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 2021, 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.
Love and Monsters
A fun, family-friendly adventure set in a post-apocalyptic USA might seem tonally off, but this colourful, fast-paced and involving flick gets almost everything right. Seven years after an event caused cold-blooded animals to swiftly evolve into huge monsters, shifting human right down the food chain, cowardly but loveable Joel decides to leave the relative safety of his bunker to find the girlfriend he hasn’t seen in the best part of a decade. Between the pair lies 80 miles of predator-infested wilderness – and that’s assuming the hapless lad can even point himself in the right direction. What follows is an enjoyable 90 minutes of strong character-building, breathless action, surprisingly well-written romance and laughs that’ll keep you and your kids glued to the screen.
What if you were living under an exploitative system that kept you distracted by consumerism, sex and mind-numbing media – and suddenly became aware of it? John Carpenter’s cult classic poses that very question, as Roddy Piper stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that, when worn, show him the dark reality of modern Los Angeles: it’s being controlled by hideous skull-faced aliens who use TV signals to disguise their true nature and humanity’s greed to keep it in line.
Carpenter has sardonically called They Live a “documentary”, and you’d have to be brain dead to miss the satire. The fact that its targets are still standing today keeps the film enjoyably relevant on that level, but it’s also got some killer dialogue and action sequences – not least the legendary alleyway brawl between Piper and Keith David.
Comic fans had been clamouring for a live-action Watchmen movie for years, such was their adoration of the iconic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons DC Comics series – and after several false starts, the job of adapting and directing finally fell to Zack Snyder. Being regarded as something of a shallow style-over-substance type, Snyder may not have been purists’ ideal choice for the job, but considering the complexity, density and length of the source material, we think he did a sterling job with his 2009 release.
A dark revisionist take on the idea of costumed crimefighters (and originating in the 80s, a time when such a take wasn’t anything like as common as it is today), Watchmen concerns a group of retired superheroes drawn back into their old roles when one of their number is murdered. The twist? The story takes place in an alternate version of the 1980s, where one of the heroes’ superpowers have given the USA the edge in the Cold War – ironically resulting in a greater likelihood of nuclear annihilation. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but it’s as close as we’re going to get. If you like your sci-fi dystopian and dingy, Watchmen fits the bill.
This feature-length sequel to the short-lived series Firefly gave writer/director Joss Whedon a daunting task: win over new viewers while keeping existing fans happy, not to mention wrap up seven seasons’ worth of plotlines in two hours. And he pulled it off, pretty much: Serenity works for newbies almost as well as it does for seasoned Firefly veterans.
Its scuzzy, lived-in sci-fi world where good and bad is far from cut-and-dried is more believable and more appealing than the clean, black-and-white settings more common to space operas; there’s action aplenty; and its cast of flawed characters makes for an enjoyable emotional ride. But it couldn’t serve to satiate Firefly fans, of course, leading to frequent calls for the series to be brought back, Arrested Development-style, for a true final season.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Sitting on Stanley Kubrick’s back burner for years, A.I. eventually ended up in Steven Spielberg’s steady hands. Kubrick, legend has it, wanted to wait until CG effects were sufficiently sophisticated to create a convincing robot child, eventually losing patience and giving the movie to Spielberg, who started work on it after the master director’s death. Spielberg cast child star Haley Joel Osment as the android nipper rather than throw the dice on 2001-era CGI being up to the job – a good call, in our opinion, given how most visual effects from 20 years ago look to the modern eye.
There’s a thread of Spielbergian sentimentality running through A.I. that may not have existed had the rather more pessimistic Kubrick been in the director’s chair, but as it is this is an entertaining and thought-provoking movie, posing big questions that resonate just as strongly today.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (S1)
Giant robots fighting giant monsters might seem like an anime cliché, but Neon Genesis Evangelion’s more nuanced approach to the mecha genre has established it as one of Japan’s most beloved cult phenomena. The series revolves around three teenagers who pilot the Evas, towering robots that may be humanity’s last hope against a race of mysterious and otherwise unstoppable creatures called “angels”. But the fights are far from the most interesting thing going on here – it’s the complex characters and rarely explored themes that elevate Neon Genesis Evangelion to the level of classic anime.
As well as the series, Netflix includes the two feature-length movies that conclude the story.
The History of Future Folk
A charming lo-fi indie flick about an alien who comes to conquer Earth but ends up playing winsome banjo tunes in a Brooklyn bar, The History of Future Folk has lasers, rockets, killer meteors and extra-terrestrial assassins – but it’s really about the power of music to bring people together.
The cast of a beloved sci-fi TV series, now reduced to making a living appearing at fan conventions, find themselves exploring the cosmos for real when a group of aliens, taking them for real space explorers, recruit them for a galaxy-saving mission. This classic 1999 comedy thrives on its dissection of fandom, washed-up actors and hackneyed sci-fi tropes – and the fantastic cast doesn’t hurt.
Banishing memories of the Sylvester Stallone debacle in which Mega-City One’s most feared lawman showed his face (honestly!), this 2012 adaptation is far more faithful to 2000AD’s vision of the USA’s dark future. When a routine bit of justice goes awry, Judge Dredd finds himself up against an entire city block full of ruthless drug dealers led by Lena Headey’s scarred and scary Ma-Ma.
Gritty, brutal and fully deserving of its 18 rating, Karl Urban plays Dredd as the comic books intended – a deadpan psychopath – while his sidekick, the trainee Judge Anderson, gets the character arc necessary to pull in “normal” viewers. We only wish it had made more box office bucks on release, as it’s screaming out for a sequel with Urban back in the uniform.
The influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg is all over J.J. Abrams’ alien-on-the-loose story. You don’t have to be much of a film buff to spot Super 8’s similarities with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and the Spielberg-produced Goonies; it’s even set during the 1980s, arguably the director’s golden period.
Thankfully Abrams’ nods work as the best kind of tribute, because this film manages to feel both brand new and familiar. Despite being high on action and tension, it also finds time for the same kind of soaring emotional payoff you’re guaranteed in, well, a Steven Spielberg movie. Wonderful stuff.
Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes play a supercop and arch criminal who find themselves cryogenically frozen as punishment for destroying huge swathes of property, only to be defrosted several decades later to continue their battle in a strange new world.
This delightfully ludicrous 1993 action movie is very much of its time, with Snipes a joy to watch as extravagant baddie Simon Phoenix and Stallone playing it straighter than usual as John Spartan, the no-nonsense cop trying to make sense of the future’s bizarre customs and baffling disdain for violence. Rumour has it the two stars may be reuniting for a sequel almost 30 years on – here’s hoping they can get Sandra Bullock (who shines in her breakout role as the happy-go-lucky rookie cop assigned to babysit Stallone) back as well.
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.