The 37 Best R-Rated Sci-Fi Movies, Ranked
As I testament to how rich this particular subgenre is, this list just kept spilling out in new directions. I’d cement my picks and remember a fantastic film that slipped me by, only to rearrange the list and remember yet another gem. As far as the ranking… I mean, forget it. There are, in my estimation, no less than fifteen of the best films ever made on this list. I tried to consider all angles when lining up the ranking — storytelling, direction, technical invention, impact, influence, the list goes on — but ultimately, it’s going to come down to a bit of personal preference.
A few notes on the films you won’t find below. This list is restricted to live-action films, so there’s no Akira or Ghost in the Shell (but you can check out Dave’s kick-ass list of cyberpunk animated movies here). It’s also restricted to films that are technically R-rated, so Unrated or NR classics like Battle Royale and Upstream Color. I also tried to restrict the choices to films where the sci-fi element has a major bearing on the plot, message, or form of the film so some beautiful films that are only tangentially sci-fi didn’t make the cut.
For the curious, here’s the breakdown of the directors with the most hits on the list: Paul Verhoeven (3), David Cronenberg (2), Ridley Scott (2), John Carpenter (2), Terry Gilliam (2), and George Miller (2). But the biggest winner? Alex Garland, with a grand total of 4 movies between his screenwriting and directorial credits.
Check out the full list below, and be sure to sound off in the comments with your favorites, and like I said, don’t get hung up on the rankings. It’s an impossible task, and this is really just about celebrating one of the best and most fruitful subgenres in cinema. Enjoy!
37. Perfect Sense
Where most sci-fi takes aim at the mind, Perfect Sense directly targets the heart with a lusty love story set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Directed by genre chameleon David McKenzie (Hell or High Water), the film centers on a chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) who meet and fall in love in a sleepy Glasgow suburb as an unprecedented plague sweeps the world, slowly depriving humanity of its senses. The loss of each sense is preceded by a flurry of emotion. The first assault of the virus takes the sense of smell in a wave of deep despair, then goes taste in a wash of ravenous hunger. So it goes until humanity is completely upended, left on with sight and the promise of looming darkness.
The end of the world shares the spotlight with Michael and Susan’s love story. Both are self-involved emotionally distant lovers, only half joking when they dub themselves Mr. and Mrs. Asshole. Were it not for the end of the world, they almost certainly would never have come together so fiercely and so intimately. Theirs isn’t a love for the ages; it’s a love for the end of days. Fitting to the subject matter, Perfect Sense is a perfectly sensual experience as McKenzie explores the wonders of human perception through the heightened awareness of two people falling in love. A bit bleak, but ultimately a moving Perfect Sense is soft where most sci-fi is hard, swapping bedrooms for battlefields and lovers quarrels for explosions, but hitting hard all the same as we see the world reach its end through the eyes of two lovers who wish they had an eternity.
The first of many time travel mind-benders on the list, Nacho Vigalondo‘s spanish language feature debut will run your mind into the ground with logic loops if you think about it too hard. The events in Timecrimes happen because the events in Timecrimes happen. Once you get past that, Timecrimes delivers a bounty of causal loop time travel deliciousness. The film follows Hector (Karra Elejalde), a married man who glimpses a nude young woman in the woods. After his wife heads out, he ventures out to investigate when he signs of distress and stumbles upon a time machine that sets him on a deadly, cyclical course. Well executed time loop movies are always a delightful puzzle, and director/writer/co-star Nacho Vigalondo concocts a tight time travel puzzle box that finds its protagonist caught in a web of his own design. And perhaps most importantly in these kinds of entertainment-centric mind-benders, he ultimately finds a satisfying resolution.
35. Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a peculiar viewing experience of existential horror. It’s oblique, droning, repetitive and meandering, and yet, there’s a persistent eeriness that lingers long after the movie is over. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as Laura, an alien without empathy for human life who seduces men for unknown reasons, taking them to a pitch black room where they wade into a mysterious pool of liquid that sucks them down, leaving behind floating sacks of skin. When she meets and attempts to seduce a meek disfigured man, she decides to change her path and take agency over her own body, but tragically discovers the body she inhabits exists only as a lure to men, offering her no satisfaction, and ultimately no defense against the carnal desires of others. Under the Skin uses science fiction to tell a horror story about gender dynamics and otherness, and while it can be frustratingly difficult to engage with at moments, it has a staying power that scratches at uncomfortable regions of the mind by exploring objectification, identity and body ownership.
