The 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix (July 2021)

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The 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix (July 2021)

Science fiction is the favorite genre of many of us here at Paste. And Netflix has upped their sci-fi movie game over the last year and now includes several of our 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time. The catalog of streaming films is especially strong when it comes to 21st-century indie movies like Midnight Special and Safety Not Guaranteed, while being supported by Netflix originals such as Project Power or The Platform. It’s an exciting time for speculative fiction, whether you’re looking for alien arrivals, superheroes, space travel, technological dangers or imaginative glimpses at the future.

You can also check out all of our What to Watch on Netflix guides, updated each month.

Here are the 20 best sci-fi movies on Netflix:

1. A Clockwork Orange

clockworkposter.jpg Year: 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubric’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the Ultra Violence™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear ”Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold


2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

terminator-2-poster.jpg Year: 1991
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Joe Morton
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 minutes

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That rare sequel that trumps its predecessor, James Cameron and co-writer William Wisher Jr. crafted a near-perfect action-movie script that flipped the original on its head and let Ahnold be a good guy. But it’s Linda Hamilton’s transformation from damsel-in-distress to bad-ass hero that makes the film so notable. Why should the guys get all the good action scenes? —Josh Jackson


3. Okja

okja-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz


4. Midnight Special

midnight-jpg Year: 2016
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes

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Jeff Nichols’ fourth film continues a streak of smart, idiosyncratic genre tales that focus on family matters. But in Midnight Special, he gets a little more cosmic, telling a very human sci-fi story about a concerned father (Michael Shannon) trying to keep his boy (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the Feds, who believe (correctly) that he has special powers. Midnight Special is the sort of personal, ambitious mainstream film that seems to have all but evaporated from studios’ release schedules, which makes the fact that it was a commercial dud even more upsetting and dispiriting. Maybe on home video people will have a chance to catch up with this emotional drama, whose intimate contours and precise character work make it just as transporting on the small screen.—Tim Grierson


5. Total Recall

total-recall-1990.jpg Year: 1990
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose”?), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of it’s sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas; it starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works. Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind. —Chad Betz


6. Snowpiercer

snowpiercer.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

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There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warning, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Bong’s bleak and brutal film may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up the flurry. —Mark Rozeman


7. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

mitchells-vs-machines-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Stars: Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric Andre, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen
Rating: PG
Runtime: 109 minutes

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Animated generational divides have never been more like a sci-fi carnival than in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Writer/director Mike Rianda’s feature debut (he and co-writer/director Jeff Rowe made their bones on the excellently spooky, silly show Gravity Falls) is equal parts absurd, endearing and terrifying. It’s easy to feel as lost or overwhelmed by the flashing lights and exhilarating sights as the central family fighting on one side of the title’s grudge match, but it’s equally easy to come away with the exhausted glee of a long, weary theme park outing’s aftermath. Its genre-embedded family bursts through every messy, jam-packed frame like they’re trying to escape (they often are), and in the process create the most energetic, endearing animated comedy so far this year. —Jacob Oller


8. Safety Not Guaranteed

safety_not_guaranteed_netflix.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Kristen Bell
Rating: R
Runtime: 86 minutes

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A running joke has developed about the ubiquity of Mark Duplass. It seems like if he’s not writing and directing an independent film with his brother Jay (Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home), he’s producing and/or starring in another. But while indie film fans may feel like they’ve gotten a handle on Duplass’s hipster vibe, his performance in Safety Not Guaranteed shows that he can be mysterious as well as funny, brooding as well as charming.—Jeremy Matthews


9. Mad Max

mad-max-1979-poster.jpg Year: 1979
Director: George Miller
Stars: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

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George Miller’s first foray into the dystopian world of Mad Max is distinctly less fantastical than the more colorful and grandiose films that would follow, ala Beyond Thunderdome—the original Mad Max by comparison is lean, mean, grounded and misanthropic in its aims. The world hasn’t quite to an end yet in this universe—rather, we are witnessing its death throes, which is actually significantly more disturbing. It’s a sentiment that feels frighteningly timely in just about any era, as mankind has nearly always felt perched on the brink of chaos in the last century. Mad Max pessimistically illustrates what that might look like, when all of our worst instincts are left to run roughshod over the ineffective handful of people who would defend us, but can’t even defend their own families. Failing that, all that’s left is bloody, spectacular revenge, which the film dishes out with some incredible car stunts and crashes that set a tough standard to surpass. —Jim Vorel


