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The 9 best indie sci-fi and fantasy movies on Netflix

From the fascinating to the frivolous, here's our picks.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw


Posted on Jun 15, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 2:51 pm CDT

Sometimes it can be hard to choose from Netflix‘s enormous archive of available movies. So, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy fan in search of something new and interesting to watch, we’ve put together a recommended list of Netflix’s lesser-known indie films.

For the purposes of this list, we’re defining “indie” as anything that wasn’t made by a major Hollywood studio, and cost less than $10 million to make. This gives us an interesting mix of foreign language sci-fi, weird cult movies, and a couple of lower budget films with A-list stars.

1) Troll Hunter

The found-footage genre is a little overplayed these days, but this Norwegian fantasy movie makes excellent use of its mockumentary style. It’s about a group of college students who set out to make a documentary about wildlife poaching, but wind up finding a professional troll hunter instead.

In a darkly comic touch, Trollhunter‘s Troll Security Service is an official government body, with employees who specialize in keeping Norway’s fearsome troll population out of sight from the public. For a film with a budget of $3.5 million, the special effects are very convincing.

2) World of Tomorrow

Not to be confused with the under-rated historical sci-fi blockbuster Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which is also on Netflix), World of Tomorrow is a critically acclaimed short film by animator Don Hertzfeldt. Described by the A.V. Club as a strong contender for 2015’s best film, this short story about a toddler being visited by her future clone is a funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking way to spend 15 minutes of your day.

3) Horns

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, this fantasy horror movie was adapted from a novel by Joe Hill. Radcliffe plays a young man who is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and subsequently grows a pair of demonic horns.

As the film progresses, he realizes that he now has the ability to force people to tell the truth. Using this newfound power, he investigates his girlfriend’s murder.

4) John Dies at the End

This hilariously weird tale began as a story serialized online by editor David Wong. Combining horror parody, surreal science fiction, and the genre-savvy tone of an Edgar Wright movie, John Dies at the End is kind of a drug movie, kind of a time travel movie, and entirely unpredictable. It’s hard to describe in mere words, but we highly recommend watching it with a group of friends.

5) Monsters

Beginning with a NASA probe crash in Mexico, this low-budget hit is a classic example of the monster movie genre, following two people as they travel to the U.S. through an “infected zone” full of tentacled creatures. It’s best known as the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, who has rapidly ascended the Hollywood career ladder since then. He was quickly hired to make the 2014 Godzilla reboot, and his next film is the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One.

6) Primer

Filmed on a microscopic budget of $7,000, Primer gained a cult following after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. If you’re interested in the technical details of time travel, this film is the pinnacle of the genre. Directed, written by, and starring the then-unknown filmmaker Shane Carruth, it’s a low-fi story about a group of young tech guys who develop a time machine.

Primer is the most realistic time travel movie you will likely ever see. The acting is very naturalistic and there are no attempts at flashy special effects, but the resulting time loop storyline is clever and a little mind-bending. Even after watching the film, you may want to look up one of the many fanmade diagrams explaining how all the time loops worked. An excellent choice if you enjoy the cerebral side of films like Inception, but without the Hollywood glitz. (Unfortunately Primer is not very good at female characters, but Shane Carruth moved past this problem this in his second movie, Upstream Color.)

7) Upstream Color

Shane Carruth is the only filmmaker with two movies on this list, partly because he’s just that good, and partly because he makes micro-budget movies that inevitably find their home on online streaming services.

For Upstream Color, Carruth built on the strengths of Primer (such as its smart storytelling structure and interesting philosophical themes) and set out to tell a story that focuses more on character, atmosphere, and emotion. He co-stars in one of the lead roles again, playing a man who bonds with a woman over a bizarre and horrifying shared experience.

Both protagonists were infected by a parasite that allowed someone to completely control their actions for a brief period. In the case of the female lead, Kris, this came in the form of a thief who kidnapped her, forced her to hand over all her financial assets, and subsequently ruined her career. Upstream Color is mostly about their recovery, as they try to figure out what happened. This enigmatic and imaginative drama is arguably the best movie on this list, but it makes for some intense viewing.

8) Night Watch

Adapted from the Russian urban fantasy novel of the same name, we strongly recommend you watch Night Watch but avoid its sequel Day Watch. Set in present-day Moscow, Night Watch follows a man who is recruited by a supernatural law enforcement service. Praised for its interesting aesthetic choices and exciting action scenes, it’s one of the few mainstream Russian movies to break through with English language audiences.

9) All three Sharknado movies

Look, sometimes you don’t want to watch a thought-provoking examination of the human condition. Sometimes you’re just looking for a tornado full of sharks that scare the crap out of Tara Reid and an increasingly random list of cameo actors. And that’s what the Sharknado franchise consistently delivers, complete with unconvincing made-for-TV CGI. A modern classic. 

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*First Published: Jun 15, 2016, 9:30 am CDT