The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on HBO Max Right Now

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The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on HBO Max Right Now

The first thing one notices, looking at the sci-fi genre as it exists on HBO Max, is that there’s an unusual level of genuine curation involved here. The overall scope of the service might not be quite as broad as something like Netflix, but you’re likely to have heard of far more of these films. That’s because unlike the catalog of Netflix, Hulu or (especially) Amazon Prime, the bulk of the selections here aren’t made up of modern, straight-to-VOD, zero-budget productions with vague, one-word titles. Rather, almost everything here received a wide release at some point.

That makes for an interesting sci-fi library indeed, one that balances total schlock with acclaimed works by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. There are alien classics here, and sentient robots, and plenty of action and horror crossovers as well.

In fact, of all the major streamers, HBO Max likely has the library most focused on what you’d call older “classics,” rather than newer releases—fine with us, considering that segment tends to be less well represented.

You may also want to consult the following, sci-fi centric lists:

The 100 best sci-fi movies of all time
The 100 best sci-fi TV shows of all time
The best sci-fi movies on Netflix
The best sci-fi movies on Amazon Prime


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001-space-odyssey-poster.jpg Year: 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain, William Sylvester
Rating: G
Runtime: 139 minutes

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Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick told the story of everything—of life, of the universe, of pain and loss and the way reality and time changes as we, these insignificant voyagers, sail through it all, attempting to change it all, unsure if we’ve changed anything. Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (whose novel, conceived alongside the screenplay, saw release not long after the film’s premiere), 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the origins of the human race and ends with the dawn of whatever comes after us—spinning above our planet, god-like, a seemingly all-knowing, hopefully benevolent fifth-dimensional space fetus—spanning countless light years and millennia between. And yet, despite its ambitious leaps and barely comprehensible scope, every lofty symbolic gesture Kubrick matches with a moment of intimate humanity: the sadness of a mighty intellect’s death; the shock of cold-blooded murder; the minutiae and boredom of keeping our bodies functioning on a daily basis; the struggle and awe of encountering something we can’t explain; the unspoken need to survive, never questioned because it will never be answered. So much more than a speculative document about the human race colonizing the Solar System, 2001 asks why we do what we do—why, against so many oppositional forces, seen and otherwise, do we push outward, past the fringes of all that we know, all that we ever need to know? Amidst long shots of bodies sifting through space, of vessels and cosmonauts floating silently through the unknown, Kubrick finds grace—aided, of course, by an epic classical soundtrack we today can’t extricate from Kubrick’s indelible images—and in grace he finds purpose: If we can transcend our terrestrial roots with curiosity and fearlessness, then we should. Because we can. That the end of Kubrick’s odyssey returns us to the beginning only reaffirms that purpose: We are, and have always been, the navigators of our destiny. —Dom Sinacola


2. Blade Runner

blade-runner-poster-inset.jpg Year: 1982
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edgar James Olmos
Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes

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Just as The Road Warrior set the look and tone for countless post-apocalyptic cinema-scapes to follow, so too did the world of Ridley Scott’s dingy, wet and overcrowded Blade Runner set the standard for the depiction of pre-apocalyptic dystopias. But he also had Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer and a cast of actors who all bring this Philip K. Dick-inspired tale of a replicant-retiring policeman to gritty, believable life. Beneath the film’s impressive set design and inspired performances lies a compelling meditation on the lurking loneliness of the human (and, perhaps, inhuman) condition that continues to resonate (and trigger new creations, like Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049) to this day. —Michael Burgin


3. Jurassic Park

jurassic-park-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1994
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, Wayne Knight
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

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Jurassic Park’s standing as a technical milestone in cinematic storytelling isn’t only dependent on its then-revolutionary use of computer generated imagery: The special effects look as groundbreaking and seamless today as they did 25 years ago. The magic behind the film’s ability to bring dinosaurs to life could be in Spielberg’s expertise in approaching special effects on a shot-by-shot basis, merging each sequence with reliable miniature and animatronic work, making the connective tissue between these tricks as unnoticeable as possible. More than an achievement, Jurassic Park is an infinitely fun action adventure that also manages to insert some prescient themes into the mix—like whether or not humanity should interfere, on a deeply intimate level, with Nature—affording a moral angle that the sequels have pretty much abandoned or just plain bungled so far. —Oktay Ege Kozak


