Our top 25 favourite Science Fiction films of all time
Here at The Nerd Recites, Science Fiction (SF) is a genre that we hold dear to our hearts. There have been many great SF classics over the years and even a handful in recent years too, so we decided to gather our diverse team of writers, vote for our favourites and settle on a collective final list of our top 25 SF films of all time.
Along with the films that were voted for, we also gave each team member the option of one wildcard entry. These were to be cult films that wouldn’t have otherwise made the cut, but which mean a lot to the writer in question. Therefore, our list includes a handful of wildcard entries at its close, which we feel only serves to make our list broader and even more fully encompassing of the genre.
Below you will find our collective top 25 SF films of all time, in descending order, with the wildcards featured at the end of the list.
Please be aware that there are spoilers for every film featured in this list.
25] The Martian (2015)
In 2015 Ridley Scott adapted Andy Weir’s popular book about a botanist who is left behind on Mars. Although – as is usually the case – we found that the film did not live up to the quality of the book, Matt Damon and Ridley Scott still made an impressive film about the would be realities of this what if scenario.
24] Planet of the Apes (1986)
When people talk of the SF films of bygone years, you be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t mention Planet of the Apes. Everyone – genre fans and non-genre fans alike – know that twist at the end of the film – where Charlton Heston acts his heart out upon finding out that he’s been on Earth all along. It’s a groundbreaking film that has been replicated many times, due to the strength of its ideas.
23] Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
If you ask any Star Trek fan which is the best Star Trek film, you are likely to get one of two answers – either The Voyage Home, or, much more commonly you will hear The Wrath of Khan. It’s a film that not only has a really strong villain (Khan), but it was also bold enough to feature the death of one of its main crew members.
22] E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Few directors know how to hit upon that child-like sense of wonder like Steven Spielberg does. E.T. is perhaps his best example of this. The film holds such heart and yet also such sadness to it, combining to provide a very emotional entry. The film accomplishes so much, given that it effectively just explores one simple notion: what if a boy befriended a visiting alien?
21] Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981)
Mad Max was a low budget but very interesting film. Mad Max: The Road Warrior then took what was already a very strong idea and turned it into the film that it was always meant to be. This sequel was undoubtedly the best in the franchise until Mad Max: Fury Road came along, but this film still stands firm in second place.
20] The Thing (1982)
Adapted from John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best and more impactful films, but it’s also one of the best SF horror films around. The chilling solitude of the location only adds to the isolation and the paranoia. The practical effects of the creature itself are extraordinary and thoroughly sickening.
19] Aliens (1986)
Often cited as just a good or better than its predecessor, James Cameron’s Aliens is far more action-orientated than Ridley Scott’s effort. It’s a stunning sequel that not only ups the excitement factor but also builds upon the world superbly. From the scene that depicts the blips on the radar moving ever closer to the addition of Newt (who may play a role in the upcoming Alien film), this is undoubtedly a classic of the genre.
18] Predator (1987)
We can only marvel at how this film must have blown audiences away when it was released on a unsuspecting public in 1987. It introduced arguably one of the best aliens in cinema, in the form of the Predator – a creature who travels space to hunt different species and retain their skeletons as trophies. The commandos are all given interesting and memorable personalities and the film truly builds a wonderful suspense as it progresses. This is also one of Arnie’s best films.
17] Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan is known for making great content and a lot of that content has been SF (The Prestige, Inception). The excitement of his fans hit new highs when it was revealed that he was making a film about the stars and not only did it not disappoint, but it marked its place among the best SF films, for us. At the heart of the film is the father/daughter relationship, which serves to provide a valuable emotional core to all of the awe inspiring spaceflight.
