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10 best sci-fi movies of the 1980s, ranked

The 1980s was a pretty stellar time for cinema, and this is especially true for science-fiction films. Some of the most iconic movie franchises of all time were born from the sci-fi hits released in that decade.

From wild, action-packed adventures to frightening cosmic horror to profound philosophical studies, the genre of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein made fantastic cinematic strides that ignited audiences’ imaginations. Since TV and film continue to invoke people’s nostalgia for this bygone era, it’s only fair to take a look at the sci-fi films that made the ’80s a special time for countless people.

10. RoboCop (1987)

Orion / Orion Pictures

After police officer Alex Murphy is brutally murdered, he is brought back to life as a cyborg programmed to defend the people of Detroit. But despite the film’s gratuitous violence and other over-the-top moments, it is still a touching story about RoboCop remembering his past and rediscovering his humanity.

It is also a gripping political satire of corporate greed and its corruption of society, specifically targeting Reagan-era economics, that remains timely almost four decades later.

9. Akira (1988)

Kaneda drifting on his bike in Akira.
Toho

This masterpiece of sci-fi helped bring the anime industry greater attention outside of Japan and make audiences take animation seriously. That one shot of Kaneda sliding on his bike during the opening chase is iconic in itself, as it has been referenced countless times across different media.

But combined with its mature and inventive narrative, Akira‘s vibrant and detailed world became a benchmark in visual storytelling that inspired numerous films in both live-action and animation.

8. The Terminator (1984)

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.
Orion Pictures

In the movie that started it all, James Cameron’s breakout hit follows the titular robot when it is sent back in time to assassinate the woman whose son will defeat Skynet in the post-apocalyptic future. The relentless and unyielding T-800 etched itself into the minds of audiences everywhere, both embodying people’s fears of AI turning against humanity and making Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name.

Some of the film’s practical effects may not hold up today, but The Terminator is still a well-crafted film that goes above and beyond to create a thrilling and explosive spectacle for the ages.

7. The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell stars in John Carpenter's The Thing.
Universal

John Carpenter’s summer sci-fi masterpiece The Thing may have bombed upon release due to its bleak and grotesque content, but it still went on to become one of the most beloved and influential sci-fi horror films ever made. When a shapeshifting alien appears in an Antarctic research base, the team inside becomes consumed with terror and mistrust as they realize any one of them could be the creature in disguise.

Capturing Cold War-era paranoia, this film is a chilling and claustrophobic nightmare that exposes humanity’s most destructive fears through the titular alien. Even today, the effects used to bring the monster to life remains frighteningly realistic, and many fans continue to debate the film’s ambiguous ending.

6. Back to the Future (1985)

Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.
Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures

Though many modern movies invoke people’s longing for the ’80s, Robert Zemeckis’s time-traveling classic is very much the original nostalgia film. Everyone knows the story of Marty McFly and how he drove back to 1955 with the DeLorean time machine made by Doc Brown.

This makes for a hilarious and remarkable adventure as Marty tries to get back home and make sure his parents end up with each other to ensure his own birth. With its unique concept, quotable lines, and many unforgettable moments, Back to the Future has made such an enduring impact on popular culture that it remains a timeless classic.

5. Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Weaver in a scene from Aliens.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While Ridley Scott’s Alien revolutionized sci-fi and horror in 1979, James Cameron’s sequel (one of the best ever made) took the franchise to a whole new level by pitting Ripley and her team of Marines against an entire alien colony.

In a conflict reminiscent of Vietnam, this frightening and action-packed film engages in an all-out war on the senses as the heroes face wave after wave of Xenomorphs, sending the audience on a roller coaster of cosmic terror. It also elevated Ellen Ripley to an even higher status as an action hero as she arms herself with her rifle and giant mech suit to defeat the Xenomorphs and their queen to protect Newt.

4. Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?” The theme song to this film alone made it a pop culture icon. The brainchild of director Ivan Reitman and writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters broke new ground back in 1984 by blending comedy with action, science-fiction, horror, and frighteningly pricey visual effects into one paranormal extravaganza.

This movie is so filled to the brim with memorable catchphrases and iconic moments that its widespread appeal hasn’t died down. It just goes to show that you can always bet on the Ghostbusters (the less said about the 2016 reboot, the better).

3. Blade Runner (1982)

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner.
Warner Bros.

While the theatrical cut of this film is considered inferior, it still garnered a big enough fanbase for the studio to release two more alternate cuts that were much better received.

Integrating noir film tropes with religious imagery and philosophical musings, Blade Runner is a unique and riveting exploration of what it means to be human, and it has since become one of the most influential sci-fi movies in history. Also, a dystopian future has never looked so beautiful before Blade Runner and its dazzling visual effects.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Elliot stands next to his alien friend in E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Director Steven Spielberg made the whole world believe in the magic of cinema with his and writer Melissa Mathison’s wondrous sci-fi adventure. Elliot and the little E.T. warmed the hearts of countless audiences, young and old, as they forged an eternal friendship and worked together to bring the latter home to his family.

Basically, the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan, E.T. is an endearing depiction of a lonely child learning how to grow up and support his family as he escapes into an extraordinary world with his friend from the stars. Such an incredible adventure made this classic the highest-grossing film of all time, usurping the title from Star Wars, and it continues to move audiences to this day.

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Following the stratospheric success of the original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back had a lot to live up to at the turn of the decade. While the sequel was controversial upon release for its dark tone and shocking plot twists, this film helped the franchise evolve into something more than just a fun and lighthearted blockbuster.

With Han Solo being frozen in carbonite, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and the heroes ultimately losing this battle against the Empire, this sequel redefined Star Wars and helped set the template for many blockbuster trilogies that succeeded it.

Anthony Orlando
Anthony Orlando is a writer/director from Oradell, NJ. He spent four years at Lafayette College, graduating CUM LAUDE with a…
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