The 16 Sci-Fi Movies You Need to Watch Before You Die

Chest-bursting aliens. Time-traveling DeLoreans. Dystopian futures. Galaxies far, far away. Science fiction is full of characters, set pieces, and scenarios that few other genres could ever get away with. Due to its often speculative nature, the most accomplished sci-fi movies can sometimes require a bit of work on the part of the viewer. Yet as fans of the genre understand, when it’s done right, a great sci-fi film is well worth the mental gymnastics that watching it might demand.

Speaking of sci-fi done right: Whether you’re a lifelong genre devotee or have never even sat through a Star Wars movie to the end, a little guidance can go a long way—and that’s exactly what we’ve got for you. When you’re ready to take your mind on a cinematic journey, check out any one (or all) of our picks for the very best science fiction movies you can watch right now.

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Dune and Dune: Part Two

“Tell them a messiah will come. They’ll wait. For centuries.” Chani (Zendaya) speaks those words early on in Dune: Part Two. She’s speaking about the prophecy that a savior will arrive to help her and her fellow Fremen, and whether or not Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) will be that messiah. She could also be talking about the wait for a truly epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s award-winning sci-fi novel. Yes, David Lynch made one in the 1980s, and it’s a camp classic, but it is director Denis Villeneuve’s pair of films that truly bring Herbert’s story to life. Lushly designed, action-packed, and understandable even to people who’ve never touched the book, these Dunes are the real deal. If you know anything about the lore, you know there’s far too much to really get into it here, but let it be known: Villeneueve’s adaptations aren’t just mind-blowing sci-fi—they’re monumental works of art.

Arrival

While Denis Villeneuve has dabbled in a variety of genres since beginning his filmmaking career in the mid-1990s, a sci-fi milieu seems to suit him best. As if Enemy (2014) or his pair of Dune movies didn’t make that obvious, consider this: The man dared to make a sequel worthy of Ridley Scott’s genre-defining Blade Runner—and succeeded! Then there’s Arrival, which is basically a linguistics lesson wrapped in a sci-fi feature and all the more engrossing because of it. After the unexpected arrival of an alien species on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with creating a universal language that will allow humans to speak with them, and vice versa. But she quickly comes to realize that effectively communicating with her human colleagues—who want results now—might be the bigger challenge. It’s a stark, and all too timely, reminder that progress takes time, and as such requires patience.

RoboCop

Any cursory attempt to recreate the ’80s usually goes straight for the popped collars and neon-colored everything. But a quick review of some of the decade’s most popular movies reveals a deep sense of disillusionment. Case in point: In the same year that Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) was declaring “greed is good” in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Paul Verhoeven was unleashing one of cinema’s most subversive sci-fi flicks, which sees the mayor of Detroit hand over control of the city to the evil Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which promptly turns Motor City into a testing ground for its latest technologies. One of those creations is RoboCop (Peter Weller), a law-enforcing cyborg who is programmed with the sole intent of eradicating the city’s crime problem—until memories of his human existence find their way back into his head. Hey, it happens. Especially when you recycle the corpse of a police officer murdered in the line of duty in order to make your robot cop thing work. The film’s extreme violence initially earned it the dreaded X rating, which Verhoeven skirted with some clever editing. But the real scares are in its statement on capitalism and the power that corporations wield, which is as true today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Inception

Anyone who has ever seen Inception knows that you probably need at least a second go-around—or 20—to fully understand its many complexities. If that is even possible. The less you know about the details of the story going into it the better, but the basics are this: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an “extractor”—a talented thief who steals his targets’ secrets by infiltrating their dreams with his trusty team of colleagues, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page, and Tom Hardy. People still debate what happened in the film’s ending, which is just the kind of mindfuckery Christopher Nolan seems to revel in.

Star Wars V: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back

There are only a handful of movie sequels that have somehow managed to be better than the film that spawned then, and The Empire Strikes Back is near the top of the list. The film reunites Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford)—the fearless threesome who made A New Hope an instant smash hit—as they yet again do their best to keep their world safe from the dastardly Darth Vader. While A New Hope dazzled with its ahead-of-its-time visual effects, The Empire Strikes Back was just as impressive—but took the Star Wars universe in a decidedly darker, and more adult, direction.

The Matrix

Today, The Matrix is part of an enormously popular franchise that includes movies, video games, and even an animated feature (The Animatrix). While all those additional pieces of the puzzle may have diluted the impact of the original film, its one-of-a-kindness still stands. In a dystopian future (really, is there any other kind?), the world is living in a simulated reality without even realizing it—until a top-notch hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) sees what’s happening and works to separate fact from AI-created fiction. The Wachowskis’ visionary directing, thought-provoking script, and mind-bending action sequences still have the ability to make viewers’ jaws drop. Audiences haven’t looked at spoons—or Keanu Reeves—the same way since.

The Terminator

In a different world, the studio could have won a casting argument with James Cameron, and The Terminator would star O.J. Simpson instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Through a fortuitous and circuitous turn of events, Cameron met with Schwarzenegger to pretend to consider him for the role of Kyle Reese in The Terminator and walked away knowing he had just found their eponymous cyborg, who time-travels from 2029 to 1984 in order to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a waitress and future mom to the kid who will save the world. Fortunately, she’s got Reese (Michael Biehn)—another time traveler—on her side. On paper, it may sound preposterous, but 40 years later The Terminator still manages to impress—and is still spawning new content.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

If The Terminator raised the bar for sci-fi films, Terminator 2: Judgment Day smashed it to pieces. Like so many cyborg movies that preceded it—including its 1984 parent film—T2 is as much a commentary on what it means to be human as it is a declaration of just how far is “too far” in the development of intelligent technology. If only early ’90s James Cameron knew what would lie ahead. The plot of this sequel essentially follows the same pattern as the original film: a Terminator (Robert Patrick) is sent to Los Angeles to kill John Connor (Edward Furlong), son of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), before he can lead the human resistance. Once again, the Connors have a guardian angel—only this time it’s a kinder, gentler, familiar old Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is sent to protect John. Where T2 managed to supplant its predecessor is in its VFX. As he has done so many times throughout his career, Cameron essentially had to create new technology in order to see his vision to fruition and, in doing so, led the transition from practical effects to CGI (for better or worse). Even by today’s standards, T2’s liquid metal shots are incredible to witness.