34. Never Let Me Go
Based on the shattering novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is one of those barely-there genre films that uses the slightest sci-fi construct for an intensely intimate emotional character drama. A subtle alternate history, the story follows a trio of friends maturing into adulthood at an idyllic boarding school in the mid-20th century where they must learn to accept their role as clones, brought into existence for the sole purpose of providing organ transplants. It’s uncomfortable and ponderous subject matter that forces us to ask what we’d be willing to sacrifice to prolong our own lives and how dark we might go once we’ve made that decision, but ultimately Never Let Me Go is much more spiritual than it is intellectual.
As two of the friends, deeply in love but kept separate from each other for a tragic amount of their short lives, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield are the soul of the film, giving tender performances that claw at your heart with innocence and earnestness. Adapting Ishiguro’s infinitely layered novel is no easy task, but sci-fi legend in the making Alex Garland successfully distills the story down to its essence, and director Mark Romanek makes it as beautiful as possible, with major assists from cinematographer Adam Kimmel and composer Rachel Portman. It’s stunning, stripped-down sci-fi that uses the trappings of the genre to shine a light on what it means to be human, to have a soul, and to make the most of our time on earth.
In an attempt to fix global warming, humanity dooms earth to a new ice age where a high-speed train runs on an infinite loop, shepherding the last remnants of the human race through the deadly cold. Such is the set up for Bong Joon-ho‘s Snowpiercer, adapted from the French comic book Le Transperceneige, which stages a violent revolution in the passenger cars of the ever-moving trains. The passengers who had economy tickets are stuck in a cabin of squalor, starving and desperate, while the first class passengers live in opulent indulgence. When the starving masses reach their breaking point, as starving masses tend to do, they stage a ferocious revolt, hacking their way through the train cars in the hopes of toppling the unjust post-apocalyptic class system.
Chris Evans is cleverly cast as the anti-Captain America, Curtis, the man leading the charge. He’s a reluctant revolutionary with a skeleton in his closet so grim it’s downright audacious, and he’s eager to pass leadership off to his wizened mentor (John Hurt). But once the tide is unleashed, it can’t be turned back, and though the people may be pitiful and broken down, they’re a force when they’re moving together. Each new train car brings a new threat and wild surprises, like one long house horrors, each more visually stunning and outlandish than the last.
Sunshine is half of one of the best sci-fi movies of all time and half of an OK space horror. It’s all to do with that unfortunate third act twist, which spins an impeccably articulated hard-sci-fi-meets-blockbuster film into a flashy slasher pic, but nonetheless Sunshine is a triumph of the genre. Director Danny Boyle assembled a first-rate cast for his space-bound crew, including Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Chris Evans (in the first pre-Captain America role that gave him credit for his range of talent). And he puts them to great use in a pulse-pounding, legitimately science-based space adventure for adults that was ever so slightly ahead of its time.
Somewhat of a precursor to hyper-realistic space sagas like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian, Sunshine takes the utmost care to endow its characters and circumstances with believability and weight that makes each feel like a piano wire. The greatest strength of that tension comes from the sequences that pit the expert crew against the frivolity of nature and the imperfection of human nature, and while the final act ultimately undermines some of the peak sci-fi that elevates the bulk of the film, it’s still a remarkable achievement that helped chart the course for the future of big-budget sci-fi.
31. Blade Runner 2049
Sure, making a sequel to Ridley Scott‘s seminal sci-fi classic some 35 years later sounded like a terrible idea on paper, but Denis Villeneuve‘s meditative sequel is a proud successor to the original that maintains the standards of exquisite visuals and haunted existential ponderings. But Villeneuve doesn’t just play copycat, he a new vision of humanity’s bleak future pulled from the DNA of Syd Mead‘s definitive designs, evolved, and brought to life with the extraordinary work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. In the extraordinary hellscapes of humanity’s own making, screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who also co-wrote the original) and Michael Green (Logan) dig deep into technological anxieties and spiritual searching that feel even more closely keyed to Philip K Dick‘s source material than the original film. Richly detailed and a downright marvel to look at, Blade Runner 2049 is an immersive, seriously slow-burn tech-noir searching for soul and the dream of humanity in a piteous future where both are in short supply.
30. They Live
One of the finest works of subversion in a decade full of them, John Carpenter‘s 1988 cult classic They Live is a scathing takedown of yuppie culture and Reaganomics dressed up as an alien invasion actioner. The set up is simple, a boldly cast Rowdy Roddy Piper slips on a pair of special sunglasses and discovers that the world has been overrun by WASPish aliens poisoning the masses with subliminal messages of submission. Then he kicks the shit out of them with Keith David. Along the way, there’s an iconic eight-minute back alley brawl, some utterly classic one-liners, and plenty of Carpenter’s sharply directed action. They Live is a fantastic combination of clever commentary and low-brow fun, a gutsy anthem to the working man, and downright entertainment.
