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 SEPTEMBER 10
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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A recent discovery thanks to Netflix, this French cartoon aimed at young adults is an absolute ripper. We’re dabbling in steampunk here, and I know the negative connotations that term has, but bear with me. After a rather bleak setup involving the destruction of most of the world’s trees, we head off on a charming adventure with a girl and her talking cat. Ten-year-old me would have loved it.
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!
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.
This one is a low budget brain-bender involving a dinner party and a comet that’s passing earth. Pay close attention to the dialogue—this one doesn’t hold your hand. That it gets increasingly, kaleidoscopically complicated is part of the fun, if you can keep up.
Seeing this one get reassessed every few years and remain in the pop culture lexicon has been a real joy. Sylvester Stallone plays an action hero type who’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in a comedic future, followed by his nemesis, an unhinged Wesley Snipes playing the awesomely-named Simon Phoenix. It’s massively entertaining, satirising action flicks while being a great one itself.
Plus: The three seashells.
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.
Christopher Nolan had dabbled with sci-fi elements in Inception (and all that gadgetry in the Dark Knight trilogy if we’re being honest), but Interstellar was a big swing for the fences, with a dollop of inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001 and a script written by Nolan bro Jonathan for none other than Steven Spielberg (Chris re-wrote it, notably adding all the tesseract/dusty bookshelf stuff). As it stands, this is an epic, old-fashioned-in-the-best-way space adventure, with an awe-inspiring sense of scale (one technique used was strapping an IMAX camera to the side of an actual rocket), and fun stuff like cartwheeling robots, the wave planet, and the brain-melting finale.
A certified modern classic, Brad Bird launched his feature film career by adapting Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s book, retaining its time period and honing in on its themes, mainly humankind’s predilection for conflict. It’s a gorgeously animated feelgood story about a boy and his robot, voiced to gravelly perfection by a certain Mr. Diesel.
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.
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.
The Mexican master of the macabre (Guillermo Del Toro) turned out to be a fan of the very Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) genre, not to mention the idea of mecha. The fights are just wonderful to look at, and as has been said many times before, he knows how to make these things *feel* MASSIVE.
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.
Another one that popped up in the sci-fi category unexpectedly, but I’ll take it! Boots Riley’s absurdist anti-capitalism comedy starts wild, and ends up somewhere reeeeeally wild, but to say where exactly would spoil the fun (its inclusion here is a tiny hint but trust me, you won’t see this coming).
The one film I watched especially for this article, and a renowned stinker. Look I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s an unsung masterpiece, but it is charming, in an embarrassing sort of way. Man, Dennis Hopper was really going for it, huh? With a design that owes quite a bit to George Miller’s Mad Max films, it set a new record for film budgets ($172 million), and every penny is up on screen.
My favourite Edgar Wright/Pegg/Frost team up. Shaun of The Dead and Hot Fuzz are great, but by this stage all concerned had really honed their abilities, resulting in a science fiction tale that’s funny, touching, and sports nicely choreographed kung fu fights against robots with blue blood.