Astronomers believe that there are more than 40 billion planets inhabiting the space of the Milky Way. There are nearly as many movies filed under Netflix’s “sci-fi & fantasy” tag.
Reaching them all in a single lifetime would require light-speed Wi-Fi and a galaxy brain, so allow us to provide a streaming wormhole. Tucked under the gas giants of the platform — we don’t need to tell you to watch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Armageddon or Guardians of the Galaxy — these are the Netflix sci-fi movies you should actually watch (and soon — they could pull a Krypton and disappear from the platform at any moment).
From Korean animator Yeon Sang-ho — best known for his jump to live action, 2016’s zombie knockout Train to Busan (also on Netflix) — Psychokinesis follows Shin, a bumbling, borderline-alcoholic security guard who drinks from a mountain spring recently infected by a meteorite and gains telekinetic powers. Ryu Seung-ryong is a joy as the oaf, who’s learning to control his abilities just as his estranged daughter re-enters his life and sucks him into a real-estate-driven class war. Psychokinesis plays Shin’s “fighting style” for laughs, and while it’s not as cartoonish as Chinese director Stephen Chow’s genre hybrids, the movie can make the flying object mayhem both cheeky and thrilling. The political edge gives weight to Shin’s superpowered decisions, but Sang-ho never loses sight of why everyone showed up: to push the psychic conceit to bigger and bigger heights.
Beyond Skyline (2017)
2010’s Skyline was nothing to phone home about, an alien-invasion epic with the heart of a DIY special effects reel. So no one would fault you for overlooking the unsolicited sequel ... and yet, here we are ecstatically recommending it. B-movie bruiser Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) stars in the playfully vicious continuation Beyond Skyline, which finds his his LAPD detective rescuing his son from abduction, then rescuing his son from inside the hull of a brain-extracting vessel, then rescuing a hybrid alien-human baby from a battalion of slobbering aliens, then helping a band of Laotian freedom fighters rescue humanity from the final wave of the invasion. Violent and brazen with full-bodied alien action (whatever the opposite of Alien’s hide-the-creatures-in-the-shadows scariness is, this is it), Beyond Skyline orchestrates mayhem like the best direct-to-DVD schlockfests, hands Grillo the conductor baton, then gives The Raid’s Iko Uwais just enough extraterrestrial-smashing solos to qualify as a romp.
April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
Based on the style of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi (who also provided the basis for the story), this French-Belgian animated thriller starts with a gene-splicing experiment gone wrong, twists with a plot to kidnap the world’s scientists, then introduces us to a politically torn steampunk world through the eyes of April, a brilliant orphan developing a serum that could infinitely extend human life. Brimming with ideas that feel torn from Jules Verne’s notebooks and illustrated with the whimsical darkness of Hayao Miyazaki, April and the Extraordinary World is closer to a living, breathing Tintin movie than even Spielberg could get. Yes, you have to settle for the English dub on Netflix, but in the end, it’s the visuals that whisk you away.
Without warning, and without a clue how they wound up confined to a circular death grid, 50 people find themselves playing the most literal round of Survivor ever. Every two minutes, the participants — from across the demographic spectrum of age, race and profession — cast psychic votes to determine the next victim of an energy-blasting alien orb. And every two minutes, the remaining men and women try to make sense of the situation, befriend their fellow prisoners, talk through their personal histories and put aside their differences to decide who’s worthy of making it out alive. Like a blunt sociology 101 experiment, the low-budget, highly effective Circle investigates the morals of a modern society by horrific means. What would you do?
Speaking of a bunch of helpless people incarcerated in a high-tech death trap, Splice and Westworld director Vincenzo Natali made his debut with this surrealist (and cubist) nightmare, about six people, each with their own expert skills, who must escape an ever-changing labyrinth of block rooms. With touches of Jean-Paul Sartre and David Cronenberg, Natali’s sci-fi experiment again confronts the friction of personalities and problem-solving as the group outruns a multitude of traps. With a steely design and enough number-crunching to make you wish you paid a little more attention in calculus, Cube is so absorbing, you’ll think watching Cube 2: Hypercube (also on Netflix) is a good idea.
Netflix lured Duncan Jones (Source Code) by promising to produce his Blade Runner-adjacent passion project, Mute, which turned out to be an overstuffed bag of eye candy. Much more measured is Jones’ directorial debut, this lo-fi psychological thriller about a man named Sam who spends his days harvesting helium-3 from lunar soil as the sole miner stationed on Earth’s moon. But Sam isn’t alone, and when he finally makes contact with the other humanoid on the rocky satellite, his entire world is turned upside down. The zero-g doesn’t make it any easier. Anchored by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell’s brittle performance and realized with lush practical effects, this indie sci-fi film takes the best lessons from The Twilight Zone to new heights.