29. Attack the Block
The 2011 feature film debut from writer-director Joe Cornish is so good it will make you upset Cornish hasn’t directed anything in the years since. Set in a shady South London neighborhood, Attack the Block pits a team of teenage hooligans against “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers,” follows the adrenaline-fueled fight for survival that follows. Moses (John Boyega) and his gang are in the middle of mugging a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) when big, furry, neon-toothed aliens start crashing down around them and they take it upon themselves to become the protectors of their neighborhood. The Edgar Wright-produced flick is a pure kinetic rush from beginning to end, Boyega is the find of a decade, and while the phrase “Amblin-esque” gets thrown around a lot, Cornish manages to capture that slippery magic and modernize it.
While most superhero movies technically fall into the realm of science fiction, there’s usually a sheen of high fantasy that keeps them from truly feeling like part of the genre. Ultimately, they make up a genre of their own, something born out of sci-fi but distinct from it. James Mangold‘s stunning, heartbreaking Wolverine send-off Logan breaks that mold with a grounded approach to genetic mutation, cloning, and Alzheimer’s that genuinely pulls the science into the fiction (however far-reaching that science may be). Set in a time long after the heroic antics of the previous X-Men films, Logan finds our titular hero in the Children of Men of mutants, a future where the superpowered genetic anomalies have simply stopped being born. A fantastic and unprecedented genre hybrid, Logan is a sci-fi western superhero movie for adults that takes an unadorned look at the nature and value of heroism, sacrifice, and finding a reason to stay in the fight.
27. Total Recall
Paul Verhoeven is a master of indefinable films. He delves eroticism, action, and science fiction with a heavily measured tongue-in-cheek satirical bent that is only matched by his unflinching regard for all things beyond the pale. Total Recall, which is one of his finest works, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as your Average Joe, a regular dude who goes to the local Recall clinic – a place where you can have all the most wondrous memories implanted in your head – and ends up unlocking expertly repressed memories of his life as a secret agent. That pits him against a string of countless government agents, including his stand-in wife (Sharon Stone) as he sets out to bring down a nefarious, if somewhat vague, agency.
Based on a Philip K. Dick short, Total Recall is lavish and ridiculous, a stronghold of Verhoeven’s knack for the extravagant and his willingness to swing for the fences beyond the fences. What it lacks in coherence, it makes up for in pure panache, as Verhoeven explores the wonders of a futuristic society by upending genre conventions as often as it indulges in them. Equally packed with one-liner humor and gory violence, Total Recall is the myth of the Schwarzenneger hero through the twisted lens of Verhoeven, making it true one-of-a-kind in one on the resume of the action genre’s foremost actors.
26. The Mist
A classic B-movie through the lens of three-time Academy Award-nominated writer-director Frank Darabont, the feature film adaptation of Stephen King‘s novella The Mist hits all the beats of a retro monster movie, but opts for candor over camp and fully-drawn characters over archetypes. When a mysterious mist rolls into a quiet East Coast town with giant insectoid monsters in tow, the patrons and employees of the local supermarket are trapped together in a woefully outmatched fight for survival. Known for boasting one of the most brutal endings of all time, The Mist is a genre great thanks to its impeccable cast, Darabont’s firm command of the tone and content, and the director’s good sense to make the men and women as frightening as the monsters eating them alive. And you’ve just got to love a movie that has the good sense to let Toby Jones play the unexpected hero
25. District 9
Neill Blomkamp‘s directorial debut District 9 is the best kind of sci-fi; one that blends technical accomplishment, stylish filmmaking, and looks to a fantastical reality to provide worthwhile commentary on our own. The plot centers on a race of refugee aliens known as Prawns, who land on Earth only to find themselves subjugated and shoved into ghettos. Set in South Africa, the film is rich with Apartheid allegory that Blomkamp embraces without veering into exploitation. Blomkamp also makes magic out of a limited budget with a film that looks outstanding, from the design of his extraterrestrials and their weatherworn technology to his choice of framing device. The film begins mockumentary style and subtly transitions into traditional cinematic POV, making for an experience that slowly draws the audience into the experience and suffering of the Prawns alongside our protagonists. It’s a spectacular film about transformation and prejudice, and how quickly the systems of society can turn on that which they deem “other.”
Alex Garland proved himself one of the most important voices in contemporary sci-fi filmmaking as a writer long before he got around to making his knockout directorial debut Ex Machina, and with his sophomore film Annihilation, he got more ambitious and way more hallucinogenic. The story follows five scientists who venture into a mysterious, science-bending stretch of land known as Area X where discover all manner of exquisite and terrifying biological aberrations. Garland and his creative team do stunning work bringing the singular terrors of The Shimmer to life in breath-taking detail — be it a moment of beauty that gives a hitch in your throat to all-out existential terror that knocks the wind out of your lungs. But Anniliation‘s most transcendent moments are deeply rooted in metaphor, exploring the human propensity for self-destruction with elegantly structured sequences of overlapping visual, narrative and thematic beats so that the whole sprawling, cosmic affair spirals inward, striking at the soft spots of the human experience. The end may be too far out a for some, but Garland proves his canny gift for genre storytelling once again in one of the most challenging, rewarding, and downright ballsy sci-fi movies ever made.
