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 2022, 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? Here’s our guide to the best sci-fi on Netflix.
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.
Black Mirror (S1-6)
Starting life on Channel 4, Black Mirror made the move to Netflix and exploded as a result. We mean that in a (mostly) good way: while the budgets, running times and starriness of the cast generally increased, Charlie Brooker continued to imbue his cautionary tales about the modern world with the same sense of dread, paranoia and wonder.
Each episode may tell a standalone story, but they’re all connected by the threads of modern society’s abusive relationship with technology, the internet and social media. And, particularly in later seasons, the soulless, dehumanising grind of late-stage capitalism starts to emerge as a frequent subject.
It’s unnerving stuff, enhanced by the fact that the stories are generally set in a very near future that’s all too recognisable. But fear not, the trademark blacker than black humour has also been retained, so you’ll chuckle almost as much as you’ll squirm.
A brilliant slice of indie sci-fi from 2009, District 9 concerns extra-terrestrial refugees on Earth and their mistreatment at the hands of unsympathetic human officials. It’s a story that draws clear parallels with the apartheid South Africa in which director Neill Blomkamp grew up.
When a by-the-book company field agent assigned to evict aliens from illegal settlements contracts a DNA-twisting virus, he himself becomes a refugee – and can only do so inside the alien ghetto called District 9.
Another moody psychological space drama to add to a list that includes the likes of Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ad Astra follows celebrated astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), sent to the farthest reaches of our solar system to track down a missing explorer who’s been threatening Earth’s safety. The twist? This renegade (played by Tommy Lee Jones) happens to be McBride’s father – a formerly heroic space pioneer who rocketed off into the void decades before on another mission, only to go radio silent shortly thereafter.
While the plot meanders unnecessarily into action-thriller territory at a couple of points, it’s yet another beautifully shot extra-terrestrial journey that reminds us that even our own solar neighbourhood is unfathomably silent, cold, dark and lethal.
Source Code is a bit like Groundhog Day, except it 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.
Even so, it’s a rollickingly enjoyable sci-fi action thriller, ably directed by Moon director (and son of David Bowie) Duncan Jones. It’s packing enough twists, existential questions and heart to keep you firmly hooked in until the final credits roll.
The OA (S1-2)
In the seven years that Prairie Johnson has been missing she’s regained her sight and apparently changed her name to ‘The OA’ – and that’s really just the start of this series’ weirdness. Comparisons to Stranger Things come easily: most of the protagonists here are also young and there’s a hearty helping of fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi.
Those comparisons aren’t particularly favourable towards The OA, either, which lacks the coherence and charm of Netflix’s flagship sci-fi show. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a watch. You will, though, have to be prepared to go with some very out-there ideas and some very unexpected shifts in tone. The OA definitely won’t work for everyone, but it really is worth giving at least the first episode a go to find out if it’s up your street. It’s a crying shame that – like many enjoyable Netflix series – it got the kibosh after just two seasons.
The Sandman (S1)
There have been several abortive efforts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s beloved comic book series for the screen, but Netflix’s millions have finally made it happen.
Bottling the appeal of this dark fantasy tale of metaphysics, gods and dreams in a TV series can’t have been easy, but the makers have actually pulled it off (to be fair, having Gaiman himself involved in the production has probably helped no end). The Sandman is a bewitching and entertaining series with fantastic visuals, a dark adult-oriented tone and compelling plotlines.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (S1)
Anime and cyberpunk have gone hand-in-hand for decades, thanks to classic films like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, the latter of which was released in 1988, the same year as Mike Pondsmith’s influential tabletop RPG Cyberpunk 2020. Developer CD Projekt Red would swap pen-and-paper for polygons over 30 years later; now things have come full circle with spinoff series Edgerunners.
You don’t need to have played the game to enjoy it, thanks to an all-new cast of characters, but the way it reimagines locations from Cyberpunk 2077 is a treat for those that have. It’s uncompromisingly gory in places, and visually stunning in others courtesy of Japanese animation team Studio Trigger. It can be seriously bleak too, but there’s a relatable story behind the dystopian setting. A must for genre fans.
The Hunger Games
Set in a future USA where randomly picked ‘tributes’ must fight each other to the death in an annual televised gladiatorial event known as the Hunger Games, this young adult adaptation manages to balance its teen-friendly elements with some (slightly) harder-edged social commentary and sci-fi pondering.
Even if it’s not based around the most original of concepts (Battle Royale, anyone?) and often strays into some quite cheesy territory, this movie is slickly made, emotionally charged and exciting eye fodder that makes ideal family viewing.
In the Shadow of the Moon
This sci-fi thriller that has all the makings of a hot mess: time travel, serial killers and melting brains. Against all odds, it manages to pull its various strings together to create a surprisingly satisfying and emotionally charged whole as a Philadelphia cop (Boyd Holbrook) investigates a spate of seemingly unconnected but startlingly similar murders
If you’re into noirish, mind-bending movies (think Looper or Inception), it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Stranger Things (S1-4)
Yes, we know it’s a TV series and not a movie, but Netflix Original Stranger Things hits so many of the same tonal marks as classic sci-fi movies like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Flight of the Navigator that it would feel weird not to include it.
