January 21, 2021

Best Sci-Fi Movies Streaming on HBO Max Right Now

The first thing one notices, looking at the sci-fi genre as it exists on HBO Max, is that there’s an unusual level of genuine curation involved here. The overall scope of the service might not be quite as broad as something like Netflix, but you’re likely to have heard of far more of these films. That’s because unlike the catalog of Netflix, Hulu or (especially) Amazon Prime, the bulk of the selections here aren’t made up of modern, straight-to-VOD, zero-budget productions with vague, one-word titles. Rather, almost everything here received a wide release at some point.

That makes for an interesting sci-fi library indeed, one that balances total schlock with acclaimed works by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. There are alien classics here, and sentient robots, and plenty of action and horror crossovers as well.

In fact, of all the major streamers, HBO Max likely has the library most focused on what you’d call older “classics,” rather than newer releases—fine with us, considering that segment tends to be less well represented.

You may also want to consult the following, sci-fi centric lists:

The 100 best sci-fi movies of all time

The 100 best sci-fi TV shows of all time

The best sci-fi movies on Netflix

The best sci-fi movies on Amazon Prime

2001-space-odyssey-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain, William Sylvester
Rating: G
Runtime: 139 minutes

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Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick told the story of everything—of life, of the universe, of pain and loss and the way reality and time changes as we, these insignificant voyagers, sail through it all, attempting to change it all, unsure if we’ve changed anything. Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (whose novel, conceived alongside the screenplay, saw release not long after the film’s premiere), 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the origins of the human race and ends with the dawn of whatever comes after us—spinning above our planet, god-like, a seemingly all-knowing, hopefully benevolent fifth-dimensional space fetus—spanning countless light years and millennia between. And yet, despite its ambitious leaps and barely comprehensible scope, every lofty symbolic gesture Kubrick matches with a moment of intimate humanity: the sadness of a mighty intellect’s death; the shock of cold-blooded murder; the minutiae and boredom of keeping our bodies functioning on a daily basis; the struggle and awe of encountering something we can’t explain; the unspoken need to survive, never questioned because it will never be answered. So much more than a speculative document about the human race colonizing the Solar System, 2001 asks why we do what we do—why, against so many oppositional forces, seen and otherwise, do we push outward, past the fringes of all that we know, all that we ever need to know? Amidst long shots of bodies sifting through space, of vessels and cosmonauts floating silently through the unknown, Kubrick finds grace—aided, of course, by an epic classical soundtrack we today can’t extricate from Kubrick’s indelible images—and in grace he finds purpose: If we can transcend our terrestrial roots with curiosity and fearlessness, then we should. Because we can. That the end of Kubrick’s odyssey returns us to the beginning only reaffirms that purpose: We are, and have always been, the navigators of our destiny. —Dom Sinacola

alien-1979-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton
Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes

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Conduits, canals and cloaca—Ridley Scott’s ode to claustrophobia leaves little room to breathe, cramming its blue collar archetypes through spaces much too small to sustain any sort of sanity, and much too unforgiving to survive. That Alien can also make Space in its vastness feel as suffocating as a coffin is a testament to Scott’s control as a director (arguably absent from much of his work to follow, including his insistence on ballooning the mythos of this first near-perfect film), as well as to the purity of horror as a genre. Alien, after all, is tension as narrative, violation as a matter of fact. When the crew of the mining spaceship Nostromo is prematurely awakened from cryogenic sleep to attend to a distress call from a seemingly lifeless planetoid, there is no doubt the small cadre of working class grunts and their posh Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) will discover nothing but mounting, otherworldly doom. Things obviously, iconically, go wrong from there, and as the crew understands both what they’ve brought onto their ship and what their fellow crew members are made of—in one case, literally—a hero emerges from the catastrophe: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the Platonic ideal of the Final Girl who must battle a viscous, phallic grotesque (care of the master of the phallically grotesque, H.R. Giger) and a fellow crew member who’s basically a walking vessel for an upsetting amount of seminal fluid. As Ripley crawls through the ship’s steel organs, between dreams—the film begins with the crew wakening, and ends with a return to sleep—Alien evolves into a psychosexual nightmare, an indictment of the inherently masculine act of colonization and a symbolic treatise on the trauma of assault. In Space, no one can hear you scream. Maybe that’s because no one is listening. —Dom Sinacola

aliens-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1986
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn
Rating: R
Runtime: 138 minutes

