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Hidden Sci-Fi Gems On HBO Max You Need To Watch

The streaming services market was already quite crowded, with big dogs like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video all competing for the hearts, minds, loyalty, and recurring monthly payments of millions. Then the second big wave of streamers began, in which major media conglomerates created their own platforms, populated with in-house-created content. Along with Disney Plus came Warner's HBO Max, which combines HBO's extensive programming with dozens of hit TV shows and a deep well of full-length films. Some of those movies are a major draw for HBO Max, such as The Wizard of Oz and the D.C. Extended Universe. But just below the surface lurk plenty of other movies viewers haven't seen dozens of times, all scattered across a variety of genres. In particular, HBO Max offers a number of interesting, intriguing, and innovative science fiction movies that never really got their due. With that in mind, here's a look at some overlooked and underrated sci-fi flicks to check out on HBO Max.

Watch the first Dune movie before the new one hits HBO Max

Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune is one of the most popular and influential works of science fiction. It's far too sweeping and complex to turn into a single movie, but cult filmmaker David Lynch deserves some credit for at least trying, producing a boldly weird and noncommercial journey to far-off planets. Set in the year 10191, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) is the feudal ruler of the universe who consults a floating, living object called the Guild Navigator. Besides him, two elite families, the House of Harkonnen and the House of Atreides, fight for political control, so the Emperor plays them off each other in order to destroy them both. 

All anybody really wants, however, is a time-manipulating substance called Spice, which can be found only on the sand dune-covered planet of Arrakis. When Paul Harkonnen (Kyle McLachlan) goes there, the desert people believe him to be their messiah, and he leads them in a revolution that could have ramifications throughout the galaxy. Dune is a trip, and it looks and plays like a super-thick, totally mystifying "hard sci-fi" novel. Think the Star Wars saga, but more complicated and compressed into one movie.

Denis Villeneuve's ambitious new take on the material will be arriving on HBO Max in October 2021, making this the perfect time to see what's come before.

HBO Max has George Lucas' first stab at sci-fi

A few years before he'd revolutionize science-fiction forever — and arguably invent the modern blockbuster — with the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas co-wrote and directed another sci-fi classic in THX 1138. Often imitated or riffed upon, it's the definitive dystopian future movie, in which all things that make human beings individualistic and free have been outlawed in favor of an orderly society in which the government controls all aspects of life for citizens who are known not by names, but a soup of letters and numbers. 

Breeding, families, and displays of emotion are forbidden, but the use of brain-lulling drugs is mandatory for the populace, who all wear identical uniforms and sport shaved heads. One such living drone, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works in a police android factory and goes along with the wishes of the State until video surveillance workers LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) and SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance) replace his pills and turn him into a fellow soldier in a revolution favoring genuine human experiences... if they can pull it off, that is.

A time-travel comedy from the minds behind Monty Python

At its very core, science fiction is weird. Aliens, space, time travel, cloning, hybrid monsters — these are not everyday things so much as they are absurd, and it's exceedingly rare that a science-fiction property admits as much to the audience and presents itself as what it is, which is a strange story set in a baffling world. Time Bandits is one of those movies, a sci-fi fantasy adventure directed by Terry Gilliam and co-starring his old Monty Python friends John Cleese and Michael Palin. 

This Doctor Who meets Bill and Ted tale concerns 11-year-old history buff Kevin (Craig Warnock), who, after being surprised in his room one night by a group of time-traveling little people, follows them into a void that opens up in his house. Suddenly, they're all hopping through time and space together, trying to keep their time map safe from both the Supreme Being (rendered as a floating head) and the manifestation of Evil, who each desire to manipulate time for their own reasons. All the while, Kevin and friends meet heavily satirized historical and folk figures, such as Napoleon and Robin Hood. Time Bandits is also visually stunning, with one-of-a-kind, quaint, sometimes cheap-looking special effects.

Catch a groundbreaking Russian classic on HBO Max

Not only did the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in phase one of the "space race" — getting a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit first — the former Cold War superpower was also ahead of the Americans in making quiet, haunting movies about lonely astronauts. Long before Ad Astra, Gravity, Interstellar, or The Martian, there was Solaris, a 1972 film co-written and directed by legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and based on a book by author Stanislaw Lem. 

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis) heads to a troubled space station near the Earth-like planet of Solaris so as to treat the few cosmonauts that remain employed there, all of whom are experiencing increased mental instability. Not only does the crew act not quite right to Kelvin, but the station is also seemingly the home of Kelvin's long-dead wife. What could be a moody movie about listless space travelers becomes a contemplative one about the nature of memory and the state of reality itself... but in the unforgiving and cold atmosphere of a space station.