A drama series (now two seasons strong) concerning the mysterious disappearance of a young boy and his family and friends’ efforts to find him, it has everything you could want in from a 1980s sci-fi thriller: a small town, creepy government goons, psychic powers and a seemingly invincible monster. Go on: binge on it this weekend, you know you want to.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (S1-7)
With Paramount+ poised to arrive, any form of Star Trek on Netflix may have a limited lifespan – so we suggest subscribers who want to experience the beloved franchise at its best dive into The Next Generation as soon as possible.
This classic second outing of the Enterprise, with Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard in the captain’s seat, is Star Trek at its most effective and, well, Star Trekky: it’s not overly action-packed, it’s properly episodic in structure and it focusses on exploring interesting plots and situations rather than the crew’s interpersonal relationships (although these certainly get explored as the series progresses). For better or worse, we’re unlikely to ever see another series like it.
Love, Death & Robots (S1-3)
Like androids, ultra-violence and philosophising about intelligence, free will and the very meaning of life itself? This collection of adult animated sci-fi tales packs all of the above and more. It also showcases an impressively broad swathe of animation styles, and the short length of the films (they’re all between seven and 18 minutes) means you can binge watch your way through the whole collection in no time at all.
Squid Game (S1)
Subtitle-haters, you’re missing out if you choose to avoid this dark drama series on account of it being Korean (yes, you can watch it dubbed into English, but that just feels so utterly wrong). The gripping story of a sadistic life-or-death game show and the effects it has on its desperate contestants – each of whom willingly signed away their “bodily rights” for the prospect of a fat winner’s cheque – Squid Game has already become not only one of Netflix’s most popular foreign language series, but its most popular debut series full stop.
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.
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 Umbrella Academy (S1-3)
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.
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.
Writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the dazzling Ex Machina had a tricky inception. Originally slated for release in cinemas worldwide, in the end its studio Paramount granted it only a limited US theatrical release, with the rest of the world getting their first chance to see it on Netflix. Why? Because they likely figured it’d flop in cinemas, being chilly, complex and brainy; right or wrong, big studios don’t credit the average filmgoer with much intellectual curiosity.
Don’t let Paramount’s disappointing decision deter you from watching it, though. This is one of the most accomplished and interesting science fiction movies of recent years – a visually and sonically outstanding film that’ll leave you with more questions than answers, but enough clues to work everything out too.
When an unexplained “shimmer” engulfs a tract of land in the southeastern United States, then starts growing, authorities are confused and powerless to stop it. Everything and everybody they send inside disappears, never to return – with one exception. When Natalie Portman’s biologist finds herself personally drawn into the mystery, she joins a team venturing into the Shimmer and slowly uncovers the shocking truth.
The Cloverfield Paradox
This third entry in J.J. Abrams’ burgeoning Cloverfield franchise is an entertaining (if perhaps ultimately forgettable) sci-fi thriller in much the same vein as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine: an international group of scientists is sent into space to harness an unlimited power source that can save the Earth from famine, war and ultimate extinction – and, wouldn’t you know it, things don’t go as planned. At all. We’re far too kind to spoil anything, but The Cloverfield Paradox also links up nicely with the other two Cloverfield movies, and paves the way for even more new additions to the series.
Altered Carbon (S1-2)
This glossy, gory cyber-noir takes us 300-odd years into the future, where Earth has become an overpopulated, dirty, decadent, neon-lit Bladerunner-esque mess – but outright death is a rarity.
That’s because (due to some alien tech discovered off-world) everybody can have their consciousness digitally backed up in a “stack”, a disc-shaped computer stored where the skull meets the spine. Flattened by a lorry? No probs: the paramedics can pop out your stack and – provided it hasn’t been smashed – put it in safe storage until a new body (or “sleeve” in the show’s vernacular) is available. But it’s far from a deathless utopia: rampant capitalism has ensured that only the wealthy can afford decent sleeves, with downtrodden proles being kept in storage for decades or transferred into the first available body, regardless of its suitability.
Into this grave new world comes our hard-boiled hero Takeshi Kovacs, released from prison and dropped into a snazzy, buffed-up Joel Kinnaman-shaped sleeve after a couple of centuries on ice. Why has Kovacs been brought back from the dead after so long? In order to solve a murder, of course – a mystery that the insanely wealthy victim (who’s now reincarnated in a new cloned sleeve, natch) believes only Kovacs’ unique skills can unravel.
Rick and Morty (S1-6)
Despite being rooted in sci-fi staples like multi-dimensional travel (and generally coming off as pretty convincing, science-wise – at least to our non-astrophysicist brains), adult animated series Rick and Morty is focussed mainly on being hilarious and irreverent as it follows the misadventures of a misanthropic, booze-addled inventor, his teenage grandson and his neurotic family.
Netflix features all four seasons of the series, making it the perfect binge-watch material – particularly for those lazy hungover Sundays when your mind can’t handle serious sci-fi.
This Brazilian series presents an intriguing concept: a world where the lucky few live in an Earthly paradise of gleaming spires and incredible technology, inhabited by beautiful people eating the best food and enjoying free healthcare – while the other 97% of the population reside in slums. Yes, it’s Broken Britain 2018. Ahem.
To gain entrance to this paradise, poor plebs must pass a series of gruelling tests designed to separate the wheat from the chaff; it’s this process that the first season of 3% follows. It quickly goes very Battle Royale, with factions forming and alliances breaking as the desperate teens compete to earn themselves a better life.
If it all sounds a bit YA fiction, don’t worry: 3% is a superior take on the genre, thanks to some well-rounded characters and a few genuine surprises.