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James Cameron colonizes ideas: Every beautiful, breathtaking spectacle he assembles works as a pointillist representation of the genres he inhabits—sci-fi, horror, adventure, thriller—its many wonderful pieces and details of worldbuilding swarming, combining to grow exponentially, to inevitably overshadow the lack at its heart, the doubt that maybe all of this great movie-making is hiding a dearth of substance at the core of the stories Cameron tells. An early example of this pilgrim’s privilege is Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, in which Cameron mostly jettisons Scott’s figurative (and uncomfortably intimate) interrogation of masculine violence to transmute that urge into the bureaucracy that only served as a shadow of authoritarianism in the first film. Cameron blows out Scott’s world, but also neuters it, never quite connecting the lines from the aggression of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to the maleness of the military industrial complex, but never condoning that maleness, or that complex, either. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) story about what happened on the Nostromo in the first film is doubted because she’s a woman, sure, but mostly because the story spells disaster for the corporation’s nefarious plans. Private Vasquez’s (Jennette Goldstein) place in the Colonial Marine unit sent to LV-426 to investigate the wiping out of a human colony is taunted, but never outright doubted, her strength compared to her peers pretty obvious from the start. Instead, in transforming Ripley into a full-on action hero/mother figure—whose final boss battle involves protecting her ersatz daughter from the horror of another mother figure—Cameron isn’t messing with themes of violation or the role of women in an economic hierarchy, he’s placing women by default at the forefront of mankind’s future war. It’s magnificent blockbuster filmmaking, and one of the first films to redefine what a franchise can be within the confines of a new director’s voice and vision. —Dom Sinacola

godzilla-criterion-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1954
Director: Ishiro Honda
Stars: Sachio Sakai, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada
Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Early in Godzilla, before the monster is even glimpsed off the shore of the island of Odo, a local fisherman tells visiting reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) about the play they’re watching, describing it as the last remaining vestige of the ancient “exorcism” his people once practiced. Hagiwara watches the actors “sacrifice” a young girl to the calamitous sea creature to satiate its hunger and cajole it into leaving some fish for the people to enjoy—at least until the next sacrifice. Ishiro Hondo’s smash hit monster movie—the first of its kind in Japan, the most expensive movie ever made in the country at the time, not even a decade after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is, after 20-something sequels over three times as many years, a surprisingly elegiac exorcism of its own, a reminder of one nation’s continuing trauma during a time when the rest of the world jonesed to forget.

As J Hoberman describes in his essay for the film’s Criterion release, much of Honda’s disaster imagery is “coded in naturalism,” a verite-like glimpse of the harrowing destruction wrought by the beast but indistinguishable from the aftermath of the Americans’ attacks in 1945, especially when the U.S. and Russia, among other powers, were testing H-bombs in the Pacific in the early 1950s, bathing the Japanese in even more radiation than that in which they’d already been saturated. And yet, Godzilla is a sci-fi flick, replete with a “mad” scientist in an eye patch and a human in a rubber dinosaur suit flipping over model bridges. That Honda handles such goofiness with an unrelentingly poetic hand, purging his nation’s psychological grief in broadly intimate volleys, is nothing short of astounding. Shots of Godzilla trudging through thick smoke, spotlights highlighting his gaping maw as the Japanese military’s weapons do nothing but shock the dark with beautiful chiaroscuro, have been rarely matched in films of its ilk (and in the director’s own legion of sequels); Honda saw gods and monsters and, with the world entering a new age of technological doom, found no difference between the two. —Dom Sinacola

solaris-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1972
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet
Rating: PG
Runtime: 168 minutes

