10 great arthouse sci-fi films

Venture beyond the interstellar dogfights and lightsaber battles of popular sci-fi with our guide to the genre’s existential, cerebral side.

9 May 2019

By Leigh Singer

High Life (2018)

There’s a charming clip online in which Laura Dern, an actor not typically linked with popular sci-fi, can be seen to mouth “pew-pew” when her character fires a blaster in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). That, in a nutshell, sums up the infectiously fun appeal of Star Wars movies and their ilk. These are futuristic blockbusters designed for maximum, communal, crowd-pleasing impact on the biggest screens. Largely regarded, and produced, as B-movies until Star Wars redefined the light years-different movie landscape of 1977, Hollywood’s hitherto sniffy treatment of sci-fi belied heavyweights like Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clarke and others, whose novels teemed with dystopian premonitions and existential questions about the human (and alien) condition. Indeed, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey adaptation by Stanley Kubrick in 1968 was a genuine outlier of obtuse, intellectual sci-fi cinema.

In truth, movies and, especially, serious directors outside the US were already switching on to highbrow science-fiction, particularly French auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard (Alphaville, 1965), François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966) and Alain Resnais (Je t’aime, je t’aime, 1968). Time travel forward to today, when sci-fi is such a huge part of modern cinema that filmmakers like Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979; Blade Runner, 1982) or Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, 2014) have blurred distinctions between mainstream and arthouse, while directors far better known for the latter experiment with, even expand upon, genre conventions. Claire Denis is arguably the latest, with High Life (2018) offering a chilling, yet primal and highly sexualised take on life confined on a spaceship. Here are 10 other examples that dared to boldly go where relatively few films had gone before.

La Jetée (1962)

Director: Chris Marker

La Jetée (1962)

A landmark motion picture, primarily and paradoxically, for having one single moving image amid its montage of stills. Fittingly, that sequence is a close-up on a waking woman who looks at the camera, and Chris Marker’s 28-minute still-image montage remains as striking, self-reflexive and influential today as it did nearly 60 years ago. An apocalyptic sci-fi about a time traveller sent back from a postwar wasteland to find means of survival, Marker’s images are haunted: by the past, by fragments of memories, by the illusion of cinema itself.

It’s common – and often, lazy – filmspeak to describe any challenging work as “a meditation on…” given subjects. Yet extended viewing of Marker’s photos, accompanied by music and voiceover, offers exactly that contemplation, though La Jetée is never obtuse. Indeed its poignant, Möbius strip, twist ending is the kind that Hollywood pines for, and was deftly reimagined in Terry Gilliam’s affecting feature homage, Twelve Monkeys (1995).

Solaris (1972)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Solaris (1972)

In the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s “ultimate trip” with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s heady interstellar epic seemed like an answer of sorts, perhaps even the cinematic equivalent of the US-Soviet space race. But as ever with the Russian master, the only real sense of competition is with himself; the only Stargate he unlocks leads inwards, to probe the mysteries of human consciousness. 

As Kubrick adapted Arthur C. Clarke, Tarkovsky took Stanisław Lem’s 1961 philosophical sci-fi novel as structural underpinning for his own flights of fantasy. Solaris is the sentient, ocean-covered planet able to replicate “guests”, including the dead wife of troubled psychologist Kelvin. Who are we, if we don’t believe in tangible existence? This profound, visually stunning, endurance-testing experience offers no easy answers, just fractured reflections. As paranoid Doctor Snaut testifies here, potentially anticipating the title of Tarkovsky’s next film, “We don’t want other worlds, we want a mirror.”

World on a Wire (1973–)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

World on a Wire (1973–)

While not made for cinema screens, when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s long-lost two-part TV movie reappeared earlier this decade, it looked like an unearthed film archive treasure. It also, in its themes of a virtual existence and simulated identity, felt unnaturally prescient and, for a dystopian future vision, uncannily present tense.

Fassbinder’s take on sci-fi maintains many of the restless flourishes and much of the formal artifice of his historical melodramas. Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 (also the source for 1999’s US flop The Thirteenth Floor), the film looks unmistakably like the early 1970s (Fleetwood Mac’s late-60s anthem Albatross is even its theme tune), with co-cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s lens often tracking across sterile, cavernous spaces and shooting through translucent surfaces and refracted mirrors to suggest a world already distorted and divorced from reality. A forerunner to everything from Philip K. Dick adaptations to The Matrix (1999), its vision of technology-assisted oppression is a real fear that bytes the soul.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Director: Nicolas Roeg

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Casting the decade’s pre-eminent, shape-shifting rock star as your movie’s alien visitor might seem a mainstream move. Iconoclastic British director Nicolas Roeg, however, always marched – and edited – to his own unique, syncopated rhythm. Co-opting David Bowie to play an extra-terrestrial, who lands on our planet to try to find resources for his own dying one, resulted in something typically idiosyncratic for Roeg, but as rogue, singular and strange as English-language sci-fi cinema ever produced.

Bowie’s thin white starman is hypnotic. The film seems to embody his otherness with its bold narrative leaps and feints, imaginative yet endearingly homespun visual effects and cautionary tale of how a visionary outsider can still get sucked in and swallowed up by the industrial machine. A blend of daring esoterica and bare-faced exploitation, many might come for Bowie’s androgynous charms but end up seduced by Roeg’s otherworldly mission to have us loving the alien.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Not, under any circumstances, to be confused with Marvel’s super-hero: this is the mutant love child of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and David Cronenberg’s body morphing horror, if midwifed by stop-motion surrealist Jan Svankmajer and ushered into the world by the clanking exo-skeleton soundtrack of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine (1992). Thirty years on, Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk classic still lives down to its diseased reputation. 

