HBO Max is blessed to have the catalogs of Turner Classic Movies and Warner Bros. at its beck and call, making it one of the best platforms for a deep dive into the history of a genre — science fiction being no exception.
If you're willing to set aside the space operas now owned by a certain House of Mouse, HBO's streaming selection provides a great overview of onscreen cosmic epics, twisty time-travel blockbusters, and moody examinations of the intersection between cold technology and red-hot humanity. Here's EW's list of the best sci-fi films HBO Max has to offer at the moment.
<i>2001: A Space Odyssey</i> (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's claustrophobic, space-faring epic confronted audiences with a hard truth: No matter how far forward technology leaps, humans will still launch themselves into ultimately doomed quests toward somewhere else in service of whatever deities the universe provides.
In spite of that ultimately bleak idea, the 1968 masterpiece is a gorgeous marvel of filmmaking, so grand in scope and design that it was originally screened on specially made curved screens to better envelop the audience in Kubrick's mad vision. We promise the "Also sprach Zarathustra" opening still lands on your television screen with the weight of an otherworldly monolith.
If you liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might also enjoy: A Clockwork Orange (1971), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Blade Runner: The Final Cut</i> (1982)
The story of Blade Runner's many releases is nearly as knotty and dense as Ridley Scott's near-future android noir itself. Confusion among 1980s test-screening audiences and studio meddling led to a disastrous initial release with a sleepy Harrison Ford voice-over that left no one happy.
The Final Cut is the only version that gave Scott complete creative control over his vision of Philip K. Dick's underworld of bounty hunters and rogue robots. It's the longest version of the film ever released, but it still zips along at under two hours, showing that Scott isn't just talking when he criticizes the recent sequels.
If you liked Blade Runner: The Final Cut, you might also enjoy: Robocop (1987), streaming on Paramount+.
Frank Herbert's Dune novels are dense treatises on colonialism, climate change and the nature of power. The spice-addled mish-mash of spiritualism and Sun Tzu was considered nigh unfilmable, especially after David Lynch's unfortunate 1984 attempt. But that was before director Denis Villeneuve wowed audiences by cutting the first book in half and plopping Hollywood's hardest-working waif (Timothée Chalamet) into an unforgiving landscape riddled with monstrous, holy worms.
The resulting film throws the viewer into the confusing tumult of young Paul Atreides' life, using the foreboding nature of the source material to ramp up the story's internal tension and confusion. A score of war drums and whispers never lets the viewer find their feet on the ever-shifting sands of Arrakis, which EW's critic called "the kind of lush, lofty filmmaking wide screens were made for."
If you liked Dune, you might also enjoy: Ender's Game (2013), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Ex Machina</i> (2014)
In a world quickly burning thanks to the worst excesses of our billionaire class, this moody horror story about a tech entrepreneur who doesn't care who he hurts might hit too close to home, though it is excellent cinema. This exploration of the mundane evil of innovation for its own sake is worth putting the outside world aside, however briefly.
Oscar Isaac stars as reclusive techno-hermit Nathan Bateman, who tricks an employee (Domhnall Gleeson) into his glass-and-steel labyrinth of a home in order to test out his latest creation: a nearly human android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The creeping dread of the opening act becomes an incessant pounding in the ears as Bateman's true motives become clear and Gleeson's Caleb realizes he's as much a test subject as a stress tester.
If you liked Ex Machina, you might also enjoy: The Dead Zone (1983), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Mad Max: Fury Road</i> (2015)
Even in a world reduced to ashes, no one is coming to save us. The post-apocalyptic wastelands of George Miller's return to a radioactive Outback is still split into the haves and the have nots, a gruff dichotomy eventually cracked wide open by the blood bag-turned-hero Max.
Tom Hardy travels the deserts as a jagged and headstrong successor to Mel Gibson's iconic character. Shepherded along the film's out-and-back story line by Charlize Theron's bald badass Imperator Furiosa, Hardy manages to evade spray paint-huffing maniacs, water-crazed masterminds, and at least one Doof Warrior in a race across the deadly, dry wastes.
If you liked Mad Max: Fury Road, you might also enjoy: Mad Max (1979), streaming on Paramount+ and Showtime.
