The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Forgotten gems, beloved classics, and adventurous new curiosities.
Netflix can often seem like something out of a science-fiction movie—seriously, can you imagine telling yourself 15 years ago that you'd be able to stream your favorite movies on your phone while sitting on the beach? So, it's only fitting that genre junkies now use the streaming service to catch up on forgotten gems, beloved classics, and adventurous new curiosities, with more added (and others taken away) every single month. Put these movies on your list for the next time you want to boldly go where savvy Netflix users have gone before.
This movie, directed by Jennifer Phang, isn't looking to blow you away with its special effects. Instead, the near-futuristic story of a mother's dedication (Jacqueline Kim, who wrote the screenplay with Phang, stars as a single mom), objectification of women, and what the future of consciousness looks like hooks you with its heart. You'll recognize the pervasive contemporary sci-fi trope of consciousness uploading (hello, Black Mirror), but the depth of story prevents Advantageous from becoming another trite retread.
If you flipped for the Tom Cruise sci-fi Groundhog Day riff, Edge of Tomorrow, or the recent Frank Grillo respawn action comedy Boss Level, you might enjoy this smaller scale puzzle film from Orphan Black writer Tony Elliott. Canadian hunk Robbie Amell (Code 8, Amazon Prime's Upload) plays the movie's put-upon protagonist Renton, who keeps waking up in the midst of a home invasion, dying, and re-spawning in his bed. What it lacks in production budget—much of the action takes place in a single location and the costumes are run-of-the-mill dystopian fare—it makes up for with thorny plot twists and tricky ethical dilemmas. It'd be a better movie if it wasn't so damn serious the whole time, but, at a relatively brisk 88 minutes, it's a time loop thriller that doesn't overstay its welcome.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2019)
Netflix's sci-fi hit Black Mirror did the most Black Mirror thing it had ever done when the special Bandersnatch dropped on the platform. About a young video-game programmer (Fionn Whitehead) who wants to adapt a celebrated choose-your-own-adventure novel into a game, the special applies that theme a meta-meta level—whoaaaa—turning the episode into its own interactive program. It's formally daring in its willingness to take on a technologically advanced approach to storytelling, even if at times it can be quite frustrating figuring out how the special "works" or finding the "right" ending. Regardless, it's an interesting watch—and you happen to be a fetishist for 1980s video games, particularly those of Imagine Software, a company that went bankrupt before it could release the actual, Bandersnatch, you may feel particularly close to this special. It certainly gets points for experimenting.
Bird Box (2018)
The Sandra Bullock film took the internet by storm when it premiered in 2018, prompting vast numbers of people to watch and share their horrified reactions (as well as responses to a dangerous meme challenge). Bullock plays Malorie, a suburban single woman who finds herself, along with a hodgepodge of other people, trapped in an apocalyptic nightmare involving creatures who cause people to commit suicide on sight. If you look at them, you die, so everyone has to run around outside wearing blindfolds—and honestly, what horror movie trope is scarier than not being able to see? If you really dug A Quiet Place, but wish a different sense had been taken away from its main characters, Bird Box is for you.
Blade Runner (1982)
Director Ridley Scott went out of his way to imagine 2019 Los Angeles as a pretty terrible place to be, and yet the look, sound, and feel of the world are so seductive that we want to visit regardless. Same goes for the story: Blade Runner's plot is a barely warmed-over detective yarn with Harrison Ford in the role of the hard-boiled investigator, but we can feel glimmers of the pain and confusion of artificial humans who realize they are powerless against their predetermined fate. The movie is a triumph of world-building that still makes a mark on viewers and filmmakers years later.
Netflix pulled off the impossible with Blame!—exclamation point not optional—the cult-loved sci-fi/cyberpunk manga series by Tsutomu Nihei from 2000. Long chalked up to being unadaptable for the screen because of its hyper-detailed art, general oppressive sense of desolation, and scarce dialogue as the story of the super-powerful gunslinger Killy who doesn't need nobody, man, roving aimlessly through a dystopian underground futureworld full of fast killer robots, the creators of the made-for-Netflix anime series Knights of Sidonia hacked it with a rich, but not disorienting, 3D animation technique. By honing in on a defined arc that actually has people in it, Blame! the movie stakes humanity's very existence on a profoundly bleak narrative. If you enjoyed Ghost in the Shell and Akira, dig deeper into Blame!
The Discovery (2017)
In The Discovery, the afterlife exists. When a scientist played by Robert Redford breaks through to the other side to confirm its existence, a suicide epidemic ensues, with millions killing themselves in hopes of seeing the light. At the center of the story is the scientist’s son, Will (Jason Segel), and a woman he meets en route to his father’s lab/isolated mansion where many who attempted suicide are sent to work. Looking at Heaven as another plane of existence, and the repercussions of knowing what happens following life on Earth, The Discovery may be bleak, but the romantic plot (and mind-boggling ending) about the human connections we form during this life make for an intriguing concept that occasionally falters, but ultimately proves worth a watch.
