The Best Sci-fi Films From The '80s, Including The Running Man, Ranked

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man
(Image credit: Tri-Star Pictures)

One thing I love about sci-fi movies from the past is just how each decade envisioned the future. The ‘50s had a lot of flying saucers, and the ‘60s and ‘70s dialed it back a bit, featuring a lot less theremin and a bit more paranoia. It was also a very good time for Godzilla. But ‘80s sci-fi, like The Running Man, was a lot darker. There was almost an apocalyptic tone to some of the best sci-fi movies of the ‘80s, which is why I find the decade so fascinating.

Sure, there were some fun ‘80s sci-fi films, like Short Circuit, and there are even some fun ones on this list. But a lot of the best ‘80s sci-fi flicks were super grim. So, what are the best sci-fi movies from the 1980s? Hop in the DeLorean, because you’re about to find out.

Lance Guest on the left

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

13. The Last Starfighter (1984)

Directed by Nick Castle, and starring Lance Guest, Mary Stewart, and Robert Preston, The Last Starfighter is about a teenage boy (Guest) living in a trailer park who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in his life. That is, of course, until he masters an arcade game, which is actually a beacon to an alien fleet that is seeking qualified starfighters. A warring alien force threatens the galaxy, and by certain circumstances, the teenager becomes the last starfighter. Hence the title.

And it’s a fun film. The special effects are SUPER ‘80s, and the movie is a great example of what CG used to look like. The story is silly, and the alien races are ridiculous, but it has a lot of charm where it needs it. Unfortunately, in the pantheon of great sci-fi flicks of the ‘80s, it’s a little forgettable in the long-run, but it makes for a good cult film. And hey, any movie that has a plot centered around video games is A-OK with me.

Facing off in Tron

(Image credit: Buena Vista Distribution)

12. Tron (1982)

Speaking of plots centered around video games, Tron is the true OG. Directed by Steven Lisberger and starring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and Cindy Morgan, Tron is about a programmer (Bridges) who gets trapped in a video game that he needs to escape. There are awesome light cycle races and disc fights, and visually, it’s definitely one of the most iconic movies from the ‘80s.

But the story is somewhat of a mess. It’s also pretty slow for a movie that takes place inside of a video game. The sequel, Tron: Legacy, also looked pretty slick, but it was also rather slow in the plot department, so maybe that’s just a trait of the series. But again, when you think of ‘80s sci-fi, Tron will likely race straight to your mind.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

11. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

Like, most excellent, dude. Directed by Stephen Herek and starring Alex Winter, George Carlin, and Keanu Reeves, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is about two righteous high school students who time travel in a telephone booth and bring back historical figures like Napoleon and Joan of Arc in order to pass a test.

The film is a laugh riot, and Ted "Theodore” Logan (Keanu) and Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) are a blast to spend time with. The only thing is, I think it’s a bit marred by its arguably less excellent sequels, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Bill & Ted Face the Music. The original is one of those movies, like The Matrix, that probably would have been better if there weren’t any sequels, but oh, well. I’m still very much a Wyld Stallyns fan forever.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man

(Image credit: Tri-Star Pictures)

10. The Running Man (1987)

Okay, no more good times. Now for the dark stuff. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Richard Dawson, The Running Man is based off of a Stephen King story, but it’s also nothing like it. In this version, Schwarzenegger’s character is a criminal who is forced into a killer game show and must fight to the death for his freedom. But the novel version is a lot less American Gladiators meets Smash TV, like the movie is.

I love the movie since it’s really fun (Clap if you love Dynamo!), but I almost feel like it wants to be much smarter than it actually is. It feels like a commentary on something, but a commentary on what? It’s not clever like say, Dawn of the Dead with its stance on people’s consumerism. But, like I said, it’s fun and never takes itself too seriously.

The iconic bike scene in Akira

(Image credit: Tokyo Movie Shinsha)

9. Akira (1988)

What’s Akira about exactly? Honestly, it’s hard to say. I know it’s about a motorcycle gang leader named Kaneda, and his friend, Tetsuo (Or rather, TETSUUUOOO!) who becomes telekinetic before transforming into a massive, pulsing, disgusting monster, but what’s it about outside of that? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

That said, Akira is one of those rare films that just invades your psyche the moment you watch it. As far as apocalyptic worlds go, it’s harder to find one bleaker than the one found in Neo-Tokyo. There’s definitely a sort of Godzilla, atomic-era message behind it, but it’s more the kind of movie that you just watch rather than comprehend, which is fine, but I’m sure the actual manga probably made a lot more sense. Hollywood is thinking of making it again, which they shouldn’t, but you know. Hollywood.