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In 2002, Steven Soderbergh adapted Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel into a perfectly fine and handsome movie. It’s the one time that the story of a Tarkovsky film has been duplicated, sharing source material, and it illustrates an important truth: Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision is singular, inimitable; it towers over all others. Where an accomplished director like Soderbergh made a serviceable sci-fi flick, Tarkovsky made visual poetry of the highest order. Tarkovsky’s artistic instincts rarely failed him, and even though it was a big budget genre picture, Solyaris takes risks with the same confidence of expression and the same depth of resonance as any other Tarkovsky film. The science fiction concept of the titular planet-entity allows Tarkovsky a new angle at the same themes pondered in many of his works: the pivotal roles of history and memory in our present and future; the fraught responsibility of the individual in responding to the calls of the sublime; the struggle to know truth. Tarkovsky’s long-take, free-associative aesthetic was predicated on his philosophy of filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and in Solyaris there is a fascinating confluence between the way time and perception is manipulated by Tarkovsky, and the way those things are manipulated by Solyaris itself. Solyaris gives back the protagonist, astronaut psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), for what purpose is unclear. But Tarkovsky’s films work in a similar fashion; difficult to say exactly why they do what they do, yet they pull at the deepest roots of ourselves. They elicit emotional, meditative realities unlike any other. Like Kelvin’s resurrected Hari, the stimuli are simulacrums, symbols mined from a collective dream, but this does not diminish the worth of experiencing them. Sometimes they lead you to a place like Solyaris leads Kelvin: an island of lost memory—or perhaps of an impossible future, awash in the waters of some Spirit. That makes the unreal real; that gives the dream life. —Chad Betz

iron-giant-poster.jpgYear: 1999
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Anniston, Vin Diesel, James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Christopher McDonald
Rating: PG
Runtime: 87 minutes

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Brad Bird’s feature debut championed traditional hand-drawn art at a time when computer animation was gaining in popularity, released by studio folk who didn’t realize just how special of a film they had on their hands, putting little to no marketing behind it. Luckily, The Iron Giant received its due recognition on home video. Set in the 1950s and drawing off of nuclear fears of the time—as well as Bird’s personal tragedy regarding gun violence—The Iron Giant incorporates the hallmark of the era’s science-fiction—a giant metal robot—into a touching coming-of-age story. Bird effortlessly moves between riotous comedy (such as young Hogarth’s efforts to hide his enormous new robot friend from his mother), high-spun action and poignant moments of fear and friendship. —Jeremy Mathews

matrix.jpgYear: 1999
Directors: Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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There is not much to say about the film that made cyberpunk not stupid—and therefore is the best cyberpunk movie ever made—or that made Keanu Reeves a respectable figure of American kung fu, or that finally made martial arts films a seriously hot commodity outside of Asia. The Matrix is—next to the Wu-Tang Clan—what proved to a new generation that martial arts films were worth their scrutiny, and in that reputation is bred college classes, heroes’ journeys and impossible expectations for special effects. While there are plenty better, there is no movie in the canon of martial arts films bigger than The Matrix, and even today we still have this film to thank for so much of what we love about modern kinetic cinema. This is our red pill; everything else is an illusion of greatness and everything else is an allusion to what the Wachowskis accomplished. —Dom Sinacola

fantastic-planet-poster.jpgYear: 1973
Director: René Laloux
Stars: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart
Rating: PG
Runtime: 71 minutes

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It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump

12-monkeys-poster.jpgYear: 1995
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stoew, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

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Inspired by the classic 1962 French short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys went on to become the rare financial success in the notoriously disaster-prone career of former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis plays a mentally unstable convict from an apocalyptic future who is sent back in time to halt the release of a deadly virus that will kill billions. Featuring great performances from Willis and a decidedly un-glamorized Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys bears that rare distinction of containing all the creative visuals and quirks that make Gilliam films great without the incoherent, scatter-brained plotting that often proves to be their downfall. —Mark Rozeman

galaxy quest poster.jpg

Year: 1999
Director: Dean Parisot
Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell
Rating: PG
Runtime: 104 minutes

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J.J. Abrams once called this Star Trek parody one of the best Trek movies ever. He’s not wrong. Galaxy Quest is less interested in making fun of Star Trek than in making fun of Star Trek culture, from obsessive fans to goofy special effects to actors who alternately hate, resent or are proud of their time on the show. It also features one of Alan Rickman’s greatest roles, in case you’re one of those kids who only knows him from his Harry Potter stuff and wants to take in the full measure of the man. —Alan Byrd

ad-astra-movie-poster.jpgYear: 2019
Director: James Gray
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 124 minutes