10. Oxygen

oxygen-2021-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Alexandre Aja
Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Rating: NR
Runtime: 101 minutes

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If you decide to watch the new sci-fi horror offering Oxygen during your latest Netflix and chill, allow me to impart a word of caution: This film isn’t what you think it is. Alexandre Aja, the acclaimed New French Extremism director responsible for the subgenre’s classic Haute Tension, is known for just that: Extremism. He’s no stranger to pushing his characters into heightened, blood-curdling scenarios where the very fabric of their beings dangle at impossibly high stakes. But where Oxygen differs from the rest of his work is that, ultimately, it is a love letter to human survival—a horrorshow with catharsis running through its veins. A woman (Mélanie Laurent), awakens in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of her identity or how she got there. M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric), the pod’s onboard computer system, informs her that she has only 33 percent left in her oxygen reserve. We only see the inside of this pod, making her true location a terrifying unknown. Needless to say, escape couldn’t be more critical. —Lex Briscuso


11. The Midnight Sky

midnight-sky-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: George Clooney
Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Set in 2049, The Midnight Sky is a meditative journey which sees our planet as a rapidly decaying wasteland and the expanse of space as a dangerous, yet hopeful, new frontier. Cutting between the Arctic and an elaborate spaceship called the Aether, the film follows dying scientist Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) as he races to warn those upon the Aether to abandon their return to Earth, after an alluded to cataclysmic event renders most of the world uninhabitable. Although it has its share of cliches, it remains a gripping, chilling story throughout—one that strikes a little too close to home in the context of 2020. —Joseph Stanichar


12. The Old Guard

the-old-guard-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Van Veronico Ngo, Henry Melling, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli
Rating: R
Runtime: 125 minutes

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Gina Prince-Bythewood, given a budget more than worthy of the best DTV action flick anyone could hope could make it to permanent Netflix browsal, succeeds in towing, and then mildly subverting, the genre line: She proves she can capably steer a high-concept action blockbuster while cobbling together something that feels like the kind of movie “they” just don’t make anymore. All of it amounts to a one-step-forward-one-step-back appraisal: There is much to cull from the travails of Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron), an immortal warrior who, thousands of years later, still questions the purpose of her own endlessness, and sequels, given Netflix’s ostensibly unlimited resources, are all but guaranteed—but one wishes for more capably clear action auteurism, even when Prince-Bythewood’s action chops confidently step up. Still: There are countless joys to behold in The Old Guard, most of all the emergence of Kiki Layne—last seen as hyper-dramatic personae #1 in If Beale Street Could Talk—as exceptionally promising action star, executing a one-handed pistol cocking so confident and so unremarked-upon it automatically achieves cinematic canon. Otherwise, trigger-happy editing gets in the way of itself too often, admirable set-pieces sometimes chopped to shit, though plenty of violence—squelching and tendon-splitting—abounds, and the final villain is dispatched with such disregard for the human body that one can’t help but applaud Prince-Bythewood for getting it—for knowing that the key to good action filmmaking is treating the human body like a pile of wet meat. —Dom Sinacola


13. The Platform

the-platform-2019-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
Stars: Iván Massagué, Zorion Eguileor, Antonia San Juan, Emilio Buale Coka, Alexandra Masangkay
Rating: NR
Runtime: 94 minutes

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The Platform benefits immensely from the strength of its simple, high-concept premise and all the superfluous information that is withheld from the viewer. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why exactly people are placed into this diabolical, vertical prison structure, in which the only sustenance arrives once a day in the form of a steadily descending, increasingly gross stone slab piled high with perishables. Nor do we really need to know how this apparent social experiment operates, although the repeated glimpses we get at cooks slaving over perfect dishes to be sent down to the doomed convicts is no doubt designed to needle at our curiosity. What matters is that we observe the differences in human reaction to this plight—the ways that different personalities react to adversity with an “us or them” mentality, or a predatory hunger, or a spontaneous drive toward self-sacrificing altruism. The fact that the position of the prisoners is constantly in flux is key—it gives them both a tangible reason to be the change they want to see in their world, and an almost impossible temptation to do the exact opposite out of distrust of their neighbors. One expects a nihilistic streak here, and you won’t be disappointed—but there’s a few glimmers of hope shining through the cracks as well. Just enough, perhaps, to twist the knife that much deeper. —Jim Vorel


