Cerebral sci-fi films
January 24, 2012 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Any suggestions for cerebral sci-fi films?

I've recently watched Melancholia and Another Earth and was wondering if there are any other 'cerebral' sci-fi films I've missed. There are a few lists online:

Cerebral Sci-Fi Films That Wipe Our Minds
Top 15 Cerebral Sci-Fi Films

But I've seen all of those (except for Seconds). Also I'm thinking more Solaris (1972 and 2002), Sunshine (minus the slasher horror stuff), The Fountain and 2001: A Space Odyssey than say, Inception, Primer or Brazil. Maybe 'meditative' sci-fi is more accurate.

So, does anyone have any suggestions for these types of films? Books/graphic novels would also be welcome. Thanks!
posted by serak to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
posted by dfriedman at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2012 [15 favorites]

came in here to recommend Moon, and also Primer
posted by bl1nk at 9:54 AM on January 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


Primer & Moon are so good.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:57 AM on January 24, 2012

Phase IV - The probably defined cerebral sci-fi for me as a kid when it was in reruns on television on Saturday afternoons.

Silent Running - Effects artist Douglas Trumball directed this strange exploration of one man's efforts to save a little bit of earth's ecological legacy via a spaceship. One of Bruce Dern's greatest turns as an actor.

I'll get some shit for this one, but The Black Hole is cerebral for what it is. It's peppered with weird things to appeal to a Star Wars savvy kids, but the whole thing is about the madness of one guys' obsession with wanting to embark into a black hole just for the discovery of it. Plus, you get one of John Barry's best scores. Plus, one of cinema's most bad-ass evil robot servants. And an ending that's downright harrowing to children who were probably the main audience of this thing.

I personally enjoyed Vanilla Sky, although it found largely a cold reception from critics and film snobs.
posted by smallerdemon at 10:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Serenity, the movie continuation/conclusion of the TV series Firefly. Like the Matrix, it has plenty of action and big sci-fi moments, and something more on its mind. A terrific movie.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smallerdemon - the orignal, Abre Los Ojos (also with Penelope Cruz) I suspect was better.
posted by bitterkitten at 10:05 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smallerdemon, that is only because the original was sooo much better. And should definitely be on the list.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:06 AM on January 24, 2012

If you're happy to watch old films, you might also like Forbidden Planet and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Also maybe Contact.
posted by philipy at 10:06 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Donnie Darko (2001)
Limitless (2011)
Mr. Nobody (2009)
Monsters (2010)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Splice (2009)
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:20 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Caveat - I haven't seen everything on this list, which I made for myself pursuing similar objectives ("philosophical" was my qualifier) - of what I've not yet seen I've tried to draw out things that from my reading better fit your criteria.

Alphaville (Goddard)
Lathe of Heaven (PBS 1980 - I thought the 2002 version was not great)
The Last Battle (Bresson)
The Quiet Earth
Vanilla Sky (Spanish-language original, Open Your Eyes)
Waking Life
Ghost in the Shell
Lost Horizon
Fahrenheit 451 (Truffaut)
Until the End of the World (Wenders)
Days of the Eclipse (Sokurov)
posted by nanojath at 10:22 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about Primer?

Just kidding. How about: The Quiet Earth (exactly what you are looking for, I think) or Miracle Mile (flawed, not scifi, or is it? More tense than any of the other movies listed but thought provoking and awesome. Better to just bump into than to seek out and research, somehow. Tangerine Dream soundtrack tips the balance into excellent. Strong 80s warning! ) or Bliss (Bliss is terrific, but flawed, and also not exactly sci-fi, but really really gets the contemplative thing in spades, and has the best opening and closing of basically any movie ever. Very worth seeing, especially as it is on instant view right now)
posted by dirtdirt at 10:23 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also Last Night (McKellar 1998).
posted by nanojath at 10:23 AM on January 24, 2012


The Quiet Earth (NZ, 1985)

The Day the Earth Stood Still


20th Century Boys (all about what if giant robots were real)
posted by jb at 10:24 AM on January 24, 2012

Wow, people have some interesting interpretations of "meditative."

As far as movies (that aren't mentioned as examples, or in the lists provided):

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, Stuart Bliss, The City of Lost Children, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The last two are visually stunning as well as thinky. Depending on what you didn't like about Primer, Stuart Bliss might not be the best choice, but I'd put it closer to Pi than Primer.

