BMD Picks: Five Heady Sci-Fi Movies

In which we celebrate a handful of weird, wicked, thought provoking science fiction cinema.

For our money, one of the most exciting films hitting theaters this month is Annihilation, as writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) brings Jeff VanderMeer's trippy science fiction tale of monstrous creation to life (with Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac front and center in the starring roles). The amalgamation of talent and subject matter makes the movie an absolute event, and we can't wait to check it out with the rest of you, hoping for a true trip into the outer realms of intellectual weirdness. 

Cerebral sci-fi is sometimes tough to discover, as creators often lean toward simply exploiting the fantastical elements of the genre. But a few of us at BMD knocked our heads against the wall, and present to you five picks for "heady sci-fi" to act as a primer while we all patiently wait to embark on a journey into the Shimmer. So, take a moment to feed your mind, then submit your own brain-bogglers in the comments below...


Under the Skin [2013] (d. Jonathan Glazer, w. Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer) 

Any conversation about heady, brain-melting, legitimately clever science fiction movies is going to end up bringing up the same half dozen titles, but if asked to name my favorite I'm going to sidestep some of the more obvious classics and call your attention, once again, to Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Terrifying, hypnotic, sexy and ultimately profound, Under the Skin is one of the best science fiction films of the past decade (it's also exactly the kind of top-shelf weirdness we love here at BMD). Not for all tastes, perhaps, but for those whose interests lean toward the weird and mysterious, Under the Skin is mandatory viewing. - Scott Wampler

Pi [1998] (d. & w. Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky's debut feature acts as a gritty template from which most of the director's other work would build upon, but in terms of mind-bending intellectualism, Pi remains one of the auteur's finest works. The film follows the exploits of mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) as he discovers a numerical value that effectively predicts the changes in the stock market. However, the value consistently causes his computer to crash from the immensity of it, and it soon becomes clear that there is more to this number than just financial manipulation.

Not only does knowledge of the number provoke psychological trauma in Max's mind, but various organizations come out of the woodwork with the belief that the number Max stumbled upon is the symbolic representation of God's name. Pi is an examination of the limits of human understanding in light of forces that strain the physical limitations of the human mind, posing the ultimate question: what is the cost of knowing God?Leigh Monson

World On a Wire [1973] (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, w. Fritz Müller-Scherz & Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Rainer Werner Fassbender’s overlooked masterpiece World on a Wire does what all great sci-fi should do: it holds up a mirror and allows the viewer to reflect on our own existence, both as individuals and as a society. The fact that World on a Wire may be one of Fassbinder's most underseen films may not be such a bad phenomenon, as fresh first time viewers won’t just recognize its influence on The Matrix (among other landmark sci-fi films that followed), but also how they similarly live parts of their lives as digital copies of themselves via the internet and its social media platforms. In World on a Wire, Fassbender tells the story of a simulation computer program made up of 9,000 “units”, who think they’re real and are observed by a group of scientists. This collective of scientists receive a new head, whose predecessor died under mysterious circumstances. Weird events soon start popping up after his arrival - both in the simulation and in his real existence - leading both our lead and the audience to question the very nature of reality. - James Emanuel Shapiro 

Gattaca [1997] (d. & w. Andrew Niccol)

An intelligent story by Andrew Niccol combined with a slick '50s noir aesthetic makes Gattaca one of the more memorable sci-fi flicks of the '90s. In a society where the genetically superior thrive, Ethan Hawke gives a compelling performance as Vincent, an "in-valid" whose genetic shortcomings prohibit him from pursuing his lifelong dream of space travel. Enter Jerome, a perfect genetic specimen confined to a wheelchair - played with smooth cynicism and remarkable depth by Jude Law.

Never wavering in his determination, Vincent assumes Jerome's identity to get his foot in the door of the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, and one step closer to the place where his flawed DNA won't matter. Vincent's boundless dedication to beat the odds fuels the momentum of the narrative, keeping the audience on his side through every thrilling near-discovery. Despite a lifetime of battling discrimination and his own physical limitations, Vincent's resolve to keep reaching for the stars suggests that these inherently human shortcomings are what inspire him to keep moving. To keep striving for something greater. To never save anything for the swim back. - Emily Sears

Videodrome [1983] (d. & w. David Cronenberg) 

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is about the melding of man and machine, taking the Canadian auteur's notorious "body horror" almost to its natural breaking point (a moment that would arrive with The Fly in 1986). It’s about an American conspiracy forged through invisible networks, which is originally unveiled through a "pirate" (read: "hacker") who taps into a television signal that's able to warp one's one vision of reality, and then mutate their body. Videodrome imagines human existence as a place where our primary interactions occur through screens, and where a television producer (James Woods) wants to bring unfiltered, brutal reality to his viewers, as he's tired of recycling the same tacky trash.

However, while we're quick to label Cronenberg's '83 movie "prescient", what truly makes it so unnerving is that the writer/director didn't seem to care about predicting the future at all. Instead, Videodrome plays out like a fever dream, where technology and skin intermingle, and the revolution is not only televised, but encourages the destruction of the human form entirely. "Long live the new flesh!" becomes a declaration of not only intent, but a savage rejection of our own perceptions of existence; a thrilling new anti-logic that rewrites human history as it sees fit. The television is now "the retina of the mind's eye", whether we want it to be, or not. - Jacob Knight