From Star Wars to Blade Runner, E.T. to Interstellar, and beyond- the sci-fi genre is full of cinematic heavy-hitters. But, what is there to watch when all the credits have rolled on the marquee franchises? Well, fire up those blasters, keep the engine running on that light cycle, and get ready to leap headlong down the black hole because we’ve compiled a list featuring five of the best underrated and under-appreciated sci-fi gems currently streaming (free)!
Vast of Night– dir. Andrew Paterson (2019)
Streaming on Amazon Prime
There’s nothing like the rush of discovering a new cinematic talent to watch. With Andrew Paterson’s micro-budget wonder of a debut- The Vast of Night- that sense of excitement comes in the form of a picture that could (were it not for the technological differences) easily pass as a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. Instead, the movie opens with a slow zoom into the black-and-white title screen of the fictional television show ‘Paradox Theater,’ complete with Rod Serling-esque V.O. burbling out over the speakers. It’s a fitting, if perhaps slightly cute, nod to what follows. Set in 1950’s New Mexico on the night of a derby game between rival high school basketball teams. A local radio host Everett and his switchboard-operating protege Fay intercept a mysterious audio signal. In the process, uncover a larger mystery with (perhaps) otherworldly implications. Chock-full of crackerjack dialogue, excellent lead performances, and shot with a technical flair (including a truly impressive one-take sequence) that belies its humble financial origin, Vast of Night is a quick blast of whip-smart nostalgia. It’s the kind of fizzy, sci-fi fable perfect for late-night viewers in search of something cozy and eerie in equal measure.
Dark Star dir. John Carpenter (1974)
Streaming on Tubi
Legendary director John Carpenter has his fair share of indisputable classics- but Dark Star, the filmmaker’s directorial debut- has never achieved the same vaulted status amongst critics or the fan community at large. In many ways, it’s not difficult to surmise why. The film lacks the visceral immediacy of something like Halloween or Assault on Precinct 13, and the monetary constraints are evident. However, what the film lacks in spectacle, it more than makes up for in inventive visual imagination. The practical magic achieved on a shoestring budget is impressive, and there are real moments of ingenuity that speak to Carpenter’s future as a uniquely talented stylist and storyteller. The film is a shaggy-dog comedy following a crew of deep-space demolitionists. But, rather than delivering traditional joke mechanics, the humor derives its punch from acerbic, nihilistic absurdism inherent to the premise and plot in general. While it isn’t a forgotten masterpiece by any stretch, Dark Star is not just for Carpenter completists and stands on its own as a compelling bit of sci-fi stoner philosophical musing.
Monsters dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)
Streaming on Hulu
Filmmaker Gareth Edwards made his mainstream debut with 2014’s Godzilla remake, and it’s not difficult to guess what led the studio to entrust the director with such an iconic franchise. Monsters– Edwards’ first feature- might as well exist in the same cinematic universe. Six years after a downed NASA satellite triggers the appearance of gigantic alien creatures in northern Mexico, a journalist is tasked with guiding his employer’s daughter to safety by crossing through the alien-controlled “infection zone” to the U.S. border. It’s a straightforward but effective allegory. In turn, what separates Monsters from the prototypical kaiju picture, is its focus on the human element- crafting rich relationships between its primary characters- and doling outbursts of action with an extraordinary amount of restraint. The Jaws-ian reliance on suggestion (when it comes to the titular creatures) is the result of budgetary constraints, perhaps, but Edwards manages to use the limitation as an asset. What makes the threat of sci-fi cinema’s myriad impossible lifeforms frightening isn’t the sharp teeth, slithering tentacles, strange technology, or cosmic powers- it’s the unknown and empathy for those who face it- and Monsters gives the viewer both, in abundance. When the behemoth organisms do appear before the camera, though, it’s delivered with a palpable beauty and wonder, akin to another Spielberg masterpiece- Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s the kind of small miracle possible with excellent science fiction, a reminder of man’s infinitesimally small place in the universe and reaffirmation of its inescapable connection to it, all the same.
In Time dir. Andrew Niccol (2011)
Streaming on Hulu
In Time has the kind of wonderfully stupid, high-concept premise (what if time really was money?!) that cements it as a mainstay in the annals of Sunday-afternoon movie canon before the opening credits even start to roll. The recipe is simple: Mix a batter made from a murderer’s row of charismatic and gorgeous performers ( Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Matt Bomer, Bella Heathcote, etc.), some excellently tailored suits, and fistfuls of action. Toss in a sprinkle of better-than-it-has-to-be Roger Deakins cinematography, and top the whole cake off with some genuinely interesting ideas about a capitalist dystopian future. The final product looks something like Andrew Niccol’s beautifully braindead sci-fi spectacle. It’s the perfect pick for lazy weekend viewing. Is it cheesy, goofy, and thoroughly nonsensical? Sure. It’s also much more fun than it has any right to be.
Upgrade dir. Leigh Whannell (2018)
Streaming on Peacock
Modern genre maestro Leigh Whannell has made a habit out of crafting imaginative yet familiar tales that feel totally modern without relinquishing the nostalgic, back-of-the-video-store quality that makes horror and sci-fi heads positively vibrate with joy. His 2018 sophomore directorial effort Upgrade is no different. After an auto accident/assassination attempt leaves (the hilariously named) Grey Trace paralyzed and his wife killed, Grey accepts the help of a reclusive inventor and former client. Grey is implanted with an A.I. chip known as STEM that works to control his motor functions. Newly mobile, Grey sets out on a journey of bloody retribution on behalf of his murdered wife. Equal parts Total Recall, The Crow, and the Six Million Dollar Man- Upgrade is an expertly crafted b-movie- an energetic blast of darkly funny, technophobic body horror smashed into the body of a sci-fi revenge thriller.