Books: I like the novel Solaris even better than the '72 movie version, and pretty much anything by Lem can be described as "cerebral," but most of it falls into the "satire" category as well. The Invincible might be a good fit. You might also try some Borges. A Canticle for Leibowitz and Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman are both high on the list as well, lots of philosophy.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:24 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tree of Life is not at all sci-fi but is very contemplative. Well, it has dinosaurs. It was just nominated for Best Picture.
posted by davextreme at 10:24 AM on January 24, 2012

I absolutely loathed it, but Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder might qualify as "meditative science fiction."

Also, I feel that the excellent films Gattaca and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are overlooked in these sorts of discussions because there are no spaceships or aliens, but they are very thought-provoking and they definitely qualify as extrapolative science fiction. IMO, Eternal Sunshine is the one movie where Charlie Kaufman's quirky screenwriting style actually performs a useful purpose.
posted by richyoung at 10:25 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

and the original 1971 film of The Andromeda Strain.
posted by jb at 10:26 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh and it may or may not be Sci-fi, (it's a really morality play involving a guy playing chess with Death) but The Seventh Seal is DEFINITELY meditative.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:26 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Came in to recommend the Quiet Earth and Last Night as well.
posted by bonehead at 10:26 AM on January 24, 2012

The original "The Andromeda Strain" film is great for this.
posted by hermitosis at 10:27 AM on January 24, 2012

(oh - I definitely meant the original 1950s version of The Day the Earth Stood Still as well).
posted by jb at 10:27 AM on January 24, 2012

Just popping in to recommend A BOY AND HIS DOG.
posted by halfguard at 10:29 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'd also say the 1958 version of "The Fly," which is pretty heartbreaking to watch as a grownup (as a kid I was only interested in the scary monster aspect).
posted by hermitosis at 10:30 AM on January 24, 2012

I came in to suggest Moon.

You might also enjoy the anime Planetes -- it has a couple of silly moments early on, but they're worth soldiering through.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:31 AM on January 24, 2012

Second "Moon," and also "Source Code," by the same writer/director.

I liked both versions of Solyaris/Solaris, as well as the book by Stanislaw Lem, perhaps the greatest Polish SF writer, if perhaps because I don't know of any others. The Soderbergh movie was a remake of Tarkovsky, though, not a book adaptation in any way.

Solyaris has a dreadfully boring scene near the beginning in which Kelvin drives through an incredible futuristic city (filmed in 1960s Tokyo)-- it was a scene for which Fast Forward was born.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:34 AM on January 24, 2012

Mod note: Folks: read the entire question please. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:37 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Road
posted by The Lamplighter at 10:39 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing Moon, Another Earth, Alphaville, Ghost in the Shell

Neo Tokyo
posted by Senza Volto at 10:41 AM on January 24, 2012

And if you like Moon, I also recommend Duncan Jones' followup, Source Code. It starts out as a somewhat familiar-seeming blend of Quantum Leap, Groundhog Day, and Speed, but then takes some pretty amazing (IMHO) left turns to become something totally different.

Seconding Planetes as well, for the sheer hard-SF realism of its take on near-future space exploration.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:42 AM on January 24, 2012

Eep, I see you've already seen Another Earth. In that case, nthing Mr. Nobody, that was a great film.
posted by Senza Volto at 10:45 AM on January 24, 2012

I'm sure someone will disagree, but I'll suggest Southland Tales. The large caveat is that it is a sprawling, largely incoherent mess of a movie — basically a succession of images and ideas more than a story — but there are flashes of brilliance, and moments that you'll be thinking about long after the movie is over.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Perhaps this is glaringly obvious, but La jetée is a lovely little gem and exactly what you seek.
posted by susanvance at 10:49 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Fantastic Planet
posted by Mila at 10:51 AM on January 24, 2012

World on a Wire
posted by RobotHero at 10:51 AM on January 24, 2012

Lessons of Darkness by Werner Herzog is a sci-fi film that is also a documentary of the firefighting efforts fon the Gulf War oil fires. Highly recommended.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:53 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

After Life--Japanese movie about what happens after you die. Very meditative, philosophical, gently humorous but genuinely thought-provoking.

Children of Men--dystopian future where infertility rates have risen to the point that there are no more babies being born. [It's mentioned in the comments to your first list but isn't on the list itself.]

Never Let Me Go--based on Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent book. The less you know about it going in, the better, not because it will be ruined if you know what it's about, but because the feeling of slow discovery really adds to the
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:55 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Alien 3. No, really. It's very meditative. And astonishingly bleak.
posted by zomg at 10:56 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone's mentioned Strange Days yet. It's cerebral to the extent that it's a relatively rigorous exploration of the consequences of a particular technology.

Not a film, but the TNG episode "Inner Light."

Also not a film, mostly, but some aspects of Neon Genesis Evangelion also fit.