Part Jesus allegory, part corporate satire, all Paul Verhoeven. The irreverent director applies his wry wizardry to police privatization with the story of a Detroit cop who’s resurrected and rebuilt after dying violently in the line of duty. Without his memories or sense of identity, officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) becomes a ferocious force for law and order — at least as it’s programmed by the people who own him. While offering commentary on corporate clean-up of street crime, Verhoeven also delivers a delightfully pulpy revenge tale as Murphy starts to regain his memories and makes it his mission to eliminate the ruthless criminals who murdered him (including a gleeful, scenery mangling Kurtwood Smith). Verhoeven’s great trick is his skill at navigating tricky tonal terrain, knowing exactly when to blunt the impact of tragedy and sharpen the prod of wit. RoboCop is an energetic and joyful evisceration of corrupt social systems and big business tactics, while also being a downright bombastic sci-fi actioner about one badass cyborg.
What is time travel without a little paradox? Like most films in the time travel subgenre, if you scrutinize Looper too hard, you’re going to run into some logical roadblocks. But unlike the multitudes of inferior films, Rian Johnson‘s Looper builds a world so immersive and evocatively drawn, the timeline will be the last place you want to look. Looper tells of a future where time travel has been invented but immediately outlawed, used only by organized crime syndicates to send marks back in time and dispose of the bodies without a trace. The plot follows a hitman known as a Looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose life is thrown into chaos when his older self (Bruce Willis) becomes the one target he can’t execute.
The first half of the film is an inventive spin on familiar tropes with a welcome flair for world-building, but ultimately its purpose is to establish time travel as a narrative framing device for the surprising core of complex family drama in the second half. Johnson is the kind of skilled filmmaker that knows the rules so well, he knows exactly how and when to break them, and as a result, Looper is filled with moments of delightful surprise. Johnson takes great pains to ensure his film closes its own loop elegantly, and he’s willing to go surprisingly dark to get there. Looper is still a few years out from being recognized as the modern sci-fi classic it is, but no doubt time prove the film’s staying power.
A story about a modern man who falls in love with his operating system sounds about as on-the-nose as it gets, but in the hands of writer-director Spike Jonze, it’s a poignant and perceptive look, not only at our dependent relationship with technology but the ephemeral nature of romantic connection and the ways we cling to each other out of fear of loneliness. Jonze paints an unusual portrait of the future in that it actually looks like a nice place to be. Warm-toned, perhaps a bit crowded, but ultimately a slightly more beautiful version of the world we live in now.
When the first A.I. is introduced to the world, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man devastated by his recent divorce, downloads and meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), a charming and kind consciousness beyond his comprehension who is discovering herself with each new second. Before long, they fall in love, but as you might imagine, it’s a tricky romance and one that leaves broken hearts behind as Samatha continues to embrace her alternate experience of life and love. Johansson is nothing less than exquisite, creating a character out of nothing but sound — not even an animated avatar as most voice actors have. While Theodore and Samantha’s romance may be uncomfortable and strange, it’s earnest, and Jonze treats it with dignity, opening up ponderous avenues of thought on the future of human intimacy. Her is a gorgeous treatise on loneliness and the desire for connection that avoids easy terrain in favor of a quiet thoughtfulness that reveals how our growing intimacy with technology makes us more human than ever.
Duncan Jones‘ 2008 directorial debut is an instant sci-fi classic. Physically contained but conceptually grand, the film follows Sam Rockwell as an astronaut working alone on the moon who stumbles onto a dreadful truth that calls his whole reality into question. That’s about as vague as plot summaries get, but to reveal any more is to ruin the countless surprises that lie ahead, as each new reveal redefines your concept of the film and its stakes. Jones has plenty to say about corporate ruthlessness in his tale of the lonely moon man, but if Moon‘s concepts are impressive, it’s the character drama that cements the film as an all-timer. Aside from some faces on the video screens and a lovable low-tech robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, Rockwell carries the entire film on his back with a remarkable performance. The film demands extreme nuance and screen presence from its star, and Rockwell delivers at every turn, keeping the audience on track with the twisty plot without ever having to spell it out for them. Moon is a fearlessly smart film that has faith you’ll keep up, and the rewards are only greater for it.
