Aliens, astronauts, time travel – you name it, there’s a dazzling sci-fi film about it. That makes compiling a list of the best sci-fi nigh on impossible. For one, where do you start?
To understand where sci-fi films came from, you need to head back to the dawn of the cinema age. Right at the start of it all, Metropolis, released in 1927, used groundbreaking visuals to create a reference point for all future urban dystopias – it’s no fluke, for example, that the aesthetic of Blade Runner bares more than a passing resemblance to Fritz Lang’s prophetic urban hell-scape.
Then along came War of the Worlds (1953), a gripping tale of alien invasion adapted from H.G. Wells’ classic novel. In 1964, Dr. Strangelove did more than most films before or since to ossify the fear of a nuclear holocaust. Then, in 1968, perhaps the most influential sci-fi film of them all: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Say no more.
Call it arbitrary, but to keep our list under control we begin in the 1970s. And what better place to start than with another Stanley Kubrick classic, A Clockwork Orange.
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based on the 1962 novel of the same name, Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is a classic of the dystopian genre. Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is a teenage delinquent with a fetish for classical music and violence. As his crimes catch up to him, he’s eventually sent to prison, in the hopes that he will be cured of his taste for violence and sex by experimental aversion therapy. Shot with extreme wide-angle lenses to create the dreamy, fantastical quality that pervades the film, it went on to become one of the era’s most controversial films. Buy on Amazon
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name served as the basis for this sci-fi thriller, where a team of scientists race against time to investigate an organism with deadly goals. When all the residents of the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, turn up dead, the US Air Force is sent to investigate what went wrong. The film’s intense, claustrophobic action unfolds over four days in the town’s underground lab, a facility readied for nuclear self-destruction should any of its extraterrestrial investigations turn out dangerous. The Andromeda Strain was one of the first commercial films to use advanced computerised effects, and scientists have since described the level of detail as remarkably accurate. Buy on Amazon
Solaris tells the story of a psychologist who’s sent to an orbiting space station to try to understand the strange behaviour of resident scientists. When he arrives, he’s not prepared for the unnerving world he finds – nor the unexpected characters onboard. Andrei Tarkovsky, the writer and director, set out to bring emotional feeling and depth to the genre of sci-fi, something which has served as an inspiration for current sci-fi hits like Arrival and Gravity. A 2002 remake, starring George Clooney, was less well received. Buy on Amazon
Westworldthe 1973 film is far less cerebral and far more weird than the recent Anthony Hopkins-driven TV series. Although, the premise is broadly the same: Westworld is a theme park of the future populated by human-imitating AIs whose primary function is to accommodate the macabre wish-fulfilment of the park’s paying guests. But there’s no pontificating on the state of the human condition in this one: it’s a chase movie. Fear the steely-eyed robot Yul Brynner! Buy on Amazon
Logan's Run (1976)
In 2274, everyone lives clustered under geodesic domes, killed off by the time they’re 30, but able to live hedonistically until then. Maintained by a computer, this is the optimal way to maintain the resources for everyone involved, until glitches in the system reveals that there might be another way for people to stay alive past the optimal age. Logan’s Run was a sophisticated sci-fi film at the time, although the dialogue may feel a little dated but it’s worth a watch just for the costumes alone. Buy on Amazon
Demon Seed (1977)
A brilliant, committed scientist develops Proteus IV (an intelligent supercomputer), which soon becomes the source of marital problems. As he tries to market the Proteus IV technology to corporations and research laboratories, the supercomputer itself searches for a human form, settling on the scientist’s wife as a potential host. Horror and sci-fi are inexplicably intertwined in this late 70s thriller, although it had mixed reviews upon its release. Buy on Amazon
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Stranger and harsher than some of Spielberg’s other early films, Close Encounters isn’t all aliens and kids looking up at the sky. This is more than naive wonder and whimsy at the prospect of visitors from another planet – as seen in the slow pacing, the spectre of "sunburn", Roy Neary's relationship with his family and the mystery of Claude Lacombe's program. The effects are stunning for a film released in 1977 and the musical notes used to communicate with the UFOs are a stroke of genius from John Williams. Buy on Amazon
Andrei Tarkovsky's Soviet art film might sit more on the sci-phi side of things, but it’s still essential viewing. The film follows three men – a writer, a scientist and a guide – into The Zone, a treacherous wasteland that confuses and confounds all who enter it. At almost three hours long, and very much in Russian, Stalker isn't so much entertaining as transfixing thanks to those long, long Tarkovsky shots. Its influence can be felt in TV shows such as Westworld and, more recently and clearly, Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Buy on Amazon