Maybe Voices of a Distant Star

In general, anime is a pretty good place to look for stuff like this... subject to the constraint that even the best anime will sometimes flip between really cool at least a bit cerebral stuff to suddenly leer at a woman's tits.

The SciFi miniseries of Dune is pretty good.

In case you're taking an informal vote, I'll second:

Silent Running
Abre Los Ojos
Contact (people who react "Her dad was an alien?" were just not paying any attention)
Ghost in the Shell
Tarkovsky's Solaris
Soderbergh's Solaris
Source Code

Without wanting to be too snippy about it, I will argue against Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Both have bits of movie-destroying awfulness because obviously just going to another fucking planet wouldn't be interesting enough. I mean, seriously, points where I'm mentally screaming NO NO NO STUPID STUPID STUPID at the screen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2012

Tarkovsky's "Stalker"
posted by rhizome at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, also District 9.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:06 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey guys, read the lists so you aren't re-recommending things he's already seen.

-Alphaville (Godard)
-A Boy and His Dog
-A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)
-Waking Life (Linklater)

-Le Dernier Combat (Luc Besson)
-The Machinist (Not really scifi but very cerebral in the manner you want)
-Oldboy (Again, not too scifi-ish)
-Being John Malkovich

Sounds like you've got most of your bases covered (At least of ones I can personally recommend, you've watched more than I have). It sounds like La Jetee will be up your alley. Wired also has this list: Brain-Blasting Cerebral Sci-Fi Cinema, Chosen by You, which fills in most of the missing ones from their editor-selected list.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:17 AM on January 24, 2012

No one's mentioned The Prestige, I think it soundly fits
posted by MangyCarface at 11:31 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Southland Tales, mentioned upthread, is divisive, but in my opinion it's pretty damn awesome. It feels like a movie mashed together from reading too much Dick, RAW, and SubGenius rants. If nothing else, it's a movie to which you can apply the phrase "shit gets real when Jon Lovitz shows up."

Actually, I'm a big fan of Richard Kelly in general. Donnie Darko is awesome, if you haven't already seen it, and The Box is very good, as long as you just sort of let it wash over you.


Another great sci-fi movie is The Stone Tape, which was a made-for-BBC movie written by Nigel Kneale.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:35 AM on January 24, 2012

I will second After Life, and maybe try Time Crimes?
posted by wittgenstein at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

It doesn't get much more cerebral than this:

Donovan's Brain (1953)

Here's the rest of my list. Not claiming these are all great films (though I kinda liked 'em), just that they seem to at least partly meet your cerebral/meditative criteria. Apologies for dupes:

Things to Come (1936)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The Twonky (1953)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
On the Beach (1959)
The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Charly (1968)
Doppelgänger aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969)
No Blade of Grass (1970)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
THX 1138 (1971)
Silent Running (1972)
Slaughterhouse Five (1972)
Solaris (1972)
Fantastic Planet (1973)
Altered States (1980)
Brainstorm (1983)
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Contact (1997)
Gattaca (1997)
Pi (1998)
Blindness (2008)
Moon (2009)

Books/graphic novels

Have a look at Chocky by John Wyndham.
Read it before Spielberg ruins it forever.
posted by Herodios at 11:50 AM on January 24, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Seconding Until the End of the World, Moon and Strange Days.
posted by vers at 12:06 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Code 46 (2003) is a somewhat bleak and depressing future not-love story in a meditative tone, if that makes sense.

The Box (2009) as a story is part traditional mystery, but the whole mood and way of telling it made me think of meditative moods.
posted by Iosephus at 12:08 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dark Star (funny and smart).
Vanilla Sky (ignore the haters).
posted by Decani at 12:17 PM on January 24, 2012

Best answer: The Man From Earth is basically one extended The Twilight Zone episode. Gets kind of cheesy but it's an ideas movie.

Seconding Mr. Nobody. It's speculative fiction's love letter to sci-fi.

Tons of anime films do the same thing; Paprika, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and The Place Promised in Our Early Days are all meditations on one thing or another with speculative/scifi elements.

I've heard 2046 is very good and should be right up your alley; semi-futurism with tons of love and a desperate longing for meaning. Oh! And Pontypool! Great film; takes the 'zombie/virus' thing and takes a linguistic spin to it. The Fall is a bit more fantasy than everything above but it's a great movie wrapped up with beautiful cinematography and a solid story.
posted by dubusadus at 12:33 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not science fiction, but it inspired a bunch of science fiction writers, The Hellstrom Chronicle.
posted by RobotHero at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2012

Seconding The Man From Earth, which is fantastic - the entire movie takes place is one small house, with almost no real action, only dialogue. It's about as meditative as a movie gets. Not sure I would agree with the "cheesy" description, but it's one of my favorite movies, so I guess I'm a little biased~
posted by ashirys at 1:16 PM on January 24, 2012

It's been mentioned before several times upthread, but The Quiet Earth - in particular the final scene - was incredibly powerful and thought-provoking.
posted by zomg at 1:16 PM on January 24, 2012

Best answer: A lot of the stuff I would recommend has already been mentioned. Strongly nthing: Moon, Donnie Darko, La Jetee, and eXistenZ.

