As science fiction storytelling has evolved over time, the genre itself has grown by leaps and bounds on the big screen. And by that, we mean both the level of visual advancement available and the willingness to take risks and seriously blow people’s minds…
This weekend, Alex Garland’s Annihilation hits cinemas – well, it does if you’re in the US, Canada or China; elsewhere in the world, it hits Netflix in three weeks, which seems a real shame considering Garland’s technical prowess in both visuals and sound (the images and, often times, absence of sound in Ex Machina was unnerving as hell.) I’m a pretty big fan so I’m thrilled to get to see it on the big screen – an exceedingly well-cast group of protagonists, lead by Natalie Portman, who just happen to all be female is also great. (Based on the first chapter of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation‘s script was written before the subsequent books in the series were released.) This also got me thinking about similar ultra-sensory, surrealistic and wondrous examples of science fiction that have been among my favorite experiences over the years.
You can see Annihilation‘s trailer above, but for today’s Friday Five I’ve rounded up a group of scifi films that fit this category – visually and aurally stunning, often intellectually probing or just plain impenetrable but dazzling in ways that set them apart from the rest. There have been a number of films approaching this category of scifi to receive more widespread acclaim in recent years (Interstellar and particularly Arrival are good examples) as well as films that touch up on true surrealism but have a lot more in common with traditional storytelling tropes. (I’d argue that both Blade Runner films, good as they can be, are in the latter group.) And be warned, folks, these are adult scifi films; judge your teens’ capability to handle them with care, but don’t let your little ones anywhere near them. 😉
One of the 20th’s century’s seminal examples of brain-breaking, dreamlike sci-fi, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian space epic definitely isn’t one for beginners; its pace can be maddeningly slow and it runs a very long two hours and 46 minutes. If you’re into historical influences on this sub-genre, though, Solaris is crucial. There is an unexplained mystery at its core: Exactly what is going on on the planet Solaris? Is the entire planet sentient and in some way telepathic, as it seems to mentally influence and even physically manifest people (dead ones, too) on the space station that orbits it? In the end, the film really a parable for the way that humans deal with trauma and grief, but those eerie shots of the planet-wide ocean burbling (Is it alive?!) have proven to be an early indicator of influence for many filmmakers in this sub-genre. (Side note: Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris was much maligned at the time, but it’s actually pretty decent. Way more straightforward in its storytelling but still pretty oddball, with an unexpectedly vulnerable George Clooney in the lead.)
Upstream Color (2013)
In 2004, Shane Carruth burst onto the indie film scene with Primer, an accidental-time-travel film made for $7,000 that he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and co-starred in. (!!!!!) That film, while enigmatic in its Moebius-strip plot structure and jammed with challenging technical dialogue, is mostly straightforward in terms of its aesthetic tone. He took a big leap forward with Upstream Color, which took nearly a decade to reach screens and was worth every second of the wait; for his second film, Carruth tells a first-terrifying, then bizarrely heart-warming story of two people (a brilliant Amy Seimetz is the female lead) whose everyday lives are violently disrupted by a clandistine plot involving mind control and a complex parasite. (Alien in nature? We never find out; ultimately, that isn’t the point either.) There are also no big-budget FX on display really, but the haunting way that Carruth uses edits, lighting, angles and sound design to make his film feel like otherworldly poetry is something else.
Under the Skin (2013)
Based on a novel by Michael Faber, Under the Skin is the movie that one-time music video wunderkind Jonathan Glazer had been threatening to make for ages. (Like Carruth, he also took a nine-year break between this and his previous film, the lukewarmly-received Birth.) Even if you loved his crime drama debut Sexy Beast, you may not have seen this one coming; it starts with a disorientingly abstract opening sequence and then balances between that tone and, documentary-style realism. Every element of Glazer’s film about an alien auton (Scarlett Johansson, in hands-down her most effective performance) posing as one of us – preying on human men for an unseen superior with nebulous motives – is designed to make you as uncomfortable as possible. (Mica Levi’s experimental score is skin-crawlingly unsettling.) Though it is let down a bit by some disappointingly conventional tropes in the final arc, there’s a lot of weirdness to love here.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
Sometimes, if a film is so dazzling on an artistic level – especially a sci-fi film – I find that I can give it a lot of slack in the areas where it’s lacking. Panos Cosmatos’ debut is a pervasively trippy scifi-horror yarn set in a New Age research facility; the suavely terrifying Dr. Barry Nyle has a psychic girl named Elena imprisoned there, seemingly to study if he can push the limits of her powers. How each of them got here is a nightmarish origin story involving drug experimentation and sensory depravation, nose-diving into realms beyond our comprehension – with a technicolor-and-shadow design and some seriously rad 80’s-inspired sets and costumes. The climax resolves all too quickly after what is a jaw-dropping reveal, but Beyond the Black Rainbow gets a hearty recommend for sheer audacity. (Side note: Cosmatos’s long awaited follow-up, Mandy, releases later this year: A psychedelic, bloody revenge tale featuring what preview audiences have already declared to be the most insane Nicolas Cage performance ever. That’s… saying a lot.)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I know, it seems almost rote to include 2001 on this list when I could have included lots of other, less-widely-heralded sci-fi titles. Its very identity as a landmark of filmmaking in this genre makes it seem a little milquetoast by comparison – but the reason it’s here is to underline the fact that upon its release, Stanley Kubrick’s symphony of space (based on Arthur C. Clark’s beloved novel) was anything but. Every few years, the Arclight Cinerama Dome in L.A. screens 2001 in its original 70MM presentation and I try to take at least one person there to see it who has never seen it before; inevitably, the biggest talking point that comes out of their reactions is “I can’t begin to imagine how people reacted to this in 1968.” From the extensive, dialogue-free Early Man sequence, through to the widely-celebrated head-trip “Jupiter And Beyond the Infinite” that comprises the film’s final act, it is beautifully shot and gleefully impenetrable; it’s impossible to understate what a truly alien experience Kubrick’s film must have felt like to a 60’s audience. Even today, its influence is seen everywhere from the acclaimed “Episode 8” of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival to, apparently, the final sequence of Annihilation. (no spoilers, please!) This year, on its 50th anniversary, try seeing it on the biggest, loudest screen possible and marvel at the sonic boom it created in cinema all those years ago.
What are your favorite sci-fi flicks that are the most marvelous head-scratchers, the viscerally brilliant amongst your faves? Let us know on social with the hashtag #SurrealSciFi!