“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
Alex Garland doesn’t so much adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 bestseller Annihilation for the screen so much as he riffs on the novel’s trippy happenings, creating something almost entirely his own. Garland has the genre bona fides, and the writer of Sunshine and writer-director of Ex-Machina handles Annihilation’s hallucinatory setting with an appropriate and compelling sense of shifting unreality. The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in the film are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. Henry Stewart and Jake Cole
The End of Evangelion (1997)
When Anno Hideaki ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Cole
Okja is a gentle giant, and the contrast between her bigness, potential ferocity, vulnerability, and eagerness to be loved by humans is unforgettably poignant throughout Bong Joon-ho’s film. Okja’s first half is the most surpassingly lovely passage in Bong’s career to date, abounding in the casual magic that one associates with a Miyazaki Hayao or early Steven Spielberg film. These moments are staged with lucid rapture, and they serve a clear purpose: We don’t want them to end, as we know the filmmaker’s softening us for the kill. One is never simply allowed to enjoy the companionship between children and their magical friends in these sorts of fantasies, as their relationship must be imperiled in the service of making a point about the inherent corruption of human society. Chuck Bowen
Oxygen is derivative but well-designed, as Alexandre Aja and his collaborators elegantly crib from some of the best modern sci-fi thrillers. The film’s predominant image—of Liz (Mélanie Laurent) laying down face up toward us, with a blueish pool of light investing her visage with a lovely and poignant heavenly aura—suggests the haunting close-ups of the Precogs in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Meanwhile, the film’s single most startling effect, a syringe that darts around like a snake trying to sedate Liz against her wishes, recalls the Martians’ terrifying periscope in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. These gimmicks are enough to sustain a glossy, clever B movie, especially with Laurent’s commanding urgency and Mathieu Amalric’s cheeky ambiguity providing the production with a bit of emotional nutrition. Bowen
Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers witnesses Paul Verhoeven at his most empowered, equally by resources and populist content. He wasn’t defeated when Showgirls got the cold shoulder; if anything, he was further emboldened by the experience of crafting that kaleidoscopic maelstrom. Genuflecting in the direction of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the result is one of the great miracles of pop cinema, a cutting satire that despises manifest destiny as much as it thrills to the sight of victory through teamwork and pluck. Hitting the highest marks both as an ultraviolent interplanetary theme-park ride, as well as a satire of plus-sized military intervention, the film is a textbook example of having your cake and eating it too. The less-discussed miracle is that its outlandish love battles, acted out by department-store mannequins with impossibly burnished cheekbones, provide a genuine emotional undercurrent to all the earsplitting spectacle. Jaime N. Christley
T2: Judgement Day (1991)
The slick, digitized T-1000 to the 1984 original’s grungy, analogous exoskeleton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day set the standard for modern Hollywood’s F/X-driven mega-productions and cemented James Cameron’s dystopian vision as modern science-fiction’s saga par excellence. The 1991 sequel is best remembered for the groundbreaking CGI and puppetry work that brought its liquid metal villain to life, but all that cybernetic glamour would be for naught without the film’s overreaching humanitarian concerns: the insistence that, even at the brink of self-induced extinction, mankind is still worth saving. Replicating the chase-movie structure of its predecessor (and brilliantly echoing that film in many telling details), the equally breathless T2 suggests a maestro at the helm of a full orchestra, conducting the whole exhilarating piece without a single note out of place. The film itself is something of a perfect machine, albeit one with a beating, bleeding heart to go along with its relentless apocalyptic swell, the central, unlikely nuclear family anchoring the action with genuine emotional heft, saving the world and earning our tears in the process. Rob Humanick
They Cloned Tyrone (2023)
There’s a grainy quality to the way that Juel Taylor’s They Cloned Tyrone has been shot that allows it to stand apart from just about every other Netflix original film. In fact, it looks so much like a ’70s B movie that we’re taken aback to hear a character insisting that crypto-currency is going to be their way out of this lifeless place. They Cloned Tyrone is part of a wave of satirical sci-fi from Black artists that began with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, rippling out into other socially conscious genre riffs like Atlanta and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. The satire here isn’t quite as on point as that of its predecessors—the resolution to the film’s central mystery isn’t as metaphorically perfect as that of Get Out or as gut-punchingly absurd as that of Sorry to Bother You—but it helps that Boyega, Parris, and Foxx share the sort of chemistry that even the most secretive government lab couldn’t cook up. Ross McIndoe
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