Leslie Nielsen in Forbidden Planet

10 best classic sci-fi movies, ranked

Science fiction is among the most acclaimed cinematic genres. Since the medium’s dawn, sci-fi has provided numerous films meant to challenge and push the boundaries of what’s known and, in many cases, believed. From ambitious, thought-provoking Oscar-winning sci-fi movies to more mainstream, yet no less impressive projects, the genre is a reliable bet that constantly redefines what’s possible.

Although some might think of science fiction as a “modern” genre, the truth is that it has been around since the medium’s inception. Indeed, many of the greatest sci-fi films came out in the late 1930s and ’40s, continuing all the way to the ’60s and ’70s. These movies laid the basis for the genre, inspiring writers, directors, and writers for decades to come, and redefining what the oft-used word “groundbreaking” truly means.

10. Forbidden Planet (1956)

Leslie Nielse as John J. Adams with two others inside a space ship in 1956's Forbidden Planet.
Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred M. Wilcox’s iconic 1956 film Forbidden Planet remains a seminal entry in the science fiction canon and a pioneer in the techno-horror subgenre. Co-starring Walter Pidgeon and Leslie Nielsen, the film follows a crew sent to the distant planet of Altair IV to discover the fate of a group of scientists sent decades earlier. Upon arrival, they discover the sole survivor, Dr. Morbius, and his daughter, Altaira, before uncovering a larger mystery.

Forbidden Planet is a true game-changer in cinematic history. It is among the first films to depict faster-than-light travel and be set on another planet, thus expanding the boundaries of science fiction. It features one of cinema’s most iconic robots, Robby, and boasts a memorable electronic musical score and great visual effects for its time. More importantly, Forbidden Planet challenged conventions and expectations, proving the versatility of science fiction and launching countless spiritual successors.

9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

A scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Image via Columbia Pictures

Steven Spielberg has many great movies on his resumé. Arguably the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg’s name is synonymous with quality, after he consistently delivered masterpieces over the past five decades that thoughtfully explore various issues from a profoundly humane perspective. His 1977 sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a powerful examination of humanity’s relation to the unknown and a major feather on his ever-expanding cap.

The plot centers on Roy Neary, a blue-collar Indiana worker whose life changes after witnessing an unidentified flying object. With Close EncountersSpielberg explores cerebral issues with his trademark sensitivity, resulting in an awe-inspiring and almost innocent rumination on major issues sci-fi has long been concerned with. From language to curiosity, fear, and the unavoidable and inherent dread of modernization, Close Encounters covers more ground than the average sci-fi film.

8. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Klaatu exiting a flying saucer in "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Image via 20th Century Studios

The 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still is among the most influential films of the 1950s. Set during the Cold War, the plot revolves around Klaatu, a humanoid alien who, accompanied by the robot Gort, comes to Earth to deliver an important message. The Day the Earth Stood Still offers one of the earliest examples of the science-versus-religion dynamic, as Klaatu is very obviously a Christ metaphor. Moreover, the film is among the rare early films that force the audience to question its place and purpose in the cosmos.

The Day the Earth Stood Still uses the concept of humanity as one whole, focusing on our similarities, especially in the face of an impending invasion. As with other sci-fi movies, the unknown and our helplessness against it plays a major role in The Day the Earth Stood Stillwith the film creating a distinctive atmosphere of impending doom that remains until after the credits roll.

7. Planet of the Apes (1968)

Charlton Heston as George Taylor standing with a group of apes in 1968's Planet of the Apes.
Image via 20th Century Studios

Planet of the Apes is among the all-time most quotable sci-fi movies. Charlton Heston stars as George Taylor, an astronaut whose crew crash-lands on a futuristic planet where humanity is enslaved by highly evolved apes. As Taylor experiences this new reality, he plots an escape, unaware of the harrowing secrets lurking in the planet’s Forbidden Zone.

A modern classic in every sense of the word, Planet of the Apes is famous for its intricate narrative that seamlessly blends social issues and classic sci-fi themes. With an unforgettable sci-fi ending, a memorable performance from the legendary Heston, and some of the most impressive makeup artistry of the 1960s, Planet of the Apes is a groundbreaking sci-fi film with a rich and enduring legacy. Not even studio greed, and a lackluster Tim Burton remake in 2001, succeeded in tainting this mighty film’s reputation.

6. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge with two of his friends in the film A Clockwork Orange.
Image via Warner Bros.

Malcolm McDowell stars in Stanley Kubrick’s shocking 1971 dystopian crime film A Clockwork Orange. The film tells the story of Alex DeLarge, a charismatic, yet sadistic and anti-social criminal who enjoys inflicting pain and chaos with his gang of equally deranged friends. Upon his capture, Alex is subjected to an experimental condition treatment, the Ludovico Technique, to cure his disruptive impulses.

