Obviously, your mileage may vary as to what you consider cerebral, but some sci-fi movies try to be a cut above the usual vehicle for special effects and action. It is these movies that we will be celebrating today in the latest of my series of top tens.
10: Strange Days
Strange Days, written by James Cameron and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, stars Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis. It explores themes such as racism, abuse of power, rape, and voyeurism, and it was a commercial failure that almost derailed Bigelow’s career. She was focused on the edginess and the grit of the film, which was something she was always interested in. She developed the character of Mace from Cameron’s original script to make connections between female victimization and racial oppression, noting that the O. J. Simpson murder case echoed the film events. Strange Days was filmed during the Summer and Fall of that year.
Strange Days investigates ideas that have been put forward by feminist film criticism over the last thirty years. The film has a 63% “fresh” rating from 41 critics on Rotten Tomatoes and, for my money, is one of the best translations of Cyberpunk to the big screen. The SQUID recordings of Strange Days are like the simstims of Neuromancer. Like many other Cyberpunk novels, it deals with the digitization of parts of the mind that can not be accessed with our present-day technology. The ability to experience things felt by others, including the memories of crimes. It is cyberpunk for the thinking man or woman.
9: The Andromeda Strain
The Andromeda Strain is based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same name and is about a team of scientists who investigate a deadly space virus. The film also uses split screen here and there, which gets it extra points with me. After a satellite crashes near a small rural town, almost all of the town’s inhabitants die instantly. Suspecting that the satellite brought back an alien organism, the military activates an elite scientific team it had previously assembled for just this type of emergency. By examining the satellite with powerful cameras, the team discovers the microscopic alien organism responsible for the deaths. The greenish, throbbing life form is assigned the code name Andromeda. The Andromeda Strain was only a moderate box office success, and it relies on some pretty unlikely coincidences to produce tension. It is, however, a very cerebral work, unafraid to show us the detail of a group of scientists working to avert doomsday.
8 Twelve Monkeys
Humanity now lives underground because of a deadly virus released by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. A prisoner is selected to be sent back in time to find the original virus in order to help scientists develop a cure. The prisoner wavers between trying to save humanity of the future and doubting his own sanity.
Terry Gilliam, the director, prefers to direct his own scripts but he was captivated by this intriguing and intelligent screenplay. He liked how the story is disconcerting, dealing with time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isn’t. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart. Twelve Monkeys studies the subjective nature of memories and their effect on perceptions of reality. Examples of false memories include Cole’s recollection of the airport shooting, which is different every time we see it. The film is also a study of modern civilization’s declining ability to communicate due to the interference of technology. It is a film that is dense with meaning and displays the visionary director at the height of his powers. As a time travel movie, it has at its heart a subject that lends itself to making you think.
Coherence is about eight people at a dinner party who must deal with strange occurrences following a comet sighting. This causes their house and the occupants to intertwine with multiple such houses and occupants from other realities. When people leave their reality they enter another reality at random. The one person which the movie constantly follows is Emily. As time passes, different groups of people leave the house and cross over to another dimension. This results in everyone getting jumbled across different realities.
The director, James ward Byrkit told an interviewer:
For about a year, all I did was make charts and maps and drew diagrams of houses, arrows pointing where everyone was going, trying to keep track of different iterations. Months and months of tracking fractured realities, looking up what actual scientists believe about the nature of reality - Schroedinger’s cat and all that. It was research, but despite all the graphs and charts, I think our whole idea was that it has to be character-based. We want the logic of our internal rules to be sound, and we wanted it to be something people could watch 12 times and still discover a new layer.
Byrkit was influenced by the eeriness of The Twilight Zone but notes that Primer wasn’t really an influence, although it was a sign to him that maybe there was an audience for this kind of movie. It’s a movie that is as claustrophobic as a stage play, but is hugely successful at creating unease. What has actually happened to the people at the dinner party is never explicitly stated, though it is clear it has something to do with parallel universes. It is the closest thing to a move like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that Sci-Fi has to offer. It is unashamedly cerebral and complex.
6 Silent Running.
Silent Running is a 1972 science fiction directed by Douglas Trumbull, who had previously worked as a special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey. All plant life on Earth has become extinct, though a few specimens have been preserved in enormous geodesic domes attached to a fleet of spaceships, just outside the orbit of Saturn. The model of the most important spaceship in the movie, the Valley Forge, was 25 feet long, and took six months to build from a combination of custom castings and the contents of approximately 800 prefabricated model aircraft or tank kits. It was so fragile that during filming pieces of it kept falling off.
The plants are being carefully preserved for their eventual return to Earth and the reforestation of the planet. The main character spends most of his time in the domes, looking after plants and animals. Orders then come from Earth to jettison and destroy the domes and return the spaceships to commercial service. The movie turns into a very deep exploration of a man dislocated from humanity, at odds with the society beaming instructions to him. He is presented with an impossible choice, and he flounders as he tries to come to terms with what the decisions he makes.