Roddy Piper in They Live

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

8. They Live (1988)

Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster, and directed by the best John of the ‘80s (Carpenter. Not Hughes), They Live is probably the most prescient movie on this list. It’s about a drifter (Piper) who finds these sunglasses that allows him to see that the 1% are actually aliens. He also sees that the media and marketing all over town is subliminally telling us to constantly “consume” and “obey.” It’s not subtle, and yet, it is. It’s perfect!

Well, okay, maybe not perfect. I love the global warming subplot, but the third act gets a little sloppy compared to the first two acts. And as much as I love the ridiculous alley fight, I tend to fast forward through it in repeat viewings. But otherwise, it’s an excellent, often overlooked movie from the ‘80s. I get to wear the sunglasses!

Alan Silvestri composed the score for Back to the Future, a film Robert Zemeckis directed.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

7. Back To The Future (1985)

Great Scott! How could I not put Back to the Future on this list? Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Crispin Glover, Back to the Future is about a cool teen (Fox) who goes back in time and has to make sure his parents hook up so that he can be born. Too bad his mom has the hots for him.

Back to the Future became a mega hit for a reason. The first one is the best of the trilogy (Though I have a soft spot for Part III), but like Bill & Ted, it’s kind of hard to think of it apart from its lesser sequels. It’s not the best sci-fi film of the ‘80s, but it’s definitely the most fun.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

6. Blade Runner (1982)

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young, Blade Runner is about a detective of sorts (Harrison) who hunts replicants, which are basically androids, but the detective might be a replicant himself, depending on which cut you watch.

I’ll be straight with you.  Blade Runner isn't my favorite movie since I find it kind of slow, but it's hard not to marvel at its audacious scope, and its stellar acting, most notably from Rutger "like tears in the rain" Hauer. But even though it's incredibly cerebral and it seems like my kind of movie, I still prefer the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and even the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. But honestly, you can't go wrong with Blade Runner. 

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

5. Aliens (1986)

Directed by James Cameron and starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Bill Paxton, I think Aliens is better than 1979’s Alien. There, I said it. Aliens finds Ripley (Weaver) connecting with a little girl and protecting her from a horde of aliens and their queen. Get away from her, YOU BITCH!

Cameron is a master at action, and that’s why Aliens feels so much more visceral and exciting than Alien in my opinion. It’s a war picture rather than a horror movie, which is what makes it work. We’re getting to the best of the best now!

Peter Weller as RoboCop

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

4. RoboCop (1987)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, and Kurtwood Smith, RoboCop is about a mutilated cop (Weller) brought back to life by a greedy corporation and made into a cyborg. The cop is more machine than man, but he’s learning. And remembering.

RoboCop works because it’s the perfect balance of action and satire. It’s morbidly funny at times, and just plain funny at others. But it’s always cool. That’s why RoboCop is awesome. Even in 2022. It sucks that we never got a RoboCop vs. Terminator movie. That would have ruled.

Kurt Russell in The Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

3. The Thing (1982)

Directed by John Carpenter (Again!) and starring Kurt Russell and Keith David, The Thing is about an alien that takes in hosts and replicates itself so that nobody can tell who is who, or what is what. Paranoia (And tension!) ensue.

The Thing is one of the greatest remakes of all time and is as much a horror movie as it is a sci-fi flick. You never feel comfortable watching the movie, and you’re always wondering, even to the very end, who or what might be The Thing. There were more than a few great alien movies in the ‘80s, but The Thing is the absolute best.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original Terminator in 1984

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

2. The Terminator (1984)

Directed by James Cameron (Again!) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn, The Terminator is about a killer robot sent from the future to kill the mother of the potential savior. It was part one of a series because, you know, “I’ll be back.”

The Thing and The Terminator were really the two films I thought about when I mentioned paranoia in the intro. Many will argue that T2 is the better movie, but I stand behind the original, which is more terrifying than an action movie. It made an imprint on sci-fi that still resonates today, and it feels way before its time. I’d call it the best sci-fi movie of the ‘80s, except for one other film.

R2D2, C3PO, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back

(Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

1. Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner and starring Luke Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, the middle film in the original Star Wars trilogy is often considered the best movie in the entire saga. That’s because it has probably the most iconic moments in the series—Luke training with Yoda, Han trapped in carbonite, the battle on Hoth, and of course, Luke getting his hand cut off by his own father. Honestly, what else could have topped this list?

And yes, I know, Star Wars isn’t even technically entirely sci-fi. It’s more space opera. Still, no other film on this list has had a bigger legacy than The Empire Strikes Back, so Episode V it is. The force always prevails.

I know what you’re thinking. Where’s E.T.? Where’s The Fly? And you’re right. They’re not here. But that just shows how good the ‘80s were for sci-fi. For news on some of the other best ‘80s movies, or just sci-fi in general, make sure to swing by here often.

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.