If you need a break from the hustle and cheer of the holidays, there’s nothing better than the ultimate escapist genre: sci-fi. This year has been a good one for those who like their entertainment off-planet or otherwise removed from our reality. We finally got a Predator sequel that isn’t silly; the author of Station Eleven released her highly anticipated new book; Star Wars proved it’s ready to grow up; and the production company A24 brought us one of the most exhilarating movies in years. There are even a number of sci-fi podcasts that can keep you company while you wrap presents or decorate your home with tinsel and lights. Here are some of the best sci-fi movies, books and shows as of late that you can binge over the holidays.
If you still miss Northern Exposure 27 years after its finale aired and thought Wash was the best part of Firefly, you’ll find something to appreciate in Syfy’s Resident Alien. Now in its second season on the Syfy app and Peacock, the show follows a doctor, new to a small, snowy town, who’s actually an alien that came to Earth to exterminate humanity – except he’s misplaced his world-killer device. The extraterrestrial, played with gusto by Alan Tudyk, pretends to be Harry the human while getting into plenty of sitcom-style hijinks with a roster of quirky characters.
Two subplots expand the fish-out-of-water story: one about the recent murder of the former town physician, the other involving a secret government organization that’s hunting down the alien and his ship. It’s spit-your-drink-out funny and expertly plays with the small-town TV tropes we know and love. It’s also occasionally touching, particularly in moments between Harry and Max, a 10-year-old boy who happens to be the only person who can see past Harry’s human disguise.
In my personal accounting, Apple TV+ wins the streaming war this year, and Severance is among the best of their offerings. That’s saying a lot, considering Slow Horses, Afterparty, Pachinko and Black Bird all debuted on the streaming service in 2022. Not to mention the intelligent and pitch-dark time traveling serial killer thriller, Shining Girls. Where that show was awash in visceral, back-alley terror, Severance occupies a cleaner, tech-washed version of reality, but one that’s no less nightmarish.
Weaponizing the ideals of modern working life against us – the minimalist, high-design office, a strict work-life balance – Severance tells the story of employees at Lumon. While we’re not sure what they do, we do know they’ve all undergone a surgical procedure to separate their work brains from their personal brains, effectively creating two different people. The delight lies in figuring out who these people really are (and what that even means), and sussing out what’s actually going on at Lumon. Gorgeous in a sterile, Apple Store kind of way, Severance is anchored by exacting performances from Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken and John Turturro. And yes, to keep us from rioting in the streets after season one’s cliffhanger, there will be a season two.
With a William Gibson novel as source material and Westworld creators as producers, The Peripheral has a strong sci-fi pedigree. The assured performance by Chloë Grace Moretz and a particularly lush set design make Amazon Studios’ new production a treat for the eyes and ears – it gives your brain something to chew on, too.
Set both 10 years in the future in North Carolina and 77 years in the future in a post-apocalyptic, hologram-clad London, the show centers on Moretz’s Flynne, a woman trying to make enough money to care for her ailing mother by working her job at the local 3D print shop and by helping rich folks level up in VR games. When her brother lands a gig to try out a new headset, Flynne, being the better player, heads into the sim. Turns out, it’s not a sim, but a quantum tunnel into the future in which she controls perfectly rendered robots – the first one modeled after her brother, then one based on herself. Of course, putting on the headset ignites a world of troubles, some of which show up on Flynne’s doorstep.
There’s plenty of Gibson’s characteristic techno-cool terminology, and metaphysical and temporal intricacies that you’ll have to watch closely to figure out – you’ll get little hand-holding here – but the head-scratching opaqueness that obscured Westworld’s later seasons don’t really apply. Look for answers and you’ll find them, plus you’ll have a lot of cyberpunk-fueled fun along the way.
The scads of people who are calling Andor the best product in the Star Wars franchise aren’t wrong. Turning the camera away from the galaxy’s royal Skywalker family, the new Disney+ series follows Cassian Andor, who you may remember from Rogue One as the relative nobody in a band of nobodies who made sure the Death Star plans got into the hands of the Rebel Alliance so Luke could do his thing.