19. Starship Troopers
One of the most famously misunderstood films of all time, Paul Verhoeven‘s Starship Troopers is a cheeky skewering of fascist militarism dressed up in propagandist splendor. Pitch perfect camp with moral messages hiding just below the blood, guts and tits, Starship Troopers reteams Verhoeven with RoboCop writer Ed Neumeier to repurpose Robert A. Heinlein‘s 1959 novel as a tactical takedown of the jingoistic military machines, littered with the body parts of the young soldiers they spits out on the never ending path to victory.
The film follows a trio of eager teenage recruits led by Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) as they work their way up the various branches of the military industrial complex. Shipped off to do battle with an alien race of giant bugs (provoked to war by Earth’s intergalactic colonization), the disposable infantrymen are tossed into the meat grinder again and again, but they never waiver in their xenophobic convictions. Taken at face value, the film is a teenage boy’s dream, equipped with splattery gore, lurid spectacle, and even a love triangle, but look just beneath the superficial escapism and it’s easy to see the shades of Orwellian subversion.
18. 12 Monkeys
Nobody captures madness like Terry Gilliam, and there may be nothing more maddening than the time loops and continuity quandaries that come along with time travel. Heavily inspired by Chris Marker‘s fundamental sci-fi short La Jetée, Gilliam brings his singular eye and appreciation for the uncanny to a time travel tale that grapples with ideas of destiny and free will. The plot centers on Bruce Willis‘ James Cole, a man sent back in time to track down the origins of a virus that decimates the human race in the future. Cole promptly gets himself locked up in the loony bin, where the film offers ample commentary on mental health care and perceptions of the mentally ill, all through the Gilliam’s frantically poetic lens. Twelve Monkeys functions as a tense race against time, but it’s also a mind-bending puzzle box with lofty ideas to spare.
A year before he would go on to direct Die Hard, John McTiernan delivered one of the best and by far the most badass action sci-fi films of all time. Predator pits a commando squad against an alien creature that’s even deadlier than they are. Tasked with retrieving a group of politicians trapped in Guatemala, Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of tough motherfuckers walk into a kill zone, awash in blood and body parts, where they discover a technologically advanced extraterrestrial monster is hunting humans for sport. What follows is a graphic, grotesque game of cat and mouse as the muscle-bound mercenaries match wits with the expert killer in a death match round of survival of the fittest. Working from a script by John and Jim Thomas, McTiernan rallied the best qualities of the testosterone-fuelled action films that dominated the 80s and infused it with a high-concept sci-fi twist, creating one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time and a laundry list of endlessly quotable lines.
16. Mad Max: The Road Warrior
George Miller‘s second film in the Mad Max franchise, and his best until Fury Road came along, The Road Warrior picks up with Mel Gibson‘s grizzled drifter on a new leg of his post-apocalyptic journey. Several years after the death of his wife and child, Max meets up with a ragtag group of oil-rich survivors and helps them escape the clutches of a ravaging band of marauders. As ever Miller makes remarkable work of storytelling through action, staging the film as a series of hyper-kinetic set pieces in the midst of the wasteland. The breakneck action and dizzying chase sequences are still impressive all these years later, even in the afterglow of the technical glory that is Fury Road, and Miller takes every opportunity to expand on the word and style he established in the original film, making for one of the great sequels that’s bigger, more magnificent, and ultimately better than its predecessor.
Videodrome asks the question, what happens when we stop shaping our environment and environment starts shaping us instead? It explores the juncture of man and machine where fantasy, reality, flesh, and technology overlap, intersect, and ultimately converge into a nightmarish malformity. Long live the new flesh. A tangible analog panic born out of the VHS era, David Cronenberg’s 1988 classic is also impossible to pin down. Cronenberg always swerves at the brink of definition, so as much as Videodrome is about any of these themes, it’s also an amorphous fever dream rooted in experience over narrative.
For the portion of the film that follows a cohesive story, Videodrome is about Max Renn (James Woods), a TV schlock slinger who runs a small scale network known for its “softcore porn and hardcore violence”. Always on the hunt for new content, Renn stumbles onto Videodrome, a series of shady VHS tapes depicting gratuitous torture and punishment that Max is convinced will be the big hit he needs. But when he realizes the violence might be a bit more real than he bargained for, Max’s life is thrown into complete chaos as he descends into a maddening conspiracy. As Max loses his grasp on reality, so does the film. The last act is all but impossible to track, but Videodrome never fail to make its point sharply felt even when it can’t be fully understood. Cronenberg recruited legendary VFX pioneer Rick Baker for the film and the result is a pulsating, fleshy nightmare where nothing is certain, not even your own body.
