Over the years, sci-fi has become one of cinema’s most nebulous terms. The genre comprises of hundreds — if not thousands — of films, which vary in style, themes, and scope. Some sci-fi works feature time travel, others dystopian settings. Some celebrate scientific and technological breakthroughs, others offer a nihilistic worldview on mankind. Some are made on a budget of 160 million dollars, others $7000.
We often associate science fiction with crowd-pleasing Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars, ET, Inception, and Alien — big-budgeted films with gripping characters, a breathless pace, jam-packed action, and extravagant special effects. These charming canonical works captivate us; they remain valuable artifacts of film history; they have inspired countless of filmmakers to make equally entertaining and ambitious movies.
I love these sci-fi works in all of their decadence, campy dialogue, and visual excess, but it’s important to note the existence of an entire sci-fi subgenre — arthouse sci-fi. Arthouse sci-fi films don’t generate the same level of modern and public recognition as, say, The Matrix, but they illuminate sci-fi’s transcending of its own conventions and entrance into the realm of experimental film. Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and others incorporate common sci-fi tropes like dystopian settings, virtual reality, mutations, and time travel into their films. More critically, they juxtapose these normative conceptions of sci-fi with philosophical themes, enigmatic plots, and a slow pace.
To some, beloved films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner constitute arthouse sci-fi, even with their massive budgets and wide releases. 2001 rejects a digestible, linear narrative, deploys abstract imagery, and exerts ambiguous metaphors. Blade Runner, meanwhile, explores existentialist themes. Regardless of their status as arthouse or conventional Hollywood films, the films occupy a ubiquitous place in pop culture. I intend to highlight films which haven’t penetrated the mainstream consciousness like 2001 or Blade Runner — or any major sci-fi blockbuster — but nonetheless exemplify the more bizarre and resonate dimensions of sci-fi.
The stunning and innovative arthouse sci-fi subgenre illustrates how sci-fi doesn’t have to depend on scientific and rational explanations, CGI, and common storytelling structures to render otherworldly, captivating films. The following non-exhaustive list is comprised of 10 films that capture the allure and richness of the subgenre.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
The Scoop: The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) illegally guides the cynical Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and rational Professor (Nikolai Grinko) through the Zone, a mysterious, dangerous, and restricted site where the normal laws of nature do not apply. While in the Zone, the three men search for “Room,” where a traveller’s innermost desires become fulfilled.
Why Watch? Stalker and Solaris, often hailed as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001, remain two of Tarkovsky’s most revered films. Like most of the films on this list, Stalker and Solaris deviate from common sci-fi tropes, especially Stalker. Instead of presenting the Zone as a visually imposing, alien world, Tarkovsky firmly places us in an uncannily recognizable landscape. The Zone entails dilapidated houses, overgrown flora, ponds, trees, and a dog, but its vivid appearance still unnerves us.
In one of the most sublime moments of the film, the three men transport on a trolley into the Zone. Filmed in sepia, the sequence consists of a number of tracking shots on Stalker, Writer, and Professor’s faces, and the “clank” noise of the cart eventually forefronts an ambient and sparse score. After an indecipherable passage of time, the men enter the Zone; the filter transitions from sepia to vivid color, which invites us to feel the same wonder as the characters. The Zone appears familiar yet distanced and eerie, and we begin to search for meaning within the enigmatic landscape — just like Stalker, Writer, and Professor.
With his eerie sound design, reliance on long takes, and languid pace, Tarkovsky creates an enriching, tense, and contemplative atmosphere. Stalker openly showcases Tarkovsky’s remarkable talent as director — but unearthing the actual content and overarching films of the film is difficult. Whether the film reflects the search for freedom in the Soviet Union, the potentials of cinema, feelings of inferiority, the bleak sides the human soul, its story is vague enough to warrant a number of possible interpretations. Regardless of what you parce from the story, or how Stalker affects you altogether, it’s hard to not find Stalker’s deeply human confession one of the rawer, more soul-crushing moments in cinema.
Director: David Cronenberg
The Scoop: Max Renn (James Wood) searches for new, transgressive, and sleazy programming for his cable TV station. He stumbles across the exploitative Videodrome, a plotless, hyper-violent, and gruesome television show. After exposure to Videodrome, Max attempts to unearth the genesis of the program, all the while enduring hallucinations, sadomasochism, exposure to media conspiracies, and disturbing bodily transformations.
Why Watch? Videodrome has a masterful first half, with its funny and sharp dialogue, unnerving visuals, and captivating performances from Woods and Debbie Harry (in one of her first films!). The second half fails to match the intrigue of the first; character motivations and plot intricacies become subservient to Cronenberg’s signature inclusion of stomach-turning body horror. The sudden gorefest is jarring, but still fun and gloriously over-the-top. Likewise, the often overblown script tackles too many themes, though Cronenberg’s general sentiments and criticisms — our masochistic tendencies, over-reliance on media stimulation, desensitization to violence and pornography — still feel pertinent and unnerving today.
