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 a start but there’s certainly room for both in this world.
There are plenty of times when we want a more digestible, short-form chunk of science fiction, something that’ll leave us satisfied without eating up too much of our lives. With The Twilight Zone cancelled – again – we’ve been turning to sites like YouTube and Vimeo to get our mini sci-fi fix. And, more often than not, we’ve come away impressed.
There’s certainly a fine art to crafting short sci-fi movies, trimming the fat till you’ve got a tale that tells the audience precisely what they need to know, no more and no less. The topics tackled include robotics, alien contact, time travel, artificial intelligence, and beyond. Though that’s not to say that all the science fiction shorts you’ll come across are utterly fantastical in nature. Some are heavily grounded in reality, with just a few subtle changes to indicate their sci-fi status.
Even better, they’re all free, though that does create its own problem. With so many free, often excellent short sci-fi movies out there, where do you start? We’ve combed through the best that DUST and other channels have to offer, and have come up with the five best sci-fi shorts that we think are absolute must-sees.
If you’re still hankering for some more short and sweet sci-fi, then check out the best sci-fi TV shows of all time. Or if you're after something a little bit longer, than the best sci-fi movies and the best sci-fi books will keep you entertained.
1. The Beacon
- Director: Chris Staehler
- Length: 25 mins
Alien tackles the terrors of deep space travel, but The Beacon asks “What about those you leave behind?” Impoverished interstellar pilots Mark and Kara Verne dream of moving to a picturesque “Tier II” planet, but are instead stuck on the smoggy ball they currently inhabit. So, when a high-paying, long-haul contract comes up, Kara heads into the void.
When she fails to return, Mark hits brick wall after brick wall in his efforts to find her – not because there’s any kind of sinister conspiracy, but because space travel is, well, dangerous. Actor Damien Jimenez (credited as Damien Kelly) steals the show as Mark, steadfastly refusing to write his wife off as just another interstellar casualty. Clocking in at just over 25 minutes, The Beacon is the longest of these shorts, but there’s barely a minute wasted.
2. One-Minute Time Machine
- Director: Devon Avery
- Length: 5 mins
The best use of a park bench since Forrest Gump, this five-minute short follows the story of James who, thanks to a portable (albeit slightly bulky) device, can transport himself one minute into the past. It’s not clear whether he invented the titular time machine or “borrowed” it, but he decides to use it to woo fellow bench-occupant Regina.
Ethically sound it certainly isn’t, but the short is played for laughs and the bulk of the humor stems from James’s ineptitude. Yes, despite having one single button to press, he still manages to mess up, again, and again, and again.
What dials things up to eleven, and makes it more than 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 this universe’s rules applied.
- Director: Luis Tinoco
- Length: 14 mins
Caronte is, at first glance, two separate stories shoehorned into the same 14-minute short. One is a CGI-heavy slice of space opera about a pilot’s frantic flight for the safety of a space-gate. With a colossal alien armada nipping at her heels, it’s touch-and-go whether she makes it through in one piece.
The other is an apparently unrelated story of a teenage girl who sees her young brother as little more than an irritating distraction. How can she get on with the serious business of updating her social media when he won’t leave her alone?
However, you’ll find that these two stories are connected, and it’s the nature of that connection that makes Caronte such an astonishing short, with a heart-wrenching pay-off that’ll stay with you for days.
4. The Nostalgist
- Director: Giacomo Cimini
- Length: 18 mins
Based on a story by Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson, this 18-minute short is set in a world where everything’s gone to hell, but it’s Augmented Reality not Virtual Reality that’s the “answer.” Those who can afford it can purchase a pair of high-tech spectacles that use AR to make the grimiest slum look like a palace.
It’s a curiously plausible concept, which is why The Nostalgist is such wonderfully compelling viewing. It follows the story of a man and his son who, when their glasses start to fail, have to leave their home and experience raw, unenhanced reality.
The father, though he views 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 solidly places it on this list of the best sci-fi short movies.Watch The Nostalgist for free on YouTube
- Director: Evan Matthews
- Length: 16 mins
Aren’t black holes great? No, they’re the scariest objects in the universe, which is partly why Recoil is such an unsettling 16-minute outing. It follows the tale of Marshall, who roams the space lanes listening out for distress calls and “rescuing” stranded ships. He’s no hero – if there’s not a reasonable chance of success, he’ll just cruise right on by.
Then one day he gets a distress call from his brother, whose ship is trapped in the gravitation pull of a black hole. Now, with the assistance of his ship’s AI, he’s prepared to put everything on the line, skirting the cosmos’s biggest nightmare to save his own flesh and blood. Only, black holes do some very odd things to the fabric of space and time and, brother or not, Marshall may just have made the biggest mistake of his life.
Recoil’s scientific accuracy is up for debate since a lot 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 artificial intelligence tells you something is an incredibly bad idea, and it’s not building silver murder-robots, you should actually listen.
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Chris is a freelance journalist who, aside from covering games and gaming-related tech, has a taste for horror, sci-fi and the post-apocalyptic. As well as Space.com, you can find his work at The Escapist, GameSpew (where he’s the morning news writer) and more. You can follow him on Twitter @MarmaladeBus.