4. Inception

inception-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 148 minutes

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In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). With Inception, director Christopher Nolan crafts a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama wherein that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and Nolan mainstay wally Pfister’s gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work toward the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream. Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills. A spiritual person, Tarkovsky’s films were an expression of poetic transcendence. For Nolan, a rationalist, he wants to cheat time, cheat death. His films often avoid dealing with death head-on, though they certainly depict it. What Nolan is able to convey in a more potent fashion is the weight of time and how ephemeral and weak our grasp on existence. Time is constantly running out in Nolan’s films; a ticking clock is a recurring motif for him, one that long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer aurally literalized in the scores for Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan revolts against temporal reality, and film is his weapon, his tool, the paradox stairs or mirror-upon-mirror of Inception. He devises and engineers filmic structures that emphasize time’s crunch while also providing a means of escape. In Inception different layers exist within the dream world, and the deeper one goes into the subconscious the more stretched out one’s mental experience of time. If one could just go deep enough, they could live a virtual eternity in their mind’s own bottomless pit. “To sleep perchance to dream”: the closest Nolan has ever gotten to touching an afterlife.—Michael Saba and Chad Betz


5. Blade Runner 2049

blade-runner-2049-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Harrison Ford, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Rating: R
Runtime: 163 minutes

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The debate between what makes something “real” or not has become a staple of adult-minded sci-fi fare in the three-plus decades since Ridley Scott made one genre masterpiece after another dithering over the same debate, but the strength of Blade Runner 2049 is in how intimately Villeneuve (and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) attempt to have us experience this world through the unreal eyes of a Replicant, K (Ryan Gosling). Ideally, we are forced to think about what “humanity” is when empathy—caring for these robots—is the natural result of the filmmakers’ storytelling.

Blade Runner 2049, then, is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing to come out of a major studio in some time. Roger Deakins has inculcated Jordan Cronenweth’s lived-in sense of a future on the brink of obsolescence, leaning into the overpowering unease that permeates the monolithic Los Angeles Ridley Scott built. The scale of the film is only matched by the constant dread of obscurity—illumination shifts endlessly, dust and smog both magnifying and drowning the sense-shattering corporate edifices and hyper-stylized rooms in which humanity retreats from the moribund natural world they’ve created. There is a massive world, a solar system, orbiting this wretched city—so overblown that San Diego is now a literal giant dump for New L.A.’s garbage—but so much of it lies in shadow and opacity, forever out of reach. What Scott and Cronenweth accomplished with the original film, placing a potboiler within a magnificently conceived alternative reality, Villeneuve and Deakins have respected as they prod at its boundaries. There’s no other way to describe what they’ve done other than to offer faint praise: They get it. —Dom Sinacola


6. The Iron Giant

iron-giant.jpg Year: 1999
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Jennifer Anniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Eli Marienthal, Christopher McDonald, M. Emmet Walsh
Rating: PG
Runtime: 87 minutes

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Brad Bird’s feature debut championed traditional hand-drawn art at a time when computer animation was gaining in popularity, released by studio folk who didn’t realize just how special of a film they had on their hands, putting little to no marketing behind it. Luckily, The Iron Giant received its due recognition on home video. Set in the 1950s and drawing off of nuclear fears of the time—as well as Bird’s personal tragedy regarding gun violence—The Iron Giant incorporates the hallmark of the era’s science-fiction—a giant metal robot—into a touching coming-of-age story. Bird effortlessly moves between riotous comedy (such as young Hogarth’s efforts to hide his enormous new robot friend from his mother), high-spun action and poignant moments of fear and friendship. —Jeremy Mathews


