Science fiction, to echo Ursula K. Le Guin, is not predictive, but descriptive. While most science fiction films attempt (and fail) to extrapolate the ideas and concerns of their respective present to predict what the world may look like in the not-so-distant future, these extrapolations ultimately amount to stories that exist in conversation with the hopes and fears of the times in which they were conceived.
All of this is to say that science fiction (i.e., speculative fiction) is a genre of possibilities and introspection, one whose long legacy through the medium of cinema has produced countless iconic works whose thematic depth and aesthetic resonance have enlivened and inspired the imaginations of countless more generations. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris to Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca and more, the history and legacy of science fiction in film is one of futures past that have since gone on to shape and inform our view of the present, all while entertaining and edifying audiences new and old alike.
We’ve created a list of some of our favorite sci-fi films currently available on streaming, movies that continue to inspire us look to the future and imagine worlds and ideas both fantastical yet nonetheless inextricably rooted in our reality. Here are 12 of the best sci-fi movies available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and more.
Sometimes animation starts to look quaint or dated as styles and technologies change, but Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark anime movie Akira still looks as startling on the screen today as it did back in 1988. Its ultimate intent, drawn from Otomo’s much longer and more in-depth manga series, can be hard to follow, depending on which translation you get — its point about human evolution is slightly fuzzy, and its impulsive, dim juvenile-delinquent protagonist isn’t up to seeing any of the scope or depth in what’s going on, let alone explaining it to the audience.
But the action is impeccably executed, and the emotions behind it are acute and powerful. When a bike gang in the far-future, post-apocalyptic setting of, er, 2019 Neo-Tokyo encounters a mysterious child with strange powers, one gang member gets abducted by the government, and another tries to hunt him down. Their history together and their shifting personal dynamic helps inform a sometimes gritty, sometimes hallucinogenic story about secret experiments in human potential, carried out as political unrest tears the city apart. The visuals are incredibly rich and vivid, and the tension runs high throughout the film, at all levels of its stratified society. Akira has been imitated for decades because there just wasn’t anything else like it in 1988. For the most part, there still isn’t. —Tasha Robinson
Alex Proyas’ neo-noir reality-bending movie Dark City came out just a year before The Matrix, and while they were both made in a vacuum, both sets of creators pick at similar themes (and The Matrix even reused some of Dark City’s sets, tying them even closer together). In any case, it’s a dope film.
Set in a strange, inscrutable city seemingly cast under a veil of perpetual night, the film stars Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, an amnesiac who mysteriously wakes up in bathtub and finds himself accused of the murder of a young woman. Evading capture, Murdoch wanders through the streets of this metropolis in search of answers to who he was and what happened, all the while stalked by mysterious trench coat-wearing figures who harbor the truth of the city’s true nature and function. With supporting performances by William Hurt as Inspector Bumstead; Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife, Emma; Richard O’Brien as the sinister Mr. Hand; and an incredibly out-of-character performance by Kiefer Sutherland as a nebbish scientist named Daniel Schreber, Dark City may not be the same cultural juggernaut as the Wachowskis’ Matrix franchise, but it certainly stands as one of the most visually memorable and adventurous sci-fi movies of the late ’90s. —Toussaint Egan
Dark City is available to stream for free with a library card on Kanopy.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
This haunting, prescient disaster movie from 1961 imagines that the Earth has been knocked out of its orbit by simultaneous nuclear bomb tests conducted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As the world tilts off its axis and starts to spiral toward the sun, the poles change and the temperature rises, driving the inhabitants of postwar London into a delirious, sweaty fever. We see all this through the eyes of the journalists of the Daily Express newspaper as they cover the story and report on one last desperate attempt to save the planet.
Although this British film directed by Hammer veteran Val Guest has a small scope and low budget, it manages to encapsulate the terrifying enormity of the situation through desolate, matte backgrounds; a burnt sepia tint on its crisp, widescreen monochrome photography; and telling details like melting road surfaces, mist rolling off an evaporating River Thames, and the bulky radiator strapped to the roof of every car. To keep the story moving, there’s a sweet romance between leads Edward Judd and Janet Munro, and a businesslike journalistic procedural led by the great Leo McKern as the paper’s science editor. (The film shot at the real Daily Express offices and featured the paper’s real editor, playing himself.)
