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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 DC 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.

Updated on August 27, 2021: HBO Max's library of movies is constantly changing, and we've updated this list to show what the streamer's best sci-fi gems currently are. From epic '80s adventures and twisted body horror to time-travel romps and alien adventures, these films showcase the sci-fi gems you'll find hidden away on 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.

Time Bandits

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.


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.

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.

Fantastic Planet

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.


Even if you haven't seen "Scanners," you'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 not included

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.

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 the film "a brilliant realization of a mind awakening to its animal instincts."


Writer-director David Cronenberg is responsible for some of the most visionary cult classics of the past 50 years, weaving science fiction and horror together to create terrifying and paranoid pieces about the unspeakable terrors and inhumanity of modern life. And long before "Scanners," "The Fly," and "eXistenZ," Cronenberg released "Rabid" in 1977, one of his first feature films ... and one of his most disturbing. 

In her first mainstream movie after establishing herself as an adult film star, Marilyn Chambers plays Rose, a motorcycle enthusiast who suffers numerous injuries in an accident. She's treated by an experimental plastic surgeon who grafts on new skin and flesh, hoping it will trigger the body into healing itself. Instead, a mutated, piercing growth develops around Rose's armpit, and it's got an insatiable taste for human blood. In this body horror movie — one peppered with hints of technophobia and apocalypse paranoia — "Cronenberg tackles issues of a hypersexual society, in which bodily technology has far surpassed our moral capabilities," according to Father Son Holy Gore.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams' freewheeling, satirical, wildly funny outer-space epic "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" entered the sci-fi pantheon in 1978 as a BBC Radio series, and it's been adapted for the stage, the small screen, a five-book series, and in 2005, a standalone, star-studded feature film. 

A take on the first book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" follows the adventures of Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) — a regular English guy who discovers that road crews are about to tear down his house to expand a highway ... and then that the Earth itself is scheduled to be blown up by the interstellar Vogon race to build a space bypass. He gets that news from his friend Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey), who reveals himself to be an alien traveling the cosmos with the aid of the pithy "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a space guidebook that looks like and predates an iPad. 

As they sometimes literally falls and tumbles through space, Arthur and Ford align themselves with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), a two-headed rogue of a galactic president who stole the sophisticated Heart of Gold spaceship (outfitted with an "Improbability Drive" and staffed by a depressed robot named Marvin the Paranoid Android) in search of the answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe, and everything." Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the film "hugely likable," and David Edelstein of Slate found it "an extremely pleasant, consistently amusing diversion."


HBO Max is the streaming home of HBO shows, including "Westworld," the sci-fi series about a futuristic, Old West-themed amusement park where wealthy guests do unspeakable things to super-realistic humanoid robots ... until they rise up and strike back. But before "Westworld" was a show, it was a 1973 film, written and directed by "Jurassic Park" novelist Michael Crichton. And it's also available to view on HBO Max.

The movie "Westworld" is just as unsettling as the TV series, but it offers a stronger sense of what can happen if technology continues rapidly advancing without any moral checks in place. Yul Brynner, best known for playing the charismatic King of Siam in the musical "The King and I," goes against type as a robotic, terrifying, manufactured Wild West gunfighter who sets off the violent android revolution, taking aim — literally and metaphorically — at a couple of guys (James Brolin and Richard Benjamin) who just wanted to dress up like cowboys and shoot at machines. (Interestingly, Brynner's all-black outfit seems like an intentional nod to/subversion of his heroic black-clad hero from "The Magnificent Seven.")

Alan Jones of Radio Times called the sci-fi Western "a fun scare flick that puts its clever gimmicks to imaginative use," while Gavin Bainbridge of Empire found the film "sharp, far-reaching sci-fi that will be remembered."

Anna to the Infinite Power

A child-friendly (but child-scaring) science-fiction staple of '80s HBO finally arrives on HBO Max. Based on the spooky young adult novel by Mildred Ames, "Anna to the Infinite Power" concerns Anna (Martha Byrne), a gifted 12-year-old who attends a school in New Jersey for the exceptionally intelligent. Sure, she's a kid genius, but she's also got a tendency to steal things, nastily talk back to her teachers, suffer from horrific headaches at the sight of fire, and is plagued with unsettling, near-apocalyptic nightmares. And soon enough, Anna comes to learn just why she's a genius and perhaps the cause of all those side effects: She's a pawn and not-quite-human experiment subject in a secret government genetic engineering program.

DVD Verdict says that the suspenseful "Anna to the Infinite Power" bridges the gap between '70s schlock and '80s Spielbergian "suburban fantasy" films while also creating "a serious sense of paranoia." And if you're in the mood for a slice of '80s creepiness ostensibly aimed at kids, this film's the one for you.


Apocalypse movies, in all their many forms, are always a fascinating slice of science fiction. Not only do filmmakers imagine and flesh out the terrifying idea of the world coming apart due to some kind of doomsday catastrophe, but it's interesting to examine the toll such an event would have on the human psyche, regardless of the form the end of days takes. 

In "Blindness," director Fernando Meirelles (best known for acclaimed dramas like "City of God," "The Constant Gardener," and "The Two Popes") presents a creepy sci-fi thriller about "white sickness," a rapidly spreading disease that robs whoever gets it of their sight. A doctor (known only as "Doctor") played by Mark Ruffalo is left blind, and he's sent to a government-run camp with his still-seeing wife (Julianne Moore), where things are falling apart as quickly as they are on the outside. It's up to her to lead the resistance while also avoiding that white sickness. "'Blindness,'" according to Namrata Joshi of Outlook, "manages to communicate the sense of deep-rooted paranoia and anxiety to its audience," which is perfect for anyone hoping to watch some unsettling sci-fi.