It’s a great time for fans of science fiction and fantasy, but the deluge of huge franchises like MCU and Star Wars can overshadow smaller and older but equally qualitative projects. These movie and TV gems — many coming from countries with growing film industries outside of the United States — entertain with their own unique perspectives and deserve their share of the limelight.
Netflix has become a sanctuary for great science fiction and fantasy both big and small so there are definitely shows that may have slipped through a fan’s viewing queue … and they’re stories that shouldn’t be missed.
I Am Mother (2019)
The Australian sci-fi thriller film I am Mother, starring Rose Byrne and Hilary Swank, premiered in 2019 to generally good reviews. Backed by a post-apocalyptic setting, a robot named Mother in a protective bunker is programmed to raise embryos into children and repopulate the earth. Mother brings up a human girl named Daughter but when a potentially dangerous human survivor shows up the robot reacts unpredictably.
Intelligent, tense and ambitious, this movie is more often than not successful in tackling the big questions it asks of itself, such as the human need for contact with other humans, the costs of isolation and the imperfect nature of mothering robots. I am Mother also offers an intriguing ending, making it well worth retrieving from the dusty Netflix shelf.
The Silent Sea (2021)
Produced in South Korea, the science-fiction mystery thriller The Silent Sea is set in the near future when water has become dangerously scarce on Earth, prompting humanity to explore new ways to generate H2O, including experiments based on the moon. Premiering on Netflix in December 2021, the series was met with mostly good reviews.
A team of elite astronauts is dispatched to the moon to recover experimental water samples from a government base abandoned after a classified event that killed over 100 of its workers. While not surmounting many common genre tropes, The Silent Sea is part of Netflix’s best astro-sci-fi offerings and introduces enough unknowns to keep its well-drawn characters in peril and the viewer entertained.
First airing from 2017 to 2020, Dark is a sci-fi mystery thriller that became the first Netflix German-language original series. Narratively complex and visually stunning, the show was hailed by critics and voted the 58th Greatest TV Series of the 21st Century by BBC Culture in 2021.
Children start disappearing from the fictional town of Winden and the resulting chaos cracks open a juggernaut of conspiracies, secret relationships, terrible secrets and the tangled web of time travel. Frightening and atmospheric, Dark remains a must-see for all fans of eerie science fiction.
Big Fish (2003)
Jumping back to 2003, Big Fish was a theatrical release described as a fantasy-comedy-drama. The movie garnered positive buzz and boasts a star-studded cast, including Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Albert Finney and Jessica Lange.
Big Fish is a weird and wonderful film about a son (McGregor) going on a journey of discovery to learn as much as he can about, and reconcile with, his dying father (Finney). It’s a heartwarming film with an Alice in Wonderland quality that weaves elements of love, sadness, courage and regret into the mythical tapestry of a life and collective memory.
The Midnight Sky (2020)
Starring George Clooney (who also directed), Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky premiered on Netflix after a limited theatrical run in 2020. Reviews were mixed, but Variety gave the film an “audience appeal score of 98 out of 100” after reporting it was the most popular of all Netflix’s Oscar-nominated projects.
After being hammered by a global disaster, Earth in 2049 is now unlivable due to ionizing radiation. Living alone in a snowbound research facility, dying scientist Augustine Lockhouse (Clooney) is haunted by memories and blackouts as the narrative craftily blurs the line between reality and possible hallucination. The Midnight Sky has its flaws, especially in the overdone one-crisis-after-another department, but the emotional power and poignance Clooney brings to the project makes it eminently watchable.
Midnight Mass (2021)
A fun, earnest and interesting monster show, the Midnight Mass Netflix Original miniseries premiered in 2020 to generally upbeat reviews. Even though its newness has faded a bit, fresh viewers will find its scares and messages still as on-point as they were two years ago.
Powered by a transcendent performance from Hamish Linklater (Legion), the terrible tale of Midnight Mass works as an unusual approach to the vampire genre as well as a study of the power of religious faith and the nature of free will. Well-defined characters and creepy atmospherics keep the story on track through the deceptively quiet first episodes. Despite a few moments where the obvious themes are hit too hard on the nose in needless monologues, Midnight Mass is a cerebral romp with smart characters, making it one of Netflix’s best shows and well worth a watch.
Midnight In Paris (2011)
Written and directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is a 2011 comedy fantasy romance starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams. At first glance, it might seem an odd film to land in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but the magical mechanism of Midnight in Paris’ time-travel storyline is perfect for its dreamscape milieu.
The ever-vulnerable Owen Wilson portrays Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter vacationing in Paris; his work is lucrative but he feels nostalgic, lost and looking for more out of life. Every night, Gil is magically transported into Paris history where he joins the artistic gatherings of greats like Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Salvatore Dali, Josephine Baker and Edgar Degas. Midnight in Paris deftly evolves into a heartwarming ode to the true creative self, inspiration and the value of self-realization.
Dark Matter (2015)
A product of Canada, the Dark Matter TV series premiered on SyFy and Space in 2015. When six astronauts and one android are roused from suspended animation aboard their ailing spaceship named Raza (surely from the Latin tabula rasa, or “clean slate”) they realize that they have no memory of who they are.
Kicking off with its all-encompassing mystery, Dark Matter is a classic space opera in the tradition of pulpy favorites like Firefly. The characters don’t know their names or if they’re good or evil and resort to a piratical kind of survival while seeking clues to their existential conundrum, all in a rousing, Saturday afternoon matinee fashion. Starting off well-executed but locked into familiar tropes, the show slowly evolves into a dark and complex struggle between characters as more and more damning information is revealed. Well worth a watch despite being canceled at the end of season 3.
Black Crab (2022)
Starring the much-in-demand Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Prometheus), Black Crab (Svart Krabba) is a 2022 Netflix original thriller produced in Sweden. Rapace plays Caroline Edh, a former speedskater recruited to a near-suicidal mission across an apocalyptic, war-torn land of snow and ice.
Plot-wise, this movie isn’t quite as tight as it could be, but Black Crab is loaded in the action department and the always empathetic Rapace is believable as a hard-nosed survivor who hopes she can rescue her lost daughter on the mission. Her team’s skating journey across the frozen coastlines of the Stockholm Archipelago offers a mode of transport and setting unusual for war sci-fi and few things shake the soul harder than the crack of thin ice.
IO stars Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) as Sam Walden, a young woman living alone at an altitude where she can survive despite the poisonous atmosphere now enveloping most of planet Earth. As a 2019 Netflix original, the movie received a decent amount of promotion at the time, but the generally low audience and critical reviews have slowly relegated it to the dustbin.
While IO isn’t a great film it does deserve better: Qualley is engaging in her role as the independent-minded Sam and her belief that one person can find a way to rescue an entire planet (and not any planet—our planet) is understated but drives everything she does. With the prominence of violent post-apocalyptic fare these days it’s a pleasure to bond with a character’s unglamorous struggle to save the world, one bee at a time.