September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Science fiction films are not just about spaceships, robots, and lasers. It does often contain those things, but that’s barely the tip of the space-berg. Sci-fi on a cinematic level can truly immerse audiences on a scale that is not always possible on television, but as is almost always the case, it’s the ideas and concepts that matter most. The best science fiction films use the joys of this heightened genre to reflect our own world right back at us, and inspire us in ways that we never thought possible. So beam on down, take a “Baby Diego” day, and write “human” on your whiteboards as we aim to misbehave with our list of the 25 greatest sci-fi films of the last 25 years.
Terry Gilliam’s remake of the short film La Jetee bursts at the seams with imagination. Both low-tech and high-tech at the same time, the film depicts a truly odd future that has been ravaged by disease. Humanity’s only hope turns out to once again be Bruce Willis, as his character is sent back in time (badly) to stop the disease. Things do not go as planned, and we are shown yet again that humans should not mess around with time travel. Brad Pitt shines as a mental patient (and an appearance from Frank Gorshin is always welcome), but it is the insane design and mad genius of Terry Gilliam’s lens that makes this time-turning, destiny-fulfilling, mind bender of a film as great as it is.
28 Days Later
It turns out that all you need to bring civilization to a complete halt is 28 days, and an aptly named virus called “Rage.” Danny Boyle takes us down a different road with this 2002 zombie film that isn’t really a zombie film at all—it’s more of a medical biohazard type of film. Why do the “zombies” move so fast? They’re infected with the aforementioned virus, and are desperate for blood. More science fiction than monster mash, it’s how the remaining humans manage (or not manage) to survive that provides the real drama. Cillian Murphy provides a good baseline as the lead, but it is the brilliant Brendan Gleeson that will devastate you. One drop is all it takes. Time to panic.
A miracle of a movie, this 2016 first contact tale may be recent, but it was an instant classic. It’s a slow burn of a movie for sure, and reveals itself to be more about communication than the usual tentacled aliens. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and featuring yet another masterful performance from Amy Adams (one of the most versatile actresses working today), the film eventually reveals itself to be a rumination on time and memory, and it does so as only a sci-fi movie can. The thought of Villeneuve working on an adaptation of Dune makes us very excited, as this film shows that he may be the one who can finally figure out how to do it.
Children of Men
In a future in which humans have mysteriously (and inexplicably) lost their ability to breed, Clive Owen deals with things by staying drunk most of the time. Eventually, he is brought into the action, and for good reason—a girl has become pregnant. Everyone launches into a mad power grab for the pregnant girl, and it is up to Clive’s character, Theo, to make sure she gets where she needs to go. It’s a flat-out masterpiece of direction, Alfonso Cuaron once again stepped up his game with this film. He provides so many unbroken shots, often during action sequences, that it truly boggles the mind to think of how he (and his team) can make them happen. A horrible depiction of where humanity could very well be headed, the film does pause for one brief, shining moment of hope. When the baby is finally born in the middle of a war zone, all of the shooting and bombing stops immediately. Soldiers freeze in their boots, the action ceases, and Theo calmly leads the new mother and her child out of the danger area. Just the sight and sound of a brand new human is enough to stop everyone from fighting, and they just stare as our heroes pass, with jaws dropped. The fighting resumes almost immediately, but we’ve had the moment, and the baby is safe.
The should have…sent…a poet…to write this…but we’ll attempt to anyway. After intercepting presumed alien signals that provide plans to some kind of transport device, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself chosen to “take a ride” across the stars. She goes on quite a journey alright, but when she returns, there is no evidence. James Woods’ jerk of a bureaucrat calls her a liar, as her personal flight camera shows nothing but static. Some believe Ellie’s story of making first contact with an alien race, but others believe it was all part of the most elaborate practical joke ever conceived. Ellie wasn’t truly alone on her journey, however. We were with her, watching it all, and we believe her! Or do we? The film makes both situations plausible…right up until James Woods is informed of a critical detail. Ellie’s camera recorded only static, sure—but it recorded 18 hours of it. In this wonderful adaptation of a story by Carl Sagan, you never truly know where this film is going to go.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sometimes, the pain of a breakup can be so unbearable, that we find ourselves wishing that those memories could be erased. In this film, Lacuna Inc. is capable of doing exactly that. Technically speaking, the procedure IS brain damage, but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as the couple who both seek out the service to erase each other, and the result is a perfect examination of the pain of lost love. As the procedure goes from most recent memories and works backwards, the bad parts of the relationship go first, and Joel (Carrey) doesn’t miss them. It’s when they get to the good memories, the ones so easily forgotten in anger, that he realizes he has made a mistake. His rebellion against the system forms much of the rest of the movie, which also features very creepy side plots involving Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson. The acting is incredible, the visuals from director Michel Gondry are divine, (things being erased just popping out of the shot all the time) and the screenplay is one of Charlie Kaufman’s absolute best.
