The 100 best sci-fi movies: 50-41

Leading sci-fi experts, filmmakers, science fiction writers, film critics and scientists pick the best sci-fi movies ever made


Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Cast: Scarlett Johansson

Best quote: ‘When is the last time you touched someone?’

The Big Idea: What if a predatory and sexually hungry alien looked and sounded like Scarlett Johansson?

Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up
The set-up is fairly simple: an alien lands on Earth and tries to fit in while also having to sate an appetite for human flesh by assuming the form of a beautiful woman (Johansson) and luring keen men to their deaths. But the beauty of Jonathan Glazer’s film is how unfamiliar the whole sci-fi element feels (visually and sonically – Mica Levi’s score is excellent), while the setting of drab, rainy contemporary Scotland couldn’t feel more familiar.

Glazer’s use of special effects to depict the way in which Johansson’s alien gobbles up her victims – we see them walking into what looks like a lake of oil – is strange and mysterious. Like much superior sci-fi, the genre elements mainly exist to cast new light on our world as it is. Here, the most powerful moments are when Johansson interacts with the Scottish locals (some of them non-actors and filmed secretly) and when we’re pushed to reconsider the nature of sex, love, desire and attraction. Dave Calhoun

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Starship Troopers (1997)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Cast: Caspar Van Dien, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside

Best quote: ‘Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor.’

The Big Idea: Verhoeven draws on his own World War Two childhood to create a crazed but totally convincing vision of a neo-fascist future.

Blitzkrieg bop
Satire in science fiction is nothing new – but creating a perfect balance of entertainment and politics requires a particular set of skills. To date, the crown prince of ferocious action movies with blunt-as-a-brick subtext has to be Paul Verhoeven, whose three films on this list (‘RoboCop’, ‘Total Recall’ and this gem) are the work of an artist equally interested in thrilling his audience, offending their sensibilities and making them think.

In a future world where everyone is beautiful and only ‘citizens’ get to vote, Verhoeven imagines a war against an alien race whose hideous appearance makes them a perfect target for human aggression. The attacks against American imperialism and Hollywood shallowness come thick and fast, culminating in one of the most striking images in all of sci-fi as Neil Patrick Harris, in full Gestapo dress, prepares to send a platoon of terrified teenage boys into battle. Tom Huddleston

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Ghostbusters (1984)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Best quote: ‘Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.’

The Big Idea: Nuclear accelerators, ghost containment grids – a whole world of cutting-edge technology that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Saturday Night Dead
Another film that balances on the edge of science fiction – perhaps explaining its relatively low placing on this list. It doesn’t have anything to do with quality: ‘Ghostbusters’ is one of the great Hollywood films of the ’80s, a razor-sharp comedy with thunderous apocalyptic overtones which caught the public imagination in 1984 and hasn’t been shaken off since. Rumours of a reboot emerge on an almost daily basis.

This is one of those rare occasions where everything just clicks: the cast look like they’re having a whale of a time (Bill Murray, in particular, has never been more despicably loveable), the special effects still look spectacular and the pithy script is wall-to-wall quotable. In the wake of co-writer and star Harold Ramis’s untimely death, the film has taken on an even greater poignancy: this was his finest hour, and we hope he’s happily collecting spores, moulds and fungus on the other side. Tom Huddleston

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Contact (1997)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, John Hurt

Best quote: ‘If it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space.’

The Big Idea: Author and scientist Carl Sagan looked at first alien contact from all angles – and decided humanity probably wasn’t ready.

The sagacity of Sagan
Is Carl Sagan the unsung hero of modern science fiction? We often hear about the scientists who were inspired by his 1980 ‘Cosmos’ TV series. But it must be the same for authors and filmmakers seeing through Sagan’s wise eyes how vast, rich and strange our universe is. An occasional novelist, Sagan’s best known work is ‘Contact’, the story of a young astronomer – played with grave dignity by Jodie Foster in this movie version released barely a year after Sagan’s death – who receives a signal from outer space.

Robert Zemeckis’s film suffers from bouts of sentimentality and a tendency to play things a little safe. But it benefits from a handful of glorious visual moments unlike anything else in sci-fi – the stunning track-back through the universe at the film’s opening, the special effects bonanza that brings matters to a climax and a truly weird and unforgettable through-the-mirror long shot. Tom Huddleston

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams

Best quote: ‘Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.’

The Big Idea: Jonze doesn’t so much explore the obvious question, can you really fall in love with a computer?, as ask: how can technology lay bare our innate romantic flaws?

Press three for sex; four for a hug…
Spike Jonze’s fourth feature is set in an immediately recognisable near-future, a place where our personal relationships with technology have graduated to friendships and even long-running love affairs with the operating systems that drive our computers, mobiles and the like.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man who lives alone in an apartment overlooking a skyline of skyscrapers (the film was partly shot in Shanghai) and whose day job involves writing emotional handwritten letters on behalf of strangers. Theodore is going through a divorce and falls head over heels in love with an operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

The film’s embrace of the future is subtle. Rather than go heavy on developments in technology, Jonze prefers to use them to explore more timeless ideas about love, relationships and what we expect from a partner. Dave Calhoun

Watch on Amazon

Read more

District 9 (2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt

Best quote: ‘Get your fokkin’ tentacle out of my face!’

