Science fiction is a genre that revolves around futuristic thinking, dystopian societies, space travel, time travel, and, of course, extraterrestrial life. It represents out-of-the-box thinking and some of the most innovative films ever to release.
Nowadays, it seems that every major blockbuster movie is at least in part science fiction-related. Whether it be a superhero movie (like Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange) or a conventional movie (like Jurassic World and The Martian), the genre is as everpresent as more traditional genres like drama and comedy.
Since science fiction is a broad term, and one that has typically been associated with fantasy-based movies, for the purposes of this list, we’ve selected films that are either strictly science fiction-based or, at least, predominantly science fiction-based– which means fantasy-based movies such as Toy Story and The Wizard of Oz don’t count.
Note: Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes only counts movies that have 40 or more reviews and uses an adjusted score to determine the highest-rated amongst them. With that in mind, here are Rotten Tomatoes’ 15 Highest-Rated Sci-Fi Movies Ever.
15. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 98% out of 49 reviews
Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers–– based upon Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers-– features a harmonious blend of science fiction and horror. Unfortunately, when the film was released in 1956, it was generally overlooked by critics. It wasn’t until years later that critics– primarily modern ones– took a look back at the film and designated it a sci-fi classic.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the disconcerting story of a quiet alien invasion, in which large alien pods covertly assimilate into society by acquiring the personalities, memories, and physical characteristics of humans. Some historians believe this film began the trend of “emotionless impostors” appearing in cinema throughout the 20th century.
Although there have been a handful of adaptations of Finney’s novel, a remake of Siegel’s film, also titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers-– directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, and Leonard Nimoy– released in 1978 and is highly regarded as one of the greatest remakes of all-time.
14. Iron Man
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94% out of 266 reviews
Scott Derrickson’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie marks the 14th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, discounting the several television shows on ABC and Netflix. Although Marvel Studios didn’t invent the shared universe formula, they have certainly perfected it– and it all began with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the eponymous hero.
Before the invasion of New York, before the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., and before countless villains tried taking over the world, there was Tony Stark, a billionaire who built an iron suit out of necessity to survive. He turned that suit into a weapon for good.
Iron Man was the first installment in Marvel Studios’ ambitious, burgeoning shared universe, and it solidified Downey Jr. as one of the top stars in Hollywood today. The movie was raved by audiences and critics alike and was a massive success at the worldwide box office. Despite numerous movies having released since 2008, Iron Man is still considered one of the best installments in the MCU.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 95% out of 240 reviews
Technology and society are two things that are constantly advancing, changing, and adapting to one another. Her is a representation of that relationship– quite literally in some instances. The story centers on a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who develops a romantic relationship with a highly-intelligent operating system called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
Inspired by an article about a website that allowed for communication with an artificial intelligence program, director Spike Jonze conceived the story as a representation of a theoretical future in which people could potentially develop relationships with computer programs.
Her achieved moderate success at the worldwide box office, though it was far more well-received by critics. It was acclaimed for its story and its characters, who were universally considered to be perfectly cast. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and although it didn’t win that award, Spike Jonze won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
12. The Terminator
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100% out of 56 reviews
James Cameron is one of the most prominent and influential directors in Hollywood, having directed films such as Aliens, Titanic, and Avatar, all of which came after his first major film. The Terminator iconically starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous villain. Although several movies have depicted dystopian futures and alternate realities, The Terminator was uniquely offbeat.
The film emblematized the apprehension of man versus machine; that one day artificial intelligence would achieve sentience and subvert humankind. It was a distressing premise which concerns society to this very day. But it made for a great story, and that story has become one of the best in film history.
The Terminator spawned a long-lasting franchise that has spanned decades, consisting of multiple sequels, comic books, and graphic novels, as well as one somewhat successful television series. Furthermore, as with many movies from the ’80s and ’90s, society owes a great deal of its pop culture references to the Terminator franchise, namely phrases like, “I’ll be back,” and, “Hasta la vista, baby“.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 96% out of 244 reviews
Over the years, animated movies have presented filmmakers with the opportunity to take bold risks and create stories that would otherwise seem impossible to develop in live-action. Perhaps that is why the majority of animated movies are fantasy-based, which makes Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E a sci-fi fish in the sea of films from the beloved animated studio, Pixar.
