by Sam Aberdeen
Science fiction is one of the most ambitious genres in all of film. Often, the storytellers have to get creative in how they envision their worlds, lore, characters, and inner workings of the universe in order to craft believable yet fantastical narratives. It’s a fine balancing act that many classics pulled off to great success, but we’re going to look at ten sci-fi films that many consider essential in the genre, from old to new. In no particular order, let’s dive into the best that the genre has to offer.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski siblings struck gold with 1999’s The Matrix, a genre-defining science fiction action film. Taking inspiration from Ghost in the Shell, Dark City and Blade Runner, The Matrix was able to carve its own brand of style and groundbreaking visual effects into the medium. In addition to the spectacular VFX, it also featured a surprisingly thought-provoking, existential central story and a career-making performance from Keanu Reeves as Neo. If you somehow haven’t seen The Matrix yet, strap yourself in for a dazzling marriage of storytelling and breathtaking action.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s impressively massive filmography covers many genres, but few could argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the director’s magnum opus. It pioneered many visual effects tricks that are still widely used today, but more importantly, gave aspiring filmmakers a chance to tap into the science fiction genre in film beyond just pretty visuals. Watching it today, it still holds up fairly well considering it was released in 1968. A timeless classic in every sense of the term, 2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably the most influential sci-fi film on this list.
Christopher Nolan had already jump-started his career in the 2000s with hits like Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, but it was Inception that solidified his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most daring filmmakers. Like The Matrix, Inception told a mind-bending story with stellar practical visual effects, but it was Nolan’s deep exploration of the psychology behind dreams that made the viewing experience as surreal as it was absolutely gripping from beginning to end. We can’t talk about sci-fi filmmaking now without bringing up Inception, and it’s a true testament to Nolan at the peak of his creative career.
Blade Runner (1982)
One could argue that Blade Runner 2049 did more for the franchise than its predecessor, but there’s no denying the sheer impact that Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner had on science fiction filmmaking. Famous for its jaw-dropping cyberpunk aesthetic and introspective study of what it means to be human, Blade Runner is less blockbuster and more philosophical than its genre counterparts. It’s not easy to digest, especially after a first viewing, but repeated watches make this a classic in film and one of Scott’s finest achievements in his filmography.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Not to be confused with the 2017 live-action film starring Scarlett Johansson, the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell is massively influential in the sci-fi genre, and pretty much paved the way for all cyberpunk works to come. Mamoru Oshii’s legendary animated film was among the first to explore the deeper underlying meanings behind the “man versus machine” theme, only told through a remarkably complex narrative. For the time, it was something unexpectedly different in science fiction, and one that would influence The Matrix, Inception and a lot of modern sci-fi films on this list.
Time travel is one of the trickiest sub-genres in sci-fi to get right, just ask Back to the Future. Despite it being a solid framework for a compelling story, it’s often victim to plot holes and numerous inaccuracies that might hinder your experience. Luckily, 2012’s Looper side-steps a lot of those grievances in exchange for a thrilling ride that strips the time travel plot device bare. Joseph Gordon-Levitt rather scarily plays a younger version of Bruce Willis in a world where loopers (time-travelling assassins) must inevitably kill their future self to “close their loops”. When Gordon-Levitt refuses to do this, it creates a cat-and-mouse chase that even sprinkles in some bizarre telekinesis. Looper is wild, unhinged sci-fi filmmaking at its finest.
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is one of those timeless sci-fi films that earns the right to be called a masterpiece. From a technical standpoint, the film is sublime, incorporating long and complex tracking shots with incredible cinematography. It also tells a story drenched in mystery, high stakes, and a strong sense of urgency. When humanity is on the verge of extinction from infertile birthrates, one pregnant woman must be transported to safety after she becomes the target of humanity’s worst extremists. There’s no better example of modern sci-fi filmmaking that packs a social commentary punch quite like Children of Men.
Hollywood seems to have an odd fascination with making big-budget special effects-driven alien invasion films that are merely digestible and leave little to no impact. In came director Dennis Villeneuve to prove Hollywood wrong with 2016’s brainy sci-fi drama, Arrival. Starring Amy Adams as a linguistics expert who must learn how to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors before humanity initiates a galactic war, Arrival is masterfully told from the perspective of common people facing extraordinary – and dire – circumstances. It’s an incredibly emotional and believable account of what would happen if aliens visited us one day.
District 9 (2009)
I often joke that everyone around the world seems to love District 9 except South Africans, and it’s true to an extent. The film, made by South African filmmaker Niell Blomkamp and set in South Africa, framed the real-life xenophobic attacks in the 2000s with a sci-fi twist, that being aliens who are instead placed in camps. It reveals quite biting social commentary about the state of the country at the time, but as a whole, serves its purpose as an extremely well-made, thrilling science fiction action film with a terrific lead performance in Sharlto Copley. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t deny the originality and creativity on display here.
Star Wars Saga (1977 – 2020)
This is technically cheating since the Star Wars franchise encompasses at least a dozen movies at this point, but when taken as an entire saga of science fiction films, there’s little reason to exclude it from this list. Like many kids into sci-fi, I grew up with Star Wars (albeit it was the infamous prequel trilogy), but it opened up my eyes and heart to just how great a series of films can be when pairing real-world issues and politics with a fantastical narrative involving Jedi’s, the force, and the Sith. Say what you will about the saga’s lowest points, but Star Wars’ impact on filmmaking is one that has been felt around the world and by many, many generations of old and new fans alike.