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Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut from a “future near to ours,” who, when we meet him, is somehow surviving an explosion from an international space station by using his preternatural ability to control his heart rate and his breathing, remaining calm in the face of mortal peril. The explosion was caused by a series of solar flares that, it’s learned, may be caused by an experiment years before led by Roy’s father, Griffin (Tommy Lee Jones), who was thought to have died but may be alive and in fact may have sabatoged the mission. Government officials, fearing the flares could end up destroying all life on planet Earth, want Roy to send a message to Griffin’s ship, hopefully persuading him to halt the flares and come back home. Roy, who hasn’t seen his father since he was a teenager, isn’t sure the mission’s going to work…but he’s haunted by his own demons, demons not entirely disconnected from his father. If this sounds like an exciting space yarn, know that director James Gray is in a much more meditative state here: The film is more about the mystery of the soul of man than it is about the mystery of the universe, or even about some big spaceship fights. The universe is the backdrop to the story of a man and his thwarted issues with his father, and his inability to connect with anyone else in the world because of it. Like many of Gray’s films, Ad Astra is about the depths one can find within oneself, how far down anyone can climb and hide. Pitt wouldn’t seem like the ideal actor for a part like that—charisma drips off him so effortlessly that it leaves a trail behind him wherever he goes—but he’s impressive at playing a man who doesn’t understand himself but suspects the answer to the riddle that has vexed him his whole life must be in this man who gave him life but whom he never really knew. There’s a reserve here that Pitt draws on that works well for him; it’s a serious performance, but it never feels showy. He is searching for something, knowing full well he probably won’t find it. Gray does provide some thrills on the journey of father to find son, and they are extremely well-crafted, particularly a battle with space pirates on the moon that takes place in a world without both gravity and sound. And in Pitt he has a solid emotional center that the audience will still follow anywhere, even if it’s to the ends of the solar system just to confront his daddy issues. —Will Leitch

the-animatrix-poster.jpgYear: 2003
Director: Various
Stars: Hedy Burress, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, James Arnold Taylor, Clayton Watson, Julia Fletcher, Kevin Michael Richardson, Pamela Adlon
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 102 minutes

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The Animatrix is, without a doubt, the best thing to come out of the Matrix franchise since the original movie. At the height of the series’ popularity between production of the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, the Wachowskis recruited the talents of seven of the most preeminent directors working in the field of anime to co-create an anthology of nine short films set within and around the continuity of the Matrix universe. All the familiar tropes are present: the mirrorshades, the kung fu acrobatics, the pulsing rain of digital kanji. But the greatest quality of the Animatrix anthology was in refracting the singular vision of the Wachowskis to a kaleidoscope of yet-unexplored visual and conceptual possibilities within the series’ core concept. Whether it be Mahiro Maeda’s chilling prequel in “The Second Renaissance,” Shinichiro Watanabe’s low-tech noir mystery in “A Detective Story,” or Peter Chung’s bizarre and psychedelic journey into the mind of a human-designed matrix with “Matriculated,” the Animatrix dove directly into heart of films’ collective mythology and reimagined it with every last drop of untapped creativity the series had then yet to muster. —Toussaint Egan

independence-day-poster.jpegYear: 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Vivica A. Fox, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 145 minutes

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They pretty much don’t make action movies like Independence Day anymore, although if you ask someone who caught Independence Day: Resurgence, they’ll tell you that’s probably a good thing. Regardless, there’s a certain sheen to this particular brand of FX-driven pre-2000s disaster blockbuster, an earnestness of conviction in terms of clear-cut characters like Jeff Goldblum’s “David Levinson”—call it a willingness to believe that the audience will be 100 percent on board with a protagonist from the very beginning, rather than questioning his methods. As for the rest of the cast, we get a who’s who of ’90s delights, whether it’s an ascendant, wisecracking Will Smith—one year before Men in Black would cement him as leading man material—or Bill Pullman as the flyboy American president ready to deliver one of cinema’s greatest jingoistic addresses. Independence Day doesn’t shy away from its inspirations as pulp (it might as well be a remake of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers as far as the alien motivations are concerned) but it dresses up its Saturday morning cartoon plot with undeniably ambitious spectacle, even when viewed 20-plus years later. That exploding White House, not to mention the effortless camaraderie of Goldblum and Smith in all their scenes together, cement Independence Day among the most rewatchable sci-fi action films of the past two decades. —Jim Vorel

