The top 10 sci-fi films of all time: from E.T. to Star Wars

Ridley Scott's 1982 Sci-fi film Bladerunner came fourth on the list of films watched by men. (Warner Bros.)
Ridley Scott's 1982 Sci-fi film Bladerunner came fourth on the list of films watched by men. (Warner Bros.)

Science fiction is a genre where ideas never die. From mind-bending time travel and clones to epic intergalactic battles , there is something in there to entice every movie-goer. Some of cinema’s greatest hits have been inspired by sci-fi, with classics gaining iconic status over the decades.

The most successful sci-fi, of course, is that which reflects our own world, looking at the human condition and the consequences of humanity’s actions through a futuristic lens.

From wibbly wobbly timey wimey themes to murderous aliens and talking robots, here are the best sci-fi films of all time.

10. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg brought sci-fi to the masses with his 1982 movie ET, which follows a kind-hearted alien who finds comfort with a young Californian family after being stranded on Earth. It's a classic piece of family-friendly sci-fi and the flying bikes scene is one of the most iconic in cinema.

9. Donnie Darko

It might seem a slightly unusual choice given the films left off the list, but few movies made over the last 20 years possess the same distinctive style and personality of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. It’s a cult classic with weird, off-kilter storytelling and one of the best soundtracks in living memory. It’s also a surprisingly scary work, which first introduced Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal to film fans all over the world.

8. 12 Monkeys

No list of sci-fi films would be complete without mention of Terry Gilliam. The director and Monty Python member’s surreal 1985 effort Brazil could also have easily made the list too, but 12 Monkeys is a genuine 1990s classic, which more than deserves a place on the list. Bruce Willis plays a prisoner who's instructed to travel back in time to locate a deadly virus that has wiped out humanity. Brad Pitt also stars in the film, which has to be remembered as one of the best of the decade.

7. District 9

District 9 takes place in the aftermath of an extra-terrestrial invasion, where aliens are forced to live in refugee camps under terrible conditions. It’s a thoughtful and hugely ambitious sci-fi movie, which makes unmissable comparisons to apartheid in South Africa and has a strong message to back up the incredible CGI work on display. Fans have been waiting for a sequel for 15 years now, but instead of beginning work on a follow-up to this brilliant film, producer Peter Jackson went off to make the Hobbit trilogy instead. Thanks Peter... Director Neill Blomkamp, did however, vaguely say that a sequel will come out "at some point down the line,” but as yet there has been no hint when it might happen.

6. The Matrix

Yes, the sequels might be overblown and pretentious, but the first Matrix movie was as close to the perfect sci-fi experience you could get when it came out in 1999. The film was incredibly stylish and brilliantly entertaining, and it also saw directing pair the Wachowskis introduce filming techniques like bullet time and 360-degree shots that were so ahead of its time, they would be shamelessly copied in inferior sci-fi films for years to come. The fourth edition in the Matrix franchise though, The Matrix Resurrections 2021, fell flat with audiences. It is first in the series to be directed solely by Lana Wachowski.

5. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

He said he’d be back and he was, for one of the most thrilling sci-fi films ever made. Director James Cameron’s Terminator 2 not only lived up to his original film, but it became one of only a handful of sequels to surpass the achievements of the first movie, which in itself was a classic slice of 1980s sci-fi. Can Cameron pull of the same feat with the four (four!) upcoming Avatar sequels he's working on? We doubt it.

4. Alien

The appeal of Ridley Scott’s original Alien was that it took at the best ingredients of a taught, claustrophobic horror film and plonked the whole thing in a sci-fi setting. James Cameron took the spectacle up a notch with the expansive war movie Aliens, but the original film remains an absolute classic that has aged extremely well since it came out in 1979.

Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley go toe-to-toe with a terrifying xenomorph on the grubby, dilapidated spaceship Nostromo remains one of the ultimate sci-fi experiences. There have been hints of a potential standalone teasing the return of the monster, directed by Fede Álvarez, but no release date on the horizon just yet.

3. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

​There’s no doubt that the Star Wars franchise has had an unparalleled impact on the world of sci-fi cinema. Any of the three original movies could have been included here. We’ve gone for The Empire Strikes Back though, as it finds a great balance between gigantic spectacle (think of the Battle of Hoth and the revelatory light saber battle between Luke and Darth Vader) and emotional candour (Princess Leia and Han Solo’s heart-breaking farewell). The uninspiring prequels threatened to diminish the reputation of the franchise but, thankfully, the new generation of Star Wars films have been fantastic additions to the series. For our money, you still can’t beat Episode V though.

2. Blade Runner

Cinema fans have been gripped by Blade Runner fever recently, thanks to the release of Blade Runner 2049, and the sequel has served as a welcome reminder of just how great the 1982 original is. It’s the second entry on the list for Ridley Scott, who has to be recognised as one of the greatest world builder in sci-fi cinema. The greasy city scenes and sepia-washed landscapes add to the film’s unforgettable visuals and help make it one of the most arresting sci-fi films ever made.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that…” 2001: A Space Odyssey is so visually stunning, it’s easy to forget that the film was made nearly 50 years ago. Visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick created one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever with 2001, which looks stunning even after half a century. There’s an incredible soundtrack, mind-bending visuals and vast, theological concepts in play throughout the film, and insubordinate computer system HAL, brilliantly voiced by Douglas Rain, is also one of the most compelling and arresting characters in sci-fi cinema. A masterpiece.