The soundtrack contains two songs performed by popular folk singer-songwriter Joan Baez, which really dates the movie in a very pleasant way, as does the beautiful orange furniture. The debt that Moon owes to this movie is very clear.
Unashamedly cerebral, Contact dives into big questions about extraterrestrial life and faith. The performances are so raw that they keep you on edge, and you are helped to swallow some of the more preposterous plot developments. Jodie Foster does a lot of the heavy lifting, playing a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what first contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe. The story also realistically portrays the struggle of a career as a women scientist. According to Wikipedia:
The opening scene is a three-minute computer-generated sequence, beginning with a view of Earth from high in the exosphere and listening in on numerous radio waves of modern programming emitting from the planet. The camera then starts zooming backward, passing the Moon, Mars, and other features of the solar system, then to the Oort cloud, interstellar space, the Local Bubble, the Milky Way, other galaxies of the Local Group, and eventually into deep space. As this occurs, the radio signals start to drop out and reflect older programming, representing the distance these signals would have traveled at the speed of light, eventually becoming silent as the distance becomes much greater. The sequence eventually resolves into the iris of the main character as she is listening on her amateur radio set. This scale view shot of the entire universe was inspired by the short documentary film Powers of Ten (1977).
There is a lot of talk about the existence of God, and many clips of well-known debate shows such as Crossfire and Larry King Live, with participants discussing the implications of the message, asking whether it is proof of the existence of alien life or of God. A more cerebral or abstract central theme for a movie is hard to imagine.
Gattaca centers on Vincent Freeman, who struggles to overcome genetic discrimination to realize his dream of traveling into space. The movie draws on concerns about reproductive technologies, eugenics, and the possible consequences of such technological developments for society. It also explores the much more abstract idea of destiny. The film flopped at the box office, but has since gained a cult following. Rotten Tomatoes calls the film intelligent and scientifically provocative, an absorbing sci-fi drama that poses important and interesting ethical questions about the nature of science. It also has a retro aesthetic that makes it look sleek and important, helping it gain a few spots in the listing.
3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows an estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories, before ending up dating again. A lot of the film takes place in the mind of one of the characters, during this memory erasure procedure. It uses this complex setup to explore the nature of memory and romantic love, skipping backward and forward through the highs and lows of a relationship. It is a movie that has developed a cult following in the years after its release, and is now regarded by many critics as one of the greatest films of the 21st century.
2 Time Lapse
Time Lapse is an indie sci-fi thriller about a group of friends who discover a machine that can take pictures of things 24 hours in the future, causing increasingly complex causal loops. The relationship dynamics among the three main characters and the single location in Time Lapse are heavily influenced by Danny Boyle’s 1994 film Shallow Grave. As a low-budget drama focused on time paradox, it has been compared with Shane Carruth’s Primer, but I think it’s better. Primer is all about the men, with the only female character making them sandwiches. The pleasure in the movie doesn’t come from the humanity of the characters but from trying to puzzle out what you are looking at at any one time. Time Lapse is a much more human film.
The genius of the time photography device at the centre of the film is the snapshot it provides of a future moment. We see what is going to happen, each snapshot more unlikely than the one before, and the suspense lies in seeing how in blazes the movie is actually going to get to this next point. With each snapshot you think, this is impossible, nothing I’ve seen of these characters makes me think they will end up in this situation. But events conspire to make it happen, every single time.
1 The Matrix
Possibly the movie that has had the most impact on how we all see life. The idea that we live in virtual reality has been a staple of sci-fi for years, but The Matrix really brought that home, with its breathtaking visuals as much as anything else. The iconic scene, with Trinity leaping in crane position is the most effective use of bullet time in the entire move, telling us everything about the worlds of this movie in one image. Whether it is the most cerebral movie on this list is arguable, but nobody can deny it desrves to be number one.
And now, something more space opera than cerebral, a plug for my book…
Galaxy Dog (Dark Galaxy) Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy
The first book in the Dark Galaxy Trilogy, always the best place to start, is Galaxy Dog. It’s a little more old-school and fun than a lot of the sci-fi that is around at the moment. It has spaceships, robots, battles, and brave warriors rebelling against an evil empire. Click the book cover and go to the storefront you prefer to buy it now, or follow this link.
This is a universal book link (UBL) and you will be greeted with a page displaying all the places the book is available online. Just select the storefront you prefer and, if you want, also make this your default bookseller. From then on, every time you click a UBL you will be taken directly to the book you are interested in, on the storefront you prefer. The UBL even allows you to go to the Amazon store that matches your region.