The Big Idea: The prawns are an immigrant alien underclass forced to live in squalor and offered little to no respect or dignity – a statement on race and class relations in South Africa.

Hardcore prawn
Producer Peter Jackson called ‘District 9’ a ‘tiny’ film. Well, when it comes to budgets he’s got his own standards – but $30 million is a lot of loose change for an untried 29-year-old director. South African filmmaker Neil Blomkamp was a protégé of Jackson’s, and ‘District 9’ grew out of his short, ‘Alive in Joburg’, developing that film’s allegory of South Africa’s segregation mentality.

Twenty years after a spaceship became stranded over Johannesburg, the government is finally dealing with the fallout – 1.8 million crusty aliens living in a slum, District 9, on the outskirts of the city. With documentary authenticity, Blomkamp takes us into the refugee camp at the start of a mass deportation. This is smart, politically engaged sci-fi to sink your teeth into. Cath Clarke

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban

Best quote: ‘I have been and always shall be your friend.’

The Big Idea: The Genesis device, a machine with the power to bring life to a dead planet – or death to a living one.

To cosily go…
Only two ‘Star Trek’ adventures managed to crack our top 100 (though ‘First Contact’ missed out by the slimmest of margins), but then the series never did have quite the same broad appeal as their more easy-to-swallow ‘Star Wars’ rivals.

It’s widely accepted that ‘The Wrath of Khan’ is the best of the big-screen Trek adventures: the villain, Ricardo Montalban’s revenge-fuelled mutant powerhouse Khan, is an all-time great, the plot moves at warp speed and the climax is as unashamedly emotional as sci-fi gets. But what’s most pleasing is the warmth and camaraderie between the original cast: Shatner and Nimoy may not be actors of Shakespearean calibre, but these characters fit them – and the entire multi-racial, interspecies crew – like comfy, oversized spacesuit gloves. Tom Huddleston

Watch on Amazon

Read more

Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside

Best quote: ‘Consider that a divorce!’

The Big Idea: If memory can be constructed, how do we know which of our memories are real? And if that’s the case, who are we?

Dream a little dream of Mars
Loosely adapted from Philip K Dick’s 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, this electrifying futuristic adventure casts hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger as 2084 Earthman Douglas Quaid, a construction worker whose life changes drastically after a botched memory implant. Suddenly, he’s a secret agent whose wife (a pre-‘Basic Instinct’ Sharon Stone) is trying to kill him and whose fate is inextricably tied up in a revolution brewing a planet away on Mars.

Director Paul Verhoeven has his usual perverse fun visualising the world to come: relentlessly cheery animatronic taxi drivers, full-body X-ray security machines and (hey, adolescent boys!) a three-breasted mutant prostitute. Arnie, unsurprisingly, is at his cocky, quippy best: just try stifling that giggle when he (literally) drills into a bad guy and shouts, ‘Screw you!’ Keith Uhlich

Watch on Amazon

Read more

The Fifth Element (1997)

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman

Best quote: ‘Time not important. Only life important.’

The Big Idea: A visual extravaganza à la française as Besson’s over-active imagination saves the universe.

The future’s bright. The future’s orange
Never a critical favourite, the French filmmaking magnate Luc Besson has resolutely persisted in following his own idiosyncratic taste, and this wayward fantasy has an individuality distinct from Hollywood formula. The plot involves ancient Egyptians, interplanetary invaders and the female embodiment of goodness – all suggestive of a youth misspent poring over Earth, Wind & Fire lyrics. But boy, did Besson assemble a crack team to visualise it.

From action-man Bruce Willis’s ribbed orange vest to supreme being Milla Jovovich’s bandage dress, the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are iconic in their way, while Dan Weil’s production design populates the screen with characterful hardware and gizmos. Given comic-relief Chris Tucker’s grating contribution, the film might be best enjoyed with the sound off, as Besson’s flair for memorable one-off images – Jovovich’s swan dive into the NYC skies, the blue alien diva – make ‘The Fifth Element’ the apotheosis of Le cinéma du look. Trevor Johnston

Watch on Amazon

Read more

They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

Best quote: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.’

The Big Idea: That the alien takeover has already happened – and the world’s ordinary poor are its victims.

Wake up and smell the invasion
Hollywood loves to villainise itself on its own terms, yet it never met a rascal like John Carpenter, who snuck in through the side door with ‘Halloween’ and somehow held on to his libertarian streak. Inspired by a short story about mass alien hypnosis (but mainly fed up by all the commercials on TV), the writer-director unleashed his most potent subversion, a paranoid masterpiece in which a blue-collar drifter (Roddy Piper) dons a pair of special sunglasses and can suddenly see the hidden messages among us: OBEY, REPRODUCE, CONSUME. This is, of course, what our billboards really do say, in code.

‘They Live’ is a crash course in semiotics and media manipulation – an astounding accomplishment for a sci-fi B-flick that also contains the longest back-alley brawl in movie history. Joshua Rothkopf

Watch on Amazon

Read more
See numbers 40-31