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.
Blade Runner 2049
The sequel to Ridley Scott’s visionary cyberpunk thriller was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. Blade Runner 2049 is up there with the most visually arresting movies ever made; Sir Roger Deakins’ cinematography brings director Denis Villeneuve’s nightmarish vision of a future California to vivid life.
The film as a whole doesn’t land quite as flawlessly as its visuals. At nigh-on three hours it’s too ponderous for its own good, despite retaining the original Blade Runner’s spirit through a mix of exhilarating action sequences, philosophical meditations and well-drawn characters – including some familiar faces. It’s all tied together in a decent detective yarn, with our hero – Ryan Gosling’s latest-gen replicant – seeking answers to a deadly mystery.
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.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 ensemble drama about a global pandemic and its effects on society has understandably found a new lease of life amidst the world’s current circumstances. Phrases like “social distancing”, talk of R numbers and exhortations to wear masks and wash hands are all too familiar to us now, making their prevalence in this 11-year old film feel eerily prescient.
Topicality aside, this is a chilling look into how quickly a deadly virus can spread throughout the world, how quickly and irrevocably it can change “normal” life and how it can be beaten back, boasting an all-star cast and shot with an involving, engaging pace.
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.
A love letter to mecha anime and classic kaiju movies with a smattering of Top Gun chucked in for good measure, Pacific Rim is the high-concept popcorn movie Michael Bay wished he’d thought of first: towering human-piloted robots in epic punch-ups with giant sea monsters from another dimension. Director Guillermo del Toro creates a smart, imaginative and visually outstanding spectacle in a manner Bay never could, even if the relentless brawls and lack of character depth do become a tad wearing towards the end.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sometimes sci-fi is concerned with aliens, killer robots, laser beams and men in silly costumes waving giant glow-sticks at each other; at other times, it’s about creating a vision of the near future, or even a parallel present, that’s close enough to our reality to properly sting. This is one from the latter pile.
Eternal Sunshine is mostly a modern love story, the inspired twist being that in this world you can pay to have all memories of a specific person erased from your mind. It’s complicated and clever but ultimately warm and honest; most impressively of all, it’s got Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in it and you don’t want to slap either of them.
Spike Jonze’s drama follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an empathetic and newly single man who makes his living by writing heartfelt letters on behalf of clients who feel unable to.
This being the near future, he finds himself using an advanced new OS, which adapts to become an intuitive personal assistant for each individual user. His own AI is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and surprisingly witty, warm and sensitive. Theodore quickly forms an attachment with it – or her – that blossoms into a romantic interest, but what does it mean to fall in love with a bodyless computer? The film offers few easy answers, but it’s a beautiful musing on the changing nature of our relationship with technology.
Directed by Rian Johnson (who went on upset lots of fanboys with Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Looper is a mind-bending time travel action-thriller about an assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose job consists of putting a bullet in the head of people teleported back to his timeline by a mob organisation from the future. Still with us?
It’s a lucrative gig, but when the poor sap that appears before him is his own future self (played by Bruce Willis), things get a bit complicated. The intricate plot is complimented by plenty of action and strong performances from all, although Gordon-Levitt’s Willis-like prosthetic nose can be a little distracting at first.
The Invisible Man
This well-honed psychological thriller stars Elisabeth Moss as a woman who believes she’s being stalked by her abusive, controlling ex-boyfriend, a tech entrepreneur who may have invented a way to make himself invisible. With friends and family dismissing her experiences as trauma-triggered delusions, she must face down her near-undetectable tormentor alone. It might not have a great deal in common with H.G. Wells’ original sci-fi story, but this movie feels timely, taut and tense.
V for Vendetta
Try for a moment to forget V’s iconic Guy Fawkes mask and how it’s become a meaningless symbol for every clueless “freedom lover” with a Twitter account, an interesting interpretation of Magna Carta and too much time on their hands. Because this adaptation of Alan Moore’s superb 1980s dystopian graphic novel is a portrayal of a very British form of totalitarian fascism and an enjoyable action thriller with a keen sense of visual style (even if Moore himself wanted nothing to do with it). Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving star.
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.
District 9 director Neill Blomkamp’s big budget debut doesn’t disappoint. When a downtrodden factory worker (Matt Damon) suffers a lethal dose of radiation on the job, his only chance of avoiding a painful death is to get to one of the miraculous Med-Bays used by the upper classes. The problem being that the wealthy and powerful have abandoned Earth – (it’s polluted, overcrowded and downright hellish) for a luxurious orbital space station – and they’re not about to let any old pauper in to use the facilities. Come for the spectacular visuals, stay for the scathing political message.
Arguably the movie kicked off the West’s ongoing obsession with anime and manga, this Japanese cyberpunk classic – a tale of teenage biker gangs, political upheaval and creepy wizened psychic children played out against the backdrop of crumbling megalopolis Neo-Tokyo – remains eminently compelling over three decades after its release. The hand-painted animation is stunning, the grimy dystopian setting evocative and the soundtrack unforgettable. Very few animated movies have aged as well as Akira, or proved as influential. Our advice: watch it now, before Hollywood’s upcoming live action remake inevitably ruins everything.
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.
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.
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 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.
Attack the Block
Aliens arrive on Earth with bad intentions – which we’ve seen many times before. Said aliens decide to land in a South London housing estate (that’s new) and find out that South London housing estates are full of their own kind of hazards.
By refusing to cast judgement on the actions of its wayward teenage protagonists (which include Star Wars’ John Boyega in his breakthrough role), Attack the Block leaves you free to make up your own mind – though you’ll probably be too wrapped up in the action to bother. Directed by Joe Cornish, it’s by turns scary, funny and very cool.
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 (S1-5)
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.