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Science fiction can be a kind of carnival mirror, showing us as we are through a layer of playful distortion. It can serve as a gesture toward some bright and hopeful future or offer a warning about what might come to pass if we don’t straighten ourselves out. Often, however, sci-fi movies are simply another fun, imaginative canvas with which to examine the human experience of today. With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at more than half a century’s worth of great science-fiction films—plus some we just think are pretty fun—and highlighted 20 favorites you can watch right now. Each of the following gems is available to stream on HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, or Hulu.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
2001 is sort of the holy grail of science-fiction films, both in terms of its cinematic experience and visual effects. Critics generally agree that it’s one of the all-time greats. The result of a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick—building on a pair of Clarke’s stories from the early fifties—it’s a rich tapestry woven from Cold War anxieties. Here’s a movie dealing with the vastness of space; the nature of time and human existence; evolution, intelligence, purpose. 2001 questions the value of intellect and technology in human hands: are we just primates wielding cudgels, or can we be something more?
‘The Abyss’ (1989)
Before James Cameron did Avatar, Terminator 2, and Titanic, the filmmaker explored all his biggest obsessions in 1989’s The Abyss. Think 2001 meets Armageddon, only the whole thing takes place in the ocean. In fact, much of the movie was shot underwater in a 7.5-million-gallon tank. A showcase for cutting-edge visual-effects work by ILM’s Dennis Muren (one of the artists behind the Death Star sequences in Star Wars), The Abyss also has a beautiful, very human story at its center. If you can get ahold of the 1993 special edition, which adds about a half hour of footage, you’ll probably enjoy that version even more. It’s not the director’s preferred cut, but it’s generally considered the better one.
Part Blade Runner, part Stranger Things, this 1988 adaptation of the manga series Akira is one of the most influential sci-fi films in history. In Neo-Tokyo, an authoritarian government hunts for children with rare gifts, knowing that the most powerful weapon on Earth is the human mind. Every scene oozes imagination; so many frames have become iconic. It might seem utterly familiar to newcomers, thanks to the countless stories that have paid homage to it over the last three decades. This movie’s as dazzling as it is horrific, and the ending is sure to stick with you.
‘Black Mirror: San Junipero’ (2016)
Okay, you got me: “San Junipero” is really a 61-minute episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror. But it’s got its own Letterboxd entry, and it won an Emmy for best TV movie, so it’s a distinctive and important work in its own right. Pastel hues and droning synths aside, this is more than a slice of eighties nostalgia; it’s a moving look at the private sanctuaries we make for ourselves in the digital age. You’ll never hear a certain Belinda Carlisle track the same way again.
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
A couple years after the seminal Alien, Ridley Scott turned his attention to this adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Today, both the novel and the film are among the most beloved science-fiction works in their respective mediums. Scott’s influential masterpiece stars Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer, who famously wrote the movie’s greatest scene—a speech delivered in the rain—in his trailer between takes. “Rather than doing all our fireworks digitally, you say it,” Scott reflected in a 2017 interview. “It’s like a Shelley poem.”
‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017)
This may be the best film sequel ever made. Denis Villeneuve’s 2049 picks up 30 years after the original Blade Runner, with a new L.A. cop, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), hunting down yet another generation of renegade replicants. But when he makes a strange discovery—android remains showing signs of childbirth—a new investigation threatens to upend the social order. A possible career-best performance from Harrison Ford is one reason to watch; Roger Deakins’s peerless photography is another. Sylvia Hoeks, who plays the raging, scene-stealing android Luv, follows in the tradition of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, and she’s absolutely brilliant.
This spinoff from Coraline animator Travis Knight and Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson is the best feature-length Transformers movie since the 1986 original. Starring True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), it’s a smaller, more character-driven story than its Michael Bay predecessors—and all the better for it. Bumblebee employs eighties nostalgia—the Smiths, the Transformers ’86 soundtrack, the occasional mention of Alf or Miami Vice—more tastefully than most shows like this. And Steinfeld does her best to sell the whole giant-alien-robots conceit. It never feels like a toy commercial.
In the early eighties, auteur filmmaker David Lynch took a tour of George Lucas’s office, went for a ride in the Star Wars creator’s Ferrari, had lunch with him, and immediately decided there was “no way” he’d ever direct Return of the Jedi. Shortly thereafter, he went and made a different $42 million space epic. Lynch’s Dune adaptation features a number of actors from his television opus, Twin Peaks—including the film debut of Kyle MacLachlan—alongside the likes of Patrick Stewart and Max von Sydow.
‘Escape from New York’ (1981)
“A rare breed. A true auteur.” That’s how Guillermo del Toro once described John Carpenter in a Twitter thread on the director’s filmography, and there’s no better proof than 1981’s Escape from New York. Probably the quintessential Carpenter film, Escape’s set in a grim alternate ’97 where all of Manhattan has been converted into a max-security prison. The cast features Carpenter favorites Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins, Donald Pleasence—as well as Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and spaghetti-Western heavyweight Lee Van Cleef. Russell, in the role of Snake Plissken (easily confused with the star of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear games), must enter New York to rescue the U.S. president (Pleasence), who’s being held for ransom.
