HBO Max has a surprisingly deep library of science fiction movies, from the entire Alien series to trippy French animation to weird Disney superheroes and from the pre-Marvel era. It’s almost too much to handle. So if you’re struggling to pick a movie to watch, here are our favorite sci-fi movies for every type of science fiction fan, selected by the entire Inverse entertainment team.
Read on for the full list of the 20 best sci-fi movies on HBO Max, presented below in no particular order.
20. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In the ‘70s, John Lennon claimed he watched 2001, “Every week.” If you need a better endorsement for watching an art-house sci-fi movie, good luck finding one. In some ways, 2001 is the kind of science fiction film made for film nerds who don’t like sci-fi. That trippy stargate scene (embedded above) speaks for itself.
On the other hand, it’s a movie that exists in its own sub-genre. Name another film like 2001 that is also as good as 2001. Even Stanley Kubrick’s other movies feel distant from this. It’s one-of-a-kind for a reason. — Ryan Britt
19. Fantastic Planet (1973)
If you’ve never seen a movie by René Laloux you’re missing out, and Fantastic Planet is the perfect place to start. The French animator and director achieved cult status in the ‘70s and ‘80s for a trilogy of trippy sci-fi movies that grapple with heady concepts like time travel and humanity’s tenuous spot at the top of the food chain.
In Fantastic Planet, a race of alien blue giants capture humans and keep them as pets until one human acquires the aliens’ knowledge and leads a rebellion. It’s a surprisingly serene story, enhanced by surrealistic animation and an equally trippy musical score. — Jake Kleinman
18. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Pop culture had a field day with the atomic age, and nowhere is that more true than in Japan. The fourth installment of the world’s longest-running movie franchise, Mothra vs Godzilla is a great starting point for kaiju newcomers, with a snappy pace, arguably the best-ever Godzilla design (those eyebrows!), and two delightfully over-the-top setpiece battles.
Mothra vs Godzilla is also the last of the Showa-era (1926-1989) movies to depict Godzilla purely as a villain hell-bent on stomping cities to dust and blasting everything in his path with his atomic breath. In the later movies, he evolves into more of a friendly anti-hero. (He still likes to stomp on cities, though.) — Jen Glennon
17. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzila (1974)
Like an anime arc where the protagonist confronts their evil double, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is classic monster movie candy through and through. When space aliens (who are gorillas, for some reason?) come to Earth with a rampaging Godzilla-like robot, it’s up to Godzilla and his pals Anguirius and King Caesar to assemble like the Avengers and crush some metal.
You’re getting exactly what you think a title like “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla” implies. It’s a bunch of giant monsters wrestling with hokey science fiction — we’re talking aliens from a Halloween costume store levels of hokey. While the Godzilla franchise is rooted in smart political commentary and serves as a nightmarish manifestation of nuclear warfare, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is the movie academics refuse to bring up. — Eric Francisco
16. Gremlins (1984)
You probably know the jist of Chris Columbus’s oft-parodied ‘80s horror-comedy, even if you haven’t seen it. A dad visits a Chinatown curio shop looking for a gift for his son and purchases a seemingly adorable little fuzzball known as a mogwai. (Fun fact: that’s Cantonese for “devil”). There are three rules to mogwai ownership: don’t expose it to light or water, and don’t feed it after midnight. A few oopsies later, and a horde of the little buggers are wreaking havoc all over Anytown, U.S.A.
Gremlins is legitimately funnier than all the chittering puppets would lead you to assume. It’s also a bit gorier than you’d expect — along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it prompted the MPAA to develop the PG-13 rating in response to the outcry from dismayed parents. — Jen Glennon
15. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
If Gremlins is a classic convertible (lean, fast, and perfect) then Gremlins 2 is that car Homer designed in The Simpsons, and I mean that in the best way possible. Gremlins 2 takes every movie trope and gag and throws them into a blender. Gremlins 2 absolutely refuses to take itself seriously (that Key & Peele sketch is shockingly accurate). Gremlins 2 is an absolute masterpiece.
Set in a “high-tech” skyscraper in New York, Gremlins 2 casually acknowledges the original before sprinting off in 10 directions at once. Christopher Lee as an evil scientist? Check. A hodge-podge of themed gremlins including one that flies and another that talks and wears glasses? Check! A musical number right at the climax of the film that barely makes sense? Check!!
I could go on, but seriously, just watch Gremlins 2. Even if you’ve seen it before, you probably forgot more than half of the wacky stuff this movie contains. — Jake Kleinman
14. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)
FAQ About Time Travel is dedicated entirely to the complex mechanics of time travel as it’s shown in Hollywood movies. Three British men unwind in a pub until one of them stumbles on a time machine in the men’s restroom. What follows is an endless journey through the pub’s existence, from a half-hour in the past to a post-apocalyptic world where they discover they’ve become famous for some unknown reason.