The terrific script, by Guest and playwright Wolf Mankowitz, is spicy, impassioned, and precise in its doomsaying. Looking for a different angle on the then-gathering storm of nuclear apocalypse, Guest and Mankowitz hit upon a prophetic vision of global heating that would end up resonating long beyond the end of the Cold War. The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s bleak but open ending, more effective than any triumph or defeat could be, is even more relevant and chilling now than it was 60 years ago. —Oli Welsh
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is available to stream for free with a library card on Kanopy.
Fantastic Planet is one of those films that’s nearly impossible to describe, in part because no explanation can quite convey just how bizarre it is. It’s set on the fictional planet of Ygam, where gigantic blue humanoids (“Draags”) and humans (“Oms”) coexist. Humans are not the protagonists of this society, however. Their existence on Ygam is more akin to that of an insect: wild creatures who are mostly regarded as nuisances, and occasionally enslaved as pets. Their population is controlled through periodic genocide.
The film is based on the 1957 novel Oms en série by dental-surgeon-turned-author Stefan Wul, whose reputation for subverting the classic science fiction tropes of the era earned him cult status within the genre. The allegorical aspects of the story are arresting enough on their own, but the big-screen adaptation, coupled with its surrealist paper cutout animation style and psychedelic jazzy soundtrack, is basically a 70-minute-long acid trip. If you’re into that sort of thing, then Fantastic Planet is an absolute must-watch. And if you’re not, well, it’s still a great movie to play in the background at parties. —Tara Long
Twenty-five years after its release, Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca remains as vibrant, thrilling, and thought-provoking as ever. Like all the best sci-fi stories, it engages with essential questions about the nature of humanity and thorny issues such as ethics in science. The film presents a near-future society that has fully embraced eugenics, to the point of creating a caste system that separates genetically engineered humans (“valids”) from naturally conceived people (“invalids”). But when a member of the underclass seizes an opportunity to realize his dreams of space travel by assuming the identity of a valid, how long can he avoid being found out?
That’s the thing about Gattaca: Regardless of whether you care about the aforementioned Big Life Questions, you can enjoy the film as a terrific old-school thriller. There’s a riveting game of cat and mouse at its center, as Vincent (Ethan Hawke) tries to evade detection by his employer, the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, and by the authorities — who include his valid younger brother Anton (Loren Dean), a detective investigating a murder at the spaceflight company. There’s also the mystery of Jerome (Jude Law), the valid whom Vincent is impersonating by using his blood, skin, hair, and urine. Being a valid in this world doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got it made, as Jerome and as Vincent’s co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman) know all too well.
The idea of a sci-fi noir mystery may instantly evoke Blade Runner, but Gattaca’s retrofuturistic aesthetic and striking color palette — with its vivid blue, green, and amber tones — go a long way toward setting the film apart from its better-known genre counterparts. And its story is ultimately an inspiring tale about the human spirit, so if you’re looking for a sci-fi film that isn’t nihilistic even in a dystopian setting, Gattaca has you covered. —Samit Sarkar
Gattaca is available to stream on Netflix.
Before launching Snowpiercer or setting Okja free, Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho unleashed The Host, a biting creature feature that draws as much from Steven Spielberg’s preoccupation with fatherhood as from American military intervention in South Korea. The tight-knit Park family — including stoic patriarch Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), his shiftless son Gang-du (regular Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), and enterprising granddaughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) — find themselves at the center of a monster attack and a government conspiracy. What starts off as a thrilling Godzilla riff, complete with an all-timer of a monster reveal, quickly morphs into what would become Bong’s signature style: a sly satire that’s surprisingly heartfelt. The familiar anger at the sight of incompetent military officials is quickly followed by shocked laughter at the Parks’ overwrought mourning, and later, more than a bit of sympathy for the beast. (OK, maybe that’s just me.) Bong’s nimble filmmaking — combining classic keep-away technique with the boldness of a rising talent — sets a new standard for not just monster films, but, more broadly, for sci-fi storytelling. —Danette Chavez
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece is one of the finest examples of German Expressionism and of science fiction storytelling on film. One of the first feature-length sci-fi movies ever made, Metropolis was a huge undertaking that took multiple years and the modern equivalent of about $24 million to make.