You've seen movies about doomsday prepper parents who don't let their kids leave their house, and you've seen more than a few movies about creepy kids. Freaks puts the two together, starting out as one movie that slowly morphs into another, making one freaky flick about a little girl whose father (Emile Hirsh) locks her away until she figures out a way to escape and learns a great deal about herself, her own capabilities, and the dystopian society they live in. Freaks may not be the most high concept sci-fi feature, but it manages to be an intense vigilante mission even with its humble means.
I Am Mother (2019)
Artificial intelligence continues to inspire contemporary sci-fi, maybe even at an increasing rate as it becomes more and more integrated into daily life. I Am Mother finds a teenage girl (Clara Rugaard) raised in a post-apocalyptic underground shelter by a robot known as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), who's built to nurture a new generation and eventually send them back up to the surface, where much of humankind has been wiped out. But when a woman, played by Hilary Swank, arrives out of nowhere at their facility, the girl must reconsider all everything she knows, including her trust of Mother. It's a simple set-up, but exceedingly ominous in the sci-fi genre's tried and true trope of warning us of our dependence on technology.
Christopher Nolan's sci-fi masterpiece thrusts you into the world of dreams, and leaves you so bewildered that it's difficult to wake up. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a corporate spy who steals secrets by inserting himself in others' subconscious dream states, the film not only imagines this complex universe, it flips its structure, as DiCaprio’s man on the run is made to plan the perfect heist in order to leave behind his criminal life. Rather than stealing ideas, he's got to implant one—that's inception, baby!—with his team of specialists, resulting in a surrealist, multilayered film.
The Old Guard (2020)
Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of Greg Rucka's comic series is a superhero movie with a soul. It stars Charlize Theron as Andy, aka Andromache, a warrior who has lived for six millennia and doesn't really see the point anymore. But she and her team of fellow immortals are drawn back into conflict when they start being hunted by a pharmaceutical brat who wants to use them as test subjects. At the same time, a new member joins their ranks, Nile (KiKi Layne), who survives a throat-slitting and is inducted into this strange club. Prince-Bythewood melds immensely fun fight sequences—it's a joy to watch Theron throw a punch—with groundbreaking moments of quietude, including a gay romance that's like nothing you've seen before in an action movie.
There's a certain artistry to movies that revolve around only a single set: where the script and the characters are forced to make the most of a small space. In Alexandre Aja's Oxygen, the set is barely a set at all—it's a locked medical chamber with a woman (Mélanie Laurent) trapped inside, desperate to escape before her supply of breathable air runs out. All she has to help her are her spotty memories, a few phone calls, and a not-so-trusty A.I. system that can barely do anything actually helpful. It's a lean thriller, capable of sustaining your attention through all of its reveals, using everything at its disposal to craft a story that's fun, tense, and never boring. And when it's over, you'll want to take a big breath of fresh air.
Sometimes the best genre films are the most low-budget. Such is the case with Prospect, which started life as a short film before morphing into a feature and quietly became a very interesting sci-fi gem. When the father of a girl (Sophie Thatcher) is killed in a last-ditch attempt to steal precious material from a violent prospector, she finds herself helping her father's killer (Pedro Pascal) traverse an alien planet in a bid for survival. The film trades special effects for a moody jungle atmosphere and helmeted costumes that make a planet-hopping future look utterly believable.
Broadly speaking, Psychokinesis is a superhero film. It also happens to easily be one of the best of the superhero movies in recent years, and that's because the world developed by Korean director Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan) is decidedly not super. Following a man named Shin Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) who ingests a supernatural entity from a medical spring and (surprise!) discovers he's developed psychokinetic abilities, it's actually the relationship with his estranged daughter, Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung), and a mundane crisis she's in that puts his powers to good use. While it may not be the Marvel movies American audiences are familiar with, it has the same energy, grand sense of scale, and even a sense of levity. Yeon is just the rare breed of director who knows how to turn that kind of genre stamp to his advantage.
Real Steel (2011)
Sometimes you just want to watch a dumb movie with robots—and that's exactly what Real Steel is. Based on the Richard Matheson short story "Steel," the movie imagines a near future were sports are basically no more and it's all about watching the bots face off. In an odd turn for the actor, Hugh Jackman plays a down-on-his-luck former boxer dad who decides to get back into the ring when he programs a mechanical version of Rocky Balboa. It's rightfully silly and pulls from all of your favorite '80s robot flicks, but this one miraculously makes you care a whole lot and you'll find yourself just as pleasantly surprised by the visuals as you are the story.