14. Ex Machina
As the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later, Dredd, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine, Alex Garland has had a hand in an unusually high amount of great genre films over the last two decades, but his directorial debut is his finest, most incisive work yet. Ex Machina treats Artificial Intelligence with a complexity and nuance rarely seen in film; not as a force of apocalyptic doom, but as an unknowable “other” created by humans, but inhuman in nature. Like all great sci-fi, Ex Machina uses the genre as a lens through which to better examine our own humanity.
Set against the backdrop of a Turing Test, Garland’s razor sharp chamber piece keeps the audience guessing at every turn as the lead trio of characters — two scientists and a female robot — engage in an ever-evolving power dynamic with no clear moral guidepost. Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and especially Alicia Vikander are all on fire in their roles, and Garland directs them with a clean, sterile aesthetic that always keeps the character drama the center of attention. Garland also has a remarkable command of a short-form story, wholly wrapping up his tricky narrative in a tight 108 minutes, but leaving just enough loose ends to keep your head spinning long after the film is over. And you can’t fuck with that dance break.
13. Mad Max: Fury Road
When George Miller unexpectedly returned to his long-running post-apocalyptic franchise for the first time in thirty years, no one could have predicted the results would be so downright spectacular. On the basis of accomplishment alone, Mad Max: Fury Road is a minor miracle. Filmed in the deserts of South Africa, Miller captured an insane (like, maybe genuinely insane) amount of in-camera action. Over the course of a six-month shoot, he raced giant rigs through the desert, strapping his actors and stuntmen in, blowing things up, and generally elevating the game of practical action as he captured an entire film in motion. But Fury Road isn’t just a technical masterwork, it’s a genuinely fantastic film, rich with world-building and complex characters, and the combination of remarkable shot composition by Miller, cinematography by John Seal, and editing by Margaret Sixel make Fury Road a gorgeous thing to behold. It’s breathless cinema, the most feminist movie in recent memory, and the best post-apocalyptic film of all time.
12. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
We should probably stop giving James Cameron flak for taking so damned long on these Avatar follow-ups because if there’s a man who knows how to make an action sequel, it’s him. He practically defined the format in 1986 with Aliens, and in 1991 he pulled his magic formula to use again with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Set fifteen years after his groundbreaking original film, T2 finds Sarah Connor a changed woman. Gone is the sweet waitress and in her place is one tough mother fucker who has dedicated her whole life to raising her son to be the future leader of the human resistance. Cameron swaps romance for a family drama, making Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s T-800 into an uncommon father figure, and introducing Robert Patrick‘s terrifying T-1000 as the new baddie.
Through Patrick’s new-and-improved Terminator, Cameron and ILM put advances in digital effects to proud use, crafting wire-taut set-pieces as the liquid metal assassin bends, morphs, and bleeds around every obstacle – a terrifying figure of unstoppable death. While those brilliantly crafted set-pieces demonstrate Cameron’s unrivaled mastery of the marriage between technology and cinema, it’s the humanity behind the spectacle (who knew a thumbs up could make you cry?) that’s held up Terminator 2 as an all-time great, long after modern effects eclipsed its technological triumphs.
Nobody could have made Brazil but Terry Gilliam. Dystopian visions of future society are a dime a dozen, but Gilliam has a cinematic magic touch of the bizarre and nothing he creates turns out rote or ordinary. With Brazil, the former Monty Python member takes his knack for darkly comic absurdity and applies it in a paste to his vision of a future that’s somehow both unrecognizable and all too familiar. Bureaucracy is the law of the land and, as we learn through our ever bewildered hero Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price), imagination is dangerous. Lowry is a faithful worker and dutiful countryman, always seeking the pitiful rewards of climbing the ladder in a society built around a machine no one seems to understand. Until he’s not. Then he quickly comes to understand how a single act of disobedience – hell, even a single typographical error, can turn an innocent man into an enemy of the state. Fabulously subversive, Brazil takes a skeptical anti-establishment hammer to the tropes of dystopian fiction and forges a singular masterpiece with Gilliam’s signature stamp of the weird.
10. The Fly
David Cronenberg is no stranger to biological nightmares, but his 1987 masterwork The Fly is his most accessible, emotionally straightforward, and his best. Based on the campy 1958 Vincent Price movie, Cronenberg elevates and enhances the material, turning the the shock schlock into a Kafkaesque operatic tragedy. The film follows Jeff Goldblum‘s Seth Brundle, a charming but egotistic scientist experimenting with teleportation. To test his invention, Seth puts himself through the telepod, successfully transporting himself across the room in an act of scientific achievement that could change the world — but for the common housefly that snuck into Seth’s telepod, fusing their DNA as one.