Set in a dystopian future, Metropolis depicts a class struggle that unfolds around star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of the conflict. At about 150 minutes, it’s one of the longer silent movies from the era, but interested viewers will be rewarded with one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made and some of the most stark architecture and set design ever put on film. It’s a monumental achievement in practical filmmaking that still astonishes to this day, while doubling as a political message for social change. As the film’s closing intertitle says, “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.” —Pete Volk
Prospect is the sort of low-budget sci-fi film that punches way above its weight, with an attention to detail and earnest performances that so many blockbuster films lack. The film is about desperate lunar prospectors seeking out precious gems on an alien moon (shot on location in a lushly surreal Pacific Northwest). Pedro Pascal’s performance as a mercenary is a highlight, full of roguish charm and intimidating charisma that makes him instantly captivating whenever he’s on screen.
The practical effects also do an extraordinary job of making this small-scale story feel like part of a much larger universe. For example, the gems sought by every major character in the film must be carefully harvested from fleshy spore pods. This requires an exacting process involving multiple chemical agents and precise timing, lest you spoil the treasure and make it worthless. Not only does this ratchet up the tension in many scenes, it says everything about the setting without saying a word; you quickly see just how hard these characters have to work just for a single little gem. It’s what Prospect is ultimately all about: what it takes to survive out here on the ragged edge. —Clayton Ashley
If you tire of modern, CG-heavy science fiction blockbusters, this one’s for you. With delightful practical alien suits and sets that immerse you in the movie’s universe from the start, the third movie in writer-director Liam O’Donnell’s trilogy is the best in the bunch. Set after the events of Beyond Skyline (also on Netflix and worth watching, but you can safely skip the first one), Skylines follows superhero captain Rose Corley (Lindsey Morgan, in what should be a career-making performance) and her wise-cracking brother, Trent, as they look to save billions of alien-human hybrids from a deadly disease. Coupled with the return of Yayan Ruhian (The Raid) and the additions of iconic action actors Daniel Bernhardt and Rhona Mitra, Skylines is top-tier modern genre filmmaking and a genuinely fun time at the movies. —PV
Skylines is available to stream on Netflix.
What begins as an investigation into a space station’s severed communication lines becomes a contemplative deep dive into a mind untethered by grief. Although Solaris may be the most approachable of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies — the Russian director’s portfolio ran the gamut from dazzling to confounding — it’s still one of the denser science fiction epics, acting as a sort of cousin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies are obsessed with mining the inexplicable aspects of the cosmos. They also both place bewildered protagonists in situations too vast and complicated to ever understand. But while Kubrick’s adventure into the stars becomes colder and more removed as its run time progresses, Solaris is dead set on celebrating the humanity of its lost explorers, trapped in the orbit of a planet that knows their every regret. —Mike Mahardy
This Korean space drama is a gorgeous sci-fi blockbuster with a little something for everyone. Jaw-dropping battle sequences in space! A lovable robot who wants to look human! A tough guy who becomes super protective of a vulnerable crewmate! Trenchant commentary on capitalism and how billionaires respond to the climate crisis! Seriously, Space Sweepers has it all.
A crew of lovable scamps comes across a weapon of mass destruction … that is also a robot child. Their desire for money and their fondness for said robot child clash as they grow into a real family unit together. Made for a fraction of the cost of its Hollywood counterparts, Space Sweepers looks better than most recent American sci-fi blockbusters and is carried by a core group of characters (and actors) that make you want to stay along for the ride well past its 136-minute running time. —PV
Space Sweepers is available to stream on Netflix.
I’m not going to say too much about Timecrimes; this Spanish time-travel chiller from 2007 is really best experienced if you know nothing past its first 10 minutes. A well-to-do, if slightly hangdog, middle-aged suburbanite called Héctor (Karra Elejalde) observes, through binoculars, a young woman take off her clothes and apparently collapse in the woods behind his home. Going to investigate, he is surprised and stabbed in the arm by a mysterious stranger with a bloody, bandaged head. So begins one of the most ingeniously plotted time-travel films of all time, and one of the few pieces of time-travel fiction I’ve ever encountered to successfully close its paradoxical loop — never mind do it so elegantly, and with such a wonderfully tart twist of Hitchcockian bitterness. —OW
Timecrimes is available to stream on HBO Max.