Hyperviolent and unrestrained, A Clockwork Orange is a singularly brave and once-banned picture from one of cinema’s most innovative filmmakers. It is among the rare sci-fi films that focus more on the human condition, abandoning the technological aspect to focus on the social and psychological themes prevalent in a morally corrupt and bankrupt society. Shocking, even after all these years, A Clockwork Orange is nothing short of a masterpiece, with a striking message that remains surprisingly topical and timely.

5. Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien.
Image via 20th Century Studios

Few directors have done more for science fiction than Ridley Scott. His 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alienlaunched one of cinema’s most enduring franchises and proved that realism need not be detached from science fiction. Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, warrant officer aboard the Nostromo, a commercial space tug attacked by a hostile alien creature.

Alien is among the most influential sci-fi pictures in history. Not only did it spawn a plethora of sequels and inspire a legion of copycats, but it also proved how the sci-fi and horror genres go hand in hand. Its influence spreads further, reaching other mediums, including literature and video games. Alien crafted a distinctive cinematic style and language, echoing silent horror by emphasizing atmospheric dread, anxiety, and suspense, then enhancing it with striking visuals that became iconic parts of pop culture.

4. Star Wars (1977)

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford as Luke, Leia, and Han in Star Wars.
Image via LucasfIlm

George Lucas’ 1977 space opera Star Wars is a cinematic institution. Set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the plot follows young Luke Skywalker as he joins forces with intrepid pilot Han Solo and his companion, Chewbacca, to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of the evil Darth Vader and his Imperial Forces. The film stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Alec Guinness.

Star Wars marks a before and after in science fiction. The film introduced one of the most successful cinematic universes, featured multiple characters that have become modern icons, and launched a massive empire that includes merchandise, theme parks, comic books, and video games. More importantly, Star Wars made sci-fi accessible, introducing a classic hero’s journey to an engrossing and awe-inspiring universe, thus making it relatable and utterly unforgettable. The film pushed every available technical and technological boundary, becoming the face of science fiction for decades to come.

3. Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff as the Monster in 1931's Frankenstein.
Image via Universal Pictures

Horror and science fiction have always shared a link. The classic era of Universal Monsters delivered many of the finest examples of the marriage between these two enduring genres, although none is more acclaimed or effective than James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece Frankenstein. Based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the film follows the efforts of obsessive scientist Henry Frankenstein to create life out of body parts from corpses.

Although Frankenstein is nowadays best remembered for its contributions to horror, it was also a milestone for science fiction. The film is among the most fascinating explorations of science’s unique ability to create and destroy, touching upon issues of deification and abuse of power that scandalized 1930s audiences. Featuring a timeless performance by the mighty Boris Karloff as the titular monster, Frankenstein is a thought-provoking exploration of human nature, genius, and madness that revolutionized the face of horror and science fiction.

2. Metropolis (1927)

The Maschinenmensch in the movie Metropolis.
Credit: Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang has a place of honor in the pantheon of science fiction geniuses. One of the leading forces in German Expressionism, Lang was also a pioneer of science fiction, directing what remains a landmark achievement in the genre: Metropolis. Adapted from the 1925 novel set in a futuristic dystopia, the film features a society divided between a wealthy ruling class and the exploited workers whom they exploit. The plot follows Freder, the son of a wealthy city master who joins forces with a beautiful teacher to aid the exploited workers.

Metropolis features a classic societal allegory wrapped in a highly stylized sci-fi premise. The result is a remarkably original and progressive film that redefined audiences’ perception of science fiction. Metropolis is the precursor of nearly every major sci-fi film that followed, a brilliant and near-foretelling work of pure genius with a surprisingly decisive and angry message that continues resonating with audiences — and probably always will.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A close-up of an astronatu with a red light reflecting on his helmet in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Stanley Kubrick’s epic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey is the unique and mesmerizing result of the marriage between science fiction and the surreal. Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinelthe film chronicles the journey of a group of scientists to Jupiter to investigate a mysterious alien monolith.

Elusive and esoteric, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the ultimate science fiction movie. It visits common themes within the genre, including evolution, artificial intelligence, sentience, and alien life. However, it does so under a shifting approach, deftly balancing tones and messages and going back and forth between pessimism and optimism. Like the absolute best sci-fi films, 2001 ventures into the philosophical, with a clear understanding that humanity’s evolution is intrinsically tied to its fallible nature. Kubrick’s 2001 is hungry for the audience’s attention, logic, and curiosity. It’s not devotion or respect it evokes; it’s inspiration, the same hunger that powers it and which it gifts to its viewers, for better and worse.

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