Starring Chris O’Dowd, Anna Farris, and up-and-coming character actor Mark Wootton, this movie has that low-budget feel but doesn’t let that limit itself. Instead, FAQ About Time Travel uses its own restraints to lampshade the cheesiness of time travel stories at large. It’s well worth the watch, if only to figure out how exactly all the time travel works. — Dais Johnston
13. Alien: Director’s Cut (1979)
The triumph of Alien isn’t that it makes any sense (seriously, how is this a remotely realistic way for a lifeform to reproduce?). Instead, it’s a triumph of aesthetics. It’s like Ridley Scott and Dan O’bannon saw the lived-in style of the spaceships in Star Wars, and wondered, “How can we make this way dirtier?” The vision of Alien is timeless, and testament to Ridley Scott’s artistic eye. And yet, the Director’s Cut of Alien is actually slightly misnamed.
Unlike Scott’s “director’s cut” of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, this version of Alien isn’t necessarily the definitive one, but instead, as Ridley Scott once said “a completely different beast.” For the casual fan who has never seen Alien, or hasn’t’ seen it in awhile, this won’t matter. This is the same movie. But, for the hardcore fan, this is actually an alternate version of Alien. It’s not longer. It’s actually shorter. Some scenes are missing. Others added. Essentially, it’s a bizarro universe of Alien, which makes it worth watching for that fact alone. — Ryan Britt
12. Aliens (1986)
Game over man! In a rare sequel that neither eclipses the original or messes it up, Aliens remains the one of the only successful examples of altering a sci-fi premise so much that it almost becomes a standalone film.
Aliens also changed the subgenre or the Alien series. The first is clearly a horror movie, but James Cameron turned the second into an action movie. Rewatching Aliens now will remind you how great Cameron was in the ‘80s, but also make you wonder what subsequent sequels could have looked like if Cameron, and not Ridley Scott, returned to this universe. — Ryan Britt
11. Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 is nobody’s favorite move in the Alien series, and that probably has something to do with the fact that we can’t decide if the movie is really called Alien Cubed (it was stylized as ALIEN³ when it was released).
The best way to enjoy Alien 3 is to pretend it takes place in an alternate universe from all the other films. It’s easily the darkest of all the Alien movies, which is pretty shocking when you consider how dark and violent these movies are. In 1992, Alien 3, generated so much controversy that Starlog Magazine actually ran a cover story called “Why readers DESPISED Alien 3.” Let’s get real, a movie that generates that much outrage is 100 percent worth your time. Plus, it’s a fascinating moment for the franchise, when it’s very clear that, on some level, this movie is saying: “Yeah, these aliens are pretty much going to win.” — Ryan Britt
10. Alien Resurrection (1997)
As everyone gets ready to debate the merits of Justice League minus the influences of Joss Wheadon, now is a great time to reassess the best Joss Whedon screenplay of all time. If you forget that this movie is part of the Alien franchise, everything about it becomes 100 times better. Admittedly, that’s hard since Sigourney Weaver is playing a clone of Ellen Ripley and the xenomorphs are front-and-center, but still. Alien: Resurrection is a movie that features a no-look basketball shot from Sigourney Weaver that wasn’t even faked. How can it be bad? — Ryan Britt
9. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
In terms of movie/musical adaptations, the holy grail is the movie-to-musical-to-movie adaptation, like The Producers or Hairspray. These are stories that started as cult hit movies, had songs added for a stint on Broadway, and were then adapted back to the silver screen. The first of these, and probably the most famous, is Little Shop of Horrors.
Based on a 1960 B-movie, Little Shop uses songs and the over-the-top language of theatre, including some truly masterful puppet work, to create an unforgettable alien invasion story. With songs by Disney genius Alan Menken and a cast including Canadian treasure Rick Moranis and a devious Steve Martin, it’s a campy romp that’ll somehow make you nostalgic for the ‘50s with one of the most shocking endings in all of musical movie history. — Dais Johnston
8. Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)
If you’ve somehow never seen Blade Runner, the great thing about watching Ridley Scott’s Final Cut is that it really is the only version of the film you need to see. It’s easy to defend the voiceover version, or to say it doesn’t really matter which version you see, but the fact is, there’s something about The Final Cut that makes Blade Runner feel timeless in a way the other versions don’t.
The lack of propulsive voiceover should make The Final Cut feel slower than the theatrical release, but it doesn’t. This is the fastest and tightest version of Blade Runner yet. — Ryan Britt
7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
There’s no shortage of Batman movies on HBO Max, but the best of the bunch doesn’t star Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, or any other A-list Hollywood actor. Instead, Mask of the Phantasm features voice actor Kevin Conroy reprising his role from the beloved Animated Series, along with Mark Hamill as arguably the best Joker performance in Hollywood history.