Directed by sci-fi pioneer Ridley Scott, Alien follows the crew of a commercial space ship, who encounter Alien, a deadly creature that leaves a trail of death and destruction in its wake. The film’s claustrophobic atmosphere was inspired by classic sci-fi stories, but it struggled to get funding until Star Wars showed that spectacular sci-fi could bring in the big bucks. One of the film’s stand-out techniques was to never show the full horror of the eponymous Alien – it’s a brilliant and terrifying way to build suspense that’s been endlessly copied and riffed on ever since. Buy on Amazon
Altered States (1980)
Based on noted scientist John C.Reilly’s experiments with sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs, a blend of sci-fi and horror earned Altered States a cult following many years after. It follows a psychiatrist, Edward Jessup, who becomes obsessed with the idea of altered states of consciousness – such as hallucinations or visions that people may experience when they’re taking drugs or suffering from a mental break. The film’s generally delirious atmosphere – as when Jessup takes a kind of drug similar to ayahuasca, which sends him into a kind of frenzy that he chases through taking more of it – contributes to the creeping sense of unease viewers feel, but it’s not one for the lighthearted. Buy on Amazon
An unlikely entry, this science horror film is about a group of people who want to take over the world – renegade scanners, who are people with telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Crucially, they possess the ability to make other people’s heads explode – something which a group of renegade scanners decide to use to their favour. A classic of the horror/sci-fi intersection, Scannersfeatures the iconic exploding head scene which set the bar for vfx at the time, with a serious bent on other gore films. Buy on Amazon
Blade Runner (1982)
Set in Los Angeles, 2019, Rick Deckard is one of the titular blade runners – someone who tracks down replicants, which are unnatural, bioengineered beings, and kills them. He is sent on a mission to find four who are on Earth illegally, and to administer a test – the Voigt-Kampff test – which is supposed to distinguish replicants from humans. The original Blade Runner drew from classic Edward Hopper paintings and the skyline in Hong Kong to create the film’s iconic, technology infused film-noir look. Buy on Amazon
The Thing (1982)
Antarctica. John Carpenter. Kurt Russell. The Thing is one of those sci-fi horror classics that was panned by critics when it was first released but gets better and better with repeat viewings. The tension ramps up and up as the scientists, quarantined in a remote research station, descend into paranoia trying to take down the ancient, shape-shifting (and delightfully gross) alien they've disturbed. Buy on Amazon
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. is a classic sci-fi film – a sweet, sappy take on friendship – without any of the heavy handedness of its contemporaries. The basic plot is recognisable - an alien, E.T., is left behind on Earth, and a ten year old boy ends up befriending it, ensuing in shenanigans. Where E.T. differs from other films with a similar conceit is in how Spielberg chooses to focus on the heady experience of childhood and forming emotional bonds, as opposed to creating a special effects blockbuster. Buy on Amazon
Tron did in the 80s what The Matrix did in the 90s. At a time when special effects were often more miss than hit, it put on a dazzling display of technical wizardry. In the simplest terms, Tron is an action adventure film starring Jeff Bridges as a computer programmer trapped inside a funky world of software. More than that, Tron is a film about what it means to be human – albeit one heavily disguised by a stylish, computeristic wonderscape. This film was a landmark moment in computer animation, but also ossified ideas and themes that still fascinate sci-fi fans and auters to this day. Buy on Amazon
The Terminator (1984)
A cyborg assassin is sent from the year 2029 to the year 1984 to kill a woman whose son could be the saviour in a post apocalyptic future. Featuring a freakishly robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger, it arguably launched James Cameron’s career as an action director. Its relentless, violent pace evened out what could be a cheesy script, and it went on to become a vital piece of pop culture. Buy on Amazon
Directed by Terry Gilliam, Brazil is a grandly realised masterpiece of absurdist, dystopian sci-fi. It features Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, initially resigned to life as a cog in a totalitarian society clogged by dysfunctional bureaucracy, where people end up in body bags for crimes they didn’t commit and restaurants are routinely ripped apart by explosives. But soon he becomes infatuated with a political activist and turns into her unwitting accomplice, erratically rebelling against the state – but not for long. Watching the increasingly disordered world unravel around him alongside his mental state is a true pleasure. As are the fantastical, and oftentimes terrifying, dream sequences that slice through what passes for the day to day reality. An unforgettable watch.
