The 25 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies on NetflixReading Time: 9 minutes
The best movies that aren’t afraid to explore the stars, consider a dystopian future, or just blow up aliens.
We use the umbrella term ‘science fiction and fantasy’ all the time—but, in truth, these are twin genres that each contain multitudes. An SFF movie might be a big, loud, alien invasion blockbuster; a bloody sword-and-sorcery epic; or a quiet, reflective fable. What these movies all have in common is the imagination to think outside of the world we can see from the window. A story isn’t necessarily less poignant or meaningful because its characters live on distant planets or magical realms. Sometimes SFF is an escape, and sometimes it’s a way of looking at our own lives from a very different angle. The best movies offer a little of both.
These are some of the best of what’s streaming on Netflix right now.
Nimona, based on the graphic novel from ND Stevenson, had a rocky road to the screen, surviving delays, company shut-downs, Covid, and time as a Disney project that saw the company trying to minimize the movie’s queer themes. Luckily, none of that drama made it into the finished product, which is a heartfelt, joyful, and very funny fantasy set in a futuristic world full of medieval trappings. Ballister Boldheart, alongside his boyfriend, Ambrosius Goldenloin, is about to be knighted by the queen, and he’ll be the first commoner ever to receive the honor. All good until he’s framed for the queen’s murder and forced to flee, becoming the criminal that the snobs already took him for. Luckily (or not) he’s joined by Nimona, a teenager who’s been an outcast because of her shapeshifting powers. The two work to clear Ballister’s name, even as Nimona has things to teach Ballister about being authentic.
The comic-inspired Netflix film stars Charlize Theron as Andromache, the sometimes-leader of a group of immortal-ish individuals who are already centuries old as the film starts. They generally work as mercenaries when the cause is right, but find their group starting to splinter in the face of a new threat: Modern technology has made it harder to hide their secret, and a pharmaceutical exec has plans to capture them, figure out why they’re immortal, and then make a sellable product. The movie’s a solid blend of comic-book heroics and mercenary-movie action, with a sequel on the way. Shortly after this, director Gina Prince-Bythewood made the historical action-drama The Woman King, also on Netflix.
Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Arrival seems fairly straightforward at the outset. Relatively, anyway: The story of Amy Adams’ attempts to communicate with an alien intelligence is thought-provoking, but easy enough to understand. There comes a point, though, when the film takes a turn, and it’s clear that communication requires thinking along an entirely new dimension, with a twist ending that drives the point home. After making successful thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve came out of the gate strong as one of our most reliable directors of intelligent sci-fi.
It’s alien abduction for the Squid Game generation, this one picks up in the aftermath of a mass snatching. Circle opens on 50 people waking up in a dark room. They’re on platforms from which they can’t move on pain of laser-inflicted death, and they quickly realize they’re trapped in a game with simple, specific rules: Via hand gestures, they’re meant to vote on the next person to die (if not, someone is chose at random every two minutes). It’s a sick scheme enacted by would-be invaders, but it’s also a study of our species, and reaches some not-entirely-flattering conclusions about how quickly we’ll throw each other under the bus (er, laser beam).
It might not be exactly what prolific writer and Conan-creator Robert E. Howard had in mind but it’s a lot of fun in a shirtless, sweaty, sword-and-sorcery kind of way. It’s the movie that kicked off a pretty cool cycle of ‘80s fantasy films, and also gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his big cinematic break. A long-haired James Earl Jones also offers up his second-most-memorable villainous performance as evil sorcerer Tulsa Doom.
See You Yesterday tricks you into thinking you’re signing on for a sci-fi romp—an early cameo from Michael J. Fox seems to underline it. As it begins, young prodigies CJ Walker (Eden Duncan Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) develop a time machine and plan to test it by traveling back one day and scrupulously avoiding making any changes. Shortly after, the Spike Lee-produced film takes a dark turn: CJ’s older brother is shot and killed by an NYPD officer who mistakes a phone for a gun. CJ tries again and again to save him, but is frustrated as each attempt goes wrong in a new way. It’s not an entirely downbeat movie, but, in the best sci-fi tradition, the high concept at its core has more down-to-earth relevance.