The film also exhibits Cronenberg’s curious contradictions. He warns us against the manipulation of mass media and corruptive influence of television, all the while imbuing scenes with visceral, grotesque imagery. Max inserts a VHS inside his stomach’s vaginal wound, Nicki (Harry) extinguishes a lit cigarette on her breast, and copious explosions of heads and torsos pervade the film’s finale. These scenes, while revolting, render a perverse pleasure for viewers — just like the visual media the film ultimately condemns. Videodrome‘s contradictions are likely intentional, as they force us to reflect on our own penchant for violent and sexual media consumption. With its contradictions, inventive special effects, and eerie cinematography, Videodrome still endures as a bold, prescient sci-fi film. “Long live the new flesh.”
Morning Patrol (1987)
Director: Nikos Nikolaidis
The Scoop: In a post-apocalyptic future, a woman (Michele Valley) travels through a forbidden city latent with dangerous guards (The Morning Patrol), who must reach a quota of one civilian kill a day. With death and violence so normalized in the city, one of the members of the Patrol (Takis Spiridakis) reluctantly agrees to escort her to the west.
Why Watch? Elevated by Valley and Spiridakis’ performances and Nikolaidis’ bleak vision of the future, Morning Patrol is one of the most artful, unique post-apocalyptic films. As usual with postmodernism, Nikolaidis pays pastiche homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood to convey the abiding humanism in the desolate society. The woman can’t recollect who she is or where she’s from; she mistakes films for her own memories. In the opening scene, she recites the famous “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” from Rebecca. Other films adapted from novels — The Big Sleep, Blade Runner — are quoted, and the standardized televisions in the city exclusively screen classic Hollywood flicks: Gilda, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Combo. The inclusion of these cinematic references not only showcases Nikolaidis’ influences, but it also recalls the decline of Greece’s national identity in the midst of indelible domination of American culture.
Nikolaidis establishes the film’s setting as hostile and hyper-violent with such a brutal realism, which naturally leads us to root for the woman and man — who suffers from some deadly, vague illness — when they begin to trust each other and form a bond. The woman points a gun to the man’s head for most of the film. Once she affectionately rubs his hair after he throws up, the moment is tender and heart-melting — a rare instance of a successful post-apocalyptic romance.
Director: Lars von Trier
The Scoop: Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) host a lavish party for newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Throughout the disastrous night, family tensions and tumultuous relationships dispirit Justine, who suffers from depression. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia hurtles toward Earth on a direct, apocalyptic trajectory.
Why Watch? Like most of von Trier’s films, Melancholia somewhat divided critics and audiences. Some praised the film’s searing portrait of depression and overarching bleak mood, while others condemned it as solipsistic and maladroit. Me, I find some of the metaphors silly (in a film about depression, the planet threatening mankind is dubbed “Melancholia”), but the affective visuals and Dunst and Gainsbourg’s sincere, magnetic performances more than compensate for the often clunky script.
The film’s structure is also well done: Part 1 focuses on Justine, who wants to die, and Part 2 focuses on Charlotte, who wants to live. Melancholia‘s operatic, poetic prologue features Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” apocalyptic images of Melancholia’s collision with Earth, a bride holding flowers while drifting in a pond, a mother struggling to carry her son. The abstract, ultra slo-mo sequence introduces von Trier’s nihilistic worldview and spoils the ending of the film. Our hopes for a happy ending become immediately shattered; doom and destruction are the only outcomes for the characters. And yet, the film’s final moments nonetheless feel harrowing and shocking — a testament to von Trier’s gift for crafting dramatic tension and a despairing sense of dread. And Justine sobbing, “It tastes like ashes!” after eating Charlotte’s meatloaf just hits too close to home.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
The Scoop: The “metal fetishist” (Tsukamoto) penetrates a metal rod into his right thigh and runs out in the city, only for a businessman (Tomorô Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) to accidentally run him over with their car. To enact his revenge, the “metal fetishist” transforms the man’s flesh into iron.
Why Watch? When filming Tetsuo, one of the most landmark Japanese cyberpunk flicks, Tsukamoto operated on a low budget, shot on scummy black and white 16mm film, and took inspiration from the sound design of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the sexualized gore of Videodrome. Even with these influences, Tetsuo is a strange, unhinged, and decidedly unique avant-garde work of sci-fi. The expressionistic lighting punctuates images of sweat, blood, flesh, steel, and drills, while the frenetic, pulsating editing dispenses the film with a disorientating, dynamic rhythm. The film’s low budget, lighting, editing, and intrusive soundtrack — which comprises of a pounding, synthetic score, and exaggerated sound effects — coalesce into an delightfully zeal and amateur production, a true sign of Tsukamoto’s filmmaking prowess.