Pixar’s films are known for their strong messages for children and adults alike– whether it be of perseverance, overcoming bullying, or global criticisms, of which WALL-E epitomizes the latter. Telling the story of a sentient robot whose sole responsibility is cleaning up the garbage left behind by humans centuries ago, WALL-E is the first and only science fiction movie in Pixar’s catalog.
WALL-E became an instant hit when it released in 2008, grossing over $500 million at the worldwide box office and receiving universal critical acclaim. It followed a long line of Pixar films to be nominated for– and win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
10. Star Trek (2009)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 95% out of 333 reviews
It has been 50 years since the first episode of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal work, Star Trek: The Original Series, aired on television. With a blockbuster release this past summer, and an upcoming TV series on the way, the Star Trek franchise is healthier than ever. Although there have been new shows and movies consistently releasing and premiering over the years, J.J. Abrams can be credited with breathing new life into the franchise with his 2009 reboot, Star Trek.
Paramount Pictures’ new movies take place in what is now called the Kelvin timeline, an alternate timeline that exists within the original Star Trek continuity but is separated due to the effects of time travel. Despite receiving critical acclaim and being a success at the worldwide box office, Abrams’ new Star Trek films have spawned its fair share of detractors who feel the franchise has deviated from its roots – which is something CBS is looking to avoid with Star Trek: Discovery.
9. The Dark Knight
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94% out of 317 reviews
The second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale as the eponymous hero, is considered the archetypal superhero movie and one of the best films to release this century.
The film is heralded for being the first feature film to be shot in the IMAX format, the first superhero movie to break $1 billion at the worldwide box office, and the first superhero movie to score nominations in one of the major Oscar categories. In this case – Best Supporting Actor, a category for which Heath Ledger won posthumously for his performance as the Joker. However, the controversy surrounding The Dark Knight being snubbed for the Best Picture category led to the Academy Awards increasing the number of nominees from five to ten the following year.
8. Frankenstein (1931)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100% out of 45 reviews
Although there had been a handful of adaptations before Frankenstein‘s release, it was the first feature film to include the iconic monster. The film– directed by James Whale and based on the play of the same name by Peggy Webling, which itself was based on the timeless novel by Mary Shelley– was a hit with critics and audiences, grossing an astounding $12 million at the time of release.
Frankenstein was hugely successful for Universal Pictures, and thus solidified the studio as the place for monster movies. Beginning with Dracula and following with Frankenstein, then The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, Universal Studios soon developed a profitable niche affectionately known as Universal Horror, something the studio is looking to reclaim with their burgeoning shared monster universe.
It’s worth noting, even two centuries after the novel was originally published, that Frankenstein refers to the doctor, Victor Frankenstein (or, in the movie’s case, Henry Frankenstein), not the monster that the name has become associated with.
7. Dr. Strangelove
Rotten Tomatoes score: 99% out of 73 reviews
Loosely based on the novel Red Alert, by Peter George, Dr. Strangelove is a political satire depicting a situation in which the United States preemptively attempts to strike the Soviet Union with a nuclear bomb. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the screenplay along with George and Terry Southern, and it has arguably become the greatest political satire in film history.
Although the film satirizes the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove‘s themes are considered to be applicable in today’s political climate, though it is more fondly remembered for its witty humor and sexual motifs.
As one would expect, Dr. Strangelove was universally well-received by critics at the time and is still praised by critics today. The United States Library of Congress selected Dr. Strangelove to join the first group of films– Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and so on– to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 97% out of 102 reviews
There is no denying that George Lucas’ Star Wars had a profound impact on the filmmaking industry when it released in the late ’70s. If anything, it convinced Ridley Scott to direct Alien, an original story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Thankfully he did, for the Alien franchise has influenced the horror and science fiction genres more than any other alien-based film in history.
Many fans of the franchise prefer James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, to the original movie, but it was the original movie that introduced Ridley Scott to the world and solidified Sigourney Weaver as a Hollywood icon.
