25 Essential Sci-Fi Films

I have been inspired lately to revisit the question of the “great” sci-fi films. (See my previous posts on the Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 2000s and Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 2010s.) Others online have taken some pretty good recent stabs at this (see, e.g., “Moid Moidelhoff” at Media Death Cult, who has provided both his personal and his viewers’ choice “Top Sci-Fi Movies of All Time”). 

These kinds of lists are great, and it’s the inevitable discussion and argument that makes them really fun. One frequent defect (in my opinion) of such lists is that they fail to strike a balance between history and sheer entertainment. Younger reviewers often cite the most recent flavor-of-the-year films as among the “greatest,” which can betray an ignorance of what has gone before. Older reviewers, however, are often obsessed with the classics of their youth and fail to take into account that older films can be off-putting to twenty-first century audience expectations, with outdated acting styles, clunky dialogue, obsolete scientific theory, rickety special effects, etc.

Also, though I’ve used them in the past, I prefer to avoid adjectives like “top” or “best” or “greatest”; obviously, such things are highly objective. I prefer the (admittedly more pretentious!) term “essential.” My aim with this list is to provide a syllabus; an overview of the 125-year sweep of sci-fi cinema, and a sampling of the most entertaining, influential, technically impressive films the genre has to offer. (And for what it’s worth, I did use a multi-factored rating system—including things like audience engagement, strength of ideas, technical execution, influence on the genre, and pop culture impact—to try to minimize pure personal preference. I tried my hardest to make what is unavoidably subjective as objective as possible.)

So, to paraphrase Captain Kirk, “No more blah-blah-blah.” I’ll leave the analysis for other posts, or for the comments section. Presented in chronological order, here are my “25 Essential Sci-Fi Movies.” 

Appetizer (not part of the list proper): Short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

Metropolis (1927) 

Frankenstein (1931) 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) 

Gojira (1954) 

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Doctor Strangelove (1964)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Alien (1979)

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Road Warrior (1981)

Blade Runner (1982)

The Terminator (1984)

Back to the Future (1985)

Aliens (1986)

Akira (1988)

Jurassic Park (1993)

The Matrix (1999)

X-Men (2000)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Children of Men (2006)

The Martian (2015)

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