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.
Adapted from an old novella by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R R Martin, Netflix’s latest original sci-fi series is about as far from the politicking, mead-quaffing and dragon-riding of Game of Thrones as things get.
Set in a future where humanity, on the verge of extinction, has sent some of its best and brightest off into deep space to make first contact with a mysterious alien race in the hopes of being saved, Nightflyers has more in common with the dark, disturbing sci-fi horror of Event Horizon or Alien: Covenant than Martin’s better-known fantasy output.
When the ship – it’s called the Nightflyer, of course – founders amidst technical breakdown, unrest and some immensely creepy visions (apparently courtesy of the ship’s resident psychic, who’s presence on board is the cause for much of the aforementioned unrest) the crew must band together in an attempt to save the mission and, by extension, the entire human race.
A love letter to mecha anime and classic kaiju movies with a peppering of Top Gun chucked in for good luck, Pacific Rim is the high-concept popcorn movie Michael Bay doubtless wished he’d thought of first: massive human-piloted robots in epic punch-ups with giant sea monsters from another dimension.
As you’d expect, director Guillermo del Toro creates a smart, imaginative and visually stunning spectacle in a manner Bay never could, even if the relentless brawls and lack of character depth do get a touch trying towards the end.
Source Code is a bit like Groundhog Day, except its stars a dashing Jake Gyllenhaal, takes place almost entirely on a train, and involves thwarting a terrorist plot which could level the entire city of Chicago. OK, so maybe it’s not that similar to Groundhog Day at all, except for its clever live-die-repeat structure.
Still, a very good sci-fi action thriller – ably helmed by Moon director (and son of David Bowie) Duncan Jones – with enough twists, existential questions and heart to keep you hooked in until the credits roll.
Children of Men
A kind of dystopian riff on the nativity story, Children of Men takes place in 2027. Humanity has become infertile, a new baby hasn’t been born in almost 20 years and this and all manner of other factors – climate change, terrorism, war and economic collapse – have led to a world where suicide pills are on the shelves at your local Boots.
When former activist Theo (Clive Owen) is asked to help keep a pregnant woman out of the hands of both the nefarious authorities and an equally ruthless dissident group, he embarks on a thrilling journey across an England gone shockingly wrong – and director Alfonso Cuaron’s shaky handheld camera work puts you right in the middle of it all.
One particular single-shot scene is almost worth watching for alone, but this intense, strangely prescient and ultimately quite hopeful film offers many compelling reasons to watch, even if you’ve seen it before.
Earth has been invaded by extraterrestrials, and they’re not here to do a spot of sightseeing. With much of the world destroyed, the remaining population live in locked-down cities patrolled by human collaborators who’ve quickly worked out that the best way to survive is to take the aliens’ side.
In short, it’s 1940s occupied France transplanted to 21st century Los Angeles, complete with secret tunnels, resistance groups and family members finding themselves on different sides of the fence. The story’s not particularly original, perhaps, but it is frequently gripping and raises plenty of interesting questions about how you’d behave in similar circumstances.
Never mind the unnecessary 2014 remake – if it’s a RoboCop you’re going to watch, it should be the Paul Verhoeven-directed 1987 original starring Peter Weller as the average patrolman turned metal-bodied super crimefighter.
On one level, it’s an ultra-violent futuristic thriller about a cybernetic policeman battling to take down a vicious criminal gang. On another, it’s a brilliantly biting satire on the corporatisation and militarisation of law enforcement. As with many of Verhoeven’s movies, its lurid and ludicrously over-the-top – but it works so, so well.
Directed by Rian Johnson, who went on to helm Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Looper is a mind-bending time travel action-thriller in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt assumes the role of an assassin whose job consists of putting a bullet in the head of people teleported to his time by a mob organisation from the future. Still with us?
It’s a lucrative gig, but when the poor sap that appears before him is his future self (played by Bruce Willis), things get a tad more complicated. The intricate plot is complimented by plenty of action and strong performances from all, although Gordon-Levitt’s Bruce Willis-like prosthetic nose is a little distracting at first.
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.