Back to the Future (1985)
While it doesn’t have the cinematic seriousness of its 80s sci-fi contemporaries, Back to the Future nonetheless captured the spirit of the age. Or at least a very Michael J. Fox portrayal of it. Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989, took the somewhat less successful leap to a fanciful 2015. The final installment in the trilogy, released in 1990, added a Western spin on a tried-and-tested formula. But, in combination, the franchise’s self-lacing shoes, DeLoreans and hoverboards have all rightfully earned Back to the Future a place in sci-fi cinema history. Buy on Amazon
The premise of Robocop seems laughable – a police officer is murdered by a gang, and then brought back to life by a mega corporation to patrol the streets as a kind of half cyborg, half police officer, called Robocop. But Robocop turns it into an examination of capitalism and the power of corporations, despite the action scenes with a lot of violence, because it’s set in a recognisable version of the future (Detroit, as it crumbles) that feels more familiar as time passes. Buy on Amazon
Akira is credited for popularising anime in the West and this 1988 feature film, which is a condensed version of a long-running manga comic, remains one of the most ambitious animated features ever made. It's set in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, several decades after a massive event destroyed the old city, where gangs, terrorists and religious fanatics vie for control of a corrupt and decaying society. When Tetsuo, a member of a biker gang, comes into contact with an escaped child from a government lab, he begins to develop incredible psychic powers which he abuses and struggles to control. His best friend, Kaneda, seeks to rescue him, but quickly realises more drastic action is necessary as they’re both engulfed in events beyond their comprehension. Buy on Amazon
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Based on a manga of the same name, Ghost in the Shell is a direct influence on numerous modern sci-fi films, most notably The Matrix. Set in 2029, it depicts a future where cybernetic technology is widespread and most people have cyberbrain augmentation, which allows them to connect directly to the internet. New technology brings new risks and thrust into them is Major Kusanagi, an assault-team leader and investigator who is unusual in that her body is entirely cybernetic. When an "escaped AI" starts causing havoc, she and her team are tasked with tracking it down, but her investigation reveals a darker conspiracy and makes her question reality. Buy on Amazon
12 Monkeys (1995)
Directed by Terry Gilliam at his peak and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys is a brilliant noir-ish time travel movie where a deadly virus, released in 1996, kills most of humanity. Survivors in 2035 live underground where a group of desperate scientists send a convict, played by Willis, back in time with orders to stop the virus, believed to be released by a group known as the 12 Monkeys. When he's sent to the wrong time, he's immediately arrested and put in a mental hospital where he meets a fanatical patient, played by Pitt, and tries to convince a psychiatrist he's telling the truth. What follows is a brilliant web of paradoxical events that often stretches plausibility, but never fails to enthral.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
First Contact pulled off the trickiest of balancing acts. It wasn’t just a big-budget sci-fi adventure beloved by Trek fans, but also accessible enough to bring in a whole new audience. That extra money gave the world of Next Generation even more detail, bringing the Enterprise to life and making the fiendish Borg more believable and complex. The pioneering story of Zefram Cochran is a great contrast to that doom-laden world and finally explains a formative moment in Trek history – how humanity first made its faster-than-light leap into the stars. Buy on Amazon
Fifth Element (1997)
One of the most polarising sci-fi films of all time, director Luc Besson came up with the idea for Fifth Element when he was 16 (it was filmed and released 20 years later). A taxicab driver becomes responsible for the fate of the Earth, two centuries from now, when a mysterious woman falls into his cab. They embark on a quest to find four stones which can maintain peace on Earth. When it was released, The Fifth Element was alternately panned and lauded for its special effects and storyline, but since then, it has gained the notoriety of a cult classic. Buy on Amazon
Gattaca’s focus on the dystopian end-game of genetic engineering was significantly ahead of its time. A relative box office flop, it has nonetheless become the go-to film for geneticists looking to understand how ordinary people view their work, and ordinary people looking for a thoughtful, stylish film about the future of genetics. It’s a thriller with a brain that, more than most people realise, has framed popular debates around eugenics that still rumble on today. Buy on Amazon
Based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name, Contact follows two scientists who make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, touching on science and religion in the process. Dr. Ellie Arroway works at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where she has been attempting to make contact with extraterrestrials for years. When a repeating signal eventually appears from the Vega star system, she enters into an international race to decipher it, in the hope of being selected to respond to the message. Buy on Amazon
Men in Black (1997)
Men in Black, based on the comic book series of the same name, was a fun, science fiction film which proved that the genre didn’t have to be serious in order to be worth watching. A secret organisation, the Men in Black, is tasked with supervising extraterrestrial being on Earth – making sure they don’t get into any trouble, but also keeping the human beings around them safe, using memory-erasing “neuralysers”. The original film was turned into a franchise and spin-offs, but nothing comes close to capturing the delight of the first. Buy on Amazon
The Truman Show (1998)
To a modern viewer, this might not seem like science fiction, but when The Truman Show came out in 1998, anxieties about mass surveillance were just that. Now, we live in a world of cameras – watching from above, and welcomed into our homes and pockets. The movie, which follows Jim Carrey as he slowly realises he’s the star of his own ‘reality’ TV show, remains a must-watch, and has had a huge cultural impact, even inspiring the name of a psychological condition.
