While the movie selection on the streaming services can be hit or miss, there are a lot of small gems to be found on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Whether it’s a critically praised gem you missed in theaters, an interesting flick that flew totally below your radar, or even a critically savaged film you’d still like to check out without investing in a ticket, there’s plenty to see if you poke around the streaming catalogs.
Better yet, let us do it for you.
Being suckers for a good science fiction outing, we’ve sifted through Netflix and Amazon to find six speculative tales that you probably missed—assuming you even heard about them in the first place. Clear your schedule and enjoy these tales of artificial intelligence, space journeys gone wrong, time travel perils, and the meaning of life.
Ex Machina is the feature directorial debut of Alex Garland, a writer who’s been behind some of the most interesting speculative fiction flicks of the past 10 years, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd. In the Oscar-nominated Ex Machina, a gifted programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) travels to a remote retreat at the behest of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the eccentric CEO of Caleb’s company. It turns out Bateman has built an honest-to-gosh artificially intelligent android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to test her to see just how convincingly “alive” Ava has become. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Bateman’s motivations may not be entirely benevolent, and Ava enlists Caleb in a plan to escape her creator’s captivity. Ex Machina is currently rocking a 92 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and won an Academy Award for its visual effects work in bringing Ava to life
In the 2014 Spanish-Bulgarian film Automata, Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq, an insurance investigator in a time and place where you’d think that career wouldn’t exist: a post-apocalyptic near-future where one of the only remaining technologies on a depopulated and heat-blasted world are the robots we created to try and help save our species. Jacq is sent to investigate reports of a robot seen modifying itself—a violation of the robots’ second guiding principle and thus theoretically impossible. He’s soon on the trail of a possible “clocksmith”—a human illegally making changes to the robots and their programming—but the case proves to have much larger ramifications than just one wrench-happy gearhead.
We have quite a few movies about artificial intelligence and/or robots on this list, but Chappie is the only one that invites references to the cheesy ‘80s family flick Short Circuit. Except that South African writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 and Elysium follows a cutting-edge police robot that is stolen by a group of thugs (played by South African rap duo Die Antwoord) in hopes of reprogramming it for their own purposes. Complicating matters, the bot’s creator has uploaded an experimental A.I. into the droid that grants it emotions and a budding sentience. Soon Chappie and his new friends are caught between bad people looking to collect on the gang’s debts, bad people who want Chappie back, and various other bad people standing between Chappie and his dreams of self-determination. Critics weren’t kind to Chappie, but if you still have any goodwill left toward Blomkamp, you know his films are always at least visually interesting even when the story breaks down.
In the not-too-distant future, a privately funded and manned mission to Europa crosses the void to investigate the possibility that life might exist beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s frozen moon. En route to that destination, however, all communications with the mission were lost. Europa Report reveals the story of what happened to the ill-fated crew members after contact was lost, and their remarkable discovery, presented in a faux-documentary style. This is one of those rare examples of the found-footage genre that truly understands both the strengths and limitations of the format, and makes brilliant use of both, building slow-burn claustrophobic tension as the astronauts attempt to complete the mission and building to a cathartic ending. Europa Report currently has an 80 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but you can easily add another 10 percentage points if you’re a hardcore fan of space movies.
The second found-footage movie on this list, the terribly titled Project Almanac is about a group of teenage friends who come into possession one of the last things in the world a group of teenagers should have: a time machine. After rooting through the belongings of his long-dead inventor father, David and his friends discover plans for a time machine and soon begin using it in a multitude of ways that ignore that whole “great power/great responsibility” adage. They ain’t got time to save Kennedy or kill Hitler; they’re busy winning the lottery, manipulating each other into relationships, and sneaking into Lollapalooza several years in the past. Naturally, things soon go pear-shaped, with small actions leading to unforeseen consequences, and their attempts to repair those changes in the timeline only making matters worse. Clearly none of these kids watched Back to the Future before they started mucking with history.
Nobody makes movies like Terry Gilliam, the visionary but ill-fated director whose past work includes Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, and Time Bandits. You know his movies are going to be visually spectacular and deeply weird, and The Zero Theorem definitely lives up to both. Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a programmer in an Orwellian future who toils away under the auspices of a mysterious entity known as “Management” (Matt Damon), tasked with solving an equation that will reveal the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. His efforts are regularly sidetracked by both Management’s teenage son, Bob (Lucas Hedges) and the seductive Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry). Although Gilliam himself hasn’t officially classified it as such, many consider The Zero Theorem to be the capper to a sort of loose thematic trilogy begun in Brazil and continued in Twelve Monkeys, full of paranoia, madness, and unhelpful bureaucracies.