The series takes place five years before the events of Rogue One and replaces the melodrama of the saga and grandiosity of the Force with a human story on a human scale. It’s about a man who makes his own journey towards rebellion, instead of that rebellion being a predestined fact. Faced with an Empire that’s disturbingly bureaucratic in its repression, Cassian assists with a heist that prods the Empire to bring down its fist across the galaxy. Watching it gives you a detailed sense of the universe where Star Wars takes place, with fully realized worlds, mature storylines, and characters that don’t feel far, far away.
The 1987 sci-fi action classic Predator pits a band of heavily armed and macho soldiers against an extraterrestrial who likes to occasionally drop by Earth to hunt humans. Peak-form Arnold Schwarzenegger is the last man standing, and honestly looks pretty ragged in that final chopper ride out of the jungle. So how would a young Comanche woman in the early 1700s fare against a similar alien encounter? Pretty damn well, as it turns out.
Easily the best sequel in the Predator franchise, Hulu’s Prey takes place on the Great Plains where Naru, played with steel by Amber Midthunder, dreams of proving herself as a hunter and warrior. With her dog by her side and a throwing axe in hand, Naru gets a chance to do just that as she faces off against predators of the animal kind (bears and mountain lions), the human variety (French fur trappers) and ultimately, one from another planet. Special attention was paid to historical fidelity with on-set Indiginous advisors and a largely Indigenous cast playing the Comanche tribe members, proving that when Hollywood makes an effort to get things right, everything only gets better.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
We need films like Everything Everywhere All at Once to remind us of the pure joy movies can make us feel. Picture a mashup of multiverse tropes, Kung Fu action, family drama and absurdist comedy, and you’ll get a sense of what to expect from EEAAO. Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese-American immigrant living in Simi Valley with her husband and daughter. The laundromat they run is being audited by an IRS examiner played by an uncharacteristically dowdy Jamie Lee Curtis. But before Evelyn makes it to her IRS appointment, she’s told she’s an important player in an inter-dimensional battle against a chaos-loving force known as Jobu Tupaki. Eveyln flits through parallel universes, gaining skills and perspectives as she does, ultimately braiding threads together to figure out what existence “means.”
The film comes from A24, a production and distribution company with an uncanny knack for fostering wholly original movies in a world awash in reboots and franchises. EEAAO is already racking up awards and nominations to match its overwhelming public acclaim. If you haven’t done so already, watch it and never see hot dogs, rocks or Ratatouille in the same way again.
After the psychological terror of Get Out and grisly horror of Us, director Jordan Peele made Nope to prove he’s not out of ideas. Daniel Kaluuya plays the lead, as he did in Get Out, this time as a laconic cowboy in a trucker hat. Kaluuya’s OJ and Keke Palmer’s Emerald are a brother and sister team running a struggling ranch outside of Hollywood where they train horses for the movies. When nickels and house keys fall from the sky and the horses start running off, they see there’s something parked above the ranch, hiding in an immovable cloud – something that’s not from here, and definitely not friendly.
Like everything Peele makes, Nope has plenty of humor to shoot through the tension, and there’s a dose of abounding weirdness – particularly in a side plot about a sitcom chimpanzee. You also sense a clear love of movies coloring the film, with nods to classics like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. In fact, the idea of movie making itself drives the team that comes together against the UFO. The need to get the shot, to document the alien, is just as, if not more, important than self-preservation.
Sea of Tranquility
If you caught the dreamy, post-apocalyptic miniseries Station Eleven on HBO last December and wondered if there were any more ideas where that came from, check out Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility. St. John Mandel wrote the book upon which the HBO series was based, and this time around, she’s exploring what life on a colonized moon would look like while also considering the effects of a space-time anomaly that links together a British Columbian forest, an airship terminal in Oklahoma City and four points in time running from 1912 to 2195. A time traveling agent is sent back from 2401 to investigate, tying together the narrative threads.
As in Station Eleven, St. John Mandel pairs wondrous speculation about our future with deeply human stories. Even minor characters are layered and complex, and her philosophical explorations feel important without coming across as dry academic exercises. Also, her sentences are beautiful. Read it now and you’ll be ahead of the game when the adaptation, which is currently in development at HBO Max, comes out.