The Matrix (1999)
Commercial science fiction films could be stylish – like Blade Runner – but studios and filmmakers often focused on bringing science fiction elements to an otherwise human story. With The Matrix, released in 1999, the Wachowskis turned that on its head – depicting a dystopian future, where all of humanity had been trapped in a simulated reality, being used as an energy source for artificially intelligent creatures. A hacker, Neo, is alerted to the falseness of the world they live in, and soon starts on a quest to uncover the truth. Several of the film’s stylistic inventions – such as the digital rain of the code that composes the Matrix – are iconic parts of contemporary culture. The Matrix brought questions about existential philosophy and nihilism to the forefront of the story and coupled them with intense action scenes that drew from martial arts and Japanese animation, to create an enduring cyberpunk sci-fi film that reverberates around contemporary culture. Buy on Amazon
At the time of its release, David Cronenberg’s body-horror eXistenZ was constantly compared to the Wachowski’s sleek science fiction film The Matrix. But disgruntled cinemagoers soon realised that eXistenZ was the complete antithesis to the film they were told they were going to see. eXistenZ is a psychotropic trip into a mad world of bone-shaped guns that shoot out teeth, icky human plug sockets, game pods and fish. It follows celebrity game developer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as she flees into her own virtual reality creation to escape an assassin trying to kill her in the real world. She teams up with Ted Pickle, a hapless marketing trainee played by a young Jude Law, who is tasked, bizarrely, with protecting her as they wander through the game. It’s a subtle story about existence, as the name suggests, the blurring of reality and fantasy, and will have you thinking about what it means long after the credits roll. Cronenberg’s signature vintage gooeyness will have you writhing in disgust, but that’s what makes it so much better. The film came at a time when cinema was filled with mainstream blockbuster science fiction films, so it was nice to have eXistenZ around to provide viewers with something repulsively different. Buy on Amazon
Minority Report (2002)
With hallmarks of neo-noir and thriller films, Minority Report’s unique visual atmosphere was groundbreaking and oddly prescient, warning of a world where advanced technology can predict people’s crimes before they even commit them. Three mutated humans, known as Precogs, make these predictions – when they predict that Chief Anderton (Tom Cruise) will kill a man 36 hours from now, he goes on the run. The film’s futuristic aesthetic set the benchmark for a new kind of stylised sci-fi – one which was heavily informed by technologists and scientists working at the cutting edge of what was possible at the time – through its use of colour and imagery. Buy on Amazon
Primer shuns big-budget special effects with director Shane Carruth opting for a low budget but high intensity film about two engineers, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally discover the secrets to time travel in their garage. When it was released Primer was noted for its originality – the film takes on complex topics like quantum physics and doesn’t dumb them down for the viewer, instead using real jargon and terms that real-life researchers would – and for its commitment to a lo-fi aesthetic. Much of the film is set in garages and car parks, and the with the exception of the two lead roles, every other character is played by a friend or family member of the cast. Buy on Amazon
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Much contemporary sci-fi tends to dwell on the terrifying aspects of technology on a large scale. In Eternal Sunshine, director Michael Gondry and writer Brian Kaufman wanted to focus on the relationship between Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey), strangers who meet on a train to Montauk and fall helplessly in love. Eventually, they realise that they had met and fallen in love before. The rest of the film charts how this happened – from the memory-erasing firm Lacuna technologies, and the relationships between the employees there – to the difficult decision that they must then make. Shot in a beautifully dreamy style and with an uncharacteristically heartfelt performance from Carrey, Eternal Sunshine has gone to achieve both a cult following and widespread acclaim, both as sci-fi and a romantic comedy. Buy on Amazon
Children of Men (2006)