16] District 9 (2009)
Neill Blomkamp blew everyone away when he released this sharp debut. Not only is it politically orientated, in its focus on the mistreatment of minorities and refugees, but it’s also a brilliant action film. Wikus turns from “prawn”-despised to prawn sympathiser, throughout the course of this film, and it’s a marvel to witness. Let’s not forget too that this film introduced the world to Sharlto Copley, who has since gone on to play other exceptional roles (such as in the recent Hardcore Henry).
15] 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
When the top critics in the world are asked for their favourites SF films of all time, you will always find this film within their lists. Stanley Kubrick was a visionary director in many ways and this is one of his best works. Adapted from the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name, the film explores the origin of man (and proposes some very interesting theories), then moved into a truly suspenseful second half, in which it explores the idea of artificial intelligence acquiring free will.
14] Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
The world is so familiar and in love with the Star Wars franchise that we hardly need to say anything here. A New Hope is the episode that started it all. Although it is slightly less impressive than episode V and episode VI, it’s still a very strong film in its own right. What George Lucas managed to achieve and begin here is truly stunning.
13] Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Among other things, this film is commended for depicting the truest representation in cinema of what a nuclear bomb going off would truly look like (in Sarah Connor’s dream). Like with Aliens, James Cameron took what was already a strong first film (Terminator), added a stronger action-element and turned it into an even better sequel. One crucial change is the Terminator being on the side of the heroes in this film, which makes for a much more endearing plot.
12] Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
This was the film that ended the greatest franchise in the world (until recently). Darth Vader returned to the good side, the empire fell and everything was tied up in a neat package. Some point towards the Ewok content in this film as being ridiculous, but we argue that the rest of the film more than makes up for those furry little fiends. Although we now love Empire Strikes Back the most, some of our writers very firmly held this film as their favourite of the three while they were growing up, and we can see why – it’s definitely the most fun and elaborate of the three films.
11] Blade Runner (1982)
Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence. Roy Batty’s infamous speech in the rain remains one of the most powerful moments of the film. The infamous alternate ending that implies that Deckard is a replicant also adds to the film’s punch.
10] Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones did a very important thing by releasing this film – he showed that modern Science Fiction can be just as intelligent and thought provoking as the SF classics of old. Shot on the set of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this is a very clever narrative about clones being duped into harvesting the moon, without ever knowing what they are (until the events within this film). Sam Rockwell has always been a cult and underrated actor and he really shows his array of skills in this film.
9] Donnie Darko (2001)
There is simply nothing else like Richard Kelly’s time-travel masterpiece. Brimming with effortless cool, laden with a very complex and interesting time-travel plot, and laced with a very sharp intelligence, Donnie Darko remains one of the greatest films ever made. We cannot begin to tell you how many times we’ve rewatched this film.
8] Gattaca (1997)
We’ve noticed that both Ethan Hawke and Jude Law deliberately opt to take on interesting roles in SF films and this is the best of their efforts, as well as director Andrew Niccol’s best film. The film is smart and slick and has a noirish quality to it, and there’s a real emotion backbone to the narrative too. This is another film that we’ve watched so many times that we’ve lost count.
7] The Matrix (1999)
This is another film that truly broke the mould upon its release and defied everyone’s expectations, almost to the degree that fans didn’t even know they wanted this, because they didn’t even realise such a thing was possible. The Wachowski brothers surpassed themselves by creating an endlessly mind-bending, thoroughly eye opening and thought provoking film. Throw in the fact that the action scenes are still among the coolest ever seen in cinema, and you have one hell of a film.
6] Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This is yet another sequel that improved upon the original film. For this sequel, George Lucas took the narrative in a darker direction, which served to provide the most fascinating and effortlessly cool entry in the Star Wars saga. From Han being frozen in carbonite, to Luke’s revelation about his father, this still stands as one of the best films ever made, within any genre.
5] Jurassic Park (1993)
This is another film that is so thoroughly popular that we need not say much about it. We would have loved to have been in the audience upon this film’s release, so that we could have been blown away by the effects and the scale of this film. A couple of members on our writing team are very keen fans of this franchise and Jurassic Park certainly remains the best of these films and a wonderful accomplishment by Spielberg.