7. A Clockwork Orange

clockworkposter.jpg Year: 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubric’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the Ultra Violence™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear ”Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold


8. Godzilla

godzilla-criterion-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1954
Director: Ishir? Honda
Stars: Sachio Sakai, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada
Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Early in Godzilla, before the monster is even glimpsed off the shore of the island of Odo, a local fisherman tells visiting reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) about the play they’re watching, describing it as the last remaining vestige of the ancient “exorcism” his people once practiced. Hagiwara watches the actors “sacrifice” a young girl to the calamitous sea creature to satiate its hunger and cajole it into leaving some fish for the people to enjoy—at least until the next sacrifice. Ishiro Hondo’s smash hit monster movie—the first of its kind in Japan, the most expensive movie ever made in the country at the time, not even a decade after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is, after 20-something sequels over three times as many years, a surprisingly elegiac exorcism of its own, a reminder of one nation’s continuing trauma during a time when the rest of the world jonesed to forget.

As J Hoberman describes in his essay for the film’s Criterion release, much of Honda’s disaster imagery is “coded in naturalism,” a verite-like glimpse of the harrowing destruction wrought by the beast but indistinguishable from the aftermath of the Americans’ attacks in 1945, especially when the U.S. and Russia, among other powers, were testing H-bombs in the Pacific in the early 1950s, bathing the Japanese in even more radiation than that in which they’d already been saturated. And yet, Godzilla is a sci-fi flick, replete with a “mad” scientist in an eye patch and a human in a rubber dinosaur suit flipping over model bridges. That Honda handles such goofiness with an unrelentingly poetic hand, purging his nation’s psychological grief in broadly intimate volleys, is nothing short of astounding. Shots of Godzilla trudging through thick smoke, spotlights highlighting his gaping maw as the Japanese military’s weapons do nothing but shock the dark with beautiful chiaroscuro, have been rarely matched in films of its ilk (and in the director’s own legion of sequels); Honda saw gods and monsters and, with the world entering a new age of technological doom, found no difference between the two. —Dom Sinacola


9. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad-max-fury-road-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: George Miller
Stars: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Kough, Abbey Lee
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

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The action in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a thing of beauty, poetry, rhythm and detail and momentum. The film is action—it understands the geography, the ballet of it. Excruciatingly, it executes its craft with a lot of real shots of real vehicles and actors and brave, brave stunt players doing mad things for real cameras, which accomplished cinematographer John Seale guides to giddy heights. The unholy crusade of such a venture bleeds gasoline dreams and literal buckets of sweat, and it pours all that into the engine of the film’s final cut, finely tuned by editor Margaret Sixel. Fury Road understands how action itself can be a vehicle that with breathless pace carries forward narrative and character and theme inside of it—its passengers rather than its burden of a load, driven by those things even as it drives them forward—into the realm of the tragic, the mythic and the indelible. What’s that? The rattling, guzzling maw of our mortality and our sentience waging war. —Dom Sinacola


10. Solyaris

solaris-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1972
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet
Rating: PG
Runtime: 168 minutes

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In 2002, Steven Soderbergh adapted Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel into a perfectly fine and handsome movie. It’s the one time that the story of a Tarkovsky film has been duplicated, sharing source material, and it illustrates an important truth: Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision is singular, inimitable; it towers over all others. Where an accomplished director like Soderbergh made a serviceable sci-fi flick, Tarkovsky made visual poetry of the highest order. Tarkovsky’s artistic instincts rarely failed him, and even though it was a big budget genre picture, Solyaris takes risks with the same confidence of expression and the same depth of resonance as any other Tarkovsky film. The science fiction concept of the titular planet-entity allows Tarkovsky a new angle at the same themes pondered in many of his works: the pivotal roles of history and memory in our present and future; the fraught responsibility of the individual in responding to the calls of the sublime; the struggle to know truth. Tarkovsky’s long-take, free-associative aesthetic was predicated on his philosophy of filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and in Solyaris there is a fascinating confluence between the way time and perception is manipulated by Tarkovsky, and the way those things are manipulated by Solyaris itself. Solyaris gives back the protagonist, astronaut psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), for what purpose is unclear. But Tarkovsky’s films work in a similar fashion; difficult to say exactly why they do what they do, yet they pull at the deepest roots of ourselves. They elicit emotional, meditative realities unlike any other. Like Kelvin’s resurrected Hari, the stimuli are simulacrums, symbols mined from a collective dream, but this does not diminish the worth of experiencing them. Sometimes they lead you to a place like Solyaris leads Kelvin: an island of lost memory—or perhaps of an impossible future, awash in the waters of some Spirit. That makes the unreal real; that gives the dream life. —Chad Betz


11. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

nausicca-poster.png Year: 1984
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos
Rating: PG
Runtime: 117 minutes

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is, quite simply, the film responsible for the creation of Studio Ghibli. It not only signaled Miyazaki’s nascent status as one of anime’s preeminent creators, but also sparked the birth of an animation studio whose creative output would dominate the medium for decades to come. Following the release of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s odd Lupin III adventure, the director was commissioned by his producer and future long-time collaborator Toshio Suzuki to create a manga in order to better pitch a potential film to his employers at Animage. What resulted was Nausicaä, a fantasy-sci-fi epic inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, starring a courageous warrior princess trying to mend a rift between humans and the forces of nature while soaring across a post-apocalyptic wilderness.

Nausicaä was the film that introduced the world to the motifs and themes for which Miyazaki would become universally known: a courageous female protagonist unconscious of and undeterred by gender norms, the surmounting power of compassion, environmental advocacy and an unwavering love and fascination with the phenomenon of flight. It spawned an entire generation of animators, among them Hideaki Anno, whose lauded work on the film’s climactic finale would later inspire him to go on to create Neon Genesis Evangelion. The essentialness of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s placement within the greater canon of animated film, Japanese or otherwise, cannot be overstated. —Toussaint Egan


12. The Matrix

matrix.jpg Year: 1999
Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Bruce Hunt
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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There is little to add about what’s been already codified about the film that made cyberpunk not stupid—and therefore is the best cyberpunk movie of all time, amidst its many accomplishments—or that made Keanu Reeves a respectable figure of American kung fu, or that finally made martial arts films a seriously hot commodity outside of Asia. The story of a computer hacker who woke up to the reality that everything he knows is an illusion constructed to placate humanity under the reign of a super-race of robot squids, The Matrix is—next to the Wu-Tang Clan—what proved to a new generation that martial arts films were worth their scrutiny, and in that reputation is bred college classes, heroes’ journeys and impossible expectations for special effects. Even today we still have this film to thank for so much of what we love about modern kinetic cinema, about how malleable genius science fiction can be, about just how deeply our connection to mythmaking—to the religiosity of civilization’s symbols—can reach. This is our red pill; everything else is an illusion of greatness and everything else is an allusion to what the Wachowskis accomplished, including the two sequels—bloated and beautiful and unlike anything anyone could have expected from the relatively self-contained original—which in turn earned the distinction of setting the course for every multi-part franchise to come —Dom Sinacola


13. Contact

contact-1997-poster.jpg Year: 1997
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, Tom Skerritt, David Morse
Rating: PG
Runtime: 150 minutes

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Contact seems almost calculated as the sort of cerebral sci-fi to frustrate multiplex audiences with its philosophical, open-ended conclusion about “first contact,” questioning whether any of what Jodie Foster’s character experienced really happened at all. Still, Contact is a beautiful film about the struggle between the tangible and the ephemeral, between faith, intellect and ambition. Ellie (Foster) is innately sympathetic, a woman with a selfless streak who nonetheless on some level seeks a very personal validation in being chosen as humanity’s representative to meet an alien race. The film challenges us to consider the depth of our inconsequential standing in the universe, and how different aspects of humanity, both beautiful and hideous, would present themselves after the revelation of a “higher power.” Add to this an impressive cast that includes Foster, John Hurt, James Woods, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and Matthew McConaughey (years before his McConaissance), and you can overlook the presence of Jake Busey in one of the best examples of “hard sci-fi” in the 1990s. —Jim Vorel


