Need to escape the realities of this chaotic planet? We can’t promise every film on the list will transport you to a faraway galaxy (nor guarantee some of them won’t bum you out), but nevertheless there’s plenty of sci-fi awesomeness to watch on Netflix. Tony Stamp is here with his 20 best.
UPDATED APRIL 6
My colleague Katie had this in her top horror on Netflix list, and it’s a credit to the film that it sits comfortably in either category. Alex Garland is an expert at mixing genre elements with heavier subtext, and his direction, along with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s claustrophobic score, set the stage for the movie’s phantasmagorical final reel. It’s here that Annihilation becomes truly great, conjuring up that weird feeling that you’re witnessing something you shouldn’t be. Appropriately apocalyptic for a movie about humanity’s urge to self-destruct, right down to the molecular level.
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Denis Villeneuve’s first dalliance with science fiction (followed by Blade Runner 2049 and Dune) is an elegant thriller more concerned with ideas than action. Based on a novella by Ted Chiang it presents an alien race as something truly… well, alien, and asks how humanity would actually approach the problem of communicating with them. From here, its scope spirals out to something even grander, bolstered by moving performances from Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
Back to the Future 1 & 2
Robert Zemeckis’ original entry from 1984 frequently pops up on Best Movie Ever type lists, and with good reason. It’s the platonic ideal of a Hollywood Blockbuster, a model of setup and payoff, just supremely satisfying. As a kid, I always felt like Part 2 was the clearly superior film—more time travel! The future! Alternate timelines! Its reputation hasn’t stood the test of time like its predecessor, but hey, hoverboards!
A followup to 2010’s Skyline, this one came out seven years later and embraced a blissfully straightforward beat ’em up approach. Reliable franchise-improver Frank Grillo (see also: The Purge series) kicks his way through ample alien ass, eventually aided by none other than The Raid’s Iko Uwais. Features plenty of practical bug men and digital slime, all laying the groundwork for the presumably even-more-bonkers third entry: Skylin3s.
Of all the films here, this one looms largest. Ridley Scott’s 1982 behemoth set the template for dystopian sci-fi for decades to come, and still feels fresh nearly forty years on. Netflix has the director’s Final Cut, which ditches the voiceover and happy ending (good), and gives a semi-definitive answer as to whether Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is a replicant or not (hmm). If you’re anything like me (a nerd), so many moments are permanently etched in your brain, like, the opposite of tears in rain.
Villeneuve took on the legacy of Blade Runner some 35 years after its release, with considerable help from original helmer Ridley Scott. The result feels as vast as its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles, threading new ideas through a compelling mystery, punctuated with bouts of action and crammed with superb design and effects work. It may not be a particularly optimistic vision of the future, but there is plenty of humanity here, just not always provided by actual humans.
Neill Blomkamp’s alien apartheid metaphor seemed to come out of nowhere on its release, a blast of punk sci-fi with great special effects that wasn’t afraid to get nasty. The moment about a third through when we start to spend time with the alien Christopher Johnson and his son is where the film comes into focus, revealing the alien bugs to have personalities and inner lives of their own.
Sure, Paul W.S. Anderson’s career is a bit patchy (sheepish fan of the Resident Evil series over here), but I think we can all agree that this is one of his best. Starting off as a kind of space chiller in the Alien mode, it eventually descends into hell… literally. Sam Neil and Lawrence Fishburne dial up their respective freakouts to fit the galactic canvas.
The lone superhero entry on this list (and according to Netflix they definitely count as sci-fi), Ang Lee’s misunderstood 2003 genre mashup has aged like a fine wine, one of the most distinctive entries in a crowded genre. Equally silly and sombre, you have super-science, monster poodles, Hulk smashing tanks, and Nick Nolte (who famously has no memory of filming this, and, uh, it shows) literally becoming electricity. It rules.
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Director Jim Mickle is always great (check out Cold In July if you like crime movies), and here he gets to play with a pretty far-out story, which starts as the search for a serial killer then becomes… something else.
Nolan’s big dreamscape heist sports whoppingly grand cinematography, heady concepts, and old Hans Zimmer doing his damnedest to make you feel all the feelings. It lays down some serious groundwork early on then trusts you to follow the kaleidoscopic, Russian-Doll style antics that unfold during its last third; a masterclass in editing, even by Nolan’s standards, and an excuse for him to tee up one Bond-style caper after another, to dizzying effect.
A nicely stacked cast (Gyllenhaal! Reynolds! Ferguson! Sanada!) go up against an unknown, rapidly-evolving life form in this tight little Alien riff. It’s a mostly straightforward space-survival tale that’s crackingly paced, with some entertainingly unpleasant surprises up its sleeve, and a surprisingly high FX budget for something this nasty.
I still remember where I was the first time I saw The Matrix. Twenty years on its legacy is firmly established, not just for the way it introduced a whole new cinematic language, or nudged some thorny philosophical ideas into the mainstream consciousness, or even for cementing Keanu Reeves’ superstar persona. Beyond all that it’s just a great, perfectly-paced story that channels film noir, sci-fi and superheroes. A tale of raging against the machine in the face of insurmountable odds, and coming out on top.
The only sci-fi installment in the Miyazaki canon, a story about post-apocalyptic future overrun with giant bugs and steam-punk technology that was adapted from the director’s own manga, which he worked on for over a decade. There’s more death and blood than your average Ghibli film, and its vision of the future is a pessimistic one, with Miyazaki’s environmental concerns taking pride of place. He’s never made a film that’s less than great, and this is one of his best.
A small, character-focused thriller that just happens to be set on an alien planet, this gave Pedro Pascal a moment in the spotlight (always a good thing), as a roguish space-prospector. Creates some really tense scenarios, mining drama from the most reliable source: people in desperate situations trying to survive.
Before he won Best Picture at the Oscars and became everyone’s favourite gif-daddy, Bong Joon-Ho made an English language movie about a climate-change-wrecked earth and a very big train that housed all of humanity. If that sounds silly, it’s because it is. It’s also top-tier filmmaking that’s eminently watchable, and features bonkers stuff like Captain America talking about e*ting b*bies.
Korea’s first space blockbuster takes place in 2092, following a group of lovably roguish scavengers as they gather debris floating in Earth’s orbit. The planet is basically a brown husk, so wouldn’t you know it, the wealthy have created themselves plush new homes offworld. It’s a familiar setup (with a whiff of the Guardians of The Galaxy to our heroes), but with plenty of imagination on offer, including jaded warrior robots, hydrogen bombs enclosed in small (artificial) children, and all sorts of vehicular space carnage.
A never-better Bruce Willis faces down his greatest enemy, the inexorable march of time, in Terry Gilliam’s twisty, thoroughly soulful time travel caper. Madeleine Stowe and a young, never -twitchier Brad Pitt provide support, but the real star is Gilliam’s usual juggling of chaos and narrative, letting his big ideas drive the story rather than envelop it.
The sixth and final entry in the series, and—hear me out—clearly the best. Director Peter Hyams (son of another purveyor of sturdy genre thrills, John Hyams) uses the idea of cloned soldiers to unleash an ungodly amount of ass-whooping onto the screen, with appearances from Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and a supremely unhinged Scott Adkins in the lead, laying waste to everything in his path.
Spielberg’s adaptation of the H.G Wells classic is, aside from anything else, bloody terrifying, presenting a ground-level view of an alien invasion where we’re hopelessly outgunned. The superb effects are to be expected, but it still rattles how dark the director is willing to get, with the perpetually-running Tom Cruise a suitably panicked avatar for humanity. It does deflate slightly near the end, but for the majority of its runtime it’s one of the greats.