HBO Max has the answers to some Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

The horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead is about some underachieving slacker types who stage a counterattack against zombies from their local British pub. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is like the sci-fi version of Shaun of the Dead, subbing out the undead with the spectacular manipulation of time. Comic actors Chris O'Dowd, Marc Wootton, and Dean Lennox Kelly portray a trio of bored, go-nowhere friends who pop into the pub for a pint one night and ultimately find themselves crossing paths with Cassie (Anna Faris), a woman whose claim that she's from the future holds weight when one of them uncovers a time hole that gives them a look into the pub in the future... where everyone is dead, including them. 

Here, the movie shifts gears and becomes a murder whodunit, only the victims themselves have to figure out who or what killed them, or rather who will kill them, if their multiple trips back and forward in time don't work out correctly. All the while, they've got to avoid alternate versions of themselves and try their best not to create those dreaded time paradoxes.

Innerspace is a pure '80s sci-fi adventure

There's a lot going on in Innerspace, but that's to be expected from genre-bending-and-blending director Joe Dante, who also helmed the genre-blending '80s movies Gremlins and The 'Burbs. Yes, Innerspace is a science-fiction movie, inspired by the shrunken-down-to-cell-size antics of Fantastic Voyage, but bolstered with some unlikely comic and action sequences. 

After hitting a rough patch, Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteers for a top-secret scientific project in which he's placed in a submarine-like pod and miniaturized to microscopic levels. After a rival team of scientists tries to steal the technology, a syringe with Tuck inside of it is spirited away and he's unwittingly injected into a Jack Putter (Martin Short), a grocery clerk with hypochondria issues. Now on the run from bad guys, Tuck navigates and controls Jack's body from the inside. In Innerspace, Quaid gets to do what he does best — be a dashing, impish, heroic rogue — while Short plays to his strengths as a physical comedian and overall goofball.

Fantastic Planet is an animated art film like no other

Don't let the title befitting of a nature documentary fool you — Fantastic Planet is very much a science fiction movie, and one of the most engrossing, baffling, and haunting ones ever made. In the mid-20th century, the genre was dominated by works of allegory or ones that tried to uncover some truth about the human condition via stories about creatures, space, or the future. Fantastic Planet is that kind of sci-fi epic. This animated film from 1973 — originally released as La Planet Sauvage, because it's in French — looks and feels like Yellow Submarine, only more haunting. 

On the alien planet Ygam, giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags have brought in earthlings (which they call Oms) to keep as pets and entertainment in their advanced society. A juvenile Draag named Tiwa rescues an abandoned human baby (after two other blue kids kill its mother), and accidentally sends the newly named Terr bursts of knowledge through his collar that crosses circuits with her headphones. When Tiwa matures into adulthood, he escapes and meets up with a tribe of free Oms whose habitat is under attack. Add in a spooky prog rock musical score, and Fantastic Planet is the perfect oh-so-'70s sci-fi film.

HBO Max is ready to blow your mind with Scanners

Even if one hasn't seen Scanners, they're probably familiar with the film's most famous sequence: the pre-GIF-era image of a bald guy in a suit whose head suddenly explodes into a bloody mess. While taken totally out of context, that actually provides a very good idea of what Scanners, written and directed by famously provocative filmmaker David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, The Fly) is all about. In the world of the film there exists an ostracized subculture of "scanners," the now-adult offspring of women who took an unproven sleep aid during pregnancy; they possess the abilities to read minds, manipulate minds, and also make them explode. Darryl Revok, an especially powerful scanner, infiltrates a military company's event and blows up the head of one of their hired scanners. Darryl aims to unite scanners and take over the world, and it's up to his brother, Cameron, a reluctant scanner driven mad by his powers, to stop him. Scanners is rife with weird mind control sequences, exploding heads, and, of course, a telepathic battle for the ages between brothers.

Batteries may not be included with your HBO Max subscription, but this movie is

There are too many movies about aliens invading Earth to count, although *batteries not included doesn't follow the usual tropes — its extraterrestrials aren't malevolent monsters bent on destruction and indefinite occupation that must be taken down by young and virile heroes. Instead, the aliens in this film are modestly-sized robotic spaceship creatures who work hard to help an elderly couple and in turn make a Manhattan neighborhood a kinder and more robust place to live. 