14. Fantastic Planet

fantastic-planet-poster.jpg Year: 1973
Director: René Laloux
Stars: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart
Rating: PG
Runtime: 71 minutes

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It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump


15. The Animatrix

the-animatrix-poster.jpg Year: 2003
Director: Various
Stars: Hedy Burress, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, James Arnold Taylor, Clayton Watson, Julia Fletcher, Kevin Michael Richardson, Pamela Adlon
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 102 minutes

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The Animatrix is, without a doubt, the best thing to come out of the Matrix franchise since the original movie. At the height of the series’ popularity between production of the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, the Wachowskis recruited the talents of seven of the most preeminent directors working in the field of anime to co-create an anthology of nine short films set within and around the continuity of the Matrix universe. All the familiar tropes are present: the mirrorshades, the kung fu acrobatics, the pulsing rain of digital kanji. But the greatest quality of the Animatrix anthology was in refracting the singular vision of the Wachowskis to a kaleidoscope of yet-unexplored visual and conceptual possibilities within the series’ core concept. Whether it be Mahiro Maeda’s chilling prequel in “The Second Renaissance,” Shinichiro Watanabe’s low-tech noir mystery in “A Detective Story,” or Peter Chung’s bizarre and psychedelic journey into the mind of a human-designed matrix with “Matriculated,” the Animatrix dove directly into heart of films’ collective mythology and reimagined it with every last drop of untapped creativity the series had then yet to muster. —Toussaint Egan


16. Tenet

tenet-poster-low.jpg Year: 2020
Directors: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 150 minutes

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A classic Christopher Nolan puzzle box, at first glance Tenet is a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented. Still, despite a compelling performance from Kenneth Branagh as antagonist Andrei Sator, the cerebral underpinnings and and even as the exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character, which Tenet lacks. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive. That might keep Tenet from the #1 slot on this year’s Best Sci-Fi list, but it shouldn’t keep lovers of the genre from seeing the only big budget science fiction to debut in theaters in 2020. —Michael Burgin


17. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

godzilla-vs-mechagodzilla-poster.jpg Year: 1974
Director: Jun Fukuda
Stars: Masaaki Daimon, Kazuya Aoyama, Akihito Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi
Rating: PG
Runtime: 84 minutes

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The first-ever appearance of Mechagodzilla in Godzilla’s Showa series is still the best. I have such fond memories of this film, and it truly embodies the high points of the earliest series of Godzilla movies. Mechagodzilla is presented as an absolutely devastating opponent with abilities that outclass Godzilla in every way, and he beats Godzilla to within an inch of his life during their first battle. My favorite bit though, is the inclusion of a Godzilla ally named “King Caesar,” some kind of bizarre lion-dog hybrid who needs to be woken from a long slumber by singing Japanese adult contemporary music. Then, after all that build-up, he immediately gets WRECKED by Mechagodzilla, in a sequence that plays like sublime, unintentional comedy. That, and the aliens controlling Mechagodzilla are secretly ape people, for some reason! Seriously, this one is as nutty as it is entertaining. —Jim Vorel


18. Independence Day

independence-day-poster.jpeg Year: 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Vivica A. Fox, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 145 minutes

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They pretty much don’t make action movies like Independence Day anymore, although if you ask someone who caught Independence Day: Resurgence, they’ll tell you that’s probably a good thing. Regardless, there’s a certain sheen to this particular brand of FX-driven pre-2000s disaster blockbuster, an earnestness of conviction in terms of clear-cut characters like Jeff Goldblum’s “David Levinson”—call it a willingness to believe that the audience will be 100 percent on board with a protagonist from the very beginning, rather than questioning his methods. As for the rest of the cast, we get a who’s who of ’90s delights, whether it’s an ascendant, wisecracking Will Smith—one year before Men in Black would cement him as leading man material—or Bill Pullman as the flyboy American president ready to deliver one of cinema’s greatest jingoistic addresses. Independence Day doesn’t shy away from its inspirations as pulp (it might as well be a remake of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers as far as the alien motivations are concerned) but it dresses up its Saturday morning cartoon plot with undeniably ambitious spectacle, even when viewed 20-plus years later. That exploding White House, not to mention the effortless camaraderie of Goldblum and Smith in all their scenes together, cement Independence Day among the most rewatchable sci-fi action films of the past two decades. —Jim Vorel



19. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

mad-max-road-warrior-poster.jpg Year: 1981
Director: George Miller
Stars: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Emil Minty, Mike Preston, Kjell Nilsson
Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Where the original Mad Max captures a crumbling society with collapse in the near future, The Road Warrior makes no bones about it—civilization is a thing of the past, and only the tough will survive in the new wasteland. George Miller’s first sequel to his seminal action series retains the thrilling car stunts and impressive choreography of the original while substantially evolving the production design to something that will look far more recognizable to those who have seen a film like Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller’s spike-laden, fantastical art direction is coming to the forefront here, in a tale of our western hero Max helping a community of settlers ward off a gang of deadly marauders, like something out of Kurosawa. The combination of ramshackle vehicles and ingenious weaponry has been a staple of the genre ever since, making The Road Warrior likely one of the most purely imitated films of the decade. —Jim Vorel


20. Equilibrium

equilibrium-poster.jpg Year: 2002
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs, Angus Macfadyen, Sean Bean, William Fichtner
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

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In Equilibrium, Taye Diggs plays a future fascist law enforcement officer named Brandt, and near the climax of the film, Brandt gets his face cut off. That’s his whole face, impeccably separated from his head, hair- to jawline. This follows a kind of lightning-quick, future samurai sword fight in which Christian Bale’s character, the heroically named John Preston, has singlehandedly massacred his way, gun in one hand and sword in the other, through one law enforcement officer after another, determined to wrench humanity from the binds of a totalitarian state that has outlawed—you guessed it—feelings. Much like Taye Diggs’ face, Equilibrium is quite pretty in its action, very symmetrical. But also like his face, the fact that I just gave away a meaty part of the climax should be easily disconnected from whether or not you should still watch Equilibrium. You should: it’s all as simultaneously bonkers and well-mannered as the moment in which Taye Diggs’ face slides off the front of his head like salami from a meat slicer. —Dom Sinacola


21. Dune

dune-1984-poster.jpg Year: 1984
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesa Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sting
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

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David Lynch’s Dune, a would-be magnum opus hamstrung by the limitations of working within a studio system in 1984, will always be a divisive film, both among sci-fi geeks and devotees of the director’s filmography. As an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune often leaves much to be desired, and its casting can veer toward the questionable. In terms of art design, costuming and effects, however, Lynch did an admirable job of bringing the unique sci-fi universe of Dune to life, particularly in scenes such as the introduction of the truly grotesque guild navigator. As documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune well illustrated, an adaptation of this story is a very heavy stone to lift, which is also why Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded version has captured so much attention. Lynch’s take on this material will, at the very least, always contain iconic bits that have since been welded to the series itself, none moreso than “the spice must flow.” —Jim Vorel


22. Destroy all Monsters

destroy-all-monsters-poster.jpg Year: 1968
Director: Ishir? Honda
Stars: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya
Rating: G
Runtime: 88 minutes

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This film was originally intended to be the final movie of the Godzilla franchise’s original Showa series, and it received a larger budget to match. That extra money meant monsters—lots of monsters! A true battle royal, it features Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Kumonga, Manda, Varan and Ghidorah. It takes a while to get going and features all the monsters separately in small cameos, but then ends in the scenario every kid dreamed of: A big brawl with all the monsters present. They ultimately team up to take out Ghidorah, always considered the biggest threat. Just classic stuff, a movie that would have been a fitting send-off to the original series—it’s shameful that this was followed by Godzilla’s Revenge. —Jim Vorel