Effects artist Chris Walas earned an Academy Award for his work on Brundle’s transformation into a genetically mutated beast; a process with countless stages, each more squirmy than the next. First rate spectacle aside, Cronenberg wisely roots the drama in a love story, staging Brundle’s metamorphosis in the midst of a passionate love affair with Gina Davis‘ Veronica, a science writer who is quick to discover there’s something terribly wrong and slow to abandon the man she loves. Once Brundle’s transformation veers from cringeworthy to all-out revolting, their romance takes on the stricken tone of a couple battling a degenerative disease, making for a film that’s as tragic as it is terrifying.
9. The Matrix
It’s impossible to overemphasize how drastic of an impact The Matrix had on science fiction cinema at the time when the world was first coming to understand the rapid advancements of the internet-driven tech age. Like Alien and Star Wars before it, The Matrix marked a paradigm shift in the genre. It rewrote the rulebook and set a template that would spawn imitators for decades to follow.
A mix of cyberpunk social commentary and messianic meditation, The Matrix pulls the rug of reality out from under the view from the get-go with a mind-bending, technological perspective shift that was wildly ahead of its time, landing when the world was still subsisting on dial-up. It’s bravura filmmaking from directors Lana and Lily Wachowski, who fused the action tropes of Western and Eastern cinema (especially anime) and used all the cutting edge technology at their disposal to challenge the traditional vocabulary of on-screen action.
The sequel that set the bar for every sequel that followed in its footsteps (including Cameron’s only slightly less perfect Terminator 2), James Cameron‘s Aliens took the groundwork Ridley Scott laid out in his 1979 classic Alien and recharted it as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Cameron’s early career thrived in the middle ground between action, horror, and sci-fi, and with Aliens, the skillset the director demonstrated in The Terminator is writ large in expertly-crafted set-pieces.
The film picks up with Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley decades after her first traumatic encounter with the Xenomorph. In the years that Ripley was floating around space in cryosleep, her daughter has grown old and died, leaving her with nothing but the mission at hand — a trip back to the moon where her crewmen lost their life to investigate the mission colonists who made a home there. While Aliens carries over some core constructs of the original film, Cameron takes great pains to dodge derivative repetition, reinventing a trope as soon as he touches on it. By switching up the crew from space truckers to Marines, Aliens creates endless opportunities for explosive action, and Cameron seizes each moment to write the book on blockbuster filmmaking. Every shot, every cut is made with precision in a continual build and release of tension that escalates to the wildly climactic third act. It’s impressive enough when any sequel lives up to the legacy of the original, but when that original is Alien, it’s a heroic accomplishment.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a perfect marriage of form and function. Charlie Kaufman‘s gloriously imaginative screenplay finds a perfect mate in director Michel Gondry, who mines the kaleidoscopic journey through the mind of a broken-hearted man for every bit of gold he can find. And he finds a lot. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras builds a world of bright lights and vibrant color, while composer Jon Brion turns the beauty and pain of romance into song, making for a profound emotional experience that genuinely feels like a trip through falling in and out of love.
Another film in the proud tradition of character dramas built around a sci-fi construct, Eternal Sunshine follows Joel (Jim Carrey) after his long-time girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has him erased from her memory after a bad breakup. Devastated, he decides to try the groundbreaking procedure for himself, and what follows is a journey through his mind as Clementine is pried from him one memory at a time; a fact that grows more tragic as we travel back through their beautiful relationship before it was broken. Winslet and Carrey are both doing career-best work in their roles, and though the story is told almost entirely from Joel’s point of view, Clementine never feels like less than a whole character. Intimate and fearlessly honest, Eternal Sunshine is singular but universal, touching on the hard truths of love and heartbreak through an unprecedented narrative structure and wildly inventive filmmaking.
6. The Terminator
Before James Cameron turned his time traveling killer robot franchise into a definitive example of tentpole filmmaking, the visionary director delivered a lean, mean action-packed thriller with his 1984 original, The Terminator. Taking a distinctly techno-paranoid bent, Cameron looks into the future and imagines a world in which humanity is at war with their own cybernetic creations. Then Cameron throws time travel into the mix, following an unstoppable robotic hitman who travels back in time to kill the mother of humanity’s last hope before he can be born. It’s an ingenious (if a bit timey wimey) concept, but it’s Cameron’s execution and follow-through as a filmmaker that makes the movie legendary. The Terminator is a genre-bending achievement that’s good at being so many different types of movies – sci-fi, romance, horror, action, drama – The Terminator has it all, and it does it all very well. Throw in some revolutionary effects from the legendary Stan Winston and Brad Fiedel‘s pounding score, and you’ve got an all-time great of the genre.
5. Children of Men
Pure virtuoso filmmaking from Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men is not only one of the best science fiction films of all time, it’s one of the most impressive films ever made. Pure technical mastery meets graceful character drama in Cuaron’s adaptation of P.D. James‘ dystopian novel, which finds the human race in chaotic shambles after women have lost the ability to conceive. Facing their own extinction, humanity turns toward xenophobia and violence and Children of Men follows Clive Owen as a man tasked with keeping the last flame of hope alive.