The Double Life of Veronique - not usually classified as sci-fi, but I think it comes close enough to fit your criteria. If you like Tarkofsky's Solaris, you should definitely get into Kieslowski.

I actually really love The Abyss. It's got a very standard Cameron/blockbuster/genre structure, but it also has some beautiful, meditative sequences when they're down in the depths.

You might try Jodorowsky -- The Holy Mountain and Santo Sangre -- although those are more surreal/trippy than sci-fi/cerebral.

Are you open to animation? Voices of A Distant Star is a great high-concept story, and very affecting. Miyazaki's has a few films that are a little more on the sci-fi side of the sci-fi/fantasy divide; try Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky.

As for books, I bet you'd like some of China Mieville's more restrained books. I'm thinking specifically of The City and The City and Embassytown.

P.S: "Solyaris has a dreadfully boring scene near the beginning in which Kelvin drives through an incredible futuristic city (filmed in 1960s Tokyo)-- it was a scene for which Fast Forward was born."
Sunburnt, this is actually one of my favorite film sequences ever. It lives in my head now, permanently, and it has changed the way that I think about time, film, and time on film. And it's beautiful.

posted by ourobouros at 1:19 PM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks very much for all these suggestions everyone, it'll keep me going for ages.

On the Primer note, I actually really enjoyed it - I just wouldn't put it in this category as it is more plot focused.

Some of the films that have been mentioned so far (but which I've seen) are exactly what I'm looking for, e.g. Moon, Monsters, Eternal Sunshine, La jetée, etc. The Road is another one, I was disappointed with the film but I really loved the novel. Also, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a perfect example of the style, even if it isn't sci-fi related.

I was planning on watching Never Let Me Go tonight so it's good to see it being recommended (I don't really know anything about it).

Some that I've been meaning to watch for ages, whether or not they fit into this style: Southland Tales, The Box, 2046, The Double Life of Veronique and Code 46.

Thanks again, and I appreciate any more suggestions!
posted by serak at 1:56 PM on January 24, 2012

I would skip Southland Tales; it's terrible. Code 46 on the other hand is great.
posted by gregr at 7:28 PM on January 24, 2012

Don't skip Southland Tales! Just let it be what it is, and you'll never be bored. One of its stars, Beth Grant, has compared the film to Picasso's "Guernica" painting -- one of the most apt descriptions I've ever heard. It's a huge disorderly mess with a lot of strangely powerful emotional undercurrents and millennial angst.
posted by hermitosis at 10:08 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Southland Tales is awesome! While watching it the first time, I found myself saying "I don't know where this rollercoaster is going, but I am loving the ride!" It actually had a comic book prequel, but I haven't read it and still enjoyed the movie immensely.

Most of what I would suggest has already been mentioned either in the links from the OP or the comments above. However, a movie I watched recently on Netflix Instant was Ink. Its got some action parts and hammy acting by at least one major character; however, it does very well at telling a thought-provoking non-linear story within a tight budget. Plus, the bad guys look like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie.

Speaking of which, I know La Jetee was mentioned, but 12 Monkeys is pretty good on its own, as well.
posted by mysterpigg at 11:43 AM on January 25, 2012

Black Mirror, it's just been FPP'd
posted by Tom-B at 5:33 PM on January 28, 2012

How about Satoshi Kon's 'perfect blue' and 'paprika' ?
posted by Riton at 7:51 AM on January 29, 2012

Yes to Jodorovsky - but his graphic novels, the Technopriests, the Incal, the Metabarons.
posted by yoHighness at 5:50 AM on January 30, 2012

Response by poster: So I've caught up on a load of these now (although there were like 60-80 different films!). Lots of great stuff, e.g. A Boy and his Dog, The Quiet Earth, Mr Nobody etc.

The closest to what I was looking for, and which I hadn't already seen, would have to be: Code 46, 2046, Never Let Me Go and The Double Life of Veronique.

Other films, which I have seen, and which are the right style would be: Monsters, Moon, La Jetee, etc.

Thanks again.

Oh, and I tried Southland Tales: turned it off after 20 minutes - maybe I was just in a bad mood?
posted by serak at 3:27 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

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