Science fiction movies have always been a mainstay of Hollywood but over the years, there have been many that were criminally underrated when released and have largely been forgotten over time. For every blockbuster such as Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, there’s a gem of a movie such as Gattaca that has been left in the dust. Even some science fiction films that are considered classics now—such as Blade Runner—were not appreciated when first released, but rather built up a loyal following over many years. A lot of science fiction films need time to find their audience and with that in mind, here the top 20 underrated sci-fi movies of all time.
20. Sunshine (2007)
Directed by Danny Boyle, this 2007 science fiction thriller follows the crew of a spacecraft on a perilous journey to the sun. The year is 2057 and 8 highly trained astronauts aboard the Icarus II are on a mission to re-ignite the dying sun through the use of a nuclear bomb. I know, crazy right? While this storyline seems way too outlandish to work, it provides a compelling narrative and a real sense of desperation for the crew who are responsible for saving Earth and the human race. The crew embarks on a 16-month journey to the sun and on the way they’re faced with major hurdles including the discovery of a distress beacon from the first Icarus ship that was lost 7 years earlier. The tension between crew members builds as the team is forced to deal with adversity and the weight of having the fate of humanity on their shoulders.
19. The Man From Earth (2007)
The Man From Earth is a thought-provoking film that’s a little rough around the edges and at times feels more like a stage play than it does a film. After history professor John Oldman resigns from his position at the University, his colleagues are shocked and one by one shows up at his home looking for answers. The professor tells the group that he’s thousands of years old and that he’s forced to move every few years to keep his secret. The professor’s answer baffles the crowd and tempers and emotions rise as they attempt to poke holes in his story. Written by acclaimed science fiction writer Jerome Bixby in the 1960s this film adaptation features some cringe-worthy performances, but if you’re able to see past the poor performances you’ll be treated to a unique sci-fi experience.
18. Mars Attacks (1996)
Based on a popular series of trading cards, Mars Attacks! is an homage to 50’s sci-fi films that is part B-movie, part dark comedy. Directed by Tim Burton, the film tells the story of a group of Martians who attack our planet and the unlikely hero who discovers the ridiculous way to destroy them (Spoiler: it involves country music). The film features some excellent performances including Jack Nicholson who plays both the president of the United States and a sleazy real estate salesman. Although the film is quite violent, Burton and company play it all for laughs, finding humor in warmongers, ecologists, media types as well as gun-toting hillbillies. Featuring retro hairdos and ridiculous looking Martians, this movie has Burton’s trademarks all over it. The movie is one of Burton’s bests and it is fun to see the cast having as much fun as they do in this genre send-up. If you’re a fan of other signature Burton movies like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands you will love Mars Attacks! This is a film that still holds up well and is worth another viewing.
17. Colossal (2017)
Filmed in just 6 weeks with a budget of just $15 million, Colossal received generally positive reviews despite being a flop at the box office. The story follows an unemployed and alcoholic writer named Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who is unintentionally controlling a giant monster halfway across the planet. After seeing news reports of a giant lizard-like monster terrorizing Seoul, South Korea, Gloria discovers the monster is mirroring her movements. Gloria, who can barely take care of herself is now tasked with discovering a solution or being responsible for millions of deaths. The film is essentially a Kaiju film in the vein of Godzilla or King Kong and while the premise is silly, the film features some interesting thoughts on relationships and human emotions. Colossal features some great performances from Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlize Theron and, unfortunately, most people missed this one last year.
16. Snowpiercer (2013)
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and tells the story tells of what remains of the human race following a cataclysmic attempt to fix Earth’s climate which instead plunged the planet into a deep freeze. The only way for the people of this world to survive is by living out their entire lives on board a train powered by a perpetual motion machine. But as is the case in most dystopian futures, the division of classes on the train are appallingly apparent with the rich front section passengers living a lavish life of luxury while those in the rear compartments are crammed together and forced to exist in brutal conditions. That is until Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) decides the time has come to lead a revolution, and together with a group of tail passengers, attempts to battle his way to the front of the train. The essential element of the film focuses on is social stratification, but also provides an excellent commentary on global warming and economic trickle-down philosophy. When you combine this thought-provoking material with a little high-octane action, you’ve got the recipe for a very compelling sci-fi movie.
15. Dark City (1998)
Unfortunately, Dark City was overshadowed by some blockbuster films in 1998 but it holds up well 20 years later. In Dark City, each night a mysterious metropolis gets reshaped; people’s memories are irrevocably altered, and anyone who begins to guess that something strange is going on gets sent for reprogramming. Rufus Sewell plays a seemingly ordinary person who learns the truth about the city and discovers that he has some truly powerful abilities. This movie fell into obscurity after it was overshadowed by The Matrix, which was released around the same time and used a lot of similar cinematography, set designs, and thematics. But Dark City is both visually imaginative and philosophically provocative, as it encourages the audience to ask questions about ourselves and the trust we place on our natural senses. While it may not have seen the commercial success of some of the other films released in 1998, Dark City is worth checking out.
14. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Based on the book by celebrated sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report), A Scanner Darkly stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover detective in a a totalitarian society, who is working with a small-time group of drug users trying to reach the big distributors of a brain-damaging drug called “Substance D.” Having sampled the drug himself, Reeves’ character begins to lose his own identity and display schizophrenic behavior, leading to him being submitted for tests to asses his mental well-being. Co-starring Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson, A Scanner Darkly was filmed digitally and then animated using the interpolated rotoscope technique that gives the movie a distinctive animated look. Critics praised this movie for its ingenuity and innovative approach to animation and filmmaking. This trippy sci-fi hidden gem is worth a look.
13. Repo Man (1984)
Created by avant-garde British filmmaker Alex Cox, the well-received sci-fi comedy, Repo Man stars Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton as a couple of small-time car repossession men who get caught up in a UFO and alien conspiracy. While praised by critics when it was initially released, this movie was yet another effort that proved to be just too strange for mainstream tastes. The Boston Society of Film Critics awarded it “Best Screenplay” in 1984, but that didn’t help it make a profit. Made for about $5 million, Repo Man earned only $129,000 at movie theaters. Truly disappointing. Since then, Repo Man has earned a massive cult following and holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Repo Man is a film that’s been lost amongst general audiences but holds a place among the greatest Cult Classics of all-time.
12. The Host (2006)
The 2006 South Korean horror movie directed by Bong Joon-ho (Okja), is far more than just the typical monster movie it looks like at first glance. Sure, a frightening river monster does emerge and kidnap a man’s daughter, but the movie is also a bit of political satire, as it shows a bumbling and useless bureaucracy attempting to deal with the new threat. Beyond that, The Host is a sci-fi film that focuses on themes of family and environmental carelessness. In 2000, an American scientist orders his Korean assistant dispose of chemicals which eventually enter the Han River and over the next several years, there are sightings of a strange amphibious creature in the waterway. The film features some excellent special effects for the time and the creature is convincingly terrifying. It’s one of the few films on this list that will require you to read the subtitles to follow along, though, since it wasn’t filmed in English. We say it’s well worth the extra effort.
11. Gattaca (1997)
As genetic discrimination is poised to become an actual threat to human rights in the coming years, the premise of Gattaca is perhaps even more salient now than it was when it was released in the ’90s. The thought that a person’s genetic makeup could solely determine their daily lives and future aspirations was a chilling concept and one that Ethan Hawke’s character, Vincent Freeman, was unwilling to accept. In the movie, set in a not-so-distant future, Freeman is a rare naturally-born human who is treated as inferior for not being genetically engineered. The really amazing (and utterly terrifying) thing about the film is just how convincing the future world seems. Given all the current prejudices in society, it seems incredibly plausible that this could be the way the world operates one day. Gattaca was a movie that sparked real-world debate and got people talking about looming issues that need addressing. This is the kind of film that gets even better with age and is a vital addition to this list.
10. The Abyss (1989)
Released in the summer of 1989, The Abyss is director James Cameron’s worst-reviewed movie and the one that performed most poorly at the box office. Hot off the heels of The Terminator and Aliens, expectations were running extremely high for James Cameron’s first underwater feature film about a group of deep-sea miners who encounter aliens beneath the ocean. However, critics and audiences were disappointed when the film was first released. Critics complained that the aliens showed up just as the movie was ending and that their presence was never fully explained. The movie, which was filmed almost completely underwater in an abandoned nuclear reactor, was also considered an expensive flop—earning less than $100 million at the box office. Yet watch The Abyss now and you see a fantastic underwater adventure movie with then never-before-seen special effects. The “liquid metal” special effects used in James Cameron’s next film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, were first tried in The Abyss. There was also Oscar buzz surrounding actor Michael Biehn’s performance as an unhinged Navy Seal in the movie. Worth watching again.
9. Millennium (1989)
It may not be the greatest science fiction movie ever made, but the 1989 film Millennium is good enough to see and appreciate. The story centers around a commercial airline flight whose passengers and crew are transported 1,000 years into the future. Starring Kris Kristopherson as a government agent investigating what happened to the missing passengers and crew, and Cheryl Ladd (Charlie’s Angels) as a sexy warrior woman from the future, this movie is underappreciated for its intricate story and timeline. Daniel J. Travanti (TV’s Hill Street Blues) is great as the villain, and the time travel elements and special effects hold up to this day. While not a masterpiece, this movie is worth seeing and did influence future time travel films.
8. Moon (2009)
Although given some love by critics upon its release in 2009, Moon is a low budget science fiction movie that never found a wide audience when it was released. Starring actor Sam Rockwell as the lone caretaker of an outpost on the Moon, the movie is intriguing throughout and contains an amazing surprise that is both unexpected and genuinely surprising. Sam Rockwell is excellent as the only person on the Moon. Kevin Spacey, as the voice of the computer GERTY, is the only other actor in the film. Directed by Duncan Jones (the son of singer David Bowie), Moon offers an effective narrative amid spare, but decent special effects. The movie builds slowly to the exciting conclusion and keeps viewers guessing throughout. This movie has deservedly earned a cult following since its initial release.