Released in 1993 to capitalize on the success of Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm wasn’t much of a hit in movie theaters, but it went on to achieve cult status. Since then, this art deco-style 77-minute cartoon has been available on home video, the DC Universe app, and finally, on HBO Max. — Jake Kleinman
6. War of the Worlds (2005)
Normally, remakes of old-school sci-fi classics don’t go so well. Nobody thinks the Keanu Reeves 2008 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still is better than the 1951 classic, and the same goes for Tim Burton’s 2011 version of Planet of the Apes. But there are exceptions.
The Tom Cruise-starring, Steven Spielberg-directed 2005 War of the Worlds is way better than the 1953 original. The 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds may have tricked people into thinking aliens were real, but the original movie was lacking any real tension. The 2005 War of the Worlds fixes that problem, and then some. Cruise is at his most likable here, and in terms of a flawless fast-paced alien invasion movie, you can’t do much better. — Ryan Britt
5. Yesterday (2019)
Ugly truths about its allegedly stolen idea aside, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday got a bizarrely bad rap when it premiered over a year ago. Recent reckoning over just how “important” The Beatles actually are to pop music (hot take: they are) coupled with people’s inexplicable intolerance for rom-com sentimentality made Yesterday a lightning rod for snark.
Don’t listen to the snark: Yesterday rules. Breakout star Himesh Patel as a failed musician who wakes up in a crazy world where the Beatles never made music doesn’t just lead this sci-fi rom-com but carries the whole damn thing with rockstar pipes in modernized “covers” of the Beatles’ greatest hits. Like Shakespeare in Love in reverse, Yesterday is a gleeful tour of Beatlemania with the twist of it taking place in a contemporary world where art is immediately mired in commercialism — a world that the Beatles were largely responsible for creating. — Eric Francisco
4. Solaris (1972)
“Let’s make our space station look like a broken-down old bust and not like some futuristic space utopia.” That’s what Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky told his art director, throwing shade at Stanley Kubrick in the process, during the making of his 1972 picture Solaris. Perhaps the only science fiction movie ever made as a response to another person’s work, as if filmmaking is one big rap battle, Tarkovsky’s film follows a space station whose mission has stalled because its crew of three scientists are all in the midst of an emotional breakdown. When a psychologist travels to the station, they soon fall victim to the same crisis plaguing the others.
For those used to American sci-fi’s portrayal space as something either hopeful or terrifying, a science fiction movie from the Soviets — who unequivocally “lost” the Space Race — may present something far more nuanced, thoughtful, and sad than what the west often thinks of the final frontier. — Eric Francisco
3. Armageddon (1998)
Drills, but in space. This is basically the premise of Armageddon, a sci-fi disaster movie starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck as oil drillers who accept a space mission to detonate a nuclear bomb inside an asteroid before it makes impact with Earth.
Director Michael Bay is well-known for his loud and proud action flicks, though Armageddon arguably has a bit more heart than a lot of the films he made after this. Willis, Affleck and the rest of the drilling team are memorable heroes often at odds with the government’s way of doing things. While the film’s plot is ridiculous, Armageddon is occasionally filled with thoughtful moments that rise above its blatant theatrics. — Mae Abdulbaki
2. Sky High (2005)
There was a time when Disney wasn’t at the forefront of the superhero movie genre. In fact, back in 2005, Disney’s big push into superheroic moviemaking was Sky High, a teen-focused coming of age comedy that parodies countless comic book tropes. Sky High follows Will Stronghold, the son of two superheroes, as he starts high school at the eponymous superhero academy Sky High.
While director Mike Mitchell’s initial plan to make the film a trilogy was thoroughly squashed when Disney bought Marvel, Sky High stands perfectly well on its own due to a fantastic cast, boasting names like Kurt Russell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jim Rash, and even an appearance by a teenage Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg in HBO’s Succession). Sky High’s other strength is its writing: balancing comic book stakes and danger with levity, heart, and lots of puns: Will’s enemy at school is named Warren Peace, truly one of the best character names of the 21st century. — Dais Johnston
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
There’s a good reason The Wizard of Oz is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Based on L. Frank Baum’s novel, the 1939 musical follows the story of Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale as she travels somewhere over the rainbow to the fantastical land of Oz.
Almost a century later, The Wizard of Oz holds up incredibly well. The film is full of wonder, spectacular visuals, memorable musical numbers, and it explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in the face of power and fear. All of the characters seem to be missing something — brains, a heart, courage, or a home — and believe they’ll only be whole once they acquire that thing. What the film teaches is that, regardless of their perceived flaws, they’re all worthy. —Mae Abdulbaki