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 2019, 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.
When a nerdy IT worker wins a competition to spend a week at his billionaire boss’s high-security bunker home, the latter uses it as an opportunity to field test his new invention: Eva, the physical incarnation of his latest line of AI software. But can Eva pass the Turing Test even when the examiner knows ahead of time she’s a robot?
The interactions between Alicia Vikander’s Eva and Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb could easily have become tedious interviews, but writer-director Garland infuses them with flirtatious humanity. Much like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her, Caleb finds much to like in his artificial companion, with some incredible make-up and special effects making her equally appealing and believable to the audience. And that’s what makes the denouement all the more shocking.
Blade Runner 2049
The long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk noir, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best-looking movies ever made, with Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography bringing director Denis Villeneuve’s nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles to glorious life.
As a whole, the film doesn’t feel quite as assured as the camerawork. Running close to three hours, it’s a bit too ponderous for its own good, although it retains the original Blade Runner’s spirit through a mixture of thrilling action sequences, philosophical pondering and memorable characters, all tied together in a riveting detective story in which new-gen replicant Ryan Gosling seeks answers to a puzzling, deadly riddle.
The movie that put James Cameron on the map as a AAA director and cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as a superstar (albeit one whose acting talents yet required some polish), this 1984 action thriller succeeds despite a ludicrous premise (a humanoid robot is sent back in time to kill a woman before she gives birth to a resistance leader) and some of the dodgiest haircuts ever committed to celluloid.
Schwarzenegger excels as the monstrous monotone cyborg, Cameron cranks up the tension like a master, and the film would go on to spawn one of the greatest sequels ever – as well as Arnie’s beloved catchphrase…
A fantastic piece of low budget filmmaking, District 9 tells a story of alien refugees stuck on Earth – and their mistreatment at the hands of unsympathetic human officials – that draws clear parallels with the apartheid South Africa in which director Neill Blomkamp grew up.
When a company field agent assigned to evict aliens from illegal settlements contracts a DNA-twisting virus, he is forced to seek refuge himself – and can only do so inside an alien ghetto called District 9. Blomkamp revisits the same themes of dystopia and dislocation in later movies, but never so effectively as he does here.
The Thing (1982)
It might be about a creature from space, but John Carpenter’s The Thing is much more a suspenseful horror movie than a classic sci-fi fable.
This movie’s titular parasitic extraterrestrial, unwittingly woken from an aeons-long icy slumber beneath the permafrost, is able to replicate the human form, leading to near-unbearable tension as the inhabitants of a remote research station are preyed upon in gruesome fashion. Who is human, and who is the alien? The cast, led by a luxuriantly-bearded Kurt Russell, do an admirable job of portraying the paranoia and mistrust as they’re picked off one by one. Wonderful stuff from a horror master.
Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, this adaptation of David Mitchell’s bestselling novel can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition: running close to three hours, spanning several time periods (including two sections set in the future) and featuring a massive cast that reappears in different roles (and as different races and sexes) during said periods, it’s a sprawling art movie in blockbuster’s clothing – and that’s perhaps why it failed to set the box office alight.
Even if it may be regarded by many as something of a failure at worst, a missed opportunity at best, Cloud Atlas is a fascinating film that posits that everything we do has consequences that reverberate through the ages – that a single human act of cruelty or kindness can result in revolutions hundreds of years down the line. That it does so in such spectacular fashion, with such vast scope, makes it well worth a few hours of your time.
Love Death + Robots (S1)
An 18-strong collection of R-rated animated short films about the future executive produced by directors Tim Miller and David Fincher, this is one of Netflix’s most original Originals to date – even if its preoccupation with depictions of violence, sex and “edgy” themes might be a bit excessive for some viewers.
With a wealth of animation styles on show and loads of ideas to stuff inside your head, Love Death + Robots is an audio-visual treat that offers up a similarly thought-provoking vision of the future to Black Mirror.
The Umbrella Academy (S1)
Based on the award-winning comics series created by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, this dark fantasy series about a dysfunctional, squabbling family of superheroes – including Ellen Page and Robert Sheehan – comes off like a mash-up of The X-Men, Hellboy, Misfits and Skins.
Fifteen years after drifting apart, six unconventional siblings must reunite to save their world (an alternate reality Earth in which JFK was never assassinated) from impending apocalypse – not to mention contend with a sociopathic hitwoman played by R&B legend Mary J. Blige.
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.
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.
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.