It’s easy to see why science fiction sometimes get a bad rap. After all, convoluted franchises like Avengers and Star Wars fight their way onto our screens almost every summer and whether you like them or not, it’s fair to say that most instalments aren’t particularly accessible to newcomers. When pressed to suggest a more cerebral alternative, most sci-fi fans will turn to the likes of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this can raise problems too. While both are cinematic masterpieces, their slow-burn approach to answering some of humanity’s biggest questions certainly isn’t for everyone either.
Because of this, science fiction is that rare genre which many either look down upon as too “nerdy” or steer clear of due to its lofty aspirations. The truth though is that among all of the spaceships and technical terminology, the very best sci-fi movies are really all about humanity and that’s something which we can all relate to.
Whether you’re looking for something fun and light-hearted, or want to deep dive into the work of true masters, the best science fiction movies have something for everyone, and various attempts to explore sci-fi themes in connection with other areas of cinema has only strengthened the genre’s appeal even further.
Here are our diverse picks that take you through time and space, travelling from the streets of Paris and Seoul to the most inner depths of the mind, stopping off for a couple of visits to the future along the way, to present you with the best sci-fi movies if you don’t already consider yourself a fan of the genre.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Worlds away from the weird aliens and shiny robots that are typically associated with sci-fi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores a world where it’s possible to remove traumatic memories, including those of past relationships.
Detractors of the best sci-fi movies often argue that the genre lacks heart, but few films dive this deep into the agony that comes with losing the one you love. For Michel Gondry’s most acclaimed movie, celebrated comic, Jim Carrey, channels the mania of past performances into a far more melancholic take on love and the nature of pain itself, testing how much the human heart can endure in the process.
The Iron Giant
Ok, yes, The Iron Giant does feature a giant killer robot of sorts, but this vastly underrated animation is so much more than the sum of its mechanical parts.
Set in 1958, the film chronicles the friendship that grows between the titular machine that falls from the sky and Hogarth, a young boy who helps the tin man learn what it means to be human. Far from standard children’s fare, this debut effort from director, Brad Bird, explores universal themes with wide-eyed wonder, and even though it initially flopped on release, everyone who did see The Iron Giant undoubtedly broke down by the film’s end.
The Host – Gwoemul
On the surface, monster movies might seem as simple as the giant behemoths that star in them, but if you look past the destruction they cause, highlights of this prolific sub-genre have far more to say about the world than you might think.
That brings us to The Host, a Korean movie which follows a family who are down on their luck when they encounter a mutated creature that runs rampant through Seoul. Both a scathing satire and a surprisingly hilarious family film, Gwoemul broke box office records upon release and remains a powerful indictment of pollution and the general apathy society still holds towards genuine environmental concerns. It might sound strange to say, but if more people took on board the central message of this film, then the world that hosts us might stand a shot of surviving past the next couple of generations.
Children of Men
As birth rates drop to dangerous levels, the UK welcomes the end of days with rage and prejudice, forcing Clive Owen to save one of the few pregnant women left from those who would dare manipulate her for their own ends.
On paper, Children of Men sounds like a futuristic action thriller far removed from our own experience, but director Alfonso Cuarón infuses his film with a frighteningly realistic approach that’s become more plausible than ever in today’s political climate. Although explosive moments are threaded throughout, the weary, downbeat tone of this cautionary sci-fi movie is what will stick you long after the credits roll. Oh, and Michael Caine plays an old, weed-dealing hippie, so there’s that, too.
Sure, Arrival explores the familiar premise of first contact, but in reality, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece is as far removed from pulpy sci-fi as it gets. Instead of probing unsuspecting farmers or even blowing up the White House, the visiting aliens simply hover above the Earth’s surface, speaking in a strange language that Amy Adams is tasked to decipher.
Time and space are jumbled throughout, leading to a finale that prioritizes a deeply personal, emotional arc over any physical conflict, and it’s here that Arrival excels most. To say more would spoil one of the purest cinematic experiences of the past decade, but don’t let the basic premise deter you from this triumph of cinema that proves the best sci-fi movies can be both intelligent and yet accessible all at the same time.
Midnight in Paris
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, warping how we remember what came before, and it’s this universal theme that Woody Allen tackles in one of his most beloved movies of the modern era.
Owen Wilson’s aspiring screenwriter tours the City of Love alone each night while visiting with his fiance and somehow falls back in time, stumbling across artistic figures of the past. Each visit to Paris of the 1920s reinforces the almost mythological power that the city holds over creative minds, yet the time travel device used throughout is incidental for the most part. Instead, it would be far more accurate to describe Midnight in Paris as a delightful romantic comedy that should be enjoyed by all, regardless of when in time you discover it.
Despite the many benefits that technology has brought us, the best science fiction movies regularly interrogate the role that it plays in society, questioning what happens when things go too far.
Gattaca is a typical sci-fi movie in this sense, depicting a future where society is divided into two groups: those who are genetically engineered to obtain perfection and those who are conceived in the old-fashioned way, otherwise known as In-Valids.
With his directing debut, Andrew Niccol has crafted an intelligent and timely story that is far more concerned with notions of character and the impact that technology has on the less fortunate than the kind of grandeur we usually see in the genre. Gattaca also wins bonus points for perfect casting, even if it’s hard to believe sometimes that either Ethan Hawke or Uma Thurman weren’t in fact genetically engineered at birth.
If Armageddon and Deep Impact are to be believed, then heroes will always step up to defend the Earth from asteroids and comets that threaten to blow us apart, but actually, it’s far more likely that things will play out like they do in Melancholia, which instead focuses on the inevitability of death and what that means for the human race.
Kirsten Dunst gives the performance of her career as a bride dealing with an existential crisis at her wedding while another planet threatens to collide with our own. As gorgeous as it is haunting, Melancholia might sound like a typical sci-fi movie on the surface, but instead, this standout from director Lars Von Trier is a frank meditation on depression and the overwhelming power of nihilism.
Technically set in the 1960s, Wong Kar Wai’s sequel follows an author called Mr. Chow who draws on the stories of those staying in the hotel around him to craft a new tale set in the year 2046.
Shifting back and forth between reality and the fictitious future Chow builds on paper, 2046 is a visual feast, regardless of whether we’re in the past or future. The story blends elements of romance, drama, and sci-fi just as effortlessly too, painting a detailed picture of the heartbroken author’s life in solitude.
Although Mr. Chow’s prospects don’t always seem great, the truth is that the future has never looked better than it does here through Kar Wai’s exquisite lens.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Anime has a rather unsavory reputation among the unconverted, but it’s not all octopus porn. In fact, some of the best sci-fi movies ever made were drawn in Japanese animation studios.
While it’s also worth checking out family-friendly fare like Studio Ghibli’s Castle In The Sky, audiences who usually shy away from anime should first try The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Although the title seems to say it all, this still doesn’t convey how entertaining this coming of age drama truly is.
Yes, the protagonist can travel through time, but the sci-fi visuals are grounded in far more relatable ways than you might expect, focusing primarily on Makoto’s efforts to navigate the perils of everyday high school. Each frame is a genuine work of art and the summer haze that permeates the film also hearkens back to a simpler time for audiences who might be nostalgic for their youth.
For more sci-fi coverage, watch the ‘Stranger Things’ creators discuss the show’s cinematography.