Earlier this year, we learned that Netflix had snapped up the U.S. and international distribution rights to China’s first sci-fi blockbuster, The Wandering Earth. Then, earlier this month, the film (read our review below!) suddenly appeared on Netflix with zero fanfare. Which got us wondering: What else does Netflix have hidden in its sci-fi vaults these days? Here are a few we recommend!
The Wandering Earth
Obviously, gotta start here. The Wandering Earth, directed by Frant Gwo and based on a short story by Liu Cixin (author of the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem), is filled with themes and story points that will feel familiar to fans of 1990s American sci-fi popcorn flicks, except with better special effects and (obviously) zero Western superstars, or American characters at all.
The lack of American perspective is actually one of the most fascinating things about The Wandering Earth, especially when you compare it to movies like Armageddon that suggest the planet would be totally screwed without the likes of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. Otherwise, the plot is pretty standard for a sci-fi disaster flick, albeit with a heightened sense of urgency that starts with a galactic catastrophe (the imminent, very premature death of the sun)—then splits its time between the environmentally-ravaged planet, where enormous engines have been built to guide Earth toward a new solar system, and the perils of space, where a massive station (complete with its own ruthlessly efficient AI) is on navigation detail.
To sell such a gigantically-scaled story, you have to make sure there are at least a few compelling human beings to give the audience an emotional point of entry. The Wandering Earth has some duds (notably, anyone who pops up as “comic relief”), and it doesn’t spend much time developing its few female characters. But its main trio is solid: astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu), who’s about to wrap up a 17-year stint on the space station; his aging father, transport driver Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat); and son Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), an engineering whiz who was just a tot when dad shipped out and has grown to resent his extended absence.
Though a lot of The Wandering Earth is necessarily given over to spectacle—with several implausibly close-shave escapes, and snafu upon snafu stacking already-impossible odds even higher—you can’t help but root for this family, especially Liu Peiqiang, a man so dedicated to protecting his son that he doesn’t hesitate to step up when he needs to be a hero. THE hero. Who needs Bruce Willis? If you’re looking for nuanced ideas and a completely original plot, The Wandering Earth may not be for you, but if the idea of lighting Jupiter on fire to course-correct an out-of-orbit Earth sounds like a jolly way to pass two hours, you could seriously do a lot worse.
Did you know the director of South Korean zombie sensation Train to Busan made a superhero movie? Psychokinesis has been lurking around Netflix since last year; it hasn’t gotten the hype of Train to Busan, though it’s very nearly as entertaining. Like Yeon Sang-ho’s breakout film, Psychokinesis is also about a man who realizes he’s been a crappy father to his daughter, and his efforts to make up for lost time dovetail with some complicated supernatural events. Instead of an uptight businessman faced with a zombie horde, however, Psychokinesis is about Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong, who’s also on Netflix’s Kingdom, which is about zombies), a ne’er-do-well security guard who gets his kicks guzzling soju and pilfering coffee packets from the bank in the shopping center where he works.
Two (apparently) unrelated events jerk him out of this sad-sack cycle. First, he drinks some spring water that’s been tainted by a meteorite, and suddenly develops the titular superpowers, which allow him to fling objects and people around with a certain amount of grunting and dramatic hand gestures. Then, he gets an unexpected phone call from his daughter, Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung), who he hasn’t seen since he peaced out from dad duties years ago. They haven’t kept in touch, and Roo-mi’s clearly not interested in rekindling the relationship. But even still, she decides she ought to let him know that her mother has just died...at the hands of mob enforcers...who smashed up Roo-mi’s chicken restaurant...at the behest of a shady mega-developer who wants to build a fancy new mall in its place.
It is a lot to take in. But Psychokinesis—which is styled as a broad comedy, despite its hefty amounts of tragedy and bad guys swinging lead pipes at small-business owners—somehow works, mostly because it is great fun to see Seok-heon stumble into situations where he’d normally be just another stepped-on schlubby guy, except he can do these incredible “magic tricks.”
Director Yeon Sang-ho clearly has a flair for re-framing familiar genres, and while Psychokinesis’ larger plot doesn’t throw many curveballs, there are some surprising smaller moments along the way in a movie that keeps its focus pretty tight. Seok-heon’s abilities attract a certain amount of public interest (at one point, he’s accused of using a secret North Korean weapon by the TV news), though not nearly as much as you’d expect, considering this guy is clumsily flying over the city like a drunk Superman once his powers hit their peak. Though there are echoes of down-to-earth superhero movies like Unbreakable, no supervillain ever emerges other than those real-life greedy gangsters. Mostly, it’s the tale of a guy genuinely trying to reconnect with his kid—who pulls off some amazing stunts in the process.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead co-directed and co-star in this tale scripted by Benson, about brothers (named Justin and Aaron) who receive an unexpected communiqué from the desert commune they left 10 years prior. Justin remembers the group to be a “UFO death cult,” while the younger Aaron has more nostalgic feelings about the place, and convinces his brother they should go back for a visit. What happens after they arrive at Camp Arcadia—beyond initial impressions that everyone there is welcoming (perhaps too welcoming?) and appears to be thriving—is best left up to the viewer to discover, as the puzzle pieces that make up The Endless’ plot slowly begin to make themselves known.
Similar to other low-budget sci-fi movies like Safety Not Guaranteed and Coherence, The Endless offers proof that tons of CGI enhancements aren’t necessary when there’s a clever, carefully-structured idea anchoring the story. The Endless also makes great use of its isolated, sun-baked location, the perfect backdrop for a lurking menace that feels both spawned from nature and otherworldly at the same time. The secrets of Camp Arcadia end up being revealed just enough, but stop short of being fully explained—a difficult balancing act that the film nails perfectly. Its eerie premise would be enough to anchor a film, but The Endless also delves into the deeper story of the brothers’ difficult but loving relationship, as well as an exploration of the things that are gained and lost when one’s free will is compromised.
The original Spanish title of Oriol Paulo’s sci-fi thriller translates to “During the Storm,” which is indeed when all the action takes place—except there are two storms, separated by 25 years but linked by a Frequency-style electrical phenomenon that allows Vera (Adriana Ugarte), a woman in 2014, to communicate with 12-year-old Nico (Julio Bohigas-Couto), who lived in the same house prior to his death in 1989. But this isn’t a ghost story; rather, it’s a time-travel tale of sorts that sees Vera scrambling with the tweaked version of her reality she accidentally triggers when she warns Nico about his imminent death.
Some changes are seemingly good, with Vera realizing this version of her achieved her ultimate career dream of being a top neurosurgeon. But for her, the bad cancels out everything. Though he still lives in “their” house, Vera’s husband doesn’t know her and is married to another woman, which—most devastatingly—means Vera’s beloved young daughter doesn’t exist. Frustratingly, though everyone is acting like she’s a nut case, Vera finds proof that her message to Nico really did occur; it was even written into a best-selling book by an author (The Orphanage’s Belén Rueda) who tries to help Vera figure out how to undo the good deed that ended up turning her world inside out.
Of course, as Marty McFly, the Avengers, and anyone else who’s mucked up the time stream can attest, getting back where you came from is never an easy task. On top of that, Mirage also contains an unsolved murder that snakes its tendrils into both Nico and Vera’s stories, as well as a couple of different love stories that complicate events as Vera rushes to find a solution to her predicament before that magical storm front passes. Paulo (who co-wrote with Lara Sendim) doesn’t spend much time fussing over the mechanics of how a vintage TV can link two time periods; the sci-fi elements are there mostly to propel the mystery and drama of a story that might not keep you guessing until the end, but will certainly entertain you on the ride.
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