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Happy August, Polygon readers!
The end of the summer is nigh upon us, which means there are a ton of exciting new sci-fi releases on the near horizon to look forward to. Gareth Edwards’ The Creator starring John David Washington looks promising, as does Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his 2021 epic sci-fi film Dune. There’s plenty of time between now and when those films are released, however, so why not pass the time with some of the best sci-fi movies available to stream now?
Each month, we pick five science fiction movies for you to watch at home, on Netflix and other streaming platforms. This month, we have an exciting Blaxploitation-inspired sci-fi mystery from a promising new director, a surreal ’80s sci-fi horror film from the director of Mandy, a ’90s cyberpunk anime classic, and more.
Let’s get into it!
They Cloned Tyrone
Run time: 2h 2m
Director: Juel Taylor
Cast: John Boyega, Teyonah Parris, Jamie Foxx
Netflix’s best original movie of 2023 is one of the year’s best movies, period. First-time feature director Juel Taylor brings in a litany of genre and cultural inspirations to this modern blaxploitation riff, resulting in a hilarious sci-fi farce.
When a drug dealer (John Boyega), a pimp (Jamie Foxx), and a sex worker (Teyonah Parris) stumble onto a vast conspiracy that ensnares their whole neighborhood, the trio must set aside their differences and team up to try and put a stop to it.
Foxx and Parris are laugh-out-loud funny throughout the movie’s breezy run time, and it’s a wonder that Boyega was able to keep a straight face while filming. (If you watch the bloopers, you’ll know the truth: He wasn’t). They Cloned Tyrone is without a doubt the funniest new sci-fi you could put on this month. When you’re done, watch this hilarious “interview” Boyega conducted with his character Fontaine. —Pete Volk
They Cloned Tyrone is available to stream on Netflix.
Run time: 1h 54m
Directors: Kristina Buožytė, Bruno Samper
Cast: Raffiella Chapman, Eddie Marsan, Rosy McEwen
If you’re anything like me, the prospect of the global climate crisis has a habit of hovering at the edge of your thoughts as you otherwise go about your day-to-day life. The combined tragedy of the Maui and Canadian wildfires this summer and the subsequent levels of air pollution produced by the latter only bring this problem into sharper focus, and it’s easy to feel disheartened by the lack of meaningful progress from major nations in divesting themselves from reliance on fossil fuels. More than simply a genre of escapism, science fiction is a genre of catharsis and self-reflection, one that allows both creators and audiences to live out their wildest predictions while imagining how to build a life in a world teetering on the brink of collapse. Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s 2022 post-apocalyptic film Vesper is a perfect example of this.
Set in a future where ecological collapse has blighted the planet and divided the remnants of humanity into the haves and have-nots, the film follows the story of a 14-year-old girl named Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) who works to devise a way to grow a new strain of edible plants while taking care of her ailing father, Darius (Richard Brake). When a drone from a mysterious technologically advanced enclave known as the Citadel crash-lands near Vesper’s home, Vesper discovers a young woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen) beside the wreckage. She offers Vesper a deal: Help her return to the Citadel, and both Vesper and her father will be welcomed and taken care of. The journey to get there is more perilous than either one expects, however, as Vesper and Camellia are forced to contend not only with the hostile, mutated creatures of the planet, but the vicious machinations of Vesper’s uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan).
Vesper is one of the most beautiful independent sci-fi movies of the past decade, rendering the desolation and surreal beauty of an ecologically ravaged world with a sense of stunning detail and imagination that borders on elegiac. It’s a tragically underseen masterpiece that thoroughly deserves more appreciation and appraisal, and a unique vision of survival that offers a hint of hope at a better future beyond the end of the world. —Toussaint Egan
Vesper is available to stream on Hulu.
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Run time: 1h 50m
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Cast: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands
Panos Cosmatos’ The Viewing was far and away one of the standout entries in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities when the anthology horror series premiered last year. The director of the 2018 cult hit Mandy is currently working on his latest film, Nekrokosm, a sci-fi horror love story set against the backdrop of an intergalactic invasion. There’s no word as of yet when audiences can expect Cosmatos’ new film, and considering the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, it’s probably going to be awhile. In the meantime, why not circle back and watch Cosmatos’ first film: the phantasmagorical sci-fi horror throwback Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Set in the 1980s, the film centers on Elena (Eva Bourne, credited as Eva Allan), a young telekinetic who is imprisoned in a vast experimental research facility known as the Arboria Institute. Menaced by the Institute’s acting director, the sociopathic Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), Elena is tormented and experimented on through the use of a mysterious glowing pyramid device that has the power to dampen her abilities and drain her physical strength. As Nyle becomes increasingly unhinged and obsessed with continuing his research, Elena must find a way to escape her prison and bring him and the Institute to justice.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is a profoundly vibe-oriented movie heavy on style and light on dialogue and narrative. Cosmatos himself stated the film was inspired by his desire to “create a film that is a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist,” channeling his childhood experiences of perusing movie stores and falling in love with VHS movie covers. It skews closer to the tone and aesthetic of The Viewing, with fuzzy analog textures, stark colors, and eerie pulsating synth score courtesy of Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. To describe it simply: It’s a phantasmagorical trip, one that you’ll be more than thankful to have taken the plunge to explore. —TE
Beyond the Black Rainbow is available to stream on Prime Video.
Run time: 1h 56m
Director: Lisa Joy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton
Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy’s feature-length debut is a future noir exploration of the relationship between trauma and nostalgia in a post-climate change future. Hugh Jackman stars as Nick Bannister, a man who operates a speciality business that allows clients to relive memories using an immersive 3D simulation device. When Nick falls for one of his customers, a mysterious femme fatale named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), only for her to suddenly disappear as quickly as she entered his life, he embarks on a dogged quest to find her that will bring him face to face with a deadly conspiracy.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for Westworld following the series’ abrupt cancellation, Reminiscence might be just the movie you’re looking for. Sure, it doesn’t have lifelike androids or super-advanced AI, but it does have a terrifically rendered world courtesy of Westworld production designer Howard Cummings and a gorgeous score by Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi. It’s a rare example of a big studio sci-fi movie that doesn’t shirk away from the reality and costs of climate change while urging audiences to face the challenges of that reality head-on instead of retreating into the stultifying comfort of the past. —TE
Reminiscence is available to stream on Max.
Ghost in the Shell
Run time: 1h 23m
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Cast: Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Iemasa Kayumi
Mamoru Oshii’s feature-length anime adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s sci-fi action manga is one of the undisputed classics of the cyberpunk subgenre — a dazzling and enduring work of speculative storytelling that at once channels the melancholic ennui of Andrei Tarkovsky and infuses it with the blistering firefights one might find in a Michael Bay film. The film centers on Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg living in a futuristic Japan who works as the lead field agent of a task force specializing in domestic terrorism and information warfare. When a mysterious rash of cyber crimes perpetrated by an elusive hacker known as the “Puppeteer” begins to spread across Japan, Kusanagi and her team are dispatched to apprehend the culprit. Little does she know, this case will be different than any other she has faced before, forcing her to question her own humanity as the line between artificial and organic consciousness begins to blur.
Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece, an enduring work of high-minded animation that still manages to excite and provoke audiences decades after its debut. Please, please do not waste your time watching the 2017 live-action movie starring Scarlett Johansson; just watch this instead and forget that other one ever existed. —TE
Ghost in the Shell is available to stream on Criterion Channel and Prime Video.