philip K. Dick’s story of grungy midtopia societies and A.I. slaves (here called “replicants”) has been anything but uninspired.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost is maybe the most influential contemporary work of sci-fi. It’s aesthetics (see: heads being plugged in and sunglasses) heavily influenced The Matrix (which in turn influenced, well, almost everything.) “Ghost in the shell” is also maybe the best description of the theme of “the double” and the mind-body problem continually bothering philosophers and science fiction writers: what is consciousness?
Ex Machina (2014)
Based heavily on our #2 pick, Ex Machina manages to strip down one of sci-fi’s most OG tropes (A.I., or, once again, “the double”) to its most essential elements. There’s not a single piece of fat on this film. Every scene, every piece of dialogue, every dang shot is just perfect.
Akira bundles up Japan’s YTK millennial-approaching existential dread and spins it into an epic about technology and futurity. It’s one of the most impressive animated achievements in the history of film. And it’s anxieties about the abuse of tech in the world of nuclear capabilities will never not be relevant.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 hits absolutely everything: space spectacle (the work within the work), AI (the double), fever sequences (contamination of reality by dream), and time travel (voyage through time). It hits all these themes and it hits them in an original and (still today) salient manner. A goddamn classic for a reason.
Children of Men (2006)
Whereas the majority of sci-fi imagines artificial development, Children of Men (based on the novel by PD James)imagines the inverse: a scenario that leaves science (and the world, literally) impotent. While one might put this under the “apocalypse” category (the existential of all “what if” questions), we think the film best embodies the above motifs—if only by inverting them. No other film best uses science (or the lack of science) to show us everything destructive about human behavior. And, still, no other film gives us as much hope in the human will.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below