Cerebral sci-fi movies you can watch right now
As Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium hits the cinemas, Stuff magazine’s Stephen Graves picks out five sci-fi films that’ll exercise your thinking muscles
1 District 9 (2009)
With Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium hitting cinemas this week, now’s a good time to revisit the sci-fi movie that brought him to the world’s attention. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows Sharlto Copley’s repressed South African bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe, charged with relocating alien refugees to an internment camp. But when he’s contaminated by alien biotechnology, he’s forced to go on the run.
Like Elysium, District 9 combines gritty realism with pulse-quickening action, high concept worldbuilding and a keen sense of social justice – in this case, turning a lens on the injustices of apartheid through the humans’ treatment of the alien “prawns.”
2 Primer (2004)
Director Shane Carruth didn’t let a lack of money stand in his way when making his first feature film – with just $7000, he conjured up a smart, mind-bogglingly complex film about the consequences of time travel.
Carruth’s masterstroke was to realise that most scientific breakthroughs come about as an accidental side effect of unrelated research, and that tech startups don’t work out of gleaming sci-fi labs – they’re based in garages and basements. With that in mind, Primer follows four scientific entrepreneurs who create a time machine while trying to reduce the weight of objects, and the rifts that develop between them as they disagree over how best to exploit their discovery. And all the while, they’re using the time machine to manipulate their own past…
You’ll need to pay attention while watching Primer. And then watch it again, because Carruth made no concessions to his audience when working out the mechanics of the film’s time travel – as an engineer with a background in maths, he made it as scientifically accurate as possible.
3 Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan took a break from Batman to direct this brain-bending heist movie, set in a series of surreal, shifting dreamscapes. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an expert “extractor”, charged with stealing secrets from within the mind of a corporate CEO – but demons from his past threaten to emerge from his subconscious and derail the mission. Cashing in the goodwill earned from The Dark Knight’s record breaking box office, Nolan threw studio money at the screen, assembling an all-star cast and creating a series of dream worlds that play with space and time to unsettling effect.
The director’s gift for assembling complex, interlocking narratives comes into its own in Inception’s final act, as Nolan expertly layers storylines across several different dream worlds. It all builds to a conclusion that’s satisfyingly ambiguous – and has sparked endless debate as to its meaning.
4 Moon (2009)
For their first film, most directors tackle a small-scale subject – relationship dramas among 20somethings, that sort of thing. Not so Duncan Jones, who went all the way to the Moon for his feature debut – an appropriate destination for the son of David Bowie. Sam Rockwell stars as astronaut Sam Bell, on a three-year solo mission to man a Moon base. His only company is – an artificial intelligence that’s hiding a terrible secret from him.
With Rockwell providing a compelling character study of loneliness and isolation, Jones makes excellent use of a limited budget, conjuring up a sparse, clinical Moon base and barren lunar vistas that hark back to sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.
5 Melancholia (2011)
It’s the end of the world as we know it – a planet is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Where other film-makers would take this high concept and conjure up some action-packed guff about blowing up asteroids to the strains of Aerosmith, Dogville director Lars von Trier instead gives us a psychodrama about two sisters facing the impending apocalypse.
Kristen Dunst stars as manic-depressive Justine, who accepts her fate with fatalistic resignation, while Charlotte Gainsbourg frets about the coming end of all things. Not exactly cheerful viewing – but von Trier’s conjured up an oppressive, haunting meditation on depression.
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Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff magazine