Since the dawn of time, humanity has looked up at the stars and imagined a future augmented by the dual pillars of science and technology. Where are we going? What are we doing, and how do we fit in? Dissatisfied with the world around them and seeking hope for humanity in that which remains unknown, the sci-fi genre makes us question ourselves most.
This isn't quite a list of movies to watch while you're tripping. It's also unfortunate, but few of the selections below are movies that pass the Bechdel test. Instead, the best sci-fi movies on Netflix (US) will make you more sensitive to today by asking you to judge the troubles of tomorrow. In order from oldest to newest:
Silent films are a tough sell when it comes to suggestions for binge-watching, but bold cinephiles will be rewarded by Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, the first movie to ever feature a robot. Yes, the great-grandmother of all science-fiction cinema demands concentration, but there are few films as prophetic when it comes to the humanitarian challenges posed by artificial intelligence.
"Goddammit, it took me two hours to get from 13th Street to here because they're making a fucking movie," said a man who stumbled into the Mayflower Hotel in 1983. That movie was Ghostbusters, and the man's name was Isaac Asimov. Actor Dan Akroyd, who was at the hotel at the time, was apparently crestfallen by the I, Robot author's words. But the movie is now legendary. Sci-fi makes us better humans, clearly.
*batteries not included
The screenwriting debut of Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) came from a story Steven Spielberg liked so much, he decided to executive produce it as a full-length film. Say what you will about the 'berg—his fancy for this alien robots versus evil developers sci-fi comedy says more than most critics ever will.
Aerosmith performed “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” for this Bay/Bruckheimer blockbuster about Bruce, Ben, Billy Bob, and Buscemi nuking an asteroid from the inside, and basically it sums up the whole thing in under five minutes: an epic power ballad of a film.
The Iron Giant
If the Iron Giant’s appearance in Ready Player One had you feeling verklempt, Brad Bird's directorial debut is just as heartfelt and filled with childhood wonder as it was when it came out in 1999. British poet laureate Ted Hughes invented the original industrial fairy tale about a boy and his robot at the height of the Cold War, so you can expect there to be modern parallels.
At this point, anyone who has ever set foot inside a Hot Topic should be legally required to know what “28:06:42:12” means.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The stories of Jules Verne and work of legendary comic-book artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy, BPRD) formed the basis for what would become, interestingly enough, Disney’s first feature-length animated sci-fi film. Gorgeously drawn and meticulously executed, this Journey to the Center of the Earth–style story features the voice talents of both Michael J. Fox and Leonard Nimoy.
Produced by Tim Burton, and pre-Pickle Rick, this post-apocalyptic steampunk tells of a scientist who injects his consciousness into a ragdoll in the wake of humanity’s undoing at the hands of evil robots. It features the voice talents of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover, and more, so you know it’s serious enough, and in terms of computer-animated sci-fi on Netflix, it’s the cream of the crop.
The Road is such a heavy story about life after civilization that really pushes you to the limit of exactly how much post-apocalyptic stress you can handle. But Viggo Mortensen puts in a noble performance, and the cinematography is stark. Just don't say I didn't warn you: This one is sad.
Most movie stars would jump at the chance to show off their range by playing multiple characters in the same movie. Jared Leto only plays one character in Mr. Nobody, but he appears as multiple versions of him, each one split off from a different set of choices he's made during his lifetime. It isn't a short movie, clocking in at 139 minutes, but if you're the type of person who wonders what they might be doing in another dimension, you'll wish Netflix had the director's cut.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Melancholia isn’t on Netflix anymore, but apocalypse film fans can get their desperation-romance fixes in with Steve Carrell and Keira Knightly in this heartfelt love story about two individuals who find each other on the eve of an asteroid’s arrival. At this point, it isn't rare to see Carrell in a serious role, but his signature soft-guy charm makes what could have been a sadsack sci-fi surprisingly sweet.
Ghost in the Shell: Arise border: 1 Ghost Pain
For anyone curious about why people were so let down by the live action Ghost in the Shell movie, aside from its choice of casting, it’s because the original film and successive series (Stand Alone Complex) presented some of the richest and most prophetic storylines ever on the sci-fi screen. Don’t just take our word for it; the follow-up Arise storyline, of which Ghost Pain is the first film, makes for a quick entree into the sick, slick world of New Port City, Japan, in 2029. You'll want to catch up.
South African director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 and Elysium is a man-versus-machine fable starring a former police robot who gains artificial intelligence, hangs out with Ninja and Yolandi from Die Antwoord, and fights Hugh Jackman. Blomkamp’s work can sometimes breach the uncanny valley just a bit too closely, but the dude's got unassailable amounts of imagination.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Even though it’s a documentary, Werner Herzog’s tiptoe through the trappings and tulip bulbs of technology sure seems like science fiction. Does the septuagenarian filmmaker have a lot of feelings about the future? Assuredly. Does he know how to turn “live photos” off on his phone? TBD.
Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho's admirable assault on the meat industry is no easy watch, but you'll be glad you saw it the next time you're deciding which quality meat to buy. At the very least, you'll want to make sure it isn't a hock of Okja, the big, brown-eyed hippo creature whose salvation seats this girl-and-her-monster story. On second thought, maybe just avoid those burgers entirely...
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
Before we try and pitch you on a very-new CGI film, check out the trailer. Right off the bat you should be able to tell whether or not a feature-length Godzilla anime is right for you.
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