Science-fiction isn’t all spaceship battles and flying comic book heroes — the genre is principally one of ideas, as evident by all the heady, philosophical sci-fi novels penned during the golden age of science-fiction. While it’s always fun to watch the Millennium Falcon duke it out with Empire battleships, today let’s turn our focus to the science-fiction films that deal with ideas and in doing so, mess with your mind. These are some of the best mindbending, low-key sci-fi movies you might not have seen, but should.
Coherence turns an atmosphere of improvisational fun and minor relationship dramas into a reality-warping catastrophe that merges parallel existences. Six friends at a dinner party in Los Angeles struggle to understand a series of strange events that occurs after a power outage while a comet passes overhead. Without giving away too much, Coherence smartly grounds its heady quantum concepts in a recognizable atmosphere of social niceties and petty jealousies, and uses the setup to raise questions not only about the nature of reality but about humanity as well.
Primer is one of the ultimate time-travel movies, as its writer, director, and star Shane Carruth gives the familiar idea a new spin simply by injecting it into a mundane atmosphere before pulling the rug out from under its viewers. Carruth, who has a degree in mathematics, uses his considerable knowledge to increase the plausibility, while using his complex storytelling to turn the story into a sort of unsolvable puzzle, which you’ll want to try solving anyway.
3. The One I Love
The One I Love feels, in many ways, like a modern and lengthened version of a Twilight Zone episode, using a speculative setup to explore the human relationships at the story’s center. And of course, there’s a twist — even if it isn’t a particularly unexpected one. Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as an unhappy married couple who find themselves on a retreat meant to improve their relationship. Of course, the trip isn’t what it seems to be, and they soon discover a pair of doppelgangers who seem to be idealized versions of themselves that threaten to drive them further apart.
4. Ex Machina
This year’s Ex Machina accomplishes many things in one, creating a suspenseful atmosphere while telling a plausible tale about the invention of artificial intelligence and commenting on gender politics. It’s all weaved together effortlessly, brought to life with beautiful production design and flawless performances from Domhnall Gleason, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. The uneasy landscape of distrust and conflicting interests will have you riveted to the screen for the film’s run-time, but the ideas will have you pondering the whole ordeal for quite a while afterwards.
Body horror maestro David Cronenberg takes on virtual reality video games with his usual originality and a surprising amount of humor. Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh star as work associates investigating the inside of a new, revolutionary game in search of a saboteur. There are several instances of Cronenberg’s trademark fleshy, disturbing creations, and enough head-scratching “wait, is this real?” moments to put Inception to shame.
6. Dark City
Dark City is essentially an older, arguably more interesting spin on The Matrix. Both films focus on an every-man protagonist who works to shatter an unreal reality created for regular humans by another, sinister humanoid force who seek to use them, or (in this case) simply to understand them. This film is brimming with a style all its own, inspired by comic book and expressionistic old noir films, and it explores the reality and rules of the world it creates for itself far more satisfyingly than The Matrix does without ever making its philosophical implications as painfully obvious.
Before he made Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream, director Darren Aronofsky made this low-budget oddity centered on a mathematician who discovers a number that appears to hold they key to stock market fluctuations, natural patterns and even God himself. Pi is far from hopeful however, as Aronofsky uses disturbing sound design and grainy black-and-white cinematography to reflect the paranoiac tendencies of his disturbed protagonist. It’s surreal, it’s disturbing, it’s fascinating.
Gifted dramatic and comedic actor Sam Rockwell has no one to bounce off of in Moon, save for an unfeeling robot voiced by Kevin Spacey and a mysterious clone of himself. He plays a corporate drone manning an otherwise uninhabited corporate moon station, until the discovery of said clone leads to an uneasy mystery about his own existence and the true intentions of his employers. Rockwell is typically fantastic in the lead role, selling the horrifying impact of the movie’s later revelations that could easily have come across as flat philosophical statement without such a strong actor and script to give them the appropriate weight.
Like Primer, Timecrimes is essentially a grittier, more original repurposing of time travel tropes — this time focusing on a man who travels back over the same period of time again and again, leading to a series of bizarre coincidences and tragic consequences that are only explained as the movie goes on, and our understanding of the events is filled in. The film doesn’t have quite the substance of some of the others on this list, but in terms of twisty mind-games and creative script-writing, Timecrimes is pure brilliance.
10. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is the rare film that tries to be so many things at once, and mostly succeeds. The film follows the disturbed titular teen, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as he tries to understand the philosophical nature of time travel and his own inner demons that drive him to do evil, personified by a creepy-as-hell humanoid bunny. Not all of its ideas are fully-explored, but there’s so much to love and latch onto in Donnie Darko, from the main character’s emotional disturbances, to the film’s depiction of destiny and even the universal troubles of adolescence. Not bad for a movie with a giant anthropomorphic rabbit.
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