There’s quite a bit that’s derivative in this George Clooney-directed film, but it’s also quietly poignant in ways that modern science fiction rarely is. That’s a very specific mode, but refreshing in its way. Clooney plays Augustine, a scientist with a terminal condition in 2049 who’s become one of the very few remaining humans alive on Earth after some unknown event left the surface contaminated with radiation. He discovers that a mission from a moon of Jupiter is on its way back to Earth, and makes it his mission to warn them that the planet is no longer hospitable—a mission complicated by the discovery of a young girl he feels the need to protect.
Very little is explained in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based (somewhat loosely) on the Jeff VanderMeer novel. Though intended to stand alone, that would probably have changed had the movie been successful enough to support sequels based on the other two books in VanderMeer’s series, but it’s just as well, as the film’s strength lies in its refusal to dig too pedantically into it’s sci-fi mystery. Natalie Portman stars as a biology professor and Army veteran who heads a team sent to explore The Shimmer, an area of ‘refraction’ that’s growing in a way that suggests it will soon be a major threat. Each of the film’s characters finds something different once inside, as each is changed, their own selves and personalities refracted to reveal aspects that aren’t typically dominant.
Bong Joon-ho directs and co-writes this international production with a very simple, very effective high concept: In the midst of a climate apocalypse, the last survivors of the human race are gathered on a tremendously long train on a never-ending circuit around the earth. As long as the train keeps moving, there’s power—but not quite enough for everyone. The elite ride up front in relative luxury, while the poor—most of the passengers—ride in the back, subsisting on scraps from those at the front. The metaphor isn’t subtle, but the film is so sharp, and the action so effective, that it hardly matters.
OK, the metaphor is a little heavy-handed: In a large tower, euphemistically referred to as the ‘Vertical Self-Management Center,’ food is delivered in a shaft that stops on each floor from the top down: those near the top get to eat their fill; those at the bottom get scraps. The Spanish-language thriller is wildly violent, but inventive, and it’s not as if real-life capitalism is particularly subtle in its deprivations.
Tommy Wirkola, director of the recent David Harbour Christmas-themed action movie Violent Night and the upcoming Spermageddon, helmed this high-concept science fiction story about the perils of overpopulation. In the near-ish future, a one-child policy sees spare kids frozen cryogenically until such time as they can be either become colonists on another planet, or until Earth finds more resources—whichever comes first. Think Children of Men, but a bit goofier. Glenn Close is in charge of enforcing the policy, while Willem Dafoe plays the grandfather of identical septuplets. He comes up with a plan to keep all the kids out of the freezer: they’ll take turns playing at being the same person (Noomi Rapace, in multiple roles). Ridiculous, but fun.
From Attack on Titan and Death Note director Tetsurô Araki and an all-star creative team, Bubble finds Tokyo cut off from the rest of the world when reality-bending bubbles rain down on the city (shades of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, perhaps). Anime fans were almost certainly on the lookout for the gorgeous, parkour-infused love story, but anyone who loves animation (or great sci-fi films in general) should check it out.
Chris Williams, an animator who’s either directed or had a hand in some of the best of the last decade (Bolt, Big Hero 6, Moana, etc.) about a young woman who stows away on the ship of a legendary monster hunter (Karl Urban). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award, so it’s perhaps not that obscure, but still seems to have gotten lost amid last year’s major animated releases.
Based on Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1948 children’s novel of the same name, and geared toward even younger audiences than the other all-ages animated movies on this list, My Father’s Dragon still has plenty to recommend it to just about anyone—along with more emotional intelligence than many movies made for adults. In the film, a boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay) and his shopkeeper mother, Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) leave their tight-knit town in favor of a bigger city—though the promise of better circumstances doesn’t quickly materialize. Elmer’s patience is rewarded, though, when a talking cat invites him to take a beautiful, candy-colored adventure. The movie is from the director of the The Breadwinner, set in modern-day Afghanistan, and Cartoon Saloon, production company behind animated movies like the beautiful Irish folk tale, Wolfwalkers.
The title isn’t a metaphor: this Chinese blockbuster is literally about what happens when the Earth goes off-course, and the people who come together to keep it from smashing into Jupiter. The whole thing begins when a rogue red giant threatens to engulf the Earth within a century, leading the nations of the world to come together around building giant engines to shove us out of the way. It’s bonkers in the best possible way, with special effects that easily outpace those of many American blockbusters. The human element here is also a plus, as the movie makes room for a broad ensemble of interesting characters, suggesting that great things (like not hitting Jupiter) happen when people work together.
