Gone are the days when the best science fiction movies on Netflix included a Tarkovsky gem or Re-Animator or a Star Trek joint or (during the true halcyon beginnings of the streaming service) Blade Runner. Today, much of Netflix’s Sci-fi library is filled with recently-released-to-VOD micro-budget titles with the exception of a classic or two.
In other words, Sci-fi isn’t exactly a strong point in the realm of what Netflix has for genre offerings, but there is still plenty to pick from if you feel like bemoaning the destiny of our technological world. Though we’ve avoided superhero movies and fantasy-first films—to be included in future lists—we’ve picked the best of what remains, which still provides plenty to wreck your every conception of reality and human potential, from medieval alien grotesquerie to a 16-minute animated short, from films released at the beginning of the 20th century to those new to the service as of two or three weeks ago.
For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following. Whatever the future holds, for the time-being check out our choices for the 25 best Sci-fi movies on Netflix.
25. Fire in the Sky
Director: Robert Lieberman
Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) may or may not be a rambling loon who said he was abducted by aliens in 1975, but at least we got Fire in the Sky out of it. Robert Patrick appears against type as a guy who isn’t a liquid metal killer robot from the future, in a role that probably set him up for a permanent spot on The X-Files. You can call it a mystery, in a vaguely Twin Peaks-like fashion, but there’s also a pretty deep vein of existential horror in Fire in the Sky, amplified by the truly terrifying “probing” scenes with the aliens, which are presented in graphic detail. It’s a film about our powerlessness and insignificance on a cosmic scale, made only worse by our indifference toward the buried pain of our friends and neighbors. —Jim Vorel
24. Europa Report
Director: Sebastian Cordero
With echoes of 2001, director Sebastian Cordero’s innovatively structured thriller enthralls with not only its apparent scientific accuracy, but the passion it portrays among a class of people historically characterized by pocket protectors, taped eyewear and social awkwardness. Aboard the Europa One (Kubrick’s vessel was called the Discovery One), the six scientists bound for Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons (HAL and his crew were headed for the gas giant itself), are living, breathing human beings, with families and fears, ambition and emotions. They’re also just smarter than most of us and on a mission more significant than any of us will experience ever in our lives. The stakes are high in this mock doc/faux found-footage mystery, in which the privately funded space exploration company Europa Ventures issues a documentary on the fate of its first manned mission to investigate the possibility of alien life within our solar system. The sacrifices may be steep, but Europa Report is convinced—and wants to convince you—that this is what it will take to explore such frontiers. —Annlee Ellingson
Director: Tim Johnson
Home is a hammy, intro-to-colonialism flick for kids, the precursor to Disney’s 2016 intro-to-racism film, Zootopia. But Home’s goofy, hyperbolic melodrama works in its favor, in large part because said goofy, hyperbolic melodrama is couched within the parameters of animated children’s fare, and is more palatable as a result. If you’re the parent of young kids, and if you want to introduce them to the joys of science-fiction, Home is a fine place to start, where Oh (Jim Parsons), an endearingly loquacious member of the alien race known as the Boovs, befriends Tip (Rihanna), a teenager searching for her mother in Australia. (On paper you’d think Parsons and Rihanna’d go together like peanut butter and pickles, but they’re utterly charming as a team.) Why Australia? Because that’s where the Boovs relocate all of humanity following a “friendly” invasion of Earth, which they deem a suitable planet to call their new home after escaping their enemies, the Gorg. It’s a bit basic, but basic works in Home’s favor, allowing its darker subtext to shine without feeling overwhelming for kids or dishonest for adults. —Andy Crump
22. Death Race 2050
Director: G.J. Echternkamp