There’s a nominal plot about a fetishist who inserts scrapyard junk into his body, and his tussles with a well-to-do businessman and his girlfriend who themselves metamorphose into cyborg monstrosities. It’s an all-out sensory assault, from the roaring industrial score to gruesomely tactile close-ups of metal piercing flesh. The grisly beauty of Tsukamoto’s sullied monochrome allows one to hypothesise on modern Japan’s identity crisis through technophobia/philia and symbolism of man melded to machine; or just marvel at his eye-watering hose dildo or pneumatic drill phallus. Take that, Tony Stark.

eXistenZ (1999)

Director: David Cronenberg

eXistenZ (1999)

Speaking of Cronenberg’s body shockers, here’s arguably, alongside Videodrome (1983), his most effective outright non-horror science-fiction. We follow Jennifer Jason Leigh’s superstar game designer down a twisted rabbit hole of multiple levels of VR, until game and reality are intertwined and indistinguishable. The “bio-port” interfaces that plug into the spinal column, human tissue-guns (firing teeth!) and squishy, pulsing “meta-flesh game pods” allow Cronenberg’s corporeal fetishes to run riot. It’s his Crash (1996) meets Grand Theft Auto.

As ever with Cronenberg, this is also a hyper-literate, coolly ambivalent game with his audience, self-consciously parodying habitual themes. Jude Law’s gaming ‘virgin’ is our guide through a dense web of sexuality, zealotry (the film effectively predicts the misogynist ‘Gamergate’ scandal), and the nexus of private desires and public consumption. It’s also wickedly funny and pacy, while remaining every bit as dense, odd and icky as its director’s most challenging work. Long live the new flesh!

2046 (2004)

Director: Kar-Wai Wong

2046 (2004)

Overlapping production schedules between Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and this sci-fi-infused follow up evolved into organic symbiosis. To a point, the films mirror one another, with Tony Leung’s writer, a lovelorn cuckold in the former, now a cynical playboy whose assorted affairs are forever compared to his missing dream woman, Maggie Cheung. His jaded character’s story posits ‘2046’ (previously the hotel room number of Cheung and Leung’s illicit meetings) as not a year but a sci-fi destination where people go to recapture lost memories.

A more eroticised, yet emotionally distanced counterpart, 2046’s late 1960s settings bleed into its hi-tech landscape with cumulative power; Leung’s dalliances with A-list alumni (Gong LiZhang Ziyi and Faye Wong, doubling up as a gynoid on 2046’s futuristic train) are deliberately diverted into his writer’s protective musings. Yet Wong knows, as his opening intertitle elegantly states, ‘All Memories Are Traces of Tears’.

Primer (2004)

Director: Shane Carruth

Primer (2004)

Legend has it that Shane Carruth, writer-director-composer-star of Primer, did something similar to his protagonists: he created something groundbreaking in his garage that he didn’t fully plan out in advance, yet changed his world. But while his tech-whizz characters inadvertently rupture the space-time continuum, Carruth had to be content with merely blowing the minds of the Sundance jury, who gave him a Grand Jury Prize, presumably in part to find out what exactly was going on.

Shot for a mere $7,000, Carruth’s cerebral conundrum takes on high-concept sci-fi (time travel) with lo-fi ingenuity. The film is essentially its own technological puzzle box contraption, metaphorically trapping its audience inside, leaving them to figure out its ramifications. The hushed, business-like language, tone and elliptical approach make viewers feel like eavesdroppers, forever playing catch up on unresolvable paradoxes. The most mind-boggling thing of all? Carruth’s next feature Upstream Colour (2013), which gets really weird…

Melancholia (2011)

Director: Lars von Trier

Melancholia (2011)

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Kirsten Dunst does not feel fine. In fact, as planet Melancholia bears down on its unavoidable cataclysmic collision with Earth, Dunst’s Justine enters an existential depression with, seemingly, its own irresistible gravitational pull on those in her orbit, notably sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and those attending Justine’s own ill-fated wedding. 

As if fusing Festen (1998) with a disaster movie, Melancholia was apparently conceived by Lars von Trier through therapy for his own crippling bouts of depression (and forms the middle part of an unofficial trilogy with 2009’s Antichrist and Nymphomaniac in 2013). The juxtaposition of nervy handheld shots and bold, experimental visuals – the operatic, super-slow-motion prologue still stuns – evoke an off-kilter world, while Dunst’s emotionally draining performance evokes utter despair like few other films. For all von Trier’s history of explicit provocations, this soul-baring, devastating vision might just be his most transgressive of all.

Annihilation (2018)

Director: Alex Garland

Annihilation (2018)

Despite being based on a hit sci-fi novel series, starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and being helmed by Ex-Machina (2014) director Alex Garland, Paramount studios so doubted Annihilation’s commercial potential that they sold off their international rights to Netflix, effectively cutting their losses in advance. One can view that primarily as corporate cowardice, but it’s also indicative of the film’s uncompromising, disturbing vision and ideas. It makes Blade Runner 2049 (2017) feel as weighty as The Running Man (1987). 

The story’s central concept is ‘The Shimmer’, a rainbow-oil-slick curtained alien zone which fundamentally alters the genetic and psychological makeup of trespassers. When an all-female team venture inside, their close encounters with this unnatural force are otherworldly, insidious and sometimes genuinely horrific. Self-abnegation and spiritual rebirth in a climactic sequence redolent of 2001 or Solaris doesn’t scream box-office, but Annihilation’s defiant self-belief in its own inner-space mission is a thing of daring, (self-)destructive beauty.

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