Since its release, Alien has produced a resilient multimedia franchise spanning across several sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, as well as novels, comic books, and video games. But its influence can be found in the myriad of imitations that have been made since the first movie’s release. Although different in many ways, Alien has perhaps had as much of an influence on filmmaking as Star Wars.
5. The Bride of Frankenstein
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100% out of 41 reviews
A sequel to the aforementioned Frankenstein movie, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein–– starring Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the Monster, and Elsa Lanchester as the Monster’s bride– built upon Universal Pictures’ established horror niche and continued the success on the original film.
Taking place immediately after the events of the first film, The Bride of Frankenstein tells the story of Henry Frankenstein being coerced into creating a mate for the Monster. If the first film didn’t do it already, Karloff’s performance as the Monster in The Bride of Frankenstein set the high bar for the role.
Although it wasn’t as much of a box office success as the original film, The Bride of Frankenstein received universal acclaim from critics. As with many sequels in film history, The Bride of Frankenstein is considered by many to be superior to the original film.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 96% out of 315 reviews
In 2013, Alfonso Cuaron kicked off a short-lived trend that would see a massive space movie release every fall. Beginning with Gravity in 2013, the trend continued with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian in 2015, though there doesn’t seem to be a major release this year.
Cuaron, who was best known for directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, conceived the movie with his son, Jonas, and developed it with Harry Potter producer David Heyman. Although Gravity is a work of fiction and takes liberties with established sciences, the movie’s premise remains grounded in realism. Much of that realism is owed to its incredible visual effects – created by London-based studio Framestone over the course of three years.
In addition to being a success at the worldwide box office, Gravity received ten nominations at the Academy Awards– of which it won seven, including Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 98% out of 112 reviews
There is perhaps no more iconic director than Steven Spielberg; someone who has altered the landscape of filmmaking several times over. He is not only the highest-grossing director in history, but he also ushered in the era of summer blockbusters, co-founded DreamWorks Studios, and directed and produced some of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.
Spielberg is known for many films— Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind-– but perhaps the most significant of them all is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in June 1982, E.T. went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all-time, surpassing George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, a record that Spielberg would again break with Jurassic Park a few years later.
Since its release, E.T. has been preserved by the National Film Registry for its cultural significance and deemed one of the greatest films of all-time by several news outlets as well as films institutes and associations. It has brought joy to millions of moviegoers over the years and, interestingly, even won Spielberg the U.N. Peace Medal in 1982.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 99% out of 115 reviews
The oldest film on this list, but perhaps one the most forward-thinking, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Regarded by modern critics as a masterpiece of silent film, Metropolis featured a grand story and breath-taking special effects. The film is lauded for pioneering the science-fiction genre in cinema, being one of the first feature-length films to release in the genre at the time (with a bloated running time of 153 minutes).
Metropolis-– based upon the novel of the same name by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou– was the world’s most expensive film when it released in 1927, and it was largely panned by critics and audiences alike at the time. Lang himself expressed discontent with the end result of the film, and he partially blamed von Harbou for the story’s naive message.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Rotten Tomatoes score: 97% out of 356 reviews
Legendary director George Miller has had a prolific career in Hollywood, though he is most widely recognized for creating and directing the Mad Max franchise. Years after the original Mad Max series ended, in which Mel Gibson starred as the titular Max Rockatansky, Miller re-acquired the rights to the series from Warner Bros. in order to begin work on a fourth installment. Pre-production on the movie began in 1997, but, as with many productions in Hollywood, it entered development hell.
After numerous production and release delays, Mad Max: Fury Road— starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as Max Rockatansky and Imperator Furiosa, respectively– finally released in May 2015, 20 years after Miller had re-acquired the rights to the franchise. Fury Road released to overwhelming critical acclai- – receiving an astounding ten Academy Award nominations— and had a healthy run at the global box office. The movie’s success was big enough to convince Miller to move forward with two sequels, which are currently being worked on. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 20 years.
Do you agree with Rotten Tomatoes’ take on sci-fi’s best of the best? Let us know in the comments.
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