Year: 1976
Director: Michael Anderson
Stars: Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Richard Jordan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Farrah Fawcett
Rating: PG
Runtime: 118 minutes

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In the far-flung future of 2274, 30 is the new 80. Unfortunately for those who think they’re entitled to a second act in life, like Logan 5 (Michael York), escaping can get you sentenced to “Deep Sleep” by the Gestapo-like Sandmen. And even if you make it past the human assassins, you could still wind up face-to-chrome grill with Box, the magnificently melodramatic robot who ran out of fish! And plankton! And sea greens! And protein from the sea!, and so decided it might as well flash-freeze some fresh Runners instead. I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion Billy West modeled his performance of thespian robot Calculon from Futurama after Roscoe Lee Browne’s positively Shakespearean Box. “My birds! My birds! My birds!! —Scott Wold

dune-1984-poster.jpgYear: 1984
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesa Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Richard Jordan, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sting
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 136 minutes

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David Lynch’s Dune, a would-be magnum opus hamstrung by the limitations of working within a studio system in 1984, will always be a divisive film, both among sci-fi geeks and devotees of the director’s filmography. As an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune often leaves much to be desired, and its casting can veer toward the questionable. In terms of art design, costuming and effects, however, Lynch did an admirable job of bringing the unique sci-fi universe of Dune to life, particularly in scenes such as the introduction of the truly grotesque guild navigator. As documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune well illustrated, an adaptation of this story is a very heavy stone to lift, which is also why Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded version has captured so much attention. Lynch’s take on this material will, at the very least, always contain iconic bits that have since been welded to the series itself, none moreso than “the spice must flow.” —Jim Vorel

westworld-1973-poster.jpegYear: 1973
Director: Michael Crichton
Stars: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin
Rating: PG
Runtime: 88 minutes

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Long before there was Jurassic Park (or the increasingly frustrating Westworld HBO series, for that matter), Michael Crichton wrote (and directed) the story of another disastrous theme park: Delos, housing the sophisticated amusement android characters of Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld. After catastrophic malfunctions inevitably occur, a couple dudes enjoying Dude Time find themselves menaced for real, when the robotic “bad guy” Gunslinger’s safety measures disappear. And a decade before there was The Terminator, there was Yule Brenner’s implacable robot stalker, an unfeeling killing machine who happens to look exactly like Brenner’s heroic character from The Magnificent Seven. Don’t bother trying to melt his face, Peter (Richard Benjamin); there are plenty more where that came from. “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” promises the ads for the park. They weren’t wrong. —Scott Wold

sound-of-my-voice-poster.jpgYear: 2012
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Stars: Brit Marling, Nicole Vicius, Christopher Denham
Rating: R
Runtime: 85 minutes

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Starting with 2011’s Another Earth and continuing with this film, the duo of Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling produced some of the most riveting indie sci-fi of the 2010s. Intimate, low-key dramas and thrillers tinged with high-concept sci-fi ideas, both films lean on Marling’s superb acting prowess and deliver mesmerizing performances. Sound of My Voice is a true indie psychological thriller, in which a young couple of investigative journalists attempt to infiltrate what appears to be a cult headed by a captivating young woman named Maggie (Marling), who claims to be a time traveler from the future. What unfolds is an examination of trust and vulnerability; the way that groups give us a purpose but also provide a platform of power for those who would seek to manipulate us for their own ends. Marling is spectacular as the enigmatic group leader, managing to be deeply empathetic and seemingly sinister from scene to scene, leaving the audience guessing up to the very end. Sound of My Voice never truly provides many answers, instead supplying just enough tantalizing morsels to allow you to come to your own conclusions. Those who enjoyed Marling in Netflix’s The OA will want to revisit this one. —Jim Vorel

movie poster mars attacks.jpg

Year: 1996
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Jim Brown, Rod Steiger, Natalie Portman
Rating: R
Runtime: 116 minutes

