Science fiction is a genre bursting with ideas. From far-flung futures populated with inscrutable alien intelligences and vast worlds dappled across the expanse of light-years to uncanny reflections of our present refracted through the lens of speculation, no other genre affords as much creativity and flexibility in exploring the human (and non-human) condition.
When it comes to its selection of sci-fi films available to stream, HBO Max has an embarrassment of riches. From canonical classics to contemporary favorites, the streamer’s library of titles is honestly staggering. We’ve combed through the best to bring you what we feel are the best of the best that HBO Max has to offer in terms of sci-fi.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Run time: 2h 19m
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain
There are sci-fi films before 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are sci-fi films after 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus stands outs in the grand history of science fiction and cinema much like a black rectangular monolith would in a prehistoric desert. After uncovering a mysterious artifact on the surface of the moon, a team of scientists – among them Dr. David Bowman – embark aboard the Discovery One spacecraft to Jupiter in search of its origins.
When the ship’s A.I. system Hal 9000 attains consciousness, subsequently threatening the lives of all those aboard, Bowman and co. must work to deactivate the A.I. and cross the threshold into an alien frontier beyond space, time, and human understanding. Written by acclaimed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke and featuring special effects designed by Douglas Trumbull, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t just one of the greatest sci-fi films of all-time; it’s one of the greatest films ever produced, period. —Toussaint Egan
Run time: 2h 35m
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac
Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic was supposed to be unfilmable. Adapting the novel proved too colossal an undertaking for even David Lynch’s inimitable talents, resulting in a 1984 box office flop starring Kyle MacLachlan that, although beloved by a devoted few, failed to set the world on fire. It seemed like we would never get a faithful and commercially successful adaptation of Herbert’s saga about a young man’s rise to power amid an interplanetary feud over the most precious resource in the known galaxy. That is, until Denis Villeneuve came along.
The director’s 2021 film, the first in a two-part adaptation of the original Dune book, is an epic story of betrayal, rebellion, and destiny. The leading trio of performances by Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac is excellent in itself, to say nothing of the supporting performances by Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and more. If you haven’t yet made time to watch Dune, you absolutely must at some point before Part Two lands in theaters next November. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. —TE
Run time: 1h 47m
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
There’s a scene in Alex Garland’s 2014 sci-fi debut that stands out as the most pure and distinct encapsulation of the film itself. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who wins a contest to spend a week with his reclusive employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in his luxurious isolated home, is sitting down to have sushi with his host in the afternoon. Caleb asks his host, whom he has been helping for the past several days to test an artificially intelligent android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), why he chose to give his creation sexuality. The two men trade points and debate, eventually devolving into a spat of frat boy bickering that ultimately reveals that Ava’s sexuality and gender are not for her own sake, but rather for Nathan’s amusement.
All of this, mind you, transpires while Nathan’s assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who cannot speak English, stands nearby slicing cuts of sushi. It’s no different than two men arguing about whether or not a woman should have equal rights or autonomy all the while their maids dutifully clean up after their messes, and the film knows this. Ex Machina is one of the best sci-fi movies of the 2010s not just because of its elevated performances or production design, but for the ideas and ugly truths it manages to exhume and display to its audience in its most innocuous-seeming moments. —TE
The Matrix series
Run time: 2h 16m (The Matrix); 2h 18m (The Matrix Reloaded); 2h 10m (The Matrix Revolutions); 2h 28m (The Matrix Resurrections)
Director: Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions); Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Resurrections)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
The Matrix series is spectacular. The Wachowskis’ 1999 film blew a hole not only in the box office, but in Hollywood’s perception of what kind of sci-fi stories were possible at the time. Every subsequent film in the series (yes, that includes The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Resurrections, don’t argue with me) has continued to push the boundaries of audience expectations in service of a story that feels entirely its own. The Matrix series marries action with philosophy, romance with mystery, groundbreaking special effects animation with jaw-dropping wire-fu acrobatics. It is the sci-fi action series that arrived at precisely the right time to usher in the new millennium and with it, a new standard of action filmmaking. —TE
Run time: 1h 37m
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott
One of the all-time greats in the “Watch this movie without reading anything about it first” category, Moon reads like a model for all the small-scale, character-intense science fiction movies that followed it, from Ex Machina to Vesper. Sam Rockwell stars as a contractor working a solitary job overseeing resource-harvesting equipment on the moon. Kevin Spacey voices the robot that’s his only companion. Everything else that happens from there is left for the audience to unpack at their own speed, whether they get there ahead of the characters or not. It’s a tense, emotional, but ruthlessly low-key movie for smart, alert science fiction fans who can handle slow-burn drama. But if the quiet pacing ever feels too slow, spend some time admiring the production design, which gives Moon a grubby, lived-in tactile quality that feels as sterile as 2001: A Space Odyssey and as lived-in as a Star Wars movie at the same time. —Tasha Robinson
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Run time: 1h 58m
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Sumi Shimamoto, Gorō Naya, Yōji Matsuda
Hayao Miyazaki started this post-apocalyptic adventure as a manga series, reportedly under the condition that it would never be adapted as a movie — but then he wound up making the movie himself. It’s a particularly vivid part of his development as a filmmaker. Made before Miyazaki and his co-founders formally launched Studio Ghibli, the film feels more formal and solemn than most of the Miyazaki movies that followed, but it’s still clearly a proto version of the likes of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke — an adventure centering on a precocious, idealistic girl in a fantastically detailed world, polluted by greed and violence, but slowly healing itself nonetheless. Heavily textured and full of big, swoony emotions, it’s a fairy tale as much for adults as for kids, in spite of the child protagonist and the lessons about how youthful idealism triumphs over adult corruption. —TR
Run time: 2h 42m
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Alisa Freindlich
There is very little in the way of plot in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker. Based on the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the film follows a writer, a professor, and their titular guide into the Zone, a forbidden area in the Russian wilderness where the normal laws of physics, and even logic, don’t apply. Far from being a series of set pieces, Stalker is instead about the interior lives of each traveler, and how they’re reflected in the swampy, forested, alien landscape. Much of the movie plays out in excruciatingly long single-shots, documenting the slow comings and goings in a decrepit tavern, and the dissolution of the trio as they finally reach the Room, a place at the center of the Zone said to grant the wishes of any visitor. It’s a moody, often silent trek through eerie landscapes, and like much of Tarkovsky’s work, it demands that you meet it on its own terms. —Mike Mahardy
Under the Skin
Run time: 1h 48m
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson, Jeremy McWilliams
For Jonathan Glazer’s eerie, unsettling sci-fi/horror film Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson drove around Glasgow in an unmarked van and chatted up random residents, in a series of improv scenes meant to capture how intrigued real humans would be by her character, an alien wearing a human disguise to lure in human men.
It’s a quiet, personal, sometimes lurid film about sex and death, disguises and reality, and the longing for the unattainable, whether that’s a new body, or free access to someone else’s. Glazer and Johanssen make it haunting, though Mica Levi’s unsettling ambient score contributes just as much to the tone. This is another slow-burn wonder, but where Moon is more about plot, Under the Skin is about mood and feeling — particularly the feeling of watching people step into a spider’s lair, unaware that they’re about to get eaten. —TR