‘Jetsons: The Movie’ (1990)
Here’s one for the kids. An unmistakable artifact of the nineties, the Jetsons movie has a soundtrack led by pop star Tiffany, who also voices Judy Jetson. Whether you’re looking for a little environmentalism in your children’s media, a bit of cartoon humor, or an adorable family of bespectacled robots (Rudy 2, Lucy 2, and Teddy 2), this Hanna-Barbera classic’s got plenty of charm.
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)
Margaret Sixel had never cut an action movie before Fury Road; four years later, she was onstage at the Oscars accepting the award for best editing. Her husband, George Miller, received nominations for both best picture and best director, and the film wound up on countless best-of-the-decade lists when 2020 rolled around. It truly is a landmark achievement in the realm of action films, and its scarcity-ridden wasteland offers no end of awesome images.
‘The Matrix’ (1999)
Spiritual enlightenment, Marxist allegory, transgender self-discovery—people never seem to run out of things to say about The Matrix. Like 2001 or Blade Runner, it takes every worthwhile 20th-century idea and interrogates it through the lens of science fiction. Robots and human battery farms and simulated worlds ask us: What is real? How can we be sure? And if you don’t like the answer, what are you going to do about it? Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Larry Fishburne doing kung fu’s pretty great, too.
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
This trippy tech-noir flick represents the best of both mid-career Spielberg and mid-career Tom Cruise. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick—Hollywood’s sci-fi go-to—it follows a police chief in the year 2054, when Washington, D.C., has effectively eliminated the crime of murder. Cruise is joined by the likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Max von Sydow as he fights to prove his innocence, having been accused of “future murder” by the very system he helped create. From its prophetic depiction of a near-future surveillance state to its unbelievably slick action sequences, this is a cream-of-the-crop work by one of our most inspired filmmakers.
‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984)
Few sci-fi films are as timely as Hayao Miyazaki’s first original feature, about a postwar apocalypse in which a toxic jungle threatens to swallow what’s left of humanity. You’ll see shades of Rey from The Force Awakens in Princess Nausicaä, and the movie clearly inspired Breath of the Wild’s post-industrial landscapes, dotted by rusted war machines from a bygone era. There’s so much to love about this early triumph from one of Japan’s most cherished directors.
Three decades after making history with Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott returned to the sci-fi genre with this loose prequel to Alien (1979). Prometheus explores the Alien universe’s distant past, the mysterious origins of the Xenomorph and the Engineer (the large dead creature long nicknamed the “Space Jockey”), and humanity’s struggle to survive in a hostile new frontier. It’s not quite the masterpiece that Alien was, but it’s far more ambitious, and full of stunning sequences. Marc Streitenfeld’s orchestral score alone makes it worth your time.
‘Robot Jox’ (1989)
In the postnuclear future of Robot Jox, two opposing alliances divvy up territory through one-on-one combat—with the help of giant robots, naturally. Inspired by Japanese media such as Transformers and Mobile Suit Gundam, Jox plays like a lowbrow, low-budget Pacific Rim. You can’t help but be charmed by the spirit of the thing. All the “jocks” have mythical names like Achilles, Athena, Alexander, and Ajax; their trainer’s a cowboy named Tex Conway. Sometimes, that corny movie you loved as a kid manages to endure. This one’s still cool.
‘Star Trek Beyond’ (2016)
After J. J. Abrams left for other worlds, Fast Five’s Justin Lin took the reigns of the big-screen Trek series and delivered a phenomenal sequel—one with the burden, and honor, of bidding farewell to the late Leonard Nimoy. It did so beautifully; any long-running franchise that loses one of its key actors ought to look to Beyond as a reminder of how it’s done. But, more importantly, this is a rousing, thoughtful Star Trek story full of memorable characters. Perfect for a popcorn-and-movie night.
‘THX 1138’ (1971)
Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, and Donald Pleasence star in George Lucas’s directorial debut. This stark dystopian picture takes place in an underground police state—not unlike the one Michael Bay depicted decades later in The Island. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan used to joke that his show was gradually turning into a THX knockoff because so many of its actors were shaving their heads. In Lucas’s film, everyone is bald, subject to 24-hour surveillance and mandatory drug regimens, and sex is forbidden. Those who disobey are imprisoned at the hands of nightmarish android cops.
‘Total Recall’ (1990)
“Your whole life is just a dream.” Like Blade Runner, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is a Philip K. Dick adaptation that plays around with ideas like memory implantation, space colonization, and labor revolts. Visually striking and immortalized by meme culture, it’s full to the brim—brain implants, a mutant messiah, Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. It’s one of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now. Come for the horrid animatronic taxi driver, but stay for Schwarzenegger telling his future self: “Get your ass to Mars.”
In Tron, a young Jeff Bridges gets stranded in the neon techno-kingdom known as the Grid. This singular, spectacular film doesn’t have time for logical rigor; it’s a fantasy born of late-seventies arcade games, the personal-computer boom, and groundbreaking effects. The sequel has a better soundtrack, sure, but it’s hard to believe Disney made a movie like this in ’82.
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