The best sci-fi movies of the ’80s, ranked

Yoda Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Image via Lucasfilm

The ’80s was a decade filled with great sci-fi, and it was not confined to any particular mold or template. Great science fiction in the ’80s could mean a sequel to another masterpiece, a totally original film filled with wonderful world-building, or a family drama about growing up and finding true friendship. Landmark filmmaking was taking place, and the landscape was ripe for the genre.

Filmmakers of the ’80s couldn’t rely on the technology available today, which could have been viewed as a hindrance, but instead made for some fantastic hand-made effects. Challenging as it was, we’ve narrowed down a list of the 10 best sci-fi movies.

10. E.T.

Steven Spielberg can direct in basically any genre, but E.T. remains one of his most endearing films. Telling the story of a young boy who befriends a gentle alien, E.T. is an adventure as much as it is a drama. It became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and one that still holds up today. Few movies are as purely emotional as E.T., but that’s part of what makes it so entirely winsome. It’s a sweet story of friendship, but it never feels hokey or overly sentimental.

9. Back to the Future

Science fiction and comedy do not easily blend well, but Back to the Future manages that feat thanks to one of the tightest scripts ever written and compelling lead performances from both Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox. The film follows Fox’s Marty McFly as he travels back to the 1950s and has to orchestrate an elaborate plot to make sure his parents wind up together. Back to the Future is about every kid’s realization that their parents were once teenagers too, but the movie works whether you want to think about that or just hang along for the ride.

8. Robocop

One of the sharpest allegories ever put on screen, Robocop is a great example of what sci-fi can achieve. The movie tells the story of a regular beat cop who, following an injury, finds himself turned into an android that is forced to do the bidding of the state. Robocop has truly incisive things to say about the way that state-funded violence has always been a part of the culture of the U.S. Robocop ends on a note of redemption for its main character, but it’s merciless when examining the world more broadly. Robocop may be a cool action figure, but the movie itself is a truly angry artifact of the 1980s.

7. Aliens

James Cameron’s Alien sequel made the brilliant decision to move away from the horror genre and tell a story grounded in action instead. The movie follows Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley decades after the attack on her ship as she deals with a group of cocksure recruits who are convinced they can take on the alien she faced. The audience is privy to the events of the original film, and the result is a bloodbath that also becomes one of the most compelling action movies of the decade. The creature effects are wonderful, and Cameron’s decision to include multiple aliens makes the whole thing feel even more expansive.

6. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

George Miller’s second Mad Max movie is a soft reboot, set in a much more apocalyptic world in which the wandering main character stumbles onto a community that is relatively peaceful. While Max initially plans to steal from them, he ultimately becomes their protector, and helps them fight off a villainous pack of raiders. The Road Warrior works because Miller shoots the action so cleanly, and has an incredibly clear vision of what he wants his sandy, rugged post-apocalypse to look and feel like.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Another great sci-fi sequel, The Wrath of Khan adheres tightly to the template originally established on the Star Trek TV series. The film’s final moments, which pay fitting tribute to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, are truly moving and wonderful, but that’s also true of every moment leading up to that emotional finale. In spite of the film’s relatively low budget, it comes to a thrilling climax, and it’s also a movie that shows us the incredible gravitas that William Shatner was capable of when he was playing Captain Kirk on the big screen.

4. The Empire Strikes Back

Perhaps an even better movie than its predecessor, but less wholly original because it is a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is pretty perfect from the moment it starts. The action is crisp and exciting, the introduction of Yoda brings an instantly wonderful new character into the universe, and the movie’s production design is stunning. Cloud City may still be the single best location in any Star Wars movie, and the final fight between Vader and Luke remains thrilling not just because of its complexity, but because the stakes for Luke feel so utterly real.

3. Akira

Perhaps the most influential anime of all time, Akira is set in a dystopic future Tokyo and tells the story of a biker gang leader who tries to save his friend from a government experiment. When his friend’s powers suddenly unleash themselves, though, the results are horrific, and speak to the way those with the least opportunity often find themselves victims of the whims of an uncaring bureaucracy. Akira is stunning in part because of its abundance of style, and in part because it’s so vividly imagined that everything about it still feels relevant today.

2. Blade Runner

The original Blade Runner is infused with questions that never get totally answered. Is Deckard a replicant? What’s up with that horse anyway? What makes Blade Runner so incredible, though, is that those unanswered questions feel like part of the point. The movie, which tells the story of a man who hunts down robots who are trying to pass themselves off as human, is really about whether it’s worth trying to define what’s human and what isn’t to begin with. The world of Blade Runner is grimy and ugly, but it’s also beautiful, and 40 years later, it still feels like a triumph.

1. The Thing

John Carpenter’s The Thing is the perfect blend of horror and science fiction, and it’s also a great example of executing perfectly on a remarkably simple premise. The movie follows a group of scientists in Antarctica who discover an extraterrestrial life form that can perfectly imitate any living thing. Once they let it into their compound, the movie becomes a thrilling game of cat and mouse as they try to determine who is real and who is an imposter. Thanks to some cutting edge special effects, The Thing still holds up today as a taut thriller that will make you question and mistrust everything around you.

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About the author


Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a freelance writer based out of upstate New York who has been covering movies and TV for more than five years. Joe has been featured in The Washington Post, Paste Magazine, and The Charleston Post Courier, and has a Master's in journalism from Syracuse University