For an abstract, unbridled, and gory film that seems randomly patched together, Tetsuo manages to inject some thoughtful commentary and perverse humor. The film incorporates outlandish plotlines, mangled make-up, and a drab and vaguely dystopian setting to reflect common anxieties about defilement, sexuality, mutation, and technology, which culminate in the film’s satirical ending. Plus, a huge drill eventually replaces the man’s penis, and it’s weirdly awesome.
World on a Wire (1973)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Scoop: In a dystopian future, the government-funded institute IKZ develops Simulacron, a computer which generates an entire artificial world. The world comprises of 10,000 “identity units” who live ordinary, mundane lives. Fred (Klaus Lowitsch), one of IKZ’s employees, slowly unearths a monumental corporate and governmental conspiracy.
Why Watch? World on a Wire marks Fassbinder’s rare and singular foray into the sci-fi genre. The three-and-a-half hour long miniseries deviates from his usual melodramas and gritty realism flicks. Even so, World on a Wire adopts thematic and stylistic flourishes central to the acclaimed director’s oeuvre: anti-capitalist sentiments, grand set designs and acting styles, anxieties over corporate and government coalitions, and philosophical diatribes on what it means to be human. The film thoughtfully navigates these themes with an astute and often ironic screenplay, a stylish integration of film noir tropes, and a delightful camp humor. (As far as I’m concerned, the relentless, over-the-top zooms on Fred are comedy gold).
Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, World on a Wire uses modern city architecture to render the uncanny, futuristic setting. Likewise, when Fred transports to Simulacron’s simulated reality, he arrives in an ordinary and banal cafe, where a man makes a telephone call. If we weren’t previously informed of the world’s artificiality, then we would have presume it to be reality. Fassbinder, therefore, conveys virtual reality as a dull copy of our world; he doesn’t use special effects to represent the illusionary world, nor does he delineate it as an inherent threat to its occupants, Fred, or other characters in the film. The film’s real antagonistic force is the sinister, capitalist relationship between IZK and United Steel, a corporate enterprise. A capitalist enemy, as well as the conflation of reality and illusion, have been explored in sci-fi before — but World on a Wire is wholly distinct with its kitsch set design, stirring soundtrack, affected performances, and glorious paranoia.
La Jetée (1962)
Director: Chris Marker
The Scoop: As an 28 minute short film told in still images, La Jetée centers on a man (Davos Hanich) who becomes subjected to time-travel experiments in post-apocalyptic Paris. He revisits a haunting image of his childhood, as well as several memories of a romantic relationship, before making a fatalistic, shocking discovery.
Why Watch? As one of the more poignant films of alternative sci-fiction, La Jetée employs time-travel to meditate on the paradoxes of our memories (as opposed to evoke the scientific strides of mankind). No matter how vivid, precious, or secret, memories often become distorted into fragmented reconstructions, rather than recollections. In the film, time-travel does not enable the protagonist to tell a straightforward autobiography of his life amidst a post worldwide cataclysm. Rather, the time travel promotes his fixation on past images of the woman (Hélène Chatelain) and the Orly Airport — the sources of his innermost desire and anguish. In its brief 28 minute runtime, we become attached to the protagonist and woman without hearing their voices, which demonstrates Marker’s skill in using images to convey raw emotion.
In addition to its gripping depiction of love, war, and memory, La Jetée is a triumph in sound design. The soundtrack consists of three elements (which often overlap): a poetic voice-over narration, an operatic and evocative musical score, and ambient noises like whispers and heartbeats. The function of the each element serves a distinct purpose; the voice-over guides us through the events of the story, the musical score communicates tragedy and dread, and the intimate, primitive soundbites promote a hyper-conscious awareness of our role as the audience. The inclusion of these three different sounds fosters a dense, visceral soundscape — one as harrowing and potent as the images and themes of La Jetée.
The Scoop: Roughly based on the writings of William S. Burroughs, Decoder stars FM Einheit as FM, a burger shop employee who discovers that adjusting different background music can garner extreme reactions from the public, incite riots, counteract propaganda, and enact change against the oppressive government.
Why Watch? While its theme of sonic terrorism is thoughtfully explored, Decoder’s greatest success is its conflation of a wonderful post-punk soundtrack, (Soft Cell, Psychic TV, and The The), frogs, lurid use of saturated reds and blues, fascist burger corporations, and William S. Burroughs cameos.The film reflects the stagnancy and cultural upheaval of West Germany — a country well detached from its Nazi past by the mid 80s. Decoder stands neck-and-neck with Repo Man as the most punk film on this list. FM’s entire quest to disrupt the brainwashing and complacency of the public through the power music is radical and awesome, though the actual depiction of the revolution feels immature and slight at times. Still, Muscha features a vibrant industrial scene and various political dissidents; he even adds footage of actual riots to offer some realism in an otherwise outrageous film.
