This weekend’s box office was completely taken over by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which debuted to the tune of $96 million, while the other impressive genre debut went to Under the Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson, which opened on four screens and earned $140,000. But you don’t need to head out to theaters to get heroes in costumes, mysterious villains, or sexy ladies, because an embarrassment of riches has hit streaming sites in the past week. (Along with a couple of just-plain embarrassments.) Cancel all your appointments and save the future by excelling in the present.
Here’s what’s new this week in streaming science fiction!
The Terminator (Netflix Instant & Hulu Plus)
The film that made James Cameron a household name and Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the coolest actors in Hollywood, The Terminator is a classic in every sense of the word. An excellent story (which will soon be violated completely with Terminator: Genesis), combined with blockbuster direction, paved the way for an even greater sequel. It’s a sad reality that this was one of the last times Schwarzenegger actually played a bad guy, which he does quite well. (No, I’m not even considering Batman & Robin when I say that.)
The Running Man (Netflix Instant)
One good Schwarzenegger film deserves an extremely campy one, and Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man is definitely the latter. A loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (under his Richard Bachman pseudonym), this actioner is a prescient look at the glass ceiling of reality television, as our giant hero plays a wrongly convicted prisoner who must compete in a psycho game show to win his freedom and his life. There are some truly wonky costumes and performances in this one, with a cast that includes game-show host Richard Dawson, musicians Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, and sports stars Jim Brown and Jesse Ventura. It’s good fun that is in dire need of a modern makeover, something I rarely promote these days.
The Fifth Element (Netflix Instant)
I’d like to go back to 1995 and get a public survey on what people thought director Luc Besson would be making after his masterful crime thriller Léon: The Professional, just so I could then show them The Fifth Element while cackling madly. It’s a mixture between genuine pleasure and guilty pleasure, a fantastical tale of a flying-cab driver who saves the world from Gary Oldman with the help of Milla Jovovich and her duct tape costume. (The guilty part stems from Chris Tucker’s exceedingly over-the-top performance as Ruby Rhod.) But excellent early-stage CGI and a silly sense of humor make this a standout in Besson’s pre-Taken career.
Coneheads (Netflix Instant)
If I did not fear incarceration, I would apply sufficient pressure to your face by shoving it into Steve Barron’s 1993 big-screen version of the Saturday Night Live sketch Coneheads. One of the more polarizing films out there, Coneheads wasn’t very enjoyable to me, though it does have some good gags, but I know people who would watch this on repeat if things like real life didn’t get in the way. My only hope for mankind is that any aliens who do make their way down here are as blatantly obvious, and that they also move to New Jersey.
Frankenstein’s Army (Netflix Instant)
One of my favorite horrors of last year, Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army is barely about the narrative — a group of Russian soldiers stumble upon a secret Nazi laboratory — and all about the giant mecha-zombies that Karel Roden’s Viktor Frankenstein is creating on his monstrous assembly line. The faux documentary angle almost immediately loses all sense of reality, but it’s obligatory for the in-your-face madness to retain its bizarro nature. Every corner becomes a potential death trap, and Raaphorst’s designs for the monsters will have you wishing for life-sized action figures. It’s the best video-game movie ever made that was never a video game to begin with.
Survival of the Dead (Netflix Instant) and Juan of the Dead (HBO Go)
If you’re into more traditional zombie tales, there’s George Romero’s 2009 entry into his Dead series, Survival of the Dead, in which people on an island try to fix the zombie epidemic and cure their zombified families. After watching this disappointing flick, you might find yourself checking to make sure Romero actually directed it and wasn’t just an executive producer, but he did. For a much better time fighting the undead, turn on Alejandro Brugués’ Spanish horror comedy Juan of the Dead, which follows a slacker named Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) who takes advantage of the growing Cuban apocalypse by starting a zombie-killing service for money, all while trying to reconnect with his daughter. Great effects and a great cast raise this been-there story to new heights, and the Cuban location is a great relief from the backwoods settings and urban cityscapes that American zombie movies can’t seem to get away from.
The Thirteenth Floor (HBO Go)
Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor is one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the 1990s and just doesn’t get the love it deserves. Starring non-marquee names Craig Bierko and Gretchen Mol, this flick smashed together virtual reality and a noir mobster drama in an incredibly inventive way, as Bierko is forced to go back and forth from the real world to the digital one in order to solve a murder and remove suspicions from himself. The twists and turns aren’t the most shocking, but they don’t need to be when the world they’re in is so interesting. Are we all gods of our own worlds, or are we just ones and zeroes? Whatever answer you come up with, it probably isn’t real.
My Favorite Martian (HBO Go)
There was a point in the late 1990s when Hollywood just loved going back to classic TV for their feature ideas, and Donald Petrie teamed up with John L. Green to bring the world a modernized update to Green’s 1960s sitcom My Favorite Martian. Christopher Lloyd took over Ray Walston’s role of Martin the Martian and Jeff Daniels replaced Bill Bixby as Tim O’Hara, a news producer who finds Martin’s crashed ship and tries to help him get back off the planet, though there are about a thousand obstacles they have to bypass first. My advice? Go back and watch the original series.
The Last Days on Mars (Netflix Instant)
What do you do whenever you’re only a day or so away from leaving an extended mission on Mars to go back home to the comforts of Earth? If you’re in Ruari Robinson’s space thriller The Last Days on Mars, you probably check on your experiments searching for living organisms, only to have them grow into something unexpected…and deadly. Liev Schreiber’s always commanding presence is the anchor for this increasingly ridiculous story that starts off promising before lapsing into a repetitive slasher-movie pattern. That said, there are some intense scenes here, and Robinson crafted some heavy atmosphere out of this limited setting, but in the end, it’s all monsters.
E.T.X.R. (Netflix Instant)
It was only a matter of time before a science fiction movie was made that centered on the bass-booming world of electronic dance music, and Fox Digital Studio’s micro-budget thriller E.T.X.R. might set the world ablaze with this new cinematic trend. (Or maybe not.) The film centers on DJ Bix the Bug (Caleb Hunt) who is looking for that one signature trait that he can use to connect with his audience. It comes in the form of the Teslascope, a device that Nikola Tesla allegedly designed as a way of communicating with aliens. And you know what? Aliens speak in bass drops.
The Inexplicable Universe with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Netflix Instant)
Do you love Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey but wish you could see host Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about similar subject matter without commercials for Fox shows? Look no further than The Inexplicable Universe, a six-part course series that Tyson created in 2012 that delves into everything from quarks to galaxies, and the mysteries still plaguing physicists about the ways our universe works. It’s meaty, inspirational brain food.
I’m exhausted after finding all this stuff, and I hope you all have more than enough to make your streaming this week a pleasurable success. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which we’ve covered before, recently hit Netflix as well.) Just like a T-800, I’ll be back…next week.