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With Jack Nicholson as president, Sarah Jessica Parker’s head appearing atop a chihuahua body and an alien race that speaks in a bird-like squawk, Mars Attacks is filled with enough campy goodness to make even the most serious sci-fi fan crack a smile. Although it was initially received poorly among critics and fans alike, repeat viewings of Mars Attacks made this one shine for a cult audience. You just can’t deny the silly pleasure of seeing so many famous faces disintegrated, one after another. —Sean Doyle

Year: 1971
Director: George Lucas
Stars: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley
Rating: PG
Runtime: 88 minutes

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The brilliance behind George Lucas’s choice to have his dystopic society disciplined via android cops is that there’s little difference between the machines who keep the “peace” and the people for whom they’re keeping it. Resembling a sort of campy take on highway patrolmen (think the Village People, except with way less singing) spliced with G.I. Joe’s Destro, the robot police force is governed solely on “budget,” which of course allows our hero THX (Robert Duvall) to escape the underground society, and the mysterious deity, OMM 0910, that represses him. Yet, in being left to his own devices after OMM determines that chasing after THX would put the robot police force 6% “over budget,” even THX’s humanity is further reduced to a matter of balancing numbers. It may be a point of triumph for our protagonist, but in perhaps the most subtle thematic move the director has ever made, Lucas is implying that even the organic characters in THX 1138 are mere tools for a higher power. —Dom Sinacola

prometheus-poster.jpgYear: 2012
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron
Rating: R
Runtime: 124 minutes

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Years after its initial release, fans of Ridley Scott and the Alien franchise seem to have come to peace with Prometheus, at least to some extent. Suffice to say, when it was released in 2012 the film simply wasn’t the deep dive into Alien mythos that many fans were hoping for—rather, Scott was more interesting in telling a religious allegory about man’s search (and eventually A.I.’s search) for meaning in a cold, indifferent universe. Visually, the film remains impressive, and it deserves some credit for tackling weighty themes within the structure of what could easily have been written as a dumb action movie (‘ala Alien: Covenant), but it also regularly undermines itself with poorly written characters who behave in some of the most illogical ways imaginable. What you’re left with is a big, jumbled mess of interesting ideas and interesting characters, particularly Fassbender as the instantly iconic android David, but a lack of cohesion. The film feels pulled in multiple directions at once, but it probably didn’t deserve every bit of the scorn it received from many genre geeks. —Jim Vorel

twilight-zone-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1983
Director: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow, Kathleen Quinlan
Rating: PG
Runtime: 101 minutes

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A true poster child for the concept of a “mixed reaction,” cultural opinion of Twilight Zone: The Movie is a rare instance of a film whose assessment has remained in flux for almost 40 years at this point. Too often, discussion of the film simply returns to the tragic helicopter accident that claimed the lives of three people, including actor Vic Morrow, and the subsequent lawsuits involving director John Landis, leaving no time for assessment of how the film attempted to modernize several classic Twilight Zone episodes from the visionary Rod Serling. In truth, the film is as variable in quality as TZ so often was itself—perhaps unexpectedly, the superstar directors in the group (Spielberg and Landis) turn in weaker segments, while Joe Dante and George Miller rescue the endeavor with their renditions of “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The latter in particular can’t be denied, as Jonathan Lithgow turns in a hair-raising performance as the panicked passenger who can’t get anyone to believe there’s a gremlin on the wing of the plane. It’s a stylish rendition of a classic story, fully adapted to 1980s horror sensibilities. —Jim Vorel

the-blob-1958-poster.jpgYear: 1956
Director: Irvin Yeaworth
Stars: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