Frank and Faye Riley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) operate an apartment building and small restaurant in the East Village, but face a developer who will resort to intimidation, violence, vandalism, and arson to force them out. At the perfect time, a couple of good-natured, sentient spaceships arrive, which the Rileys dub "The Fix-Its," and repair the extensive damage to the building. Sci-fi films aren't often gentle, sweet, and inspiring, but the fantastical actions of the quirky space robots make *batteries not included the rare family-friendly alien flick.

Earth Girls are Easy stars young Jim Carrey and Jeff Goldblum

As far as low-budget, over-the-top, super-'80s comedy-sci-fi-musicals about aliens trying to breed with human women from L.A. go, Earth Girls are Easy is easily the best. The film stars early-career Jim Carrey, Jeff Goldblum, and Damon Wayans as a trio of aliens who crash their spaceship in the backyard of a Los Angeles manicurist named Valerie (Geena Davis) who can't get her evil yuppie boyfriend (Charles Rocket) to settle down with her. That opens an opportunity for love and romance for Mac (Goldblum), with whom she shares a powerful connection. 

Meanwhile, his less dashing and fairly stupid extraterrestrial cohorts Wiploc (Carrey) and Zeebo (Wayans) absorb earth culture to try — and fail — to convincingly blend in, wreaking havoc instead. All this, plus a bunch of beach movie-type musical numbers make Earth Girls are Easy a charming and goofy bit of sci-fi flavored silliness that also works as a period piece about '80s California culture.

The Bay is a found footage-style tale of ecological horrors

Many science-fiction movies that depict the future of a few decades away as an unrecognizable place where technology has run amok, with robots, holograms, and time travel generally included. From writer-director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy) comes The Bay, the rare sci-fi film that attempts to show a world where the choices and policies of today (and yesterday) deeply affect tomorrow — particularly regular life. 

It's made all the more interesting and unsettling because it's presented in the ultra-realistic "found footage" style of the early 21st century, used by films like Chronicle and Paranormal Activity. The Bay is composed of (fictional) material captured in coastal Maryland, where the toxic pollution in the water leads to widespread disfigurations and sickness when people eat locally-caught crabs over the Fourth of July weekend. But this isn't just food-borne illness — it's a strange virus. Or, more accurately, mutant parasites that take over the body and mind of those they infect.

The Bay is really a sci-fi horror movie for the climate change age. Pat Padua of DCist called it "a watchable gross-out fest," while Abbie Bernstein of Assignment X thought the film's "matter-of-fact tone, juxtaposed with its eerie, plausible subject matter, should prove compelling viewing."

Code 46 is a dystopian thriller

From veteran filmmaker Michael WInterbottom comes Code 46, an old-school drama about an investigator uncovering more than he cared to, while also getting too personally involved with the situation. Produced in 2003, there's a distinct millennium-era, future-fearing bent to the whole film. Code 46 is set in the not-too-distant and not-too-great future, where the government is authoritarian and the sun is toxic, but mundane, day-to-day business is still necessary — such as the work conducted by insurance fraud investigator William Gold (Tim Robbins), a diligent, by-the-book agent. 

His big case: investigate and infiltrate a Shanghai-based ring that's illegally distributing the future's version of passports, which include a person's entire identity and genetic code. These "papeles" are quite valuable to the disenfranchised and overlooked because they grant access to the big cities, where all the good services and privileged people can be found. Gold winds up having a fling with Maria (Samantha Morton), leader of the passport network, and so he passes blame to someone else, but the situation gets a lot more scary and real when one of those passport buyers winds up dead. Set in a familiar but frightening sci-fi world, Code 46 "may be one of the most perfect cyberpunk films ever made," according to Marc Sarlov of the Austin Chronicle.

Monkey Shines

After two decades spent building up a resume as a provocative purveyor of low-budget, independent horror films — and virtually inventing the zombie genre with his Night of the Living Dead saga — writer-director George A. Romero made his first big studio movie, 1988's paranoid, terrifying, bewildering sci-fi chestnut Monkey Shines

The wryly named Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) is pure manliness, a cocky law student and accomplished athlete who loses nearly everything in the wake of a car accident. As he comes to rely on a wheelchair for mobility, he grows increasingly bitter and depressed. Then his former roommate, primate researcher Geoffrey, offers a companion monkey named Ella. They get a little too close, however, as Ella — who Allan doesn't know has received injections of human brain tissue — starts to absorb her human friend's disturbing thoughts, and then violently takes out his subconscious whims on others. Fernando F. Croce of CinePassion called Monkey Shines "a brilliant realization of a mind awakening to its animal instincts."