14. Space Sweepers

space-sweepers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Stars: Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, Yoo Hae-jin
Rating: NR
Runtime: 136 minutes

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Netflix introduced its audience to Southeast Asian big-budget sci-fi with the Chinese film The Wandering Earth, a mess of a story that was still beautiful to look at. Space Sweepers, from Korean filmmaker Jo Sung-hee, is a much more cohesive and coherent offering with just as much flash. The dystopian setting sees the head of a giant tech company creating an Eden on Mars, essentially consigning most of humanity to poverty and pollution. A ragtag team of space-junk collectors is each looking after their own self-interest when they find a mysterious young girl who entangles them in much larger worries. With compelling characters, thrilling action sequences and an engaging plot, it’s a strong entry for Korea’s first sci-fi blockbuster. —Josh Jackson


15. Blame!

blame.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Hiroyuki Seshita
Stars: Sora Amamiya, Kana Hanazawa, Takahiro Sakurai
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 105 minutes

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When it comes to dark industrial sci-fi, Tsutomu Nihei is a visionary. Trained as an architect before pursuing a career as a manga author, Nihei’s art is simultaneously sparse and labyrinthine, his body of work defined by a unifying obsession with invented spaces. Byzantine factories with gothic accents spanning across impossible chasms, populated by bow-legged synthoids and ghoulish predators touting serrated bone-swords and pulsating gristle-guns. His first and most famous series, Blame!, is considered the key text in Nihei’s aesthetic legacy, going so far as to inspire everything from videogames, to music, and even art and fashion. Past attempts have been made to adapt the series into an anime, though none have been able to materialize successfully. That is, until now. With the support of Netflix, Hiroyuki Seshita of Polygon Pictures has delivered that long-awaited Blame! film. Set on a far-future Earth consumed by a massive, self-replicating superstructure known as ‘The City’, Blame! follows Killy, a taciturn loner, wandering the layers of the planet in search of a human possessing the ‘net terminal gene,’ an elusive trait thought to be the only means of halting the city’s perpetual hostile expansion. Boasting a screenplay penned by Sadayuki Murai, famed for his writing on such series as Cowboy Bebop and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, and supervised by Nihei himself, Seshita’s film abbreviates much of the manga’s early chapters and streamlines the story into an altogether more narrative and action-driven affair. Art director Hiroshi Takiguchi deftly replicates Nihei’s distinctive aesthetic, achieving in color what was before only monochromatic, while Yuki Moriyama capably improves on the uniform character designs of the original, imparting its casts with distinct, easily identifiable traits and silhouettes that greatly improve the story’s parsability. Blame! is as faithful an adaptation as is possible and as fitting an introduction to the series as the manga itself. Blame! builds a strong case for being not only one of the most conceptually entertaining anime films of late, but also for being one of, if not the best original anime film to grace Netflix in a long time. —Toussaint Egan


16. Project Power

project-power.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback
Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes

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Take a pill, get a new superpower for five minutes. It’s not the most original concept for a sci-fi film, but it should have been enough to lay the groundwork for a fun-if-not-groundbreaking two hours on the couch. Unfortunately not even the cast of usually charismatic actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Foxx could save this dull affair. Instead of an array of imaginative new superpowers, we get to see no more than about a half dozen people take the pill. And while it’s refreshing to see a film like this set in one of America’s most unique cities, even New Orleans gets short shrift here. The brightest moments in the movie are when Dominique Fishback takes center stage as Robin, whether she’s freestyle rapping or connecting with Foxx’s damaged military test subject, Art. —Josh Jackson


17. Real Steel

real-steel.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Shawn Levy
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 127 minutes