Cuarón’s knack for elevating the dystopian to high art is never more evident than in Children of Men. Set in 2027, after two decades of global human infertility, the UK is one of the few remaining stable nations, which is inundated by asylum seekers and refugees from other nations, who are summarily rounded up and executed by the British Army. Theo Faron, a former activist, is kidnapped by an immigrant rights group, led by his ex wife. He is offering money if he can help get a young refugee, Kee, across the border safely. As they embark on a perilous journey, they encounter difficulties every step of the way – from subterfuge to murder plots – as Kee and Theo try to reach safety. While the plagues that caused infertility are the main driving force of the film, there is never a clear explanation for what they are. Cuarón draws inspiration from literature, Michelangelo sculptures and photographs of real battlefields – dwelling on faith, love and hope – to create a profoundly moving experience. Buy on Amazon
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
This visually stunning adaptation of a Phillip K Dick novel uses an animation technique known as 'interpolated rotoscoping,' where animators painstakingly trace over filmed footage frame-by-frame. It gives the story – which takes place in a version of America where 20 per cent of the population is hooked on the powerful Substance D – a trippy, hallucinogenic feel. Directed by Richard Linklater, it features Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder in varying states of paranoia, and follows an undercover operative (played by Keanu Reeves) working for a government that's using invasive, high-tech surveillance to get a handle on the war on drugs.
Inspired by the idea of the heat death of the universe and the inevitable death of the Sun, Alex Garland teamed up with Danny Boyle to create a sci-fi thriller about the psychological effects of space travel. In 2056, the Earth is falling apart as the Sun slowly powers down. A crew of eight astronauts embarks on a perilous mission to jump-start it, on the ship aptly named Icarus II. As they draw closer, they find the wreck of Icarus I, which they hope to commandeer in the hopes of greater success. In designing the film, the filmmakers consulted Nasa, and the futurologist Richard Seymour and physicist Brian Cox were introduced to cast members, who lived together to create the feeling of intimacy that the crew of the Icarus II would have had. This is an emotionally intense, claustrophobic roller coaster that touches on science, faith and, eventually, hope. Buy on Amazon
Director Matt Reeves uses found footage to great effect in Cloverfield, which tells the story of an alien invasion in New York, using clips that look as though they were filmed on a camcorder. The stakes get higher and higher, as a plan is put in place to destroy Manhattan in order to flush out the monster, told entirely through grainy camera recordings. Found footage is a staple of horror, rather than sci-fi, but Cloverfield melds the two together for a thrilling and terrifying ride. Subsequent sequels and spinoffs weren’t as well received. Buy on Amazon
One of the only animated films on this list, Wall-E touches on themes of environmental risk and devastation through the lens of a lone robot, Wall-E, who is sent to Earth to clean up the planet’s garbage. Though he lives a solitary life, another robot, EVE, eventually arrives, which he then falls in love with. Buy on Amazon
This beautiful, moving film from Duncan Jones starts at the end of an unusual experience: an astronaut goes through a personal crisis at the end of a three year stint mining helium on the Moon. As he struggles with what lays ahead of him, he starts to hallucinate. The desolation of the film, as well as the emotional story at its heart, stops Moon from sliding into a weird, syrupy sci-fi film. The clever cinematography, use of models rather than VFX, and an excellent performance from Sam Rockwell as the protagonist, ensures this will appeal to both film buffs and sci-fi fanatics. Buy on Amazon
District 9 (2009)
Set in 1982 in Johannesburg, South Africa, an alien spaceship appears and a population of insect-like aliens are found aboard, before being banished to District 9 by the government. Three decades later, the district has become reviled by the locals, and increasing unrest leads the government to believe that the aliens should be moved. In the process of doing so, three escape, setting off another chain of events. Inspired by apartheid in South Africa, District 9’s visual effects were also designed to evoke a kind of insect-like alien, but one that viewers would sympathise with as the film went on. Buy on Amazon
A James Bond film inside a heist film inside a Christopher Nolan film, Inception takes a near-perfect screenplay and executes every dreamworld with precision and flair and humour. Nolan's cinematic experiments with time are always interesting (as in Interstellar and Dunkirk) but Inception still feels like the most complete entry in this trickster's obsession with time as a storytelling tool. With Hans Zimmer on soundtrack duty and stellar acting from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, there’s plenty here to elevate an already mind-bending story. Buy on Amazon
