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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Tri-Star Pictures

“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


Blade Runner

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

The dying Earth of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reeks of pathos, dust, and decay, but it seems functional—beset by entropy, but functional all the same. The grunge and rot of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, by contrast, owes a sizable debt to the legacies of film noir and steampunk: a future defined by overdevelopment, underregulation, hubris, and greed. Nearly a minor character in the book, almost on the level of some expendable Dragnet hoodlum, Roy (Rutger Hauer) is transformed into the film’s evil superhuman, a universal adaptor capable of being fixed with any major philosophical lens (Nietzsche, Kant, Descartes, etc.). No one mourns in the film, except in a stolen moment (when Roy discovers Daryl Hannah’s defeated Pris), and Scott uses a reliable surrogate for tears to pay respects, on our behalf, when Roy’s spirit finally takes flight. Tears in the rain, indeed. Jaime N. Christley


The End of Evangelion

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. Jake Cole


Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Mars Attacks! is precisely the film about an alien invasion of Earth that Tim Burton’s legion of fans expected him to release. A veritable masterpiece alongside ugly CG ducklings like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s gonzo rendering of a 1960s trading card series is the blackest of sci-fi satires, its goodies ranging from the prescient merger of Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with the body of a lapdog to the unabashedly abrupt vaporization of Jack Black. Sylvia Sydney, rest her dear soul, put the cherry on the cake with her immortal line of demented glee: “They blew up Congress! Hahaha!” R. Kurt Osenlund


Okja

Okja (2017)

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

Oxygen (2021)

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


Real Steel

Real Steel (2011)

Shawn Levy’s uplifting sci-fi sports drama Real Steel has little new to offer anyone over the age of 10, but then, that’s about its target audience, who will also be unlikely to notice the overarching imprint of executive-producer Steven Spielberg on the dads-and-boys-fighting-‘bots-amid-Midwestern-cornfields proceedings. Still, if familiarity is endemic to this feel-good drama, there’s nonetheless also something to be said for competent amalgamation and regurgitation of tired genre tropes. In that respect, Real Steel is a mildly well-oiled machine, delivering hardship, redemption and rock-‘em-sock-‘em fisticuffs—much of it shot in sparkling daylight and lovely magic-hour hues, or in glistening arena-neon flashiness—with enough proficiency to make its schmaltz go down relatively smoothly. Nick Schager


Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. After an ice age is kicked into motion by out-of-control global warming, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Bowen


Total Recall

Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven’s film about fake memories and real interplanetary crisis is redolent with nostalgia, both for its time and itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the other, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Christley

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