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.
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.
Forget the unnecessary 2014 reboot – if it’s a RoboCop you’re going to watch, it has to be the prescient Paul Verhoeven-directed 1987 original, starring Peter Weller as the simple Detroit patrolman unwittingly turned metal-bodied, computer-brained crimefighter.
On one level an ultra-violent futuristic thriller about a cybernetic policeman battling to take down a criminal gang, it’s also a brilliantly biting satire on the corporatisation and militarisation of law enforcement – an issue that is far more relevant today than it was 30 years ago. OTT in the best possible way.
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.
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.