It doesn’t entirely reinvent the wheel, but there’s a refreshing focus on the underclasses of the future, without edging too far into the dystopian. I’m not the first to make a comparison between Space Sweepers and Cowboy Bebop, but, given the recent and speedy failure of Netflix’s live-action version of that cartoon, it’s not going too far to say that you’ll find a better encapsulation of Bebop‘s spirit of rag-tag found family and its outer space western milieu here then in the live-action show that bore its name. What this one lacks in originality, it makes up for in engaging characters and extravagant special effects. It’s also nice to see a less American-centric perspective on the future.
Strange doings are afoot on Block Island, the most obvious of which are the vast numbers of dead fish that keep washing up on shore. More alarming though is the behavior of one of the local fishermen, Tom, who keeps waking up in strange places and generally losing time. His daughter Audry (Michaela McManus) works for the Environmental Protection Agency and is sent to investigate the mass fish deaths; she brings along her daughter and reunites with brother Tom (Chris Sheffield) along the way. Together, they discover no ordinary environmental catastrophe is to blame for all the dead fish, as the film blends the family drama and the eerie local events as it builds to a fairly chilling climax.
Starship Troopers is a wildly fascinating adaptation in the ways in which it takes straightforward source material—in this case, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel—and largely satirizes it, by taking it at face value and doing a straight adaptation. It’s a rather shocking bit of literary criticism disguised as a b-movie, turning the novel’s themes on their heads. At the risk of oversimplifying Heinlein, the novel (with a nearly identical plot) suggests that war is inevitable and that military service might be the best possible cure for a general moral decline. What we get in the movie is an ever-more-relevant picture of a militaristic slide into fascism that’s also a pretty impressive action spectacle, and very funny.
A Korean-language sci-fi fantasy about a girl and her genetically modified pig might not sound like an easy sell, but the movie certainly attracted more much-deserved attention when its director, Bong Joon-Ho, won one of the best-justified Best Picture Oscars in recent memory for Parasite. The darkly whimsical film that challenges the norms of the American and South Korean meat industries is very much its own thing, but fans of Parasite will recognize Bong’s mix of dark comedy, action, and hard-to-ignore social commentary.
The director’s passion project, Pinnochio had a long road to the screen, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t all worth it. Set in fascist Italy between the wars, and told through stunning stop-motion animation, the beautifully moving film won a well-deserved Best Animated Feature Oscar.
All three Jumanji movies are a lot of fun, but there’s a lot to be said for the OG Robin Williams version, which just happens to be the only one streaming on Netflix. A group of friends become trapped in the title boardgame, one that unleashes jungle-related havoc on its players. Williams, having become trapped in the game previously, is at his most manic here, and the early CGI can be a bit wonky, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, family-friendly good time.
A lovely, sad, occasionally scary coming-of-age fable, A Monster Calls finds Conor O’Malley facing his seriously ill mother’s coming death when he’s visited by the title monster, a giant tree creature voiced by Liam Neeson. Through some beautifully filmed story sequences, the monster offers some tough love and hard-won wisdom about growing up and valuing life at any length.
In the future, The City grows like a virus, endlessly in all directions, humans long since having lost control of the automated systems designed to run things. Those same systems now see views humans as ‘illegals’ to be purged, so flesh-and-blood survivors are caught between the city’s murderous defense systems and the need to find food. One group of humans, though, is on the hunt for the existence of someone with a genetic marker that they believe will allow for access to the city’s control systems—a hunt lead by Killy, a synthetic human who might have the key.
Star Trek wasn’t really a going concern in 2009, with Enterprise having been cancelled for want of ratings years before. Then along came J.J. Abrams, blending a nostalgic revisiting of the original series cast with retro-modern style and updated sci-fi action (a trick that’s he’s had mixed results with elsewhere; it works perfectly here). Chris Pine leads a solid cast in a fast-paced movie that also serves as a swan song (very nearly) for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock.
This woefully under-appreciated tower climber sees Karl Urban’s stoic Judge Dredd fighting his way toward Lena Headey’s criminal kingpin, who sits atop a 200-story tower block in the middle of ultra-violent future metropolis Mega-City One, part of a United States devastated by nuclear war. With a dry satirical tone and a purity to its commitment to violence, it’s impressive, entertaining, and a hell of a lot better than the one with Sly Stallone.
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