A good spokesperson for mankind’s hubris, CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac) has built a robot. He’s built a few, actually, but he’s really proud of his new Alicia Vikander model. In between showing it off to programmer and contest winner Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), he disco dances with one of his robotic slaves and generally proves to be an awful person. The humans in the film both give great performances, but it is Alicia Vikander as Ava that steals every scene. At first, she’s just a robot with a face, but a few Turing tests later she’s repairing herself, putting on clothes, murdering her creator, and trapping Caleb in her dead creator’s moronic cyber-home. She ignores his screams in a truly horrifying way, before ascending (literally) in a helicopter. She is off to join modern society, and something tells us that more hubris filled bodies are going to start piling up before long.
If you thought this was just a parody film, think again! Yes, it is very funny. Yes, it manages to poke wonderful fun at sci-fi and its fans (Trek, in particular), and yes, it’s about a fake show…but this film is so full of heart and adventure that it out-Treks many official Treks at their own game. Whether it’s hilariously deconstructing genre trope, (shirt ripping, pointless mechanized gauntlet running, repeating what the computer just said), or just telling its own story, the film is always wildly entertaining. A wonderful cast commits completely to sell it all (especially a great Sigourney Weaver and Enrico Colantoni), but shhh…it’s actually a stealth Alan Rickman vehicle. As the actor behind Dr. Lazarus, Alan Rickman turns in yet another unforgettable performance. By Grabthar’s hammer, by the Suns of Worvan, you know it’s true.
Who really knows where ideas come from? Science gives us many possibilities, but Leonardo DiCaprio and a ragtag team implanting them in you while you sleep seems just as a plausible. If you don’t think that it’s a small possibility, well then, you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling. Impeccably directed by the great Christopher Nolan, this film about a team of mind thieves trying to implant an idea into the mind of a corporate executive is a never ending feast for the mind as well as the eyes. Going three levels deep and beyond in the world of dreaming and ideas, the real question is whether or not the top keeps spinning in the end.
The Iron Giant
Greatly underappreciated at the time, this animated wonder has thankfully gained the recognition it so richly deserves over the years. A deceptively simple tale of a young boy and the giant robot he discovers in the woods, the film teaches us that it never too late to become the person (or robot) that we were meant to be. Beautifully animated and hugely emotional, this film may be set in the 1950s, but its messages are timeless.
Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, this endlessly quotable movie about the genetic re-creation of dinosaurs is not just great because of the creatures, themselves. Don’t get us wrong, the dinosaurs of this film, done both digitally and with animatronics, are incredible and have yet to be topped however, it is the endless idea parade of creation and the ethics therein that make this movie shine as bright as it does. Does mankind have the right to play God? Dinosaurs had their shot and nature selected them for extinction, as Dr. Ian Malcolm says. It’s a moot point, of course, because John Hammond has already done it and the dinosaurs are here. Can the humans control them? Of course not. We don’t have the slightest idea what to expect, and one meddling Newman later, the once gorgeous park of wonders becomes one of teeth-baring nightmares. Should the little kid be eating desserts three seconds after being shocked off of an electric fence? Maybe not, but once the classic score by John Williams (the greatest film composer that has ever lived) starts booming, you won’t care. Welcome to Jurassic Park. Hold on to your butts.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Anything but mediocre! This extended, guzzoline-fueled car chase adventure through a dystopian future is absolutely irresistible. The action is utterly insane, but the messages of the film will stay with you longer. As enjoyable as Tom Hardy is as Max, the film is effortlessly stolen by Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, and the female slaves she is attempting to rescue. The design is crazy and the characters are garishly drawn, but the themes of feminism and tyranny ring loud and clear. We’re not yet being chased down by painted white bald boys spray painting their mouths all shiny and chrome, but the film makes you think that we may not be all that far away from that. Watch, die, then watch again.
Whoa! Nobody was expecting much from this film when it came out, but what a great surprise it was. It made standard fare of the bullet-time effect, made Keanu cool again, launched a million memes about red and blue pills, and truly opened our minds to new possibilities. Is there anything more satisfying than Neo’s ultimate awakening at the end? Everything Lawrence Fishburne’s Morpheus has been telling us is rendered true, and even he is kind of surprised. Neo stops flying bullets with his hands, and then jumps inside Hugo Weaving and bursts him into agent bits. He truly is the one, and our hearts soar. The sequels prove to be pretty divisive (to put it mildly) but there is no doubting the greatness of the film that begins the trilogy.