Source Code (2011)
Director Duncan Jones followed his critically acclaimed debut Moon with another critical and commercial hit, Source Code in 2011. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a US Army pilot who wakes up in the body of someone else, a school teacher aboard a commuter train. Minutes later the train explodes and he awakes again inside a cockpit, where he's told via video screen he's in a simulation and that his mission is to go back again (and again) to identify the bomber within the eight minutes available to him. The clever conceit sets up an exhilarating thriller with a sci-fi twist that's all wrapped up in a tight 90 minutes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
The original might have the best ending (You maniacs!), but the 2011's gritty reboot and origin story is more palatable to modern sensibilities than the campy 1960s and 70s movies and sci-fi as a result. The first in the new series of films follows Will Rodman (played by James Franco), who is testing a potential cure for Alzheimer's on chimpanzees that goes badly wrong for humans, and pretty well for the apes, led by intelligence-enhanced chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis). Outstanding CGI and some excellent follow-ups make the rebooted series an outstanding addition to the Apes canon, so we can all forget about the Mark Walhberg-fronted effort.
Looper’s central conceit can be a little tricky to wrap your head around – contract killers, known as loopers, are used by gangs and criminal syndicates to send the people they kill back through time. Their final victims will be themselves – ergo, closing the loop. One breakaway looper, Joe, starts to run into problems when his future self arrives to kill him in the hopes of stopping a mystical figure ruining the whole process. Looper’s blend of action and complex plot have made it a fan favourite, though you may need a few repeat viewings to fully understand it. Buy on Amazon
A tightly woven, claustrophobic film set on a train barrelling towards the end of humanity can sound more like horror than sci-fi, but Snowpiercer is a different and exciting take on the genre. An attempt at climate engineering gone wrong has created a new Earth, and a train carrying the only people alive is wrecked by a mutiny. In the hands of less capable actors or screenwriters, it could have become just another action film with an ambitious storyline – but the use of mise en scène, as well as gorgeous, immersive cinematography makes the viewer fully aware of the action, which is all the more chilling through Snowpiercer’s twists and turns. Buy on Amazon
In this romantic take on sci-fi, directed by Spike Jonze, Theodore, a depressed writer, leads a lonely life in a futuristic version of Los Angeles. He upgrades an operating system, which leads to the introduction of a virtual assistant with AI capabilities, who calls herself Samantha. As Theodore tries to move on from his impending divorce he finds that Samantha’s influence on his life stretches past the purely practical. Rather than delving into sci-fi tropes about a lonely man and his operating system, Her’s nuanced and sweet exploration of intimacy and technology brought a new dimension to how we society thinks about virtual assistants. Buy on Amazon
When Alfonso Cuarón wrote the screenplay for Gravity, he didn’t set out to make a film about space itself – rather, he wanted to make a film about adversity and human resilience. This is a film about two scientists who find themselves stranded in space, and what they must overcome to get safely back to Earth. An eerie atmosphere pervades the film, with soaring, rich cinematography and compelling performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Gravity is less straightforward sci-fi and more complex masterpiece. Part of the marvel of the film was its use of visual effects, pulling the viewer right into Cuarón’s fantastical, terrifying adventure. Buy on Amazon
Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is a cerebral, hypnotic story about an alien who’s disguised itself as a black wig-wearing Scarlett Johansson – a femme fatale drifting along the outskirts of Glasgow, seducing men in order to use them and consume them for sustenance. Accompanied by a mesmerising score that vibrates beneath a near silent film with vivid cinematography, makes Under the Skin a literal skin-crawling experience. To say much more would spoil you from being able to fully involve yourselves in the world of one of the most horrifying sci-fi films of recent years.