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So it’s just a remake of Rocky by way of robot proxies, with an extremely annoying child actor. Who cares? Atom—as far as robots go—looks like the scrappy underdog (in that he’s built from scrap) the story needs him to be, and the other boxing ’bots physically resemble advancing rungs of success along the (heh) circuit. If Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots had to be made into a movie, at least they injected some style, and stole from the best. —Scott Wold


18. Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus

invader-zim-florpus.jpg Year: 2017
Director: David Soren
Stars: Richard Steven Horvitz, Rosearik Rikki Simons, Andy Berman
Rating: PG
Runtime: 71 minutes

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At a time when original Nickelodeon cartoons included Rocket Power and The Fairly Oddparents, Invader Zim was the network’s attempt to attract the slightly older Cartoon Network crowd. They wanted something edgy and a little bizarre. They got it tenfold with Jhonen Vasquez, a comic-book writer and cartoonist whose previous projects included the hyper-violent comic series Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac, Squee and I Feel Sick. His concept for Nickelodeon was simple: Invader Zim was the story of naive but psychotic Zim, the smallest member of an alien species in which social hierarchy is determined by height, who is assigned to conquer an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the universe: Earth. Although dispatched simply to collect undercover surveillance and stay out of the way, Zim—along with his malfunctioning erratic robot drone, GIR—decides to conquer our planet himself. However, all his attempts to take over are either thwarted by his own inexperience or by Dib, a young paranormal investigator who realizes Zim is an alien. Now, a new Netflix movie brings back Zim and his maniacal laugh, along with the show’s original creator and voice cast. Set in a near future after Dib has grown feeble and disgusting after months of doing nothing but watching his surveillance monitors for a sign of Zim, whose been hiding in a toilet with his useless pizza-loving robot sidekick GIR—Phase One of his evil plan. If only he could remember Phase Two. With Zib demoralized, Dib’s goal shifts from saving the world to finally getting credit for doing so—particularly from his father. But teaming up with Zim proves to be a very bad idea. The new film captures the gloriously dark absurdity of the original with moments like GIR inspiring the children of the world with his song about peace…and chicken and rice…and alternate-realities colliding that include a variety of illustration styles and even claymation. —James Charisma and Josh Jackson


19. The Signal

the-signal-2014-poster.jpg Year: 2014
Director: William Eubank
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne, Beau Knapp, Lin Shaye, Robert Longstreet
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

William Eubank’s The Signal is a confounding sci-fi mind bender; a film that establishes itself with a fairly conventional premise before ditching familiarity in order to go entirely off the deep end in short order. A trio of self-impressed MIT students road-trip across the country and become obsessed with the mysterious “signal” of another competing, taunting hacker, which lures them to a confrontation in a secluded corner of the desert. That’s where some films might end, but it’s just the jumping off point for The Signal, which quickly begins waffling between “alien abduction thriller” and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as the kids find themselves held captive in a strange facility. In the end, Eubank seems to be aiming for almost Kubrickian profundity and opaqueness, but the necessities of modern film marketing demand superfluous action scenes at the same time, putting The Signal occasionally at odds with itself. On a slim budget, however, you have to admire the film’s ambition. —Jim Vorel


20. I Am Mother

i-am-mother-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Grant Sputore
Stars: Hilary Swank, Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne
Rating: TV-PG
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Almost all of I Am Mother takes place inside a secure, post-apocalypse facility where a robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) raises a human child simply named Daughter (Clara Rugaard). Mother has provided an idyllic upbringing for the girl, who represents the hope for humanity with thousands more embryos ready to become her little brothers and sisters. She learns everything from engineering to medicine to ethics (that latter subject key to the questions the film will eventually raise).Grant Sputore’s Australian/American production is constructed around plot twists as much as characters, and although some of them are exactly what any sci-fi fan was probably expecting, there’s enough original thought to keep the tension level high. Everything Daughter knows is thrown into question by the arrival of a nameless woman (Hilary Swank) whose description of the outside world doesn’t match Mother’s. (There’s definitely a little 10 Cloverfield Lane going on here.) Daughter must balance her loyalty to Mother, to her future siblings and to her species, all while trying to uncover the truth. —Josh Jackson

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