When you think about it, 2020 sorta feels like a year out of a science fiction movie, what with a global pandemic sparked by a mysterious virus and an election season that challenged all thresholds of common sense. It only made the actual sci-fi offerings of this year more comforting in their escapism, even if that escapism involved villains from the future trying to use Russian Kenneth Branagh to blow up the past, or a bunch of trigger-happy mercenaries hell-bent on destroying a tiny jungle town. Given that most of this year’s big-budget superhero outings and space opera blockbusters have been shifted ahead in the calendar, it may seem like we were bereft of the usual amount of laser-blasting spaceships and sonic boom fistfights, but those empty slots allowed plenty leaner, meaner flicks to shine. In a year like 2020, being abducted by aliens suddenly doesn’t seem too bad.
Release date: February 28
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Director: Leigh Whannell
Why it’s worth seeing: Released from the clutches of the dead-on-arrival Dark Universe, H.G. Wells’ classic villain spends Leigh Whannell’s thriller menacing Elisabeth Moss. When Cecelia Kass’s abusive, controlling ex Adrian Griffin commits suicide, leaving her an enormous sum of money in a trust, she immediately suspects something is up. After a series of dangerous, unexplainable incidents, Cecelia begins to believe that she’s being stalked by Griffin back from the dead and somehow invisible to the naked eye—he is a “world leader in the field of optics,” after all. But that’s not an easy accusation to just show up at the police station with, and Cecelia knows it’s up to her to save herself and the friends who have given her shelter from the unseeable threat, a cat-and-mouse game that culminates in a terrifying and cathartic final act.
Where to watch it: Stream on HBO Max
Release date: March 6
Cast: Sonia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Why it’s worth seeing: Here’s what you need to know about Bacurau : It takes place in the near future, in a small settlement in the middle of nowhere in eastern Brazil, whose residents, after having a funeral for their dearly departed matriarch, start to notice strange things happening. It appears that something or someone is attempting to erase their tiny town from existence on maps and telephone lines, isolating them from the rest of the world, their water supply, and any chance of help. And that’s all we’re going to tell you, because the true plot of the movie, which is as audacious as it is exciting to watch, is even better than anything you could glean from any promotional material and much more fun to experience in the moment, an action-satire in the vein of Southland Tales that’s as bloody as it is hilarious.
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon , iTunes, etc.
Release date: May 29
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Director: Andrew Patterson
Why it’s worth seeing: Equal parts would-be Twilight Zone episode and old-fashioned sci-fi radio drama, Andrew Patterson’s debut feature The Vast of Night takes us back in time to Cayuga, New Mexico in the late 1950s, when technology promised us a future Space Age and the rascally Soviets could be hiding around every corner. Two high school youngsters, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and late-night radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz), stumble upon a strange interference one night that doesn’t seem to be coming from any known source. When Everett asks his listeners to call in if they recognize the sound, the two uncover a global conspiracy involving the military, disappearances, and what some might call alien abduction. The film is such fun to watch, the two leads constantly bickering back and forth in a choppy, mid-’50s cadence, and the mystery at the center of it all is a thrilling, playful return to a cozy, antique way of storytelling when the nighttime was full of endless possibilities.
Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon Prime
Release date: July 10
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Peter Gallagher, J.K. Simmons
Director: Max Barbakow
Why it’s worth seeing: So, it’s a little bit of a spoiler for me to put this movie, which looks on its surface like a traditional romantic comedy, in a science fiction list, and for that I AM SORRY, and if you don’t want to know the big reveal that kicks off this movie’s plot, I cordially invite you to skip ahead. Okay, now that they’re gone… When Nyles and Sarah bond one night after Nyles makes a fool of himself at his friend’s wedding ceremony, everything seems to be going fine until Nyles is shot in the shoulder with an arrow and crawls into a cave. Sarah follows him, and discovers that Nyles, and now she, are caught in a 24-hour time loop that begins on the morning of the wedding ceremony and begins again as soon as they fall asleep that night and wake back up. The two play out dozens, hundreds of iterations of the day, skipping the wedding, taking over the wedding, floating aimlessly in the hotel pool, growing closer and falling for each other even though, technically, they’ve only known each other for a day. But when they finally realize that it’s time for them to figure out a way to escape, their newfound relationship, and their very notions of time-space, are tested to their limits.
Where to watch it: Stream on Hulu
Release date: September 3
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki
Director: Christopher Nolan
Why it’s worth seeing: If you haven’t already seen Tenet , or read all the way through its convoluted Wikipedia page, and are wondering whether or not to give it a shot, I am here to tell you: Yes. Yes, you absolutely should, especially if you’re prepared to watch Christopher Nolan bend time and space to fit in all his little eccentricities and interests into one feature-length movie. An unnamed CIA agent, referred to only as the Protagonist, is recruited into a secret agency that studies mysterious objects that have been “inverted”—that is, they seem to only move backwards through time. As the Protagonist gets deeper, he discovers a terrifying conspiracy concocted by agents of some dystopian far future, who plan to destroy the world of the past (our present) in order to save themselves. The rest of the plot makes about 75% sense, but it’s much more fun to just let it wash over you, bathing your consciousness in Ludwig Göransson’s growling, pumping score, and Robert Pattinson attempting to explain how time travel works.
Where to watch it: In theaters
Release date: October 2; out on VOD November 6
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Why it’s worth seeing: In a brutalist, algorithm-driven version of our near future, assassins carry out their dirty work by possessing the bodies of other people, leaving no trace of a murder plot and no way for the authorities to catch them. Tasya Vos is one such “possessor,” an elite agent who suspects she may have lost her touch, unable to control the bodies of her pawns as well as she used to. For her next job, her consciousness is implanted into the body of Colin Tate, the boyfriend of the daughter of the owner of a massive data-mining corporation, whose employees spend their days hooked up to the cameras of regular citizens’ Amazon Alexas and describing their curtains, their wall paint, the contents of their carpet fibers. Vos’s job is to possess Colin and murder the corporation owner as well as his daughter, but Colin’s mind turns out to be stronger than Vos anticipated. Possessor is not for the squeamish, as Brandon Cronenberg lives up to his family name, delivering a gory, gooey psychic battle of wills that is viscerally unforgettable.
Where to watch it: In theaters
Release date: October 23
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Why it’s worth seeing: Four features in, directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have a very distinct style: weird stuff in the sky, complicated brotherly relationships between men, new and fascinating conceptions of the nature of time. Synchronic is another dive into the depths of what the fabric of the universe is woven from, spinning a wild tale of death, drugs, and time travel amidst the dim, sinister backdrop of nighttime New Orleans. Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie play a pair of EMTs cruising the NOLA nights responding to emergency distress calls. On a few of these calls, they come across a number of people who have either mysteriously disappeared or somehow wound up dead, each incident having to do with a new drug called “Synchronic.” When Dornan’s daughter goes missing, his friend must figure out how to use the killer drug to find her.
Where to watch it: In theaters
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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.