The first official sequel to Paul Bertel’s Death Race 2000—43 years later—the almost mathematically sound Death Race 2050 is almost worthy of inheriting its predecessor’s cult lineage, but can’t quite get an insightful enough bead on the many issues it attempts to skewer. It’s dumb, and it knows it’s dumb—knows that it should be dumb—but it doesn’t actually want to be dumb, which is probably where it goes from sci-fi action romp to dour thriller and pushes to a climax that literally burns everything to the ground. Just as our country deserves. Still, director G.J. Echternkamp—who’s on Netflix five times, twice as the director of the documentary and the film based on the documentary about his dysfunctional parents—knows how to squeeze every drop of insanity from an already-strangled budget, which makes the scope of Death Race 2050 even more impressive. It’s a big dumb movie about a future cross-country race in which killing innocent people is rewarded and mass destruction a given, but it’s also a Marxist screed against a dystopic future in which the means of labor are taken from us and society is subdued by virtual reality fantasy, as well as the best representation in over a decade of Malcolm McDowell at his purest: puerile, pompous and entirely game for whatever. —Dom Sinacola
21. Perfect Sense
Director: David Mackenzie
Great romantic dramas with a sci-fi twist aren’t the kind of thing that come along on a regular basis, which is just one reason that David Mackenzie’s (Hell or High Water) Perfect Sense should have received both more attention and acclaim. Starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, it’s got the star power and gravitas to pull off an ambitious, unique, highly emotional story about how mankind deals with loss. As a mysterious pandemic sweeps the globe, everyone begins to lose specific senses, one after another. First, the entire world loses its sense of smell, and life must adapt accordingly. Then, taste is lost, and once again life must find a way to go on. McGregor and Green play lovers just beginning a relationship as the world begins to collapse around them, and the film meanders its way through their shifting of priorities. Uncompromising in its vision and consequences, Perfect Sense can be a bit dire, but it’s always beautiful. —J.V.
20. The Road
Director: John Hillcoat
The Road, like any Cormac McCarthy adaptation, isn’t a picnic. What’s remarkable about the film is that it’s both softer and harsher than McCarthy’s original novel at the same time—a tad more sentimental, but by virtue of its medium it’s also more confrontational and visceral, which makes the experience of watching it soul-sucking as only cinema about the apocalypse can be. But consider the director, John Hillcoat, who made 2005’s The Proposition prior to The Road. In The Road, as in The Proposition, Hillcoat imagines the world around us as a blasted landscape, though here he has traded out his hellish portrait of the Australian outback for a desolate, ash-coated post-American landscape where trusting strangers is a death sentence and constant paranoia the key to survival. (He also shot on location in Oregon, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.) The most succor you’ll find in The Road is in leading performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen, playing a father-son duo making their way to the coast across a devastated nation. They give the film a heart that its scenery and action wholly lack. —A.C.
19. Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Directors: Byron Haskin
In which the most useless astronaut in the universe gets away with calling an alien “retarded” and forms a semi-functional love affair with his space-monkey, Mona. Dopey sci-fi fairy tale, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a relic of its time, but it’s still worth revisiting to appreciate the obvious care director Byron Haskin sunk into his visuals. Every Martian landscape is a vast, beautiful orange tundra upon which Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee), interstellar nitwit and incompetent human ambassador, lumbers, failing at every turn to demonstrate any shred of the basic survival training one would assume an astronaut would be required to have. Watching Draper struggle through the painful thought process of interpreting the otherworldly terrain around him becomes unbearable, especially when he basically tells the camera what his situation is (“I have only enough air for six hours if I don’t over-exert myself”) and then does the opposite (sprints toward the downed ship of his astronaut friend, though it’s obvious dude’s dead and there’s no point in running). Whether this is how Haskin imagined his future—a time when even the most brazen morons can conquer space travel—or he just wasn’t concerned with the content of his story so much as how it looked, there is only this, his weirdly engaging film, and a humanoid space-slave dressed up like Mayan He-Man. —D.S.
