5 science fiction movies to stream now
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
This month’s picks feature family-friendly superheroes, eerie phone calls (and eerier cab rides), alternative universes and a perilous trip to Mars.
Stream it on Netflix.
A scientist (Daniel Dae Kim) and a physician (Anna Kendrick) are on an exploratory journey to Mars under the leadership of their commander (Toni Collette, who gets to keep her Australian accent for a change). The entire mission is endangered when the crew discovers the title character (Shamier Anderson): There simply won’t be enough oxygen for four people.
Joe Penna’s film is more concerned with practical matters and intimate human dilemmas than large-scale, interstellar whiz-bang. Life-or-death decisions must be made, and “Stowaway” brings up major issues: How do you evaluate a life’s worth? How do you rank a person’s value and decide who lives and who dies? These are tough questions, and the movie struggles when it needs to dig deeper — there is little chance anybody will mistake Penna for Andrei Tarkovsky. At the same time, “Stowaway” does not shy away from the consequences of actions, and Kendrick’s presence anchors the viewer: She is believable as a medical prodigy, while her Everywoman quality gives genuine poignancy to the doctor’s choices.
‘How I Became a Superhero’
Stream it on Netflix.
Like the series “Lupin,” also on Netflix, this engaging French movie delivers fleet-footed, family-friendly fare that does not talk down to its audience or look as if it’s surreptitiously hawking Happy Meal toys.
Douglas Attal’s action comedy is set in a world where special abilities are common enough that a cop like Moreau (Pio Marmaï) is assigned to catch “supercriminals.” He does not look kindly on his new partner, Lt. Schaltzmann (Vimala Pons), who is not used to these unusual perps, and off we go with frenemy banter out of the “Lethal Weapon” playbook.
The main plot involves a drug that can turn people into human flamethrowers, shooting fire from their hands, but the visual effects are so clunky that it feels as if it’s an afterthought. The movie is on much surer footing when it lets its terrific actors have fun. Marmaï and Pons, who are often associated with young French auteur cinema, excel in a romantic-comedy register. But the best scenes involve brilliant Belgian star Benoît Poelvoorde (“Keep an Eye Out”) as Monte Carlo, who used to fight villains with Leïla Bekhti’s Callista in the Pack Royal superteam. Nobody is likely to complain if these two get their own spinoff.
Stream it on Netflix.
Younger viewers may be perplexed by the odd object at the center of Lee Chung-hyun’s creepy hybrid of science-fiction, thriller and horror. It’s black and clunky, and you talk into it: Yes, that is a cordless phone, connected to a so-called landline. When Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) picks it up, Young-sook (the intense Jun Jong-seo) is on the other end. Both women are about the same age and, as it turns out, live in the same house. Except that Seo-yeon is calling from 2019 and Young-sook from 1999.
In the rules governing this Korean movie’s internal logic, you can change both the future and the past, with each person’s present adjusting instantly, in front of their eyes. The bad news is that one of the people is a psychopath. Lee has a firm grasp on the aesthetics and shot framing — everything looks simultaneously gorgeous and unsettling — but more important, the events are easy to follow. There has been, in recent years, a fetishization of hypercomplex plotlines, as if any screenplay requiring an explanatory diagram is automatically granted depth. “The Call” has a clarity that has become rare in this type of storytelling; that makes the film only that much more powerful.
Stream it on Amazon Prime; buy or rent it on Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
It seems impossible to put together one of these columns without including a time-loop movie: Not only can they be done on the cheap, but they have an addictive quality: The desire to keep coming back is baked in.
In D.C. Hamilton’s “The Fare,” a cabbie, Harris (Gino Anthony Pesi), picks up a passenger, Penny (Brinna Kelly, who also wrote the screenplay). When he resets the meter, their interaction repeats. He doesn’t realize what’s going on at first; she, on the other hand, has always been ahead of him.
Warning bells have been ringing from the start, though: After all, Harris drives an old-fashioned Checker cab in the middle of a landscape so barren, it’s startling to hear the dispatcher mention streets.
The film was shot mostly on a soundstage using rear projections, but these budget-minded constraints actually help create a dreamy mood, as if the action were happening in a chiaroscuro netherworld. Visual hat tips to old Hollywood movies and “The Twilight Zone” are an added benefit. (Hamilton is not as successful wringing uniformly solid performances from his cast.)
Many such stories focus on the protagonists’ efforts to escape the temporal loop and don’t bother explaining how it came to be. But that aspect is key to “The Fare,” and the left-field reveal turns out to be surprisingly satisfying.
Stream it on Amazon Prime; buy or rent it on Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
One day, four friends discover that an old mirror in their shared house functions as a portal to alternate universes that duplicate ours, with at least one major difference: Time in those places passes much more slowly. This, for example, allows Noel (Martin Wallström from “Mr. Robot”) and Josh (Mark O’Brien) to beat a seemingly impossible deadline for an important business meeting. Leena (Georgia King) passes off artworks from a mirror universe as her own and finally lands a gallery exhibition. As for Devin (Aml Ameen), he keeps trying to find an alt-reality where his father is still alive.
The buddies also get to have stoopid fun in mirror worlds without fear of consequences, since they can always retreat to the safety of their regular home. In those scenes, Isaac Ezban’s film feels as if it’s a “Goonies”-type lark, with mindless adults.
But after one friend dies and the other three kidnap the mirror version, we enter a game of Whac-a-Mole as unruly paradoxes sprout up and the movie can’t keep them under control.
One character’s ambition is revealed to be amorally destructive. Eventually we realize that the worm was in the apple: No need to go find trouble through a mirror when it’s been sitting right there all along.