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 Earth Year 2020, 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.
Perfect midweek sci-fi b-movie fare, Upgrade stars Logan Marshall-Green as a man left broken by an apparent mugging that leaves his spine severed and his wife dead. When a scientist offers him a cure for his quadriplegia in the form of an experimental AI chip implant, it gives him a shot at revenge – but at what cost?
With some excellent action sequences, several plot twists and some chin-stroking about the nature of AI, free will and transhumanism, it transcends its low-budget roots to feel like a future cult classic.
The Umbrella Academy (S1-2)
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.
In the mood for a lazy comparison? Then Dark is the German version of Stranger Things: both follow a group of kids trying to unravel a supernatural mystery; both feature a missing child and frantic parents; both are set (at least partly) in the ’80s. And both are really, really good TV shows.
But there the similarities end, because Dark is, as the name might suggest, a somewhat more difficult watch than its US counterpart (and not just because of those German subtitles). This is a complicated, surprising series that delights in constantly pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you know what’s going on; it’ll leave you with brain-ache at times. It’s also seriously gruesome and really puts its characters through the emotional wringer. Don’t let that put you off though, because this is one Netflix Original you don't want to miss.
Jurassic Park is very much the real deal, a near-perfect sci-fi action movie that pioneered special effects (its CGI still holds up, almost three decades on) without becoming mere cinematic spectacle.
Steven Spielberg’s mastery of pacing, camera, editing and sound is on full display here, as the living attractions in a highly advanced dinosaur theme park take advantage of chaos theory to turn on their captors. The plodding, uninspired sequels have shown that there’s much more to making a great movie than a great idea (what if dinosaurs and humans could interact?), but this is a rare occasion when a megabudgeted blockbuster feels full of heart.
Children of Men
When it was released back in 2006, Children of Men’s near-future British setting seemed like a particularly pessimistic take on the direction in which the country was heading. A decade and a bit later, post-Brexit, Trump, migrant crisis, environmental disaster, COVID-19 et al, director Alfonso Cuaron seems frightening prescient in his presentation of a green and pleasant land turned grey and grim, robbed of hope by multiple crises: climate change; a vast influx of refugees fleeing wars and failed foreign states; nuclear war; terrorism; and, worst of all, a total lack of children.
The human race has become totally infertile, with the last baby being born 18 years before the events of the film, in which Clive Owen’s ex-activist finds himself drawn into a dangerous plot to smuggle a person out of the country. Children of Men does more than just build a depressingly plausible dystopia – it weaves together a thrilling noirish plot, featuring some of the best one-shot takes in modern cinema, memorable characters and, at very last, a hopeful ending.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 star-studded drama about a global pandemic and its effects on society has understandably found a new lease of life amidst our current circumstances. Phrases like “social distancing”, talk of R numbers and exhortations to wear masks and wash hands have become part of our lives, making their prevalence in this nine-year old film feel eerily prescient.
Topicality aside, this is a briskly paced, involving and chilling look into how quickly a deadly novel virus can spread throughout the world, how rapidly it can destroy “normal” life, how authorities can fight it and what might come after the dust has settled.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominic Cobb specialises in a very singular type of security: he keeps the contents of your subconscious safe and sound. At least that's what Cobb fools his marks into thinking shortly before he and his crack team of architects, con-men and chemists hack into their dreams to steal information or plant false memories.
Christopher Nolan's reality-bending dream caper strays into James Bond territory towards the end, but the world he creates is intriguing enough to forgive the plot holes – and trust us, Inception is a film that improves on repeat viewing. You might need a few watches just to figure out what the last shot means…
This blockbuster adaptation of Andy Weir’s self-published novel about an astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars could easily have been bogged down by its maths and technical jargon, as Matt Damon’s abandoned botanist-with-an-attitude works out how to survive long enough to be rescued.
Fortunately, Damon’s Watney is far less annoying than the book version, making him much easier to root for. There’s plenty of gorgeous stuff to look at too (well, it’s a Ridley Scott film, what did you expect?) with some striking spaceship design and the red planet’s unusual lighting giving the outdoor scenes a truly otherworldly feel. While the finale might get a tad daft, the whole thing’s supposedly grounded in actual science. Just don’t try any of it at home – especially the poop-fertilised potato diet.
In The Shadow of the Moon
A sci-fi thriller that has all the makings of a mess – time travel, obsessive cops, serial killers, melting brains – but manages to pull its various strings together to create a surprisingly satisfying and emotionally charged whole, In the Shadow of the Moon is one of those Netflix Original movies that has arrived with little fanfare and will probably be forgotten about in a month or two. If you’re into noirish, mind-bending movies though (think Looper or Inception), it’s well worth a couple of hours of your attention.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
What's the worst thing you've ever done? Burnt the Sunday roast? Forgotten to record Strictly Come Dancing? Whatever it is, it's probably piffling in comparison to the defining sin of Edward Elric, whose attempts to revive his dead mother result in the complete disembodiment of his little brother and the loss of his right arm. Thus begins the penitent journey of Edward and Alphonse, who seek the return of their lost bodies in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.
This is one of the longest anime series available on Netflix, standing at 64 episodes. Don't be mistaken though, the quality remains superb throughout; the series is regularly ranked as one of the top ten anime ever created.
Every now and then a film comes along with a concept so out-there that you can’t believe it got made. Colossal is one of those movies. It starts off like a quirky indie rom-com – a well-worn tale we’ve seen so many times before: Anne Hathaway’s hard-drinking party animal abruptly abandons her life in New York to return to her sleepy, parochial home town, re-acquaint herself with an old school friend and confront some painful truths.
But from about 15 minutes in things take an abrupt swerve off the road and end up in a very different place indeed. To hint where would be spoiling things (although the trailer embedded above does just that – so don’t watch it if you want to go in with an unsullied head – although the fact that we’ve included this in our sci-fi recommendations list should give you an idea of what’s to come). Our advice? Just watch it – it’s one of the most interesting movies of the last few years.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
It’s not often a brand new entertainment format arrives on Netflix (or anywhere, for that matter), but Charlie Brooker’s experimental feature-length episode of Black Mirror is just that: melding the worlds of movies and video games, it’s an interactive film in which the viewer plays an active role.
At certain points in the narrative – which stars Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead as a young programmer designing a choose-your-own-adventure computer game in the 1980s (yes, it’s all very meta) – you’re able to pick one of two paths, steering the story towards one of ten distinct endings. And, this being Black Mirror, many of them are incredibly bleak.
If you’ve played Telltale’s The Walking Dead or similar adventure games, you’ll see clear echoes here, but Brooker and Netflix have still pulled off something noteworthy, even if the story itself is, understandably, not quite as laser-focussed as we’ve come to expect of a Black Mirror episode.
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.