Ex Machina (2014)
Garland is no stranger to sci-fi – having written Sunshine, but Ex Machina was his directorial debut. Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a brilliant computer programmer who wins a competition to spend a week at the remote house of the CEO of the company he works for, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he gets there, he finds out he’s been selected as the human component in a Turing test for Ava (Alicia Vikander), a fembot with a human face and robotic body. As he tests her capabilities, he finds that she may be far more intelligent than Nathan may have realised. Ex Machina could very easily have delved into standard sci-fi fare – an intelligent AI that’s far smarter than anyone realises, a reclusive, genius creator – but fuses an elegant aesthetic with clever storytelling to create a more nuanced, human film. Buy on Amazon
The Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
An alien race arrives in Germany and slowly mounts an invasion, one that the human race is woefully underprepared for. Major William Cage, who has no combat experience, is thrust into combat and is soon killed in combat. He finds himself reliving the last day of his life, over and over again, each time with no one to believe him, trying to use it to his advantage. The alien race in the film, Mimics, are particularly memorable, even in a crowded field, and the mixture of action with a straightforward plot (and humour) stop it from turning into a macabre version ofGroundhog Day. Buy on Amazon
Nolan’s space epic about a mission to find a new world or humanity is sometimes unfairly dismissed as spectacle exceeding substance. Sure, its story hooks are more emotional than philosophical and you could drive a bus through the gaping paradox of its time and gravity bending ending, but it’s a rare event in sci-fi: a successful blockbuster. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all excel in their lead roles and the depiction of Earth in the final throes of a global ecological collapse has real impact. The brilliant set pieces, including a realistic depiction of a black hole, and an outstanding Hans Zimmer soundtrack, add to to sense of scale and drama. Buy on Amazon
The Martian (2015)
Matt Damon is stranded on Mars and there’s little hope of rescuing him. The Martian could have been a dreary attempt at intellectual sci-fi, but thankfully its clever plot and believable characters more than save the film. This may have been in part due to the significant role which Nasa ended up playing in the movie, from the inception, to advising on technical details in the script, as well as collaboration on marketing. A screening of The Martian was shown at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston too. Buy on Amazon
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Riffing off the original Mad Max series, from the 1970s, Fury Road takes a contemporary anxiety – scarce resources, climate change, the general apocalypse – and turns it into a dense, overwhelming thriller, with magnificent special effects and a visionary bent.
In this post-apocalyptic film, petrol and water have become scarce commodities, and a group of people fleeing a cult leader have to team up to fight for their survival. With an ensemble cast led by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the film’s take on the near dystopian future tends more towards action and thriller than sci-fi, but it trades on a very real fear – that of natural resources running out. The film’s dystopian aesthetic and feminist overtones form part of its unique appeal that’s bolstered by strong performances from a brilliant ensemble cast. Buy on Amazon
Ted Chiang’s short novella, Story of Your Life, serves as the inspiration for this moving film about language and discovery in which humanity struggles to make sense of strange, alien visitors arriving on Earth. At the centre of the film is linguist Louise Banks, whose attempts to commune with the aliens brings her unsettling visions of her daughter. While the premise – unfamiliar aliens, existential threat – is tried and tested, in director Denis Villeneuve’s capable hands, it turns into a meditation on communication, uncertainty and love. Buy on Amazon
Midnight Special (2016)
Jeff Nichols' story of an eight-year-old boy with special powers and the father trying to protect him didn't do particularly spectacularly at the box office. But we think Midnight Special deserves a spot as one of the most interesting pieces of cinematic sci-fi to represent the 2010s. It's a suspenseful, visually intriguing curio that finds new angles on the parent-child dynamic with fine performances from Michael Shannon as Roy, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Egerton and Adam Driver. Buy on Amazon
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
More than 30 years after the original Blade Runner hit cinemas, its sequel starting Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling took $259 million at box offices around the world. Ford, a former blade runner who has vanished for three decades, is rediscovered by Gosling as he seeks to save society from impending chaos. The film won Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography at the 90th Academy Awards in March 2018. It also picked up Best Cinematography and best Special Visual Effects at the 2018 BAFTAs.
Alex Garland’s bio-futurist film Annihilation went straight to Netflix, but the film received rave reviews for its complexity. Lena, played by Natalie Portman, is a scientist whose husband disappeared, and then was returned with little memory of what happened before. She finds out he was sent to investigate The Shimmer, a kind of iridescent forcefield with mysterious origins and effects on the people who enter. As she journeys into it, alongside a group of other scientists, she finds human shaped plants and weird animal hybrids, alongside other unnatural phenomena. Even though the film’s premise seems initially simple, it’s philosophical bent and stellar performances create an immersive story that pushed along by an unusual and killer soundscape. Buy on Amazon