In the near future, after a last-ditch attempt to reverse the effects of climate change turned the Earth into one giant ice cube, the last remaining survivors ride a giant train that circumnavigates the world once a year, each social class separated from the others and poorer the further down the train you go. The film's simple, almost video game-like plot—get to the front of the train, or die trying—allowed visionary South Korean director Bong Joon-ho to fill the screen with excitement, absurdity, and radical politics. Chris Evans never looked more alive, Tilda Swinton never stole more scenes, and mainstream blockbuster filmmaking never felt so tepid in comparison. Come on, ride the train!
Space Sweepers (2021)
Right from its first, electrifying sequence involving a bunch of bounty hunting spaceships chasing after a careering piece of garbage, Space Sweepers spins a far-future of multicultural, multilingual human life in space that's as exhilarating as it is crushingly dystopian. Tae-ho is a pilot aboard the freighter Victory, along with Captain Jang, engineer Tiger Park, and loudmouthed robot Bubs, all of them part of an outer-space trash-collecting bounty-hunter guild known as the Space Sweepers, who capture space junk and sell it for parts. After a particularly harrowing chase, the crew finds a little girl hiding in a derelict spaceship, who just happens to be a nanobot-filled android that a group of space terrorists have fitted with a hydrogen bomb. At first the Victory crew plans to sell the "little girl" back to the terrorist group who lost her, before they realize that she's much more special than she seems.
The splashy horror-action movie was meant to play in theaters, but producers opted to bypass theatrical release and sell the movie to Netflix. Maybe Spectral would have bombed at the box office, but this genre mash-up, about a bunch of soldiers who are sent to destroy a mysteriously otherworldly enemy (ghosts, basically) and find themselves trapped behind enemy lines with an adversary they don't understand, is pretty damn entertaining on the home screen. Spectral plays a lot like a movie version of a video game, with one big difference: there's velocity and character and enough mystery to sustain the ride.
Roland Emmerich's bonkers interplanetary sword-and-sandals sci-fi epic is perhaps most notorious for spawning a host of television shows—Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe, if you're counting—but those shows all lacked one essential ingredient: Kurt Russell as military-beret-sporting Colonel Jack O'Neil. With a flat top, fatigues, and a lot of macho swagger, Russell is brilliant in hardened commando mode, serving as the perfect counterpoint to James Spader’s befuddled, nerdy archeologist. About the discovery of a teleportation "stargate" that takes researchers on a journey lightyears away to a civilization much like ancient Egypt, the movie's complex mythology and production design befuddled audiences upon its release, and still doesn't make much sense. Alas, the fanaticism and Russell delivering lines like, "Give my regards to King Tut, asshole," is a sight to behold.
Star Trek (2009)
Before J.J. Abrams took on another billion-dollar space opera franchise with "Star" in the title, he revamped Star Trek, casting a new generation of famous faces as the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, and created an alternate Trek universe to boot. Chris Pine plays newly minted Starfleet officer James T. Kirk fresh out of the Academy and eager to prove himself a capable officer, but he'll have to fight off a ship full of villainous space-hopping Romulans bent on global destruction first. Not to mention his fellow officer, some Vulcan upstart named Spock (Zachary Quinto), is a bit of a dickhead.
Directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have a very distinct style: weird stuff in the sky, complicated brotherly relationships between men, new and fascinating conceptions of the nature of time. Synchronic is another dive into the depths of what the fabric of the universe is woven from, spinning a wild tale of death, drugs, and time travel amidst the dim, sinister backdrop of nighttime New Orleans. Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie play a pair of EMTs cruising the NOLA nights responding to emergency distress calls. On a few of these calls, they come across a number of people who have either mysteriously disappeared or somehow wound up dead, each incident having to do with a new drug called "Synchronic." When Dornan's daughter goes missing, his friend must figure out how to use the killer drug to find her.
Total Recall (1990)
Skip the completely forgettable Colin Farrell remake from 2012. This Arnold Schwarzenegger-powered, action-filled sci-fi movie is the one to go with. Working from a short story by writer Philip K. Dick, director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop) uses a brain-teasing premise—you can buy "fake" vacation memories from a mysterious company called Rekall—to stage one of his hyper-violent, winkingly absurd cartoons. The bizarre images of life on Mars and silly one-liners from Arnold fly so fast that you'll begin to think the whole movie was designed to be implanted in your mind.
The Wandering Earth (2019)
The Wandering Earth's premise introduces a future Earth that has been converted into a planet-sized spaceship by installing enormous rocket engines onto one hemisphere in order to drive it away from a dying sun that has become fatally cold… and then spends the entire film following a bunch of people in a truck. So, where the disaster movie lacks in original story, it makes up for in the most stunning of special effects. To American audiences, the foreign movie was a bit of a curiosity upon its release, despite being one of China's highest-grossing films ever made. It's worth checking out for the hype alone—what you'll find is visuals that dazzle far beyond the typical Hollywood blockbuster.