4] Inception (2010)
We’ve mentioned Christopher Nolan already on this list and Inception is undoubtedly one of his best films. He took an idea that hadn’t really been tapped before in cinema – the idea of entering dreams to manipulate them and extract information – gathered a blinding cast, and made one of the most impressive and thought provoking films of all time.
3] Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
We’ve touched upon directors who create sequels that better the original film. George Miller did this himself within this very franchise, with The Road Warrior, so we were truly blown away when he did it again with Fury Road – creating the best film in the franchise. From the fact that Mad Max himself takes a backseat and that the female characters take front stage, to the fact that the whole film is basically one long car chase to nowhere and then back again, this film truly defies how it sounds on paper and excels to culminate in one very thrilling and very crazy ride.
2] Ex Machina (2015)
This is another very recent release and it is undoubtedly the best film about artificial intelligence ever made. Brimming with intelligence around such notions as AIs looking back on mankind the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa, the film holds a deep emotional resonance too, in Ava’s learning of the world. Alex Garland’s debut is undeniably a powerful film, right down to Ava’s final moments when she leaves Caleb to die without empathy, proving the deception of her interest in him.
1] Alien (1979)
Only one film found 100% unanimity across our entire team. This was Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. It is undoubtedly the film’s mix of smarts, sublime visuals and groundbreaking horror that combine to cement it as a true classic of the genre. The fact that every member of our team thought of this film, without prompt, shows just how much the film continues to stick firmly in the minds of SF fans, even to this day.
To accompany our core list, we devised the wildcard option. This was designed to allow our writers to include cult SF gems that otherwise might have been overlooked, among the more popular choices.
Four of our writers chose one cult SF film each that is dear to them, resulting in a very passionate short list. We highly recommend that you check out these carefully hand-picked films, if you haven’t yet had the privilege of seeing them.
Kung Fury (2015) – chosen by Michael James Ilett
“This short film, created following a successful Kickstarter, is truly a love letter from it’s creator to some of the very best tropes, genres and aesthetics of the 1980’s.
While Kung Fury takes a good deal of it’s inspiration from action and cop buddy films of the time, it is heavily laced with elements of sci-fi throughout. You’re not only treated to Kung-Fu fighting robots and time travel, but to dinosaurs, computer hacking, norse gods and even wolf-riding gun-toting maidens as well.
In just 31 minutes this short film packages the best of eighties cinema into a delectable feast for the soul.”
The Man from Earth (2007) – chosen by Christopher Hart
“Written by a writer on both the original Star Trek series and on The Twilight Zone, the entire film is focuses on one single debate: what if a Cro-Magnon survived from caveman times into the present day? John Oldman is a professor who invites his colleagues to his cabin for a farewell and, upon arrival, reveals to them the truth of his immortality. Every word that John speaks feels acutely accurate and the film is bold enough to traverse John’s place in religion, among other fascinating historical moments.”
Lunopolis (2009) – chosen by Jennifer Izykowski
“A film with virtually no budget, done in a mockumentary style (which I’m not a huge fan of, generally), this film is superbly executed and all too convincing. A rare gem that is so mind-bending that it makes you wonder if the filmmakers know something that the rest of us don’t.”
Galaxy Quest (1999) – chosen by Oliver Ducker
“First released in 1999, Galaxy Quest has since grown into an incredibly popular cult film. Considering the successful release and rating on multiple review sites, Galaxy Quest is woefully under-appreciated, for what it is. Featuring an all-star cast, Galaxy Quest is a genuinely funny parody of so many SF tropes, and an extensive repertoire of memorable scenes and quotable lines.”
All of the films featured within this list are available on DVD or Blu-Ray, except for Lunopolis, which can be found on the U.S. Netflix and Kung Fury, which can be found on YouTube.
Image credits: Various