Look at the sci-fi films of years gone by, and among all the shiny rocketships and teleporters, there's one thing that they didn't predict: streaming movies at the touch of a button.
Fortunately, we live in Space Year 2014, where we have such things as Netflix; no longer are we bound by the tyranny of the DVD shelf. But with so many films available on the service, how do you whittle them down? We've picked out the best sci-fi on Netflix, from mind-bending time travel flicks to big-budget action.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Following the box-office success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg used his Hollywood influence to make his passion project – a sci-fi fable in which a blue-collar worker finds his life turned upside down by an encounter with extraterrestrial beings.
It's perhaps the defining Spielberg film; a story about a down-to-Earth family whose relationship is strained by the arrival of something otherworldly. The early sequences in which Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary first encounters the aliens are shot through with the impending threat that characterised Jaws – giving way to a finale which displays the same sense of childlike wonder as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.
Cowboys & Aliens
This adventure film commits wholeheartedly to its outlandish premise, treating it with far more seriousness than it deserves: there are cowboys, and there are aliens. Deal with it.
Winks to the camera are kept to a minimum; when alien invaders attack a frontier settlement with vastly superior weapons, there's a very real sense of threat. Harrison Ford turns in his most heartfelt performance in years as acerbic Colonel Dolarhyde, while a steely-eyed Daniel Craig riffs on Clint Eastwood as a Man with No Name – and no past.
Like Super 8 – also released in 2011 and produced by Steven Spielberg – it's an homage to Spielberg's early work. Where Super 8 paid tribute to the family dynamic of Jaws and Close Encounters, Cowboys & Aliens director Jon Favreau riffs on the rip-roaring adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The early scenes building up to the eventual reveal of the aliens, are a highlight – recalling the menace of Jaws.
Rather unfairly overlooked on its release, Cowboys & Aliens is overdue for a reappraisal.
When Starship Troopers first hit cinemas, audiences and critics alike were baffled. It was directed by the man behind Showgirls. It featured a cast of vapidly pretty, chiseled pin-ups drawn from soaps and B-movies. And its take on its source material – a gung-ho war novel by Robert Heinlein – seemed to glorify militarism and fascism.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the opposite is true; Starship Troopers is a scathing anti-war polemic that uses the language of propaganda to undermine the message of its source material. Verhoeven's childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland had given him a keen sense of the dangers of unchecked militarism, and he'd honed his satirical edge on 1987's Robocop.
The result is an action film with brains – one that leaves you questioning how wars are sold to the public.
The War of the Worlds
No, not the Tom Cruise version – though that's also available on Netflix. This is the 1950s film, which relocates the action of HG Wells' novel from Victorian England to Southern California. The effects have dated a little – tellingly, it makes no attempt to recreate Wells' alien tripods, with the Martians instead jetting about in what look like oversized desk lamps.
Despite that, there's a visceral quality to the action, as the armies of the world are beaten back by the invaders; not surprising, considering that the Second World War was still fresh in the minds of the film-makers and the audience.
Even the departures from the novel make sense; in the atomic age, the USA occupied the dominating position that Britain had when Wells' novel was published, so shifting to a contemporary American setting recreates the impact that the novel had on audiences reading it for the first time.
Joss Whedon's sequel to his shortlived scifi series Firefly had a thankless task; winning over new viewers while keeping the fans happy – and wrapping up seven seasons' worth of plotlines in two hours. And Whedon pulls it off, pretty much: Serenity appeals to newbies almost as seasoned Firefly veterans.
Its scuzzy, lived-in scifi world where good and bad is far from cut-and-dried is more believable and more appealing than the clean, black-and-white settings more common to space operas, there’s action aplenty, and its cast of flawed characters makes for an enjoyable emotional ride. But it couldn’t serve to satiate Firefly fans, of course, leading to frequent calls for the series to be brought back, Arrested Development-style, for a true final season. If anyone's going to do it, it's Netflix.Sam Kieldsen
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