Who needs shows like The Expanse when you can load up YouTube and have dozens, maybe even hundreds of free sci-fi short movies at your fingertips? Well, we do, for starters, but there’s certainly room for both in this world.
There are many times when we want a more digestible and shorter slice of sci-fi, something that will satisfy us without consuming too much of our lives. With The Twilight Zone cancelled, again, we’ve been turning to YouTube for our mini sci-fi fix. And, more often than not, we’ve been impressed.
There is certainly a great art to creating short sci-fi movies, trimming the fat until you have a story that tells the audience exactly what they need to know, no more, no less. Topics covered include robotics, extraterrestrial contact, time travel, artificial intelligence, and more. That’s not to say, though, that every sci-fi short you’ll come across is absolutely fantastic in nature. Some are heavily grounded in reality, with only a few subtle changes to indicate their sci-fi status.
Even better, they’re all free, although that creates its own problem. With so many free, often excellent, sci-fi short films, where do you start? We’ve looked at the best that DUST and other channels have to offer, and come up with the top five sci-fi shorts that we think are a must-have.
If you’re still craving more short and sweet sci-fi, check out the best sci-fi TV shows of all time. Or if you’re looking for something a little longer, the best science fiction movies and the best science fiction books will keep you entertained.
1. The lighthouse
- Director: Chris Staehler
- Long: 25 minutes
Alien tackles the terrors of deep space travel, but The Beacon asks “What about the ones you leave behind?” Impoverished interstellar pilots Mark and Kara Verne dream of moving to a picturesque “Tier II” planet, but instead are trapped in the ball of smog they currently inhabit. So when a well-paying long-distance contract comes along, Kara heads for the void.
When she doesn’t return, Mark hits wall after wall in his effort to find her, not because there’s some kind of sinister conspiracy, but because space travel is, well, dangerous. Actor Damien Jimenez (credited as Damien Kelly) steals the show as Mark, adamantly refusing to write off his wife as just another interstellar victim. At just over 25 minutes long, The Beacon is the longest of these shorts, but hardly a minute is wasted.
2. One minute time machine
- Director: Devon Avery
- Long: 5 minutes
The best use of a park bench since Forrest Gump, this five-minute short follows the story of James who, thanks to a handheld (albeit a bit bulky) device, can transport himself one minute back in time. It is unclear if he invented the titular time machine or “borrowed” it, but he decides to use it to woo Regina, another occupant of the bank.
Ethically it certainly isn’t, but the short is played for laughs and most of the humor comes from James’s ineptitude. Yes, despite having only one button to push, he still manages to get it wrong, over and over and over again.
What marks things up to eleven, and makes it more than just an abbreviated Groundhog Day, is the revelation that time travel doesn’t work the way James thinks it does. Let’s just say that Doctor Who would be very different if the rules of this universe applied.
- Director: Luis Tinoco
- Long: 14 minutes
Charon is, at first glance, two separate stories packed into the same 14-minute short. One is a CGI-laden space opera slice about a pilot’s frantic flight through the safety of a space gate. With a colossal alien army hot on his heels, it’s only a matter of time if he makes it out in one piece.
The other is a seemingly unrelated story of a teenage girl who sees her little brother as little more than an irritating distraction. How can she go about the serious business of updating her social media when he won’t leave her alone?
However, you will find that these two stories are connected, and it is the nature of that connection that makes Charon such an amazing short, with a harrowing payoff that will stay with you for days.
4. The Nostalgic
- Director: Giacomo Cimini
- Long: 18 minutes
Based on a story by Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson, this 18-minute short is set in a world where everything has gone to hell, but it’s Augmented Reality, not Virtual Reality, that’s the “answer.” Those who can afford it can buy a pair of high-tech glasses that use AR to make the dirtiest slum look like a palace.
It’s an oddly plausible concept, which is why The Nostalgist is such a wonderfully compelling visualization. It follows the story of a man and his son who, when their glasses begin to fail, have to leave their home and experience raw, unenhanced reality.
The father, although he sees the world as a Victorian paradise, at least understands why the “real” world looks so different. His son, on the other hand, has never known anything else, and it’s his innocent perspective that gives The Nostalgist real heart and places it solidly on this list of the best sci-fi shorts. Watch The Nostalgist for free on YouTube
- Director: Evan Matthews
- Long: 16 minutes
Aren’t black holes cool? No, they’re the scariest objects in the universe, which is why Recoil is such an unsettling 16-minute jaunt. Follow the story of Marshall, who wanders the space lanes listening for distress calls and “rescuing” stranded ships. He is not a hero: if there is no reasonable chance of success, he will move on.
Then one day, he receives a distress call from his brother, whose ship is caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. Now, with the help of his ship’s AI, he is prepared to risk it all, skirting the greatest nightmare in the cosmos to save his own flesh and blood. Only black holes do some very strange things to the fabric of space and time, and brother or not, Marshall may have made the biggest mistake of his life.
The scientific accuracy of Recoil is subject to debate, as much of what we “know” about black holes is based on theory. Despite this, it’s a great short and a sobering lesson that if an AI tells you something is an incredibly bad idea, and it’s not building silver killer robots, you should listen.