7. The Thing (1982)
A remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks movie The Thing From Another World, this 1982 movie by director John Carpenter is arguably superior to the original movie, and perhaps the best film that John Carpenter ever made. The movie is about a group of scientists at a remote Antarctic station who have to survive after shape-shifting alien crash lands near them and begins to kill them off, assuming their identities in the process. Starring a never-better Kurt Russell, this is a great science fiction film that is genuinely scary and tense. Yet when it was released, The Thing was dismissed as a cheap Alien knock-off and viewed as nothing more than a B-movie. While The Thing found an audience on home video during the 1980s, it has since been forgotten again. But it is worth a look and is far superior to the 2011 remake of the movie, which is truly awful and should be avoided.
6. The Blood of Heroes (1989)
Writer David Webb Peoples and actor Rutger Hauer are best known for their work on the 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. However, the two also collaborated on another excellent science fiction film—1989’s The Blood of Heroes. Little seen on its initial release and largely forgotten since, The Blood of Heroes is a Mad Max type movie set in a post-apocalyptic world where a brutal, futuristic game resembling football is played. Rutger Hauer stars as a disgraced former star leading a ragtag group of Juggers, as the players of the game are known, to one of the remaining nine cities on Earth for glory and personal redemption. Co-starring actors Vincent D’Onofrio, Delroy Lindo and Joan Chen, this movie is weird, wonderful and criminally underrated. Fans of Blade Runner should pay homage to David Webb Peoples and see this forgotten beauty of a movie.
5. Slipstream (1989)
Another underrated film from 1989, Slipstream stars Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, as a futuristic bounty hunter who kidnaps a wanted murderer from two police officers so he can collect the bounty himself. What follows is an epic chase across a world that has been ravaged by nuclear war, and where the best mode of transportation is riding gliders on giant winds that sweep across the Earth known as the “Slipstream.” Co-starring science fiction stalwart Bill Paxton (Aliens and Near Dark), as well as British actors Robbie Coltrane and Bob Peck, this movie was barely released in the U.S. and is difficult to find on DVD or Blu-Ray. But it is a fun and interesting movie that is worth seeing. One of the better post-Star Wars films Mark Hamill ever made.
4. Rollerball (1975)
Forget the terrible 2002 remake. The 1975 classic film is the one to see. Directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Caan, Rollerball is about a corporate-controlled future where people play an ultra-violent sport known as Rollerball. James Caan plays one of Rollerball’s most popular and powerful athletes who defies his corporate masters after he realizes they want him out of the game and dead. While the special effects have dated, the premise of the movie and its influence endure. This movie has influenced countless science fiction movies that followed, from the aforementioned The Blood of Heroes to The Hunger Games series. The film also has many dark and cruel elements and paints a believable picture of a future world that is ruled solely by corporate interests rather than governments. Seen now, Rollerball is quite prescient and ahead of its time.
3. Solaris (1972)
Again, forget the remake starring George Clooney and instead see the 1972 original. Directed by Russian movie master Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris is about a psychologist who is sent to a space station orbiting a distant planet to discover what has caused the crew onboard to go insane. While there, he begins to see visions of his dead wife. Like the best science fiction, Solaris is about ideas and has many depths within its storyline. However, the original movie has scarcely been seen by modern moviegoers. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the film is in Russian with English subtitles. But don’t let that scare you off. Considered a classic and one of the best movies ever made by many film critics, including the late Roger Ebert, Solaris is a wonderful film that should be seen by every serious science fiction fan. It has also influenced generations of filmmakers and its haunting narrative set the tone for creepy science fiction films that followed.
2. Forbidden Planet (1956)
If you can overlook the extremely dated special effects and focus on the story, Forbidden Planet is an excellent science fiction film. Released in 1956 and starring a then-serious Leslie Nielsen (Airplane, The Naked Gun), Forbidden Planet is about a starship crew that goes to investigate a planet’s colony after they lose contact with Earth, only to find two survivors and a deadly secret. This story, original in its time, has been copied countless times since—including in James Cameron’s movie Aliens (1986). However, Forbidden Planet was the first film to employ this plot element, and it works. The story, acting and surprise secret all hold up well. And while the movie was a hit upon its original release, it has been largely forgotten over the years. For its originality and influence, it is worth seeing again. Just try to forget about the strings you see attached to the flying space ships.
1. Silent Running (1972)
Most readers have probably never heard of Silent Running. A low budget science fiction film, the movie barely made a ripple when released in 1972. However, it is a classic of the science fiction genre and needs to be seen by serious fans. Starring the great Bruce Dern as a botanist who is ordered to destroy the last of Earth’s plants and vegetation aboard a greenhouse on a spaceship, the film is thoughtful, engaging and provocative. Of course, Bruce Dern rejects his order to destroy the last floral from Earth and teams up with some robots to fight back and save the vegetation from going extinct. The film was one of the first to depict the loneliness of outer space and was directed by Douglass Trumbull, who worked on the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Movies from Wall-E to Moon (featured higher up on this list) all took plot elements from Silent Running. Check. It. Out.