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The 5 best sci-fi movies to watch on Netflix in January

A new year means new worlds to explore

A female figure kneeling in the water by the shore in a yellow-tinged landscape in The Colony
The Colony
Photo: Saban Films

Polygon readers, welcome to the alarmingly futuristic-sounding year of 2023. There are a ton of great sci-fi movies in the months ahead, like the mysterious time-travel action thriller 65 starring Adam Driver, Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, not to mention the debut of Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN this week. If you’re looking for some brave new worlds to watch right now, though, from the comfort of your own home, relax — we’ve got you covered.

We’ve combed through Netflix’s library this month to bring our top picks for the best sci-fi movies currently available to stream on the service. Let’s dive in!

The Colony

Nora Arnezeder looks out over the desaturated, depressingly grey ocean in The Colony Photo: Saban Films

Year: 2021
Run time: 1h 44m
Director: Tim Fehlbaum
Cast: Nora Arnezeder, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Iain Glen

If you’re looking for a moody and melancholic sci-fi thriller that rubs shoulders with the tone of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and the aesthetic of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, Tim Fehlbaum’s 2021 film is perfect for you. Alternatively titled Tides, The Colony follows an expedition team from a human colony on a far-off planet known as Kepler-209 who return to Earth to test whether the planet is yet viable for human habitation. The inhabitants of Kepler-209 have become infertile since leaving the planet, and so returning to Earth now stands as humanity’s best and last hope for survival.

As Roxana Hadadi wrote in her review for Polygon:

In its early scenes, The Colony works as a plaintive visual exploration of what survival might look like if we continue on our ruinous climate path: constant flooding and swirling waters, movable cities built on rickety ships, nomadic people wrapped in outfits that protect them from the elements and allow for ease of movement. Cinematographer Markus Förderer and production designer Julian R. Wagner create a haunting world, but The Colony is sometimes too literal. Fehlbaum’s presentation of loneliness is packed with thuddingly obvious imagery (Blake alone on the beach, Blake alone in a well flooding with tidewater), but its first 20 or so minutes are a disquieting visualization of loss.

Illang: The Wolf Brigade

Gang Dong-won as Im Joong-kyung in his armor holding a pistol in Illang: The Wolf Brigade. Photo: Cho Won Jin/Netflix

Year: 2018
Run time: 2h 19m
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Gang Dong-won, Han Hyo-joo, Jung Woo-sung

A live-action adaptation of Hiroyuki Okiura and Mamoru Oshii’s 1999 anime thriller Jin-Roh, Kim Jee-woon’s 2018 film transforms the original’s alternate 1950s Japan setting to a reunified Korea circa 2024 while losing none of the former’s tonal melancholy and kinetic bite. The film follows Im Joong-kyung, a member of a heavily armed police force, whose nascent relationship with the sister of a suicide bomber shakes his resolve and forces him to question ethics of his actions. Don’t think of Illang: The Wolf Brigade as a replacement for Jin-Roh, but rather as a companion piece with its own take on the nuances and dehumanizing effects of domestic militarism for the sake of apparent peace. —TE

Minority Report

Tom Cruise’s John Anderton holds up the female precog as they embrace and look in different directions in profile in Minority Report Image: 20th Century Studios

Year: 2002
Run time: 2h 25m
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow

Tom Cruise stars in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story as John Anderton, a police captain in the year 2054 who serves as the commanding officer of an experimental new program that specializes in “Precrime” — predicting future instances of criminal activity and intervening before said crimes are committed. When John himself is implicated in a murder, he’ll have to outwit and outrun his colleagues in order to clear his name, all while tracking down the culprit or culprits responsible for framing him.

A sci-fi action thriller about the perils of institutional overreach and the power of human choice over predestination, the film’s production design has since gone on to inspire a generation of similar real-life innovations, including though not limited to personalized advertising and gesture-based motion-sensing user interface technology like Microsoft’s Kinect devices. —TE

The Mist

A giant multi-legged creature with writhing tendrils lumbering through a mist-covered landscape. Image: The Weinstein Company

Year: 2007
Run time: 2h 6m
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden

Frank Darabont is one of the reigning masters of successful Stephen King adaptations, responsible for such acclaimed films as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. 2007’s The Mist, Darabont’s third take on King’s work and his last film to date, follows the Drayton family — David, Steff, and their young son, Billy — who are forced to seek shelter in their local supermarket along with their neighbors in the wake of a mysterious storm that bathes their small town in a blanket of mist populated by bloodthirsty creatures.

It’s not just the creatures they have to worry about, however, as the townspeople begin to descend into idolatry and barbarism out a desperate desire to find security in the face of fear. There are a lot of great elements to The Mist, not the least of which is its ending — one that not only diverges significantly from that of the source material, but which has since earned significant praise from King himself. —TE


Two soldiers in futuristic armor and gas masks hunched behind an elaborate artillery rifle. Image: Legendary/Netflix

Year: 2016
Run time: 1h 47m
Director: Nic Mathieu
Cast: James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Emily Mortimer

If you’re itching for a sci-fi potboiler that’s less concerned with grandiose thematic depth and more with explosive urban warfare against extraterrestrial ghosts and ghouls, this is exactly what you’re looking for. Spectral follows Mark Clyne (James Badge Dale), a DARPA engineer who is assigned to a special forces unit in Moldova to investigate a strange phenomenon detected using his invention: an experimental line of hyperspectral imaging goggles. As it turns out, the soldiers themselves aren’t just detected by some unknown glitch, but ghostlike creatures who begin to attack the troops for their own inscrutable reasons. This is admittedly not an especially smart or original movie, but if a four-legged robot drone shining a gigantic flashlight cannon at a horde of shapeshifting smoke ghosts sounds cool, give this a shot. —TE

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