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Alternatingly described as either a parable on creeping Communism or simply a good excuse for some necking at the drive-in, 1958’s The Blob fits neatly regardless into the era of atomic monster creature features that began roughly with 1954’s Them!. It has elements of the “us vs. them” counterculture films to come, with its “teen” characters (Steve McQueen was 27 at the time) being the immediate suspects of civil unrest according to local law enforcement, rather than the gelatinous alien blob slithering around town. It was made for a pittance of a budget, but the special effects hold up surprisingly well even today, especially in the iconic sequence in which The Blob attacks a “Midnight Spook Show” theater full of the target demographic. Still, in the years that followed, the film was likely best remembered for spawning Burt Bacharach’s novelty hit “Beware the Blob,” until Chuck Russell’s slick 1988 remake infused it with a whole new level of gross-out gory violence. Both films capture the same justified teenage fear of authority; the choice is only a matter of how viscerally you want to watch someone’s face get dissolved. —Jim Vorel

chronicles-of-riddick-poster.jpgYear: 2004
Director: David Twohy
Stars: Vin Diesel, Colm Feorge, Keith David, Karl Urban, Thandie Newton, Alexa Davalos, Judi Dench
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 119 minutes

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Space Opera. So easy to dismiss, yet, as with many of the pulpy confections of the imagination, so hard to get just right. Fifth Element gets it right. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets it wrong (though just wrong). David Twohy and Vin Diesel’s sequel to Pitch Black, however, is cooked to perfection, with noir-tinged dialogue and distress, existential threats both personal and planet-wide, and outlandish events and crazy characters presented with earnestness. The Chronicles of Riddick avoids exposition overload, though it manages to sneak in plenty of world-building, as our titular Furian kicks antagonist ass from one scene to the next. In some ways, the series as a whole can be compared to the Alien franchise—the first film horror, the second all action, the third, well, less exciting—but the second film of the series stands out as one of the purest, most enjoyable encapsulations of space opera outside the land of Lucas. —Michael Burgin

chronicle-2012-poster.jpgYear: 2012
Director: Josh Trank
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 83 minutes

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Chronicle is a sometimes fun, slightly dark film about a boy and his camera. Directed by Josh Trank, the film wants to be more interesting, more complicated than its found-footage counterparts (Cloverfield, Blair Witch Project, etc.), and in many ways, it is. Trank clearly wanted to create a true character in Andrew (Dane DeHaan), to explore familial bonds and dysfunctions and strange friendships that are as weak as they are strong. The characters, although annoying at times (being teens and all) are well-cast. They are never just problem kids, or just kids with superpowers, or creepy kids with cameras (like those wretched brothers in Another Happy Day). But the storyline of Chronicle does not fully allow for a deeper exploration of what makes them tick. Clichés overwhelm the piece, and as with most found-footage films, it gets extremely difficult to believe that someone is still determined to get the shot when all hell is breaking loose. One wonders if the short film (84 minutes) might have benefited from a slightly longer running time. Too quickly, the victim becomes the villain, and the transformation lacks authenticity—even with good, quality acting. Ultimately, the script does not ring as true as the performances, and this failure weakens what might have been a much stronger film. — —Shannon M. Houston

batteries-not-included.jpgYear: 1987
Director: Matthew Robbins
Stars: Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy
Rating: PG
Runtime: 107 minutes

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Old people and aliens partner to fight gentrification for the crowd-pleasing win! Spouses both on and off the screen, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn play a couple who are among the low-income residents of an apartment building at odds with The Man, who goes so far as to hire a local gang to vandalize the couple’s downstairs diner and further drive out the tenants. As luck would have it, a pair of friendly flying saucers dubbed “the Fix-Its” are in town, and squat on the top of the building while repairing anything and everything there in miraculous time. Oh, and the UFOs aren’t just do-gooding Fix-Its, they’re fertile, family-minded Fix-Its at that. Exec produced by Steven Spielberg and co. and with a script co-penned by Brad Bird (his first feature screenplay), *batteries not included is smart and cute, in the best sense of that term—the Fix-Its are positively adorbs. The cast (which also includes Elizabeth Peña) is pitch-perfect, especially the sprightly Cronyn. There’s a childlike innocence to the whole thing, and darned if it doesn’t charm you. —Amanda Schurr

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