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.
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.
Graphic violence, psychosexual trauma, body horror and more are very much on display in Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s 1983 exploration of the power television can wield over viewers’ minds. A box office bomb, it’s now considered one of Cronenberg’s best – its masterful depiction of a man beset by hallucinations (or are they?) after watching a troubling late-night broadcast drawing the viewer into a disturbing, cryptic world of corporeal corruption, sadomasochism and murder.
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.
Tim Burton's surreal B movie parody features classic big-brained 1950s aliens on a mission to take over our planet. Their bizarre laugh (created by reversing a duck's quack) and mad stare make for a hilarious enemy: terrorising entire cities while holding a translator declaring, "we come in peace".
The film’s also notable for its sprawling ensemble cast including Jack Nicholson (twice), Danny DeVito, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan and an early appearance by Natalie Portman – though it's Tom Jones who steals the show with his campy escape from Las Vegas.
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.
The World’s End
The third entry in the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright “Cornetto trilogy”, The World’s End may not be as immediately charming as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz – but it’s arguably the most poignant and heartfelt of the three comedies.
Pegg and Frost play old school buddies who reunite as adults (along with three other pals) to attempt a legendary pub crawl in their hometown – a feat they came tantalisingly close to pulling off as young whippersnappers. First problem? Owing to a mysterious past event, Frost’s character is now teetotal. The other? A malevolent alien force infiltrating the town, possessing people’s bodies in preparation for some kind of apocalypse. Let the funtimes roll.
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.
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.
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.