They Call Me Jeeg (2015)
America’s not the only country fascinated by superhero stories. An ode to the 1970s anime Steel Jeeg by way of Unbreakable, this Italian drama stars Claudio Santamaria (who filled in for Christian Bale in the Italian dub of Batman Begins!) as Enzo, a deadbeat thief who accidentally dives into radioactive sewage while fleeing the police. The sludge imbues him with super strength and rapid healing, the perfect combination to … commit more theft. A moral tale with actual grit in its teeth, They Call Me Jeeg finds inventive ways to tie feats of strength to Enzo’s turn toward goodness. He stoops — his sexual frustration turns an allyship with Alessia, a young woman suffering from apparent mental developmental disorder, into a problematic relationship in need of mending — but with a slimy gangster wreaking havoc on Rome, and some agile acting doing the actual heavy lifting, Enzo eventually prevails. Clever and rousing, They Call Me Jeeg is a welcome alternative to the bombast of the year’s “epic” comic-book movies.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Before Steven Spielberg repurposed the towering hunk of sentient metal as the ultimate weapon in Ready Player One, The Iron Giant was the late-’90s answer to E.T.: an unknown from the great beyond who fell into the right youth’s hands. While the Giant’s oversized learning experiences and heroic acts are the real joys of Brad Bird’s 2D animated film, it’s Hogarth Hughes — the epitome of uncool comic-book reader, the antithesis of 1950s manliness and an ideological adversary to everything happening in the Cold War — who makes this one of the final sci-fi masterpieces of the 20th century.
The art deco wonders of Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic will never go out of fashion. Restored to its full two-hour-and-20-minute length, with footage thought to have been lost to time until it was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008, this story of the working class functioning as the gears of a futuristic machine society, and an infiltrating robot who could lead the people to their demise, is rendered with a high-definition clarity that does Lang’s shadowy theatrics justice. The restored cut comes soundtracked by a booming orchestral score, but since there’s no dialogue, feel free to program Freddie Mercury’s alternate 1984 soundtrack or lo-fi hip-hop beats for a more muted experience.
Europa Report (2013)
The genre of “found-footage movie” will be remembered for many (many) shaky misfires and a few inventive applications. Departing from the Blair Witch Project “running with camera” mode, Europa Report builds a handful of cameras into the walls of a spaceship to create a kind of Big Brother in Space for the crew members of mankind’s first mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. In the world of the film, a private corporation hopes to turn Earth’s first contact (however microscopic) into a prime-time TV win. Unfortunately, solar storms, thin Europan ice and closer encounters than anyone on board hoped for throw the crew off course. The inventive choice from director Sebastián Cordero (Crónicas) is to keep all the cameras affixed at all moments, allowing the actors to navigate the built-to-size space capsule like a stage, which results in a spooky sci-fi picture with the integrity of a documentary.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s phantasmagoric Speed Racer is back in the spotlight, celebrating its 10th anniversary with a home on Netflix. And while the living, breathing anime deserves all the glory, Cloud Atlas, their mostly overlooked masterwork, needs even more of an endorsement. Adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, the movie intertwines six stories set in six different time periods, ranging from the 1840s to the present day and into the 2300s, a post-apocalyptic future where society has reverted back to near-prehistoric life. The film was an atomic dud at the box office in 2012, and watching the movie, it’s easy to see why: At first disparate, jumping from a high-seas slave drama to loony British comedy to futuristic Korea (complete with questionable, near-yellowface special effects) to what’s essentially ’70s detective television, the elements only begin to add up when the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) thread a needle through space-time by connecting the actions and emotions of the key characters. A thrill on a performance level — each actor picks up a role in the various stories — Cloud Atlas gets under your skin if you commit the time. Only the visionaries behind The Matrix could convince deep-pocketed businessfolk to fund something this grand and experimental, and “fail” with such spectacle.
Tremors 5: Bloodline (2015)
Since the original Tremors entered cult status in 1990, its slithering “graboid” monsters have appeared in four direct-to-video sequels, a direct-to-video prequel, a short-lived TV series and another attempt at a series that revived Kevin Bacon’s Valentine ... but died at the pilot stage. That’s a lot of worm-blasting madness, and very little of it recommendable. But we fully endorse the series’ fifth installment, which again stars Michael Gross as the Southern-fried, Clint Eastwood-esque hunter Burt Gummer. Transplanting the action to South Africa, Bloodline finds Gummer and his loudmouthed new sidekick (a shockingly tolerable Jamie Kennedy) hunting down graboids, bipedal shriekers and airborne “ass-blasters” to protect a threatened animal refuge. While Bloodline was clearly churned out “for the fans,” an effective blend of the Tremors franchise’s sturdy creature design and Jurassic Park make it a worthwhile sci-horror-comedy for casual viewers — i.e., anyone who needs a movie that can live up to the line, “Fly right into my crosshairs, you fire-farting son of a bitch!”
There are good Nicolas Cage movies, bad Nicolas Cage movies and good-bad Nicolas Cage movies. Next is a premier entry in the third category, a dopey sci-fi thriller centered on Cris Johnson, a psychic who uses his power of seeing two minutes into the future to game Las Vegas blackjack tables and search for a brunette woman from his one and only long-range vision. Loosely based on The Golden Man by Philip K. Dick, the movie pits Cage’s whispery burnout against Julianne Moore’s determined FBI agent, who wants Cris to help her prevent a nuclear detonation. It’t rue shlock that sports an awe-inspiring, vacant-yet-baroque Cage performance, and we probably wouldn’t recommend enduring this if it weren’t for an all-timer twist in the final act. Resist the temptation to chuck your TV out a window when Next wallops you with the movie equivalent of a Rickroll.