18. Turbo Kid
Directors: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Turbo Kid is a joyous experience, the kind of insane indie wish-fulfillment that I can only imagine inspires other indie filmmakers to say “Well if that guy can pull off this movie, then I need to make a movie of my own.” It’s a gloriously absurd ode to ’80s era kids movies, apocalypse fiction and gore-centric horror, full of neon colors and exploding heads. The hyper-bloody ultraviolence in particular is insanely impressive, on a level rarely seen outside the likes of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Add a twist of Michael Ironside playing a ham-fisted parody of his villain roles in movies like Scanners (talk about exploding heads…) and Total Recall, and you have a serious cult classic in the making. Turbo Kid sells itself on its premise and iconography, but it’s far better than it truly has to be. —J.V.
17. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Early in Wyrmwood, not minutes before his head’s exploded, a hirsute, genial lumberjack of a fella (Yure Covich) pauses amidst all the chaos of the burgeoning Zombie Apocalypse and sighs, “Zombies—I can’t get used to it in my head, y’know?” We do know, is the thing. Wyrmwood operates in a world whose pop culture is just as heavily saturated by undead lore as our own. As soon as any character witnesses another human gone suspiciously feral, there is no weighing of moral choice, there is only action: mallet to the face, axe to the neck, headshot, headshot, headshot. Even the terminology used to describe such an unthinkable situation is steeped in years of TV and movie know-how; no one in this film needs to be told twice about what to expect with “zombies” running about, and Wyrmwood rarely pauses to let its ideas settle. Which is probably its greatest strength: the action is breakneck, reckless and balls first, willing to risk those balls for some exceptionally kinetic low-budget awesomeness. As, together, the characters gradually come to learn the rules of this new world they’re traversing, all the while running into one more increasingly bonkers fracas after another, so does the audience, unconcerned with the political or social ramifications of a zombie epidemic so far as they push us into the next bloodbath. Because that’s just how a movie like this works, and everyone knows that. —D.S.
Director: Roger Vadim
Barbarella was a unique film when it was released in 1968, and it remains something very unusual as it approaches its 50th anniversary: A blend of science fiction, fantasy and erotica that plays it both campy and straight, depending on its mood. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella is a young space vixen trained in the “art of love,” but she’s also something of an ingénue without any experience in the real world. The sets, costumes and production design rightfully earned the film attention upon its initial release, being fabulously lush and colorful, making for gothic grandeur in space, except with more boobs, and Space Mutiny’s John Philip Law to boot. The film may have sold itself upon a vaguely defined promise of titillation, but those artistic flourishes ended up proving more influential for the next generation of ’70s science fiction. Barbarella is never going to be a film afforded much respect, but B-movie directors of its day can testify to the lasting impact it had on both exploitation and tawdry sci-fi. —J.V.
15. The Fly
Director: Kurt Neumann
David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake with Jeff Goldblum is great, but it’s so much more visceral than the campy 1958 original. In fact, Kurt Neumann’s The Fly probably isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be—the ’50s sci-fi charm is indeed there, but not without some solid performances and an intriguing structure. In many ways, the film is more of a mystery than the science or horror it purports to be, revolving around the police investigation of why a woman killed her husband with a hydraulic press. Eventually it’s revealed that the only thing left for her to do was to squish him after he developed a bad case of fruit fly-head, but the build to that reveal is both effective and suspenseful. It’s one of the finest and most rewatchable films in the 1950s sci-fi canon more than half a century later—also, Vincent Price is in it, so I rest my case. —J.V.