Look at the sci-fi of years gone by, and among all the shiny rocketships and teleporters, there's one thing that they didn't predict: streaming video at the touch of a button.
Fortunately, we live in Space Year 2018, where we have such things as Netflix; no longer are we bound by the tyranny of the DVD shelf. But with so many films and TV shows available on the service, how do you whittle it all down?
With our help, of course: we've picked out the best sci-fi on Netflix, from mind-bending time travel flicks to big-budget action.
It may be set in space, but Alfonso Cuarón’s thriller is remarkably contained; grounded, even. There are no flying saucers or little green men to be found here – just a worryingly feasible disaster in orbit that leaves astronaut Ryan Stone stranded miles above the Earth. It’s heavy on spectacle but for much of the film the only person on screen is Sandra Bullock, giving a career-best performance as Dr Stone.
To achieve the film’s extraordinary long takes in apparent zero gravity, Cuarón used innovative visual effects trickery – the actors stood inside a box delivering their lines, while lights moved around them to simulate the lighting sources shifting as their characters moved. Then their faces were composited into CGI spacesuits for the final shot – in many sequences, the only real thing in the frame is Sandra Bullock’s face. The best thing about all this visual trickery? You won’t notice it. So convincing is it, you’ll be left to get sucked right into the story – and boy is it a gripping one.
Another month, another glossy Netflix original sci-fi movie touches down in the form of Extinction, a slick thriller starring Michael Peña as a dad beset by the usual problems (sulky kids, a challenging job, a wife he doesn’t see enough) as well as one that’s slightly less common: terrifyingly real dreams of a horrific alien invasion. Or are they less dreams and more premonitions of something that’s about to happen?
While we wouldn’t go so far as to call Extinction superb – it’s no Annihilation in terms of concept or execution – it’s one of Netflix’s most competent sci-fi efforts to date, with a story that unfolds in a genuinely intriguing way.
Writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the dazzling Ex Machina had a tricky inception. Originally slated for release in cinemas worldwide, in the end its studio Paramount granted it only a limited US theatrical release, with the rest of the world getting their first chance to see it on Netflix. Why? Because they likely figured it’d flop in cinemas, being chilly, complex and brainy; right or wrong, big studios don’t credit the average filmgoer with much intellectual curiosity.
Don’t let Paramount’s disappointing decision deter you from watching it, though. This is one of the most accomplished and interesting science fiction movies of recent years – a visually and sonically outstanding film that’ll leave you with more questions than answers, but enough clues to work everything out too.
When an unexplained “shimmer” engulfs a tract of land in the southeastern United States, then starts growing, authorities are confused and powerless to stop it. Everything and everybody they send inside disappears, never to return – with one exception. When Natalie Portman’s biologist finds herself personally drawn into the mystery, she joins a team venturing into the Shimmer and slowly uncovers the shocking truth.
There are echoes of Spielbergian sci-fi (think E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind) aplenty in Jeff Nichols’ chase drama, in which Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton and Kirsten Dunst attempt to keep a very special young boy out of the hands of both the US government and a creepy apocalyptic cult. Part road movie, part tense thriller, part family drama, Midnight Special is packed with atmosphere, mystery and a multitude of fine performances.
A chilly warning about the perils of playing God, Gattaca takes place in a near future in which technology has reached a point where children can be born with a “perfect” set of genes. While that helps mitigate the risk of heart disease, mental illness, myopia or premature baldness, a side effect is that the non-genetically perfect – dubbed “in-valids” – have become second-class citizens, denied opportunity due to their messy biological blueprint. But what if an in-valid could pass himself off as one of the elite?
Ethan Hawke’s Vincent attempts just that, assuming the identity of pristine-gened (but wheelchair-bound) Jude Law to make his space exploration dreams comes true. In today’s world of mass surveillance and large-scale data collection, Gattaca’s vision of a world where even your genetic make-up isn’t private makes it just as relevant as when it was first released.
The Cloverfield Paradox
This third entry in J.J. Abrams’ burgeoning Cloverfield franchise is an entertaining (if perhaps ultimately forgettable) sci-fi thriller in much the same vein as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine: an international group of scientists is sent into space to harness an unlimited power source that can save the Earth from famine, war and ultimate extinction – and, wouldn’t you know it, things don’t go as planned. At all. We’re far too kind to spoil anything, but The Cloverfield Paradox also links up nicely with the other two Cloverfield movies, and paves the way for even more new additions to the series.
When petty crook Sarah witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks identical to her, she isn't troubled by existential questions; she just sets about nicking her doppelganger's identity and emptying her bank accounts as quickly as possible. Naturally, that brings its own set of complications, and before long she's winging it as a detective, hiding bodies and uncovering a conspiracy of human cloning.
Tatiana Maslany anchors the show with a superb performance, slipping between different roles with aplomb - even if some of the supporting cast let the side down by playing to the cheap seats.
Unlike some high-concept shows, Orphan Black’s been thought through beyond its initial premise; it's skillfully written, with Sarah's decisions leading to one complication after another in a logical, coherent manner - even as the sci-fi weirdness mounts.
In the seven years that Prairie Johnson has been missing she's regained her sight and apparently changed her name to 'The OA' - and that's really just the start of the weirdness in this Netflix Original.
Comparisons to Stranger Things are easily made: most of the protagonists are students, albeit teenagers here, and there's a hearty helping of fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi. Those comparisons aren't particularly favourable towards The OA, either, which is lacking the coherence and charm of the D&D-inspired sleeper hit.
But just because The OA isn't as good as Stranger Things doesn't mean it's not worth a watch. After all, what is as good as Stranger Things?
You will, though, have to be prepared to go with some very out-there ideas and some very unexpected shifts in tone. The OA definitely won't work for everyone, but it really is worth giving at least the first of the eight episodes a go to find out if it's up your street.
Star Trek: Discovery
The most intriguing concept for a Star Trek offshoot in, like, forever, Discovery plunges the viewer directly into an all-out war, ditching the series' classic episodic format along the way.
As befits a show being released on Netflix, what you get here is instead a single story played out in full. Set a decade before the original team of Kirk, Spock et al set out on the Enterprise, it stars The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green as a mercurial Starfleet officer with a dark history.
She's superb - certainly the most charismatic actor to wear the uniform since Patrick Stewart - and many of the classic Trekkie touchstones are there too: the Spock/Data-esque analytical crewmember, the just-go-with-it pseudo-science, and old favourite alien races the Klingons and Vulcans.
But despite the plethora of nods to the past, the refreshed format gives the show space to develop without the pressures of time. It's Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. Heck, it even has swearing in it!