It was marketed as a Tom Cruise movie, but it’s really all about Samantha Morton. As one of the three “pre-cogs” that can see crimes before they happen, she is by far the most powerful. The others can’t work without her, and she is the only one of the three that really questions what they are seeing before launching into action. She is the true “minority report” of the film’s title, and her journey from forced servitude to cabin living freedom is the film’s best through-line. Along the way, we get a dazzling view of the future that is becoming all the more real every day. Targeted ads and facial recognition, alone, make us think of this film, though sadly our cereal boxes can’t sing. Not yet, anyway.
Sam Rockwell is stuck doing a job on the moon, but he’s not alone! He’s been having disturbing visions to keep him company, but he also has a friend in the emoji-faced robot, GERTY, that is voiced by Kevin Spacey. It takes a special type of actor to anchor a film mostly by himself, and Sam Rockwell proves that he is more than up to the challenge. Going through his own unfortunate journey of discovery, he learns some horrible truths—but, thankfully, GERTY (the Spacey-bot) is not HAL, and has Sam’s best interests at robo-heart.
The first entry in the Riddick series, this film invites you to a world that has just entered an ongoing eclipse. With everlasting night comes a whole slew of nightmare creatures, because of course it does. When the crew of the Hunter-Gratzner crash land on this unexplored planet, will they be able to survive? Not without the help of Richard B. Riddick, a notorious convict and unlikely savior. Played by Vin Diesel, Riddick possesses eyes that are surgically modified to see in the dark, and as you can imagine, that proves highly useful on this planet of darkness. The second film in this series takes things to a more epic level, but Riddick really thrives in this more contained tale of survival.
Here’s another example of why you should NOT MESS AROUND WITH TIME TRAVEL. Two engineers working out of their garage learn this lesson the hard way, and though it doesn’t end so well for them, it is very entertaining for us. With a budget of only $7,000, this is a film that proves you don’t need huge effects to deal with big ideas. Directed, written, produced, edited, scored, and co-starring former engineer Shane Carruth, this independent film has become a cult favorite. Full of insane technical jargon and loads of philosophy, the film illustrates yet again that humanity will never learn to stop screwing around with the ineffable things that we presume to understand.
For fans of the TV show Firefly, (canceled before it ever had a chance to grow) this movie is a godsend. Packing in at least a season’s worth of story into its running time, this Joss Whedon film gives us answers to so many of the show’s mysteries—most importantly, the Reavers and River Tam. Chiwetel Ejiofor is on hand to antagonize our beloved crew as The Operative, and he gives a layered, fascinating performance. Heroes rise, some heroes fall (Wash, Book, sniff), and, in the end, Malcolm Reynolds and crew save the day. Simon and Kaylee get it on, there might be hope for Inara and Mal, and the truth about the Reavers is revealed to the galaxy. As the only closure we’re ever really going to get, this film delivers. Future adventures will just have to play out in our imaginations, (and comics) as River assumes the pilot position of the good ship Serenity, and Mal talks to her about what really keeps a ship flying. The show may have been cancelled, but they couldn’t stop the signal.
Mel Gibson plays former priest Graham Hess, and one day he discovers a crop circle in the field close to his home. Things go a bit crazy from here, as more crop circles are appearing, something invisible is hovering over Mexico, and animals of all kinds are becoming very violent. It’s enough to put Hess’ children, and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), in tin foil hats, all sitting and waiting for the invasion. The film is very effective in the way it builds to the first glimpse of an extraterrestrial, and at first, it’s only a quick snippet shown on TV. By the time Hess and his family have to defend their home, we are thankful that his daughter has mysteriously left half-finished glasses of water all over the house and that Merrill still has a baseball bat from his old days as a player. In a film that is more about faith than aliens, the real signs of the film’s title are not of the crop circle variety—they are the messages that lead us to “swing away” at the aliens and cover them with water. Water is deadly to the aliens, but the signs that led everyone to that conclusion are enough to send Graham Hess back to the priesthood.
There wasn’t much Trek around after Captain Picard toasted to Data’s memory in 2003, and while some of us mostly subsisted by re-running the genius of Deep Space Nine on a loop, 2009 finally marked Trek’s big return to movie theaters. The JJ Abrams-helmed semi-reboot (not really, though, due to time travel mayhem, but whatever) finally gave us some wonderful special effects that looked like they belonged on the big screen, as well as a re-introduction to classic characters from Trek’s first TV iteration. The new portrayals don’t replace the old favorites, and wisely they don’t try. The result launched a new set of films set in this alternate “Kelvin” timeline, and a fantastic score from the always quality Michael Giacchino felt like pure oxygen.