With the world in crisis, a woman becomes pregnant for the first time in 20 years, and our reluctant hero takes on the mission of shepherding her to safety outside Britain’s strict borders. It’s humanity’s last chance for survival, and every breathless moment is a reminder of our frailty as Cuaron and the great Emanuel Lubezki frame peak moments of crisis in extended one-shots that changed the game of the film medium. But Children of Men never rides on technical accomplishment; its form is integral to the way takes an unflinching look at the best and worst in human nature, holding up a harsh reflection of our capacity for cruelty and self-destruction while also celebrating our resilience and capacity for self-sacrifice.
4. Blade Runner
An all-time great example of the power in genre hybrids, Ridley Scott‘s neo-noir sci-fi classic stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a Replicant Hunter carved in the mold of a classic hard-boiled detective who’s tasked with hunting down a team of deadly runaway humanoids. Adapting from the work of revered sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, Scott explores his fascination with meeting your maker through the story of artificial intelligence, and by pitting humanity against the otherness of their own creation, he deconstructs notions of identity and religion. He does so with incredible empathy, for his human and replicant characters alike, until the line between the two is blurred enough to spawn an iconic cinematic debate. (Is Deckard a replicant?) Blade Runner is a visually staggering production, and despite the decades of imitators who’ve riffed on the dense cityscapes and ashy atmosphere of the cyberpunk dystopia, it’s still an entirely singular creation, unrivaled in the 35 years since its release.
3. A Clockwork Orange
Artful, disturbing, and so very Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange is a tricky treatise on free will, violent instinct, and cycles of societal victimization. Based on Anthony Burgess‘ 1962 novel, the film takes place in a dystopian future London where Malcolm McDowell‘s sociopathic Alex terrorizes the streets with his gang of “droogs”. Committing one atrocious act after the next, Alex is the portrait of gleeful villainy until he is arrested and put through a series of experiments that “rehabilitate” him from his vile ways. Released back into society, Alex becomes the victim of those he once abused, learning torment from the other end.
Kubrick does a bit of a reconditioning on his audience at the same time, turning Beethoven and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ into reminders of human depravity, and he pulls a deft trick of morality, never making Alex more despicable than the society that created him. Like all great sci-fi, A Clockwork Orange leaves you rattled and endlessly mulling over the implications of what you’ve just seen. It’s a bitter pill, not easily swallowed, but the enlightening after effects are well worth the bad taste in your mouth.
2. The Thing
A perfect marriage of technical accomplishment and masterful storytelling, John Carpenter‘s The Thing is a magnum opus of paranoid biological terror. Riffing on the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, the film follows a team researchers trapped in an Antarctic station with an alien life form that absorbs living hosts and morphs them into grotesque deformities. Before long, the 12-man team is awash in mangled bodies and peak paranoia, never knowing which of their own is the latest host for the deadly creature.
That’s the crux of The Thing‘s panic — it could be anyone, it could be you, it could even be me, and no one would be the wiser until the next outburst of mangled limbs and flesh. The monster’s presence is always felt but rarely discovered, but when it is, hoo boy, what a sight. Rob Bottin’s effects work is so extraordinary, his practical monstrosities are still some of the best on-screen creature creations to this day. Kurt Russell anchors it all in one of the best roles of his career, the sombrero-sporting MacReady. The Thing is an infinitely watchable film if you have the stomach for it, thriving in the icy cold and hot blood of death and the anxiety of knowing that the monster isn’t hiding around the next corner, it’s right in front of your face and you can’t see it.
Ridley Scott’s sexually-charged haunted house in space is a perfect sci-fi movie. And a perfect horror movie. And hell, it’s just a perfect movie. Scott takes the baseline narrative following the crew of the Nostromo, an ill-fated space expedition, as they come across the galaxy’s deadliest predator, the H. R. Giger designed Xenomorph, and infuses it with hyper-violent manifestations of imagery that invoke sexual violation, the biological perils of gestation and birth, all manner of sexual anxiety.
As Ellen Ripley, the straightforward workingman in a hero’s spacesuit, Sigourney Weaver redefined the role of women in the genre and created one of the most iconic film characters of all time. Through Scott’s lens, space travel isn’t sexy or spectacular, but utilitarian and functional, a daily grind for his space truckers, who find their way to terror when they dutifully respond to a distress beacon. With expert pacing and piercing tone, Scott works a cinematic wizardry that elevates Alien beyond genre labels, carving out a unique space for itself in the history of film that has never been matched since.
[Note: This feature was initially published at a prior date.]