The Candy House
Jennifer Egan won a Pulitzer Prize for her essentially perfect 2010 work, A Visit from the Goon Squad and this year’s The Candy House is the sequel. Like Goon Squad, this is a novel told in stories and shifting perspectives. But where the first book focused on music and Gen X aimlessness, this time we’re looking at the technology we willingly give all parts of ourselves to. It’s not hard science fiction, but it does what the genre does best: speculating on a probable future and seeing how we humans react.
In the near future, a tech giant named Bix (a fleetingly minor character in Goon Squad) creates the next big thing in social media, called the cube, into which you can upload your unconsciousness and share it. Needless to say, there are repercussions. But the effects of the cube aren’t the focus. Instead, technology slips into the lives of the characters, just like all the previously impossible-seeming tech we live with today. Egan is one of the most assured writers I’ve ever read, and the prose is top-form literary stuff. It’s never ever boring, and, like the teeming memories of the cube, impossible to look away from.
Pulitzer Prize-level literature is great. But sometimes you just want a gripping sci-fi story with a missing luxury cruise-liner spaceship in which all the people inside have violently died. Written by S.A. Barnes, who previously wrote under a pen name in the YA space, Dead Silence is part shipwreck hunter, part Event Horizon horror, and part Newt from Aliens’ epilogue.
Taking us to the year 2149, the novel centers on Claire, the team lead on a repair crew responsible for maintaining communication beacons at the edge of the solar system. The team gets a faint distress signal from a Titanic-esque spaceship that disappeared decades ago, halfway into its maiden voyage. Naturally they investigate, and things get disturbing when they discover bodies upon bodies inside the ship. Claire also happens to be the sole survivor of a viral outbreak on a Mars outpost when she was eleven, an experience that has left her with PTSD and more than a little unreliability in the narration department. The book is creepy and scary and mind-trippy and reminds me of the twitchy gratification of reading Stephen King as a teenager (with the lights on).
The creators of Celeritas (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and others) bill it as a “cinematic podcast,” which doesn’t mean it’s about movies, but rather that listening to it feels as immersive as experiencing something with both sound and picture. And that description is correct. The narrative centers on an astronaut who pilots the first light-speed space flight, and ends up deep in the future after things go awry.
From episode one, Celeritas expands the possibilities of the aural medium, which you first notice in the thrilling and densely layered sound design. Then there’s the storytelling, which ditches the audiobook “once upon a time” formula for an approach that takes full advantage of radio-play dynamics. Instead of an astronaut on a space walk delivering exposition or narration to us, we instead hear him intersperse his communication with mission control with a message he records for his daughter as he takes care of mundane EVA procedures. The eighth of 12 planned episodes dropped in late November, and new episodes are released roughly every two months.
Initially called Meanwhile in the Future when it was launched back in 2015, Flash Forward (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and others) isn’t usually a sci-fi podcast but rather, one that takes a speculative notion – say, what if all the world’s volcanoes erupted at the same time? – and then talks with experts to try and answer the question.
It’s a fascinating show in its own right, but then in October of this year, 27 three- to six-minute episodes dropped all at once. They tell the story of Vanguard Estates, an AI-automated retirement home where “you” are deciding whether or not to leave your father. It’s a choose your own adventure podcast that cleverly brings up the increasingly entwined issues of aging, healthcare and robots. Afterwards, creator Rose Eveleth explores those issues in the usual Flash Forward style.
Throw a dart at any one of the 865 (and counting) episodes of Escape Pod (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, their website and more) and you’ll be transported elsewhere. Each weekly episode tells a new short sci-fi story, written by a roster of different writers and narrated by talented voice actors. The episodes range from around 20 minutes to an hour long and cover every sci-fi angle possible: cyberpunk, space exploration, time travel, post-apocalypse, AI and far more. It has amassed numerous awards for podcasting and short fiction and, while I wish each episode included a brief description to make it a little easier to pick and choose, grabbing an episode at random will rarely let you down.