When a huge portal discovered on the Giza plateau is finally activated thanks to the genius of Daniel Jackson (a great turn from James Spader), a small team of soldiers are able to travel to the other side of the universe. Once they get their bearings, they discover a desert…and a pyramid. In a film that runs with the ancient alien theory, we see that the Egyptian gods were really just wicked alien overlords, and that the pyramids were landing zones for their pyramid-shaped spacecraft. The visuals are beautiful, the characters are fun, and the score by David Arnold is utterly sublime. If you’re not already having a good time, the film will win you over when Erick Avari makes a triumphant return at the climax, with an army of freed slaves behind him—it’s one of the great last minute saves in sci-fi. The film was so full of ideas and potential that it ended up spawning multiple television shows, and it is on the road to returning once again.
Would you like to know more? This film is deceptively silly. Sure, it asks you to root for Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards, to believe that spraying a bug alien with a zillion bullets still won’t kill it, and to not immediately despise Patrick Muldoon, the man who broke up Zack and Kelly! Sorry, still not over that. In the plus column, the movie gives you: Dina Meyer, the always perfect Clancy Brown, Neil Patrick Harris as a PSYCHIC, Michael Ironside as a one-armed squadron sergeant (glorious), and some beautiful starship effects that still hold up today. Besides all of this, the movie’s real strength is the subversive fascist narrative that plays out in the news titles and articles that continuously fly at the screen. They begin the film, they end the film, and they will make the film relevant long after the brain bug is captured. This film keeps fighting…and it will win!
The Truman Show
The only real thing in the show within this movie is Truman, himself, and everything else in Truman’s world is fabricated under one enormous sound stage. The people in his life are actors, the events of his life are written, and even the products he uses are advertisements. All of this for the benefit of the massive audience that watch him on their televisions. One of the first films that showed us that Jim Carrey was capable of more than just Fire Marshall Bill, the film also contains a standout performance from Ed Harris as the man who “directs” the show of Truman’s life. The formula of this film has been imitated in other movies and also tried for real on television (The Joe Schmo Show) but it’s never been done with as much intelligence as it is done here. By the time Truman becomes fully aware that his life is a giant television show, even a dynamo speech from Ed Harris (delivered from the Moon) can’t stop him. Truman’s going off the grid, leaving the show, and in case you don’t see him—good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.
We’ve written about the titular robot in other lists, and although he is the best part of this Pixar masterpiece, the entire film is a marvel. We are presented with yet another all too plausible version of the future: Earth is covered in garbage and abandoned, humans have grown so fat and lazy that they can’t walk any more, and they spend their hover-chair Jabba-like existences doing virtual activities onboard a giant space cruiser. The heart of the film is still the trash compacting robot who ends up going on a crazy adventure to return humanity (and plant life) to Earth, but the film is also overflowing with all kinds of other robots, all of whom have different functions and personalities. When WALL-E makes yet another robotic sacrifice in the film’s climax, the captain of the ship (voiced by Jeff Garlin) takes the first (literal) stand any human has in a long while. His epic first steps are accompanied ever so perfectly by Strauss, and just as primates rose in the beginning of 2001, humans rise again here. They all return to Earth and start a new life, but most importantly, WALL-E gets to finally hold EVA’s hand. The animation is beautiful, the messages are important, and it’s one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, animated or otherwise.
War for the Planet of the Apes
The finale of the trilogy that nobody thought they needed, this final third closes the story of Caesar and his fellow primates with a bang. Although the first two films showed us plenty of action (especially the Koba-rampage fueled second installment), this film finally gives us the full on war. It wisely focuses on the strongest part of these movies, which are the apes, themselves. We always cared more about them than the humans in these prequels, so the film wisely tells its story from their perspective. As the apes go about their war with the humans (who are led by Woody Harrelson), this film surpasses all confines of genre and becomes not just a movie about apes fighting humans—it is a treatise on the very nature of war, itself. That we are as invested as we are is, of course, due to the technical milestones achieved by the production team, but to the surprise of nobody, it is Andy Serkis that truly anchors the film. As Caesar, he embarks on the ultimate struggle against the humans, and his actions determine the future of the entire planet. Andy Serkis has never been better, and that really is saying something.
These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which sci-fi movies since 1992 you’d put on your list!
And be sure to check out all the rest of our "25 Greatest" lists here!