Repo Man (1984)
Director: Alex Cox
The Scoop: The eccentric Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) introduces teenage punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) to the tense lifestyle of a car repossessor. Bud, Otto, and several other LA repo men search for a mysterious Chevy Malibu in exchange for a $10,000 reward from the feds.
Why Watch? Unlike most of these films, Repo Man does not explicitly entail arthouse sensibilities: it’s a straightforward, fast-paced action movie. It does, however, feature a low budget, minimal extravagant special effects, an attraction to a niche audience, and an authorial approach from writer-director Cox. Notably, the novelty of the beloved cult film surfaces in its inclusion of punk teenagers, jaded car repossessors…and aliens.
Repo Man breezes through its brief 92 minute run-time with a breathless campy action, gags, sly humor, and incisive critiques of the punk subculture and Reaganomics. The film’s famous food gag is another highlight, wherein simple blue striped, white packaged products are labelled “Food — Meat Flavored,” “Beer,” and “Drink.” Here, Cox reflects actual packaging trends in grocery stores amidst the stagnant 80s economy and, in turn, the abject banality of American lifestyles defining the decade.
It would be disgraceful not to mention the late Stanton’s funny, cynical performance as Bud, the film’s most captivating character. Stanton makes Bud’s self-proclaimed status as an outsider deserved, rebellious, and punk. In one brief scene, Bud snorts speed, preaches the “repo code” and laments, “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate them” after watching a group of tennis players argue with a tow truck crew. While this sequence could have felt disingenuous in the hands of lesser directors and actors, it evokes the greatest strength of Repo Man: a confident willingness to be outlandish and critical in equal parts.
On the Silver Globe (1988)
Director: Andrzej Żuławski
The Scoop: A group of dissident astronauts escape an oppressive Earth to populate the Moon. Their children begin to age and reproduce at an accelerated rate on the moon, which results in an extensive, primordial, and hostile civilization. Years later, Earthian scientist Marek (Andrzej Seweryn) arrives on the planet. The moon-people treat Marek like a messiah, and they depend on him to eradicate their enemy: Sherns, telepathic bird-creatures who mate with the moon-people’s women and spawn a hybrid species.
Why Watch? On a Silver Globe remains one of sci-fi’s greatest enigmas. The film’s writer and director, Andrzej Żuławski, filmed 80% of the haunting, sprawling epic in 1977 — when Poland still functioned as Marxist-Leninist communist government. Januz Wilhemi, a minister of culture and arts, ceased the film’s production, presumably for its transgressive depiction of a pagan, corruptible state. 10 years later, Zulawski revisited the incomplete film and narrated the absent plot points over documentary footage of Poland. In 1988, the film debuted at Cannes, and it continues to stun viewers today,
While unfinished, On The Silver Globe is an extraordinary work of science fiction. It’s almost impossible to watch — the film aims not to please or entertain audiences. The moon-people constantly change their appearance with various face paint, hair styles, and clothing. It becomes difficult to distinguish one character from another, thereby rendering the task of identifying and connecting with them infeasible.
The film features some of the most histrionic acting I have ever seen: most of the dialogue comprises of anguished shouting (at times, screaming) grandiose philosophical jargon at the camera. It soon becomes exhausting, though the off-putting dialogue and acting upholds some thematic significance: the notion of performance pervades the film. Characters introduce themselves as actors; “actresses” goad others to praise their performances; one man decries “You are an actress playing the value of feeling, its transience!” at a woman. Clearly, performance underlines the identities and social order of this disastrous society.
The film’s challenging dialogue and acting may steer viewers away, but On the Silver Globe is worth watching for its spectacular, harrowing look alone. Dull greys, greens, and blues dominate the alien world, with occasional dashes of bright red and yellows supplementing the film’s most engrossing images. Zulawski often uses a handheld camera and frames his characters in tight medium close-ups to capture their anxiety; other times he uses cranes to glide over the barren landscapes, battlefields, and beaches. Practical effects and wonderful costume design amplify the mise-en-scene and camerawork of the film. All of these elements coalesce into some of the most foreboding, striking images in sci-fi: a pile of hundreds of naked bodies gliding like snakes, an anxious Marek navigating through the rubble of the city, a man galloping on his horse, a brutal crucifixion. While On a Silver Globe can be alienating and infuriating, images like these reels us back into the film’s strange, striking, and unforgettable world.
When you finish these films, have no fear! There are plenty of other arthouse sci-fi films for your viewing pleasures: Solaris (1972), Under the Skin (2013), Brazil (1985), Fantastic Planet (1973), Alphaville (1965), and Primer (2004).