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Gareth Edwards’ 2010 feature directorial debut takes place six years after a returning space probe deposits some alien life on Earth—alien life that, if not purposefully hostile, sure kills a lot of humans. Photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is tasked with finding his boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) and getting her out of the now-quarantined Mexico. (Complications arise.) An immensely enjoyable little film set mid-apocalypse, Monsters eschews budget-sinking bombast and melodramatic spectacle for an intimate, “And then what happened…?” approach that fascinates by sticking so close to its protagonists the viewer has as little idea about what’s coming next as the characters do. As a result, Monsters is quietly fascinating (even when the action heats up, shots are fired and tentacles flail). Edwards’ next monster film, a little something called Godzilla, wasn’t quite so intimate—but the havoc wreaked by the King of Monsters owes at least a small debt to the work this little sci-fi gem did in putting its director on Warner Bros.’ radar. —Michael Burgin
13. Young Ones
Director Jake Paltrow
Like a western directed by John Ford with whispers of ’70s grindhouse, Young Ones has a mighty thirst for rugged vistas and grimy lives spent on the fringe. From his film’s first gory moment to its last, writer-director Jake Paltrow covers plenty of ground telling the story of hydro-farmers barely surviving a post-apocalyptic past, world-building with economy while fine-tuning his sci-fi melodrama down to its foundation. As is the case with any director who’s ever worked with him, Michael Shannon is Paltrow’s rock, demonstrating that—as is the case with any role he plays—the role of “broken future pilgrim” is a role the actor’s born to play. And in Shannon’s shadow, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Nicholas Hoult hold their own as the two other pieces to Paltrow’s triptych structure. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning slowly withers in the background, a silhouette of a character with little to contribute. Still, Paltrow’s clearest case for his future in great genre filmmaking are his slight touches—The Jetsons-like button-down shirts; the unique way a shotgun is cocked; a paraplegic’s bodysuit; a gold tooth—allowing him to both demonstrate his adoration for, and transcend, his genre trappings. —D.S.
12. John Dies at the End
Director: Don Coscarelli
Your ability to withstand the absurdity of John Dies at the End will depend almost entirely on if you’re able to tolerate nonlinear storylines and characters who, woven together, tax the lengths of the imagination. An oftimes crude and farcical combination of horror, drug culture, and philosophical sci-fi, it’s a film you won’t entirely grasp until you’ve seen it for yourself. Central is a drug known as “soy sauce,” which causes the user to see outside the concept of linear time, existing at all times at once, similar to the alien beings from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Also appearing: phantom limbs, an alien consciousness known as “Shitload,” a heroic dog, Paul Giamatti and an evil, interdimensional supercomputer. No drugs necessary—John Dies at the End will make you feel like you’ve already ransacked your medicine cabinet. —J.V.
11. The Host
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Before he broke out internationally with tight action film Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho made his biggest work and calling card this South Korean monster movie. Astoundingly successful at the box office in his home country, The Host straddles several genre lines between sci-fi, family drama and horror, but props go to the creature designers especially for one of the more unique movie monsters of the last few decades—something that looks sort of like a giant tadpole with teeth and legs, but way more awesome than that sounds. The real heart of the film is a superb performance by Song Kang-ho (also in Snowpiercer) as a seemingly slow-witted father trying to hold his family together during a disaster. Which is a pretty common role to be playing in any horror film, but the director’s emphasis on family dynamics, as well as the great performances he gets, help elevate The Host far above most of its ilk. —J.V.
10. A Trip to the Moon
Director: Georges Méliès
While A Trip to the Moon only lasts 15 minutes, it still feels epic (and that runtime wasn’t considered so short in 1902). In turn, this light, colorful (make sure you watch the hand-painted, restored version, linked above) collage of whimsy follows a premise that would go on to serve sci-fi adventure films for more than a century: People embark on a journey and crazy shit goes down. With its long, stagy takes and flat compositions, the primitive nature of the film is apparent, but Méliès makes up for it with charm. Modern viewers instinctively know how to spot basic camera trickery, especially when perspective and scale aren’t quite right. Méliès, however, understood his limitations, embraced the artifice and, with that moon face taking a rocket to the eye, created something iconic. —J.M.
