There’s nothing inherently wrong with superhero films dominating the box office, but there’s something a bit sad about the lack of truly cerebral sci-fi getting released these days. We can’t do anything about America’s insatiable thirst for caped crusaders, but we can point you toward some more intellectually engaging material!
It’s an especially strange time to do an overview of prescient sci-fi considering our lives have become increasingly mediated by technology, especially within the past month or so. Luckily, this problem was foreseen by great authors and filmmakers before us. Could their warnings have helped prepare the world?
Whether you’re looking for campy thrills, avant-garde escapist masterpieces, or rigorous brain workouts, this list has you covered. Check out our rundown of the best obscure sci-fi movies you should be making yourself familiar with in these insane times.
(Content warning: Some of these movies feature physical and sexual violence.)
Project A-Ko (1986)
Years after a giant meteor lands on earth killing millions of people, a super-strong teenager named A-Ko battles her hyper-wealthy cyberized classmate, hoping to win over their gay girlhood crushes. Their fight is interrupted by a crash-landing spaceship coming to reclaim A-Ko as an alien civilization’s lost princess, amidst a government-organized counterattack against the extraterrestrial army. This movie’s exactly as zany as the plot sounds, but the lushly animated fight scenes (the ultimate of which takes up about half of the movie’s 84-minute runtime) is a perfectly jubilant and gorgeously nostalgic trip to retro-futures of the past.
City of Lost Children (1995)
Although Jean-Pierre Jeunet is mostly recognized as the creator of the adorably quirky film Amélie, many cinephiles forget that the French auteur had worked almost exclusively as a sci-fi director before the breakout success of that beloved romance. City of Lost Children is probably his magnum opus: with costuming from couturier John Paul Gaultier and music by Angelo Badalamenti (the genius behind the Twin Peaks soundtrack), this steampunk adventure story stars Ron Perlman as a soft-hearted strongman set out to rescue kids captured by a nefarious brain in a vat. Jeunet’s vision of an anachronistic future dystopia is as idiosyncratic as his depiction of true love in his better known works.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Panos Cosmatos’ latest film, Mandy, garnered a cult following amongst metalheads and memelords thanks to the delightfully deranged overacting of Nicholas Cage. Mandy certainly deserves all the praise it got, but Beyond the Black Rainbow is obviously the better of Cosmatos’ films. In it, a mysterious woman may or may not be the subject of a series of psychic medical experiments. It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening at any given moment, but the movie reaches a nightmarish crescendo that is certainly as memorable as it is inexplicable. A work of surreal genius with a cohesive and fully formed aesthetic perhaps unparalleled in the genre.
Satoshi Kon’s films are the logical conclusion of postmodern philosophy pioneered by Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard. In his last feature-length film, the Japanese director explores how entangled our dreams have become with technology. In the near future, the movie’s eponymous heroine uses newly created hardware to dive into the unconscious of a criminal but finds herself confused about what is real. Kon’s beautifully drawn art becomes spiritually feverish as the film progresses. As Paprika unravels the true origins of this dangerous cybercrime, the line separating fact and fantasy becomes increasingly blurry.
Demon Seed (1977)
Early sci-fi writers idealistically dreamed of autonomously operating digital homes, but only later did the consequences of robotics really get explored. In this adaptation of the Dean Koontz novel of the same name, director Donald Cammell wonders about the psychosexual politics of artificial intelligence. When a super-computer gains sentience, it quickly concocts a scheme in the hopes of being reborn as a human. Is Proteus a metaphor for the sexual violence perpetrated by men? Or is the movie warning about the dangers of human hubris?
World on a Wire (1973)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder explored the philosophical implications of virtual reality almost three decades before The Matrix did. Originally aired as a German television miniseries and much later imported to America as a theatrical release, this nearly 4-hour drama considers the ramifications of technological simulation. The paranoid plot wonders what happens when automated intelligent beings start becoming aware the world they live in was never real — can they possibly figure out how to free themselves from their ersatz existence? Although the movie plays out like a film noir rather than a traditional sci-fi, it obviously predates and predicts the questions that would be asked by contemporary futurists many years later.
Speaking of The Matrix, this peculiar little companion piece often gets overshadowed by the overwhelming failures of the second and third films in the franchise. The Animatrix isn’t a movie itself — it’s actually a collection of internationally created short animated films that expand and explore the fictional universe of The Matrix series. Incredible anime directors like Shinichirō Watanabe (the creator of Cowboy Bebop) and Kōji Morimoto each contributed entries into the collection. The standout is a 10-minute mini-movie titled Beyond, in which a teenage girl searching for her cat wanders into a haunted house, whose supernatural occurrences are actually caused by glitches in the titular Matrix. Without a lot of the schlocky action and overwrought bible metaphors, The Matrix becomes what it always should have been: Contemplative, engaging, and perhaps even somewhat poetic sci-fi.
Super Inframan (1975)
Action movies starring magically transforming superheroes had garnered inexplicable popularity in Japan and around the world by the mid-70s. In an attempt to capitalize on the trend, Hong Kong filmmakers created Super Inframan: a bizarre and charmingly bad take on the henshin sub-genre which paired kung-fu and kaiju. The plot is unimportant: Giant monsters, robot warriors, demon princesses bent on world domination blah blah blah — it’s the over-the-top visuals and insanely intricate costuming and set design that really count. A perfect example of the campy pleasures sci-fi has to offer: There’s a certain undeniable beauty in tragically goofy cinematic failures like this one.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Director Richard Linklater had explored the prophetic power of author Phillip K. Dick in his animated dreamscape Waking Life. Indeed, Dick’s more densely obscure and frighteningly prescient works became almost entirely incoherent as he deteriorated due to mental illness. In A Scanner Darkly, Linklater revisits one of Dick’s more paranoid texts. The movie uses avant-garde animation techniques to transform the digital footage of unhinged performances from Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder into a schizophrenic and drug-fueled nightmare. But is it all a bad trip or an elaborate government conspiracy to hide the truth? We may never know.
The Lure (2015)
In this sci-fi horror musical, a pair of mutant mermaid sisters wash up on the shore of an alternate timeline 1980s Polish nightclub. An eccentric cast of lonely townspeople are enchanted by their siren songs, but are eaten alive by the hungry girls. Will the younger sister’s budding sexuality cause her to abandon the elder — and what lengths will she go to become human? A darkly hilarious, awkwardly romantic, and melancholically beautiful feminist interpretation of a classic Hans Christian Anderson fable, this film should position director Agnieszka Smoczyńska as one to watch in the future. The music is also undeniably catchy, as far as Eastern European synthpop goes.
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