David Cronenberg's visceral blend of body horror and sci-fi first came to American audiences thanks to this Canadian cult classic. Before he was turning the ravishing good looks of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis on their heads via a not-so-sterile experimental machine, Cronenberg confronted audiences with the goop inside our heads with Scanners.
In this bombastic dystopia, the heightened paranoia of the Cold War and the rise of a revitalized right wing tears the psyches of former hippies turned yuppies inside out, a phenomenon that Cronenberg realizes in vivid shades of red. These "scanners" harbor psychic and telekinetic powers, making waves in underground rings, national security, and in the unsuspecting heads of those around them. The subsequent story is nothing short of mind-bending (and blowing, considering the famous head explosion stunt).
If you liked Scanners, you might also enjoy: Videodrome (1983), streaming on Peacock.
Consider Andrei Tarkovsky's moody and meditative space story a graduate-level response to the Homeric tale that kicked off this list. Just as grand in ambition, though less likely to be a hit if you throw it on at a party, this 1972 film dares to ask what the rules are in an endless cosmos and while intentionally avoiding spoon-feeding us easy answers.
Tarkovsky eschews the flash of his non-Soviet contemporaries, opting to use sci-fi in the manner of the era's novelists as a way to examine the as yet undiscovered contours of the human mind. The resulting film is short on special effects and long on philosophy, luxuriating in its nearly three-hour runtime to ponder human nature, unchanged even in the far-off era of long-distance space travel.
If you liked Solaris, you might also enjoy: Stalker (1979), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Terminator 2: Judgment Day</i> (1991)
In the first Terminator film, director James Cameron reimagined the stoic serial killers of the slasher genre inside a fully realized sci-fi time-travel epic. Seven years later, he one-upped himself with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The second film in the soon-to-be unwieldy Terminator franchise adds on to the lore of the war between man and machine. Ever more advanced robots are sent back into our own timeline to wipe out the future leader of human resistance before he can grow old. Flipping the deathless menace of Arnold Schwarzenegger's original killer on its ear, Cameron casts the beefy Austrian as a reprogrammed and redeemed bodyguard bot tasked with protecting John Connor (Edward Furlong) while also making peace with his original target, John's mom Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
Arnold's star power had expanded as exponentially as an ever-looping time-travel plot, and the requisite face turn and budget boost in the sequel leads plays out in the form of incredible pyrotechnic showdowns between the Terminator and new baddie, the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick.
If you liked Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you might also enjoy: Mortal Kombat (1995), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Under the Skin</i> (2013)
Superstardom is a realm so far from the average person's experience as to be entirely alien. Scarlett Johansson took a break from her skyrocketing career in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to examine what it would be like to view humanity from the outside.
In this art-house split from her endless churn of summer blockbusters, Johannson plays an alien disguised as a human woman. Throughout the film, which is directed by Jonathan Glazer and includes an alluring score courtesy of Mica Levi, she lures several people back to her lair to study them, ultimately submerging their bodies in a black abyss. Though she never seems to fully understand the everyday people she brings back to her house of horrors, she does develop a sort-of empathy for her test subjects as the film hurtles toward its brutal conclusion.
If you liked Under the Skin, you might also enjoy: Possessor (2020), streaming on Hulu.
<i>The Blob<i> (1958)
Where later sci-fi features would have to come up with ever more arcane reasons for their alien assailant's destruction, 1958's The Blob had the luxury of needing no explanation. An otherworldly goop from the far-off reaches of space has crash landed in a small town — and it's hungry.
Beyond its ability to make food coloring and jelly frightening, the B-movie schlockfest is notable for being Steve McQueen's first leading role. As the monster grows in size and color on its tyrannical tirade on Norman Rockwell's small-town America, McQueen gamely carries this slow-burn movie to its electrifying ending, with the angry red Blob meeting its match while consuming the local diner whole. The straightforward creature feature made a seismic impact on the sci-fi film genre, influencing countless future directors and inspiring a restored release through the Criterion Collection.
If you liked The Blob, you might also enjoy: Godzilla (1954), streaming on HBO Max.