Netflix’s library is vast, and even when you hone down by genre, there’s still way too much for any one person to sift through.
Today, it’s time to get spacey and talk about the best sci-fi movies the platform has to offer. There are neat little indie projects, big blockbusters (including two in the category of “the first big space movie from a prolific filmmaking nation”), and all-time classics.
Let’s dig in.
Beyond Skyline and Skylines
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 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. The follow-up, Skylines, takes it even further, with an engaging superpowered story that sends the series to new heights. —Matt Patches
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? —MP
Yeon Sang-ho is consistently one of the most interesting sci-fi filmmakers working today, touching on different branches of the genre, like apocalyptic fiction (Train to Busan, Hellbound) and superhero fiction (Psychokinesis). His latest movie, JUNG_E, harkens back to even more classic science fiction touchstones: artificial intelligence, cloning, robots, and the commodification of people and bodies (with a side of the more modern “humans as data products”).
In JUNG_E, most humans have been sent fleeing to space after the ravages of climate change. Two factions have emerged from these space colonies, and have been warring for decades. Instead of a sprawling war movie, Yeon instead decides to focus on a much smaller story, much to JUNG_E’s benefit: one of a lonely scientist tasked with cloning the perfect soldier from the brain of her comatose mother. It’s a stirring performance from the late Kang Soo-yeon, who died before the release of the movie, one that requires her to interview versions of her mother before shutting them down for good.
While not as consistently thrilling as some of his previous projects, JUNG_E is still very solid science fiction action fare. The movie thrives on its designs, with great creatures augmented by incredible sound effects like shifting gears and whirring machinery that bring the mechanical creatures to life. Yeon’s animation background goes a long way to making this work, clearly aiding his ability to frame and integrate CG characters into the rest of JUNG_E’s environments. It is also bookended by some banger fight scenes, which is always a plus. —PV
JUNG_E is available to watch on Netflix.
The Mobile Suit Gundam trilogy
One of the first instances of an anime television series being reedited into a feature-length film, the Mobile Suit Gundam trilogy follows the story of Amuro Ray, a young boy living aboard a space colony in the future who unwittingly becomes the pilot of a prototype “Mobile Suit” known as the Gundam. Fleeing home along with his friends and neighbors aboard the White Base spaceship, Amuro is forced to fight against the Principality of Zeon in hopes of ending the war. All three films — Mobile Suit Gundam I, Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, and Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space — are not only a perfectly good introduction to one of the most influential mecha series of all time, but an important work in the history of anime that took a floundering franchise and transformed it into a cultural phenomenon in Japan. —TE
Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway
Set 12 years after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway is the first in an ongoing trilogy of films directed by Shuko Murase (Witch Hunter Robin, Blade Runner: Black Out 2022) that follow the story of Hathaway Noa, the errant son of Federation Captain Bright Noa from the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. Secretly leading a guerrilla war against the Earth Federation’s plot to privatize the planet, Noa pilots the experimental RX-105 Gundam into the latest battle to decide the course of humanity’s future. With intricate, traditionally animated mecha designs, beautiful character designs, and a tense, tightly wound plot, Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway is a thrilling sci-fi movie that’ll have you glued to your screen from start to finish. —TE
It’s honestly shocking that Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s terrifying movie The Platform is his debut feature: It’s polished and confident in a way that suggests a lifetime of filmmaking, and it’s deeply weird in a way that suggests a director with the cachet to get any “one for me” movie below a certain price point funded. In an eerie near-future, prisoners are kept in a facility consisting of bare concrete rooms, all connected by an open vertical shaft. Once a day, a magnificent banquet descends down the shaft on a floating platform — but the prisoners in the topmost cells eat everything they can, leaving a picked-over mess (or nothing at all) for those below them. It’s a simple, stark metaphor for wealth inequality, but Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia complicates it with brutal rules and clever wrinkles, then with character choices, as the inmates start arguing about how to respond to the system, and each chooses their own path. Darkly hilarious at times, depressingly grim at others, and endlessly surprising as the truth behind the strange facility gradually emerges, this clever, bloody metaphor movie is absolutely unique, and one of the best and strangest movies on Netflix. —TR
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 reenters 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 Hong Kong 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 Yeon never loses sight of why everyone showed up: to push the psychic conceit to bigger and bigger heights. —MP
Space Sweepers has it all — trenchant critiques of capitalism! A motley crew of space criminals banding together for a common cause! Trans themes as expressed through a lovable robot! Kick-ass fight sequences! Generally considered the first Korean space blockbuster, it whips. —PV
From our review:
Space Sweepers manages to rise above the familiarity of its concepts, bolstered by its cast’s sheer charisma. Its most exciting and moving moments are found in the back-and-forth between its ragtag cast of characters and the minor details of its near-future world. Imagining space as an extension of earthly capitalism certainly isn’t new, but at least Space Sweepers’ cast has the collective charm to make the material feel like fresh, worthwhile viewing among the increasing detritus of streaming content.
Somewhere between an escape-room horror movie and a found-family movie about a girl and her AI friend, Tau has a couple of formidable assets in its cast: The Guest’s Maika Monroe as the captive of a sleazy tech-bro genius, and sleaze extraordinaire Ed Skrein as that tech-bro genius. Gary Oldman as the AI that Monroe’s character needs to befriend to escape with her life is just a bonus. Tau is the definition of a small, insular sci-fi movie: When Alex (Skrein) captures Julia (Monroe) for experimental purposes, he keeps her contained at his super-tech house, run by an AI named Tau. The whole movie features just a few simple sets: It’s mostly about the battle of wits between Alex and Julia, and about Julia’s efforts to get Tau to acknowledge her humanity and help her escape. It’s tight, taut, efficient micro-budget sci-fi, with some memorable special effects thrown in for spice. —TR
The Wandering Earth
Billed as China’s first sci-fi blockbuster and built on a scale meant to fully justify that title, 2019’s The Wandering Earth presents its characters with a problem out of Snowpiercer — the Earth is freezing and everyone’s going to die. Then it gives them a solution straight out of ’50s sci-fi: Humanity decides to strap a ton of rockets onto Earth and fly it like a spaceship out of the solar system and toward another sun. Too bad Jupiter’s gravity well is right there. Like the equivalent American sci-fi blockbusters it closely resembles — Armageddon leaps instantly to mind — The Wandering Earth features giggle-worthy science and a sprawling cast of thinly defined characters playing out their own personal crises atop the global catastrophe than links them all. But the spectacle is excellent, the action is exciting, and the audacity of the whole thing is a lot of fun. Based on a short story by Three-Body Problem author Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth focuses enough on family drama to keep the story relevant and accessible, but the real draw is the scope and sweep of the film, and all the startling imagery a blockbuster budget can buy. —TR