23. Super 8

super-8-poster.jpg Year: 2011
Director: J. J. Abrams
Stars: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 112 minutes

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Super 8 is a film that ultimately feels more deeply tied to its subtext and inspirations than anything within its own plot—ostensibly a story about a rogue alien on the loose in a small Midwestern city in the 1970s, ‘ala E.T., it often seems curiously disinterested in the literal extraterrestrial. Instead, this is a story about a young group of friends coming together to achieve their goals, sprinkled with social awkwardness and the grieving process for young protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney), even as his sexuality is awakening in the presence of peer Alice (Elle Fanning, in her debut). These exchanges between young teenage characters are the true heart of the film, evoking the emotional vulnerability of the characters in something like Stand By Me, and ultimately proving more interesting than the alien hijinks propelling the plot forward. Every time Super 8 is simply about a group of 14-year-olds trying to make the best damn zombie movie they can, it becomes oddly endearing. —Jim Vorel


24. Planet of the Apes

planet-of-the-apes-1968-poster.jpg Year: 1968
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore
Rating: G
Runtime: 112 minutes

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“What will he find out there, doctor?” “His destiny” That’s what the conservative ape scientist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) tells compassionate ape “veterinarian” Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, as misanthropic astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) sets out into the Forbidden Zone of this topsy-turvy planet—where intelligent, talking apes are the dominant species and humans are dumb beasts—in order to find out what really happened to his species. Unless you were living under a rock for the last 50 years, you know exactly what he will find. But why does Zaius call this literally earth-shattering revelation Taylor’s destiny, and not his past, which is technically the case? The answer for that lies within Zaius’s role in the ape society. Unlike all other apes, Zaius knows the history of the painful and complex relationship between apes and humans. He knows how humans’ natural attraction to war, persecution, prejudice and cruelty sealed their eventual doom, and is (perhaps vainly) attempting to keep that “intellectual virus” from spreading to his beloved apes. He knows that once an intelligent human like Taylor has a chance to restart yet another attempt at civilization for his species, the same ugliness and destruction that comes with his inner nature will certainly plague his descendants. Therefore, he knows that Taylor will find both his past and his future on that beach. Today, the Planet of the Apes franchise is still going strong. The timeless appeal of these films stems from the fact that they explore high-concept themes, like the inherent viciousness and frailty of human nature, with brutal clarity, told with a refreshing lack of condescension and philosophical hand-holding. By presenting a fable world where what we now consider to be animals are dominating humankind, they hold a mirror to our ugliness, arrogance and, just maybe, our chance for redemption. Co-written by Twilight Zone co-creator Rod Serling, the sci-fi fable structure of the novel’s adaptation fits Serling’s sensibilities so impeccably that the original Planet of the Apes might be the closest we’ll ever get to a single-story, feature-length Twilight Zone movie, creating a kind of balanced synergy between pure genre excitement and level-headed morality tale. —Oktay Ege Kozak


25. The Blob

the-blob-1958-poster.jpg Year: 1956
Director: Irvin Yeaworth
Stars: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

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Alternatingly described as either a parable on creeping Communism or simply a good excuse for some necking at the drive-in, 1958’s The Blob fits neatly regardless into the era of atomic monster creature features that began roughly with 1954’s Them!. It has elements of the “us vs. them” counterculture films to come, with its “teen” characters (Steve McQueen was 27 at the time) being the immediate suspects of civil unrest according to local law enforcement, rather than the gelatinous alien blob slithering around town. It was made for a pittance of a budget, but the special effects hold up surprisingly well even today, especially in the iconic sequence in which The Blob attacks a “Midnight Spook Show” theater full of the target demographic. Still, in the years that followed, the film was likely best remembered for spawning Burt Bacharach’s novelty hit “Beware the Blob,” until Chuck Russell’s slick 1988 remake infused it with a whole new level of gross-out gory violence. Both films capture the same justified teenage fear of authority; the choice is only a matter of how viscerally you want to watch someone’s face get dissolved. —Jim Vorel