9. Hard to Be a God
Director: Aleksei German
Aleksei German’s final film is a stark, wild journey through medieval sci-fi filth. Like the drunken bastard child of a dreamy Andrei Tarkovsky epic and a Terry Gilliam yarn, in Hard to Be a God we see hints of Tarkovsky’s pensive takes, as well as his predilection toward existential speculative fiction (he adapted his 1979 film Stalker from a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same Russian brothers who wrote Hard to Be a God in 1964), coupled with a sort of sensory overload as German’s frames wander through countless intricate details that call to mind Gilliam, another director attracted to obsessive, timeless dystopia. Tarkovsky may have a penchant for surreal confusion, but he anchors his oneiric sensibilities in characters’ motivations, desires and souls. Here, there’s no real motivation, no real desire and no real soul, just a crawl through depravity. But if that’s all you’re after, then: This shit is executed majestically. —J.M.
8. Upstream Color
Director: Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds a stunning mosaic of lives overwhelmed by decisions outside their control, of people who don’t understand the underlying energy that rules their lives. Told with stylistic bravado and minimal dialogue (none in its final 30 minutes), the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings. The abstract visuals—from underwater schist to microscopic photography—combine with extraordinary sound design and rhythmic cross-cutting to create a hypnotic portrait of the story’s intertwined lives (connected by a small worm whose parasitic endeavors link people together). But Carruth doesn’t bother with expository sci-fi gibberish—the organism does what it does, and that’s all we need to know—allowing Caruth more time to explore the emotional impact the organism has on the characters it binds together. Ultimately, that’s where Upstream Color thrives: An elaborate intellectual concept fuels the film, but a rich sense of humanity gives it power. —J.M.
Director: Lars von Trier
If you want a really, really disturbingly beautiful apocalypse, you can’t go wrong with Lars von Trier. Melancholia is the second of a trilogy of films in which the director dives into the nature of depression. It revolves around two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—after a staccato series of prologue images set to Wagner (if you’ve ever experienced severe depression you’ll recognize the choppy, distanced, “underwater” quality of this first section), we open on Justine’s wedding reception. There is something seriously wrong with these people. Or is there? It seems like Justine’s boss is actually harassing her for ad copy in the middle of her own wedding toast. It seems like her father is a raging narcissist and her mother is “honest” in a way that makes you want to never take a phone call from her, ever. Everything seems off. And that’s before anyone realizes a runaway planet called Melancholia might be on a collision course with Earth. —Amy Glynn
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Contact seems almost calculated as the sort of cerebral sci-fi to appeal to critics rather than multiplex audiences, who could be frustrated with its philosophical, open-ended conclusion about “first contact” that questions whether any of what Jodie Foster’s character experienced really happened at all. Still, Contact is a beautiful film about the struggle between the tangible and the ephemeral, between faith, intellect and ambition. Ellie (Foster) is innately sympathetic, a woman with a selfless streak who nonetheless on some level seeks a very personal validation in being chosen as humanity’s representative to meet an alien race. The film challenges us to consider the depth of our inconsequential standing in the universe, and how different aspects of humanity, both beautiful and hideous, would present themselves after the revelation of a “higher power.” Add to this an impressive cast that includes Foster, John Hurt, James Woods, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and Matthew McConaughey (years before the current McConaissance), and you can overlook the presence of Jake Busey in one of the best examples of “hard sci-fi” in the 1990s. —J.V.
Director: Shane Carruth
Primer does not operate as most movies do, practically reverse-engineered to demand repeat viewings in order to, at the very least, figure out what is even going on. Shane Carruth—who wrote, directed, starred in, edited and scored the film on an impossible budget of $7,000—is, more than a decade after Primer premiered, still a rarity in the studio system, able to create groundbreaking films totally outside that system while trusting in the intelligence of his audience to trust that he’s got everything under control. The difficulty in untangling Primer’s labyrinthine time-travel plot falls in Carruth’s approach: Limited (or perhaps inspired) by a non-existent budget, Carruth shaved his story down to its basest elements, providing exposition in overheard conversations, offering practically nothing in the way of a narrative map to follow, vying instead to explore as mundanely as possible how two software engineers would wield the unthinkable power of time travel. While it may frustrate many uninterested in translating this kind of metaphysical visual language, Carruth’s film aims for more transcendent awards: Navigating Primer feels, we can only imagine, as Carruth’s characters would feel on the precipice of the completely unexplored unknown. That, for all its distancing tactics and opaque conundrums, Primer still operates on a deeply human level, is Carruth’s truest success. Upstream Color may be a sign that Carruth will only get better, but Primer is still a modern landmark of science fiction filmmaking: A story about the mysteries of reality revealed to the only most ordinary—living the most ordinary lives—among us. —D.S.