Escape From New York

John Carpenter may be better known as a master of horror, but he’s no slouch in the sci-fi department. Set in the then future year of 1997, Escape From New York offers a version of America where the country is one big war zone and the island of Manhattan is one giant maximum security prison. That’s unfortunate for the president (Donald Pleasence), as New York City is exactly where Air Force One crash-lands after an attempted hijacking, and POTUS is taken hostage by one of the country’s most dangerous crime bosses. In order to ensure the president’s safe return, the government has no choice but to enlist the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a soldier-turned-criminal who might just be the only person who can save the country from total anarchy. Are there synth scores? You betcha. Carpenter would double down on his sci-fi prowess and reteam with Russell again, just one year later, with his equally awesome The Thing (1982).

Ex Machina

While the 1980s were undoubtedly a very good time for sci-fi, the new millennium has proven that there are still plenty of wholly unique stories to be told—and Ex Machina is one of them. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer who is invited to the remote home of an eccentric tech billionaire (Oscar Isaac) for what he thinks is a gig helping to develop a truly groundbreaking humanoid robot. But when Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot in question, it becomes clear that it is she, not the humans, who is in control. With its A-list cast, stellar directing, all-too-relevant storyline, and synchronized dance scene, Ex Machina just might be this millennium’s Blade Runner.

Back to the Future

Yes, Back to the Future is a comedy. And a family film too. Not to mention an ’80s classic. But at its heart, the time-traveling adventure of Marty McFly is sci-fi through and through. Marty (Michael J. Fox) is a cool ’80s teen who has a hot girlfriend yet somehow manages to spend most of his time hanging out with a middle-aged mad scientist (Christopher Lloyd), who turns a sweet DeLorean into a time machine. Hijinks ensue, as does a bizarre plotline involving Libyan terrorists, all of which land Marty back in 1955, where he meets the teen versions of his parents and desperately thwarts his mom’s attempts to seduce him. (That storyline could be its own movie, really.) But by interfering with the past, Marty is putting his own future at risk. Forcing him to find a way to get back to 1985—but not before inventing rock ’n’ roll as we know it.

Alien

Ridley Scott has dabbled in virtually every genre, but the bars he has set in the sci-fi world are undeniable. Two years after making his feature directorial debut with the period film The Duellists, Scott changed the science fiction game with Alien. The film follows the crew of the spacecraft Nostromo, including warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who respond to a distress call as they’re making their way home to Earth. This turns out to be their first mistake—especially when they realize that they’re being stalked by an unknown alien species that seems determined to make sure none of the crewmembers ever leave the planetoid. Alien introduced audiences to an array of terrifying creatures—Xenomorphs and face-huggers and chestbursters, oh my—and kicked off a notable movie franchise that will continue later this year with Alien: Romulus.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Two years after inventing the “summer blockbuster” with Jaws, Steven Spielberg made a quick pivot from vengeful sharks to mysterious extraterrestrials—a theme he would revisit again a few years later—with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film reunited the director with Richard Dreyfuss, who here plays a loving husband and father whose unexpected run-in with a UFO turns into an obsession that threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself. Nearly a half-century later, it remains one of the most smartly made alien movies Hollywood has ever seen by doing away with the “extra-terrestrial invasion” trope and instead focusing on the challenges that would come with the discovery of an alien life-form.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the sci-fi movie to end all sci-fi movies, with every genre flick that has followed owing the auteur a debt of gratitude. With its epic scope, gorgeous cinematography, and its somewhat prophetic—and deeply dystopian—narrative about the potential dangers of relying too much on technology, the film is as relevant today as it was upon its initial release nearly 60 years ago. Particularly with its main storyline, which focuses on a group of men taking part in a space mission with the help of HAL 9000, a piece of AI technology that decides to go rogue. It’s not a short film, and every one of its 189 minutes is packed with prescient storytelling and ahead-of-its-time technology, making it stand out as one of the most accomplished films in cinema history.

Blade Runner

Between The Last Duel (2021) and Napoleon (2023), Ridley Scott has been on more of a historical epic kick lately. But no amount of time away from the sci-fi world could ever threaten his place as a preeminent master of the genre. While he made his name with Alien, he achieved icon status with Blade Runner. The setting: Los Angeles, 2019. (Stick with us here.) Flying cars are a thing, as are bioengineered humanoids known as replicants, and that’s a bad thing. Which is why there are so-called “blade runners” like Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to find and kill these nonhuman threats to society. But when everyone looks and often acts human, where do you draw the line? Blade Runner’s complex storyline led to Scott and Ford being forced to record and attach a voice-over, which they both hated, to the film’s original release. The film has subsequently been rereleased, both theatrically and in home versions, a number of times and in different iterations. In 1992, Scott finally got to release a director’s cut of the film, which did away with the voiceover (and other elements he didn’t love), but even he didn’t have final say over that cut. Finally, in 2007, he got the chance to be the last word on every element with Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Watch ’em all and see where you land.