4. The Day the Earth Stood Still
Director: Robert Wise
I expect there may be a few hardcore fans of classic science fiction out there who might take offense to The Day the Earth Stood Still being described as a “B movie,” but that’s really what it is—and it’s simultaneously one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. Upon release, it was only moderately successful, both at the box office and in the minds of critics, but its reputation has since blossomed: The tale of an alien come to Earth with a mission of explaining man’s folly was a morality tale for the post-atomic age, and the alien’s subsequent harsh treatment by world governments was a damning criticism of Cold War-era petulance between superpowers. Also leaning on some heavy (but clever) Christian allegory, it does what all great sci-fi does, no matter the sub-genre: It simultaneously entertains its audience and engages them in a social discourse that lingers long after the film has gone. —J.V.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Director: Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship which resonates with children and adults alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time and the moment Spielberg’s career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains today perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand. —M.B.
Director: Fritz Lang
Metropolis never slows as it delivers a constant stream of iconic images. Fritz Lang filled his parable with all the sci-fi/adventure tropes he could: the mad scientist, the robot, the rooftop chase, the catacombs and, as it turns out, a devious henchman. Metropolis, too, is a great reminder of just how difficult it is to judge an incomplete film. In fact, many silent films are missing material, even when it isn’t made clear in screenings or on home video. While Lang’s film has always been known for its spectacular special effects—it’s legally required that I use the phrase “visionary” while discussing it—but not until a few years ago did modern audiences see a film anywhere close to the one that first premiered. It turned out that the film’s best performance, Fritz Rasp as a ruthless spy for the corporate state, was part of that missing material, and it gives the film a greater sense of urgency, increasing the feeling of class-based antagonism. With that unknown excellence lurking in one of the most famous films of all time, it leaves us to wonder what else was lost in nitrate flames. —Jeremy Mathews
1. World of Tomorrow
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
In 16 minutes, Don Hertzfeldt lays out our future: a vastly interconnected age of barely functional connections. In stick figures, impressionistic smatterings of vibrant color, geometric arrays, a snippet of a Strauss opera and the perspective of one little girl, Emily (Winona Mae), World of Tomorrow makes all science fiction to come before feel limited, not fa-reaching enough—not enough. In 16 minutes. In any of the subjects or tropes of sci-fi that most fascinate us, all of us—cloning, AI, robotics, time travel, immortality, space travel, the incomparable loneliness of the universe to which our technology gives us a glimpse—Hertzfeldt boils down each supposed “advancement” into a “yes” or “no”: Does this push us farther away from each other? Does this push us further away from ourselves? In the case of Future Emily falling in love with a mining robot, Hertzfeldt doesn’t want us to take it seriously so much as feel the pain, any pain, of Emily inevitably abandoning the robot to its long, blank eternity without her. In the case of hundreds of thousands of botched time travel missions killing time travelers by stranding them in an unknown time, or, worse, depositing them into the thinnest outer reaches of our atmosphere so their bodies fall back to earth, a beautiful nighttime show of falling stars, Hertzfeldt expects you to find this all pretty funny, because he knows you are using laughter to bury the urge to scream hopelessly into the indifferent void about just how meaningless your existence truly is. In 16 minutes: All of this—including a moment that will make your heart skip a beat because, in 15 minutes, you’ve become irrevocably attached to this little girl, Emily, and you can’t bear the thought of leaving her, this little stick person cartoon, to face the universe alone. —D.S.