8 of the smartest sci-fi films and TV shows represented with hilariously complicated charts

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I like math jokes. I love wiggling my index finger at someone while shouting, "Binary high five!" The funniest number is anything after 420. When my kids ask me, "Why is six afraid of seven?" I reply, "Because seven is a registered six offender!" So it should go without saying that I love kooky charts.

May 27 marks the 13th anniversary of the cinematic masterpiece known as Primer (dir. Shane Carruth). To show reverence to this film and everything it did to advance "smart" sci-fi, I took a look at some brain-bending attempts to make visual summaries of smart films.

Coherence (2013)

Coherence is a groundbreaking film by a group of filmmakers who saw Primer and said, "Hey, let's make a ridiculously complicated movie. I have the best place to film it: My house!" Instead of time travel, the device of infinite universes is used to weave a fine cinematic tapestry entirely out of Gordian knots.

In short, the film details events at a dinner party when a comet connects it to the assumed infinite alternate universes. The meat of the film involves characters wandering into and in from other realities until it becomes extremely difficult to keep track of which characters are where. That's why some genius made this handy if labyrinthian diagram:

Source: Barry Krishna

So let's unpack this. One of the wise choices the creator has made is to represent characters with a color. This lets us differentiate between copies of characters (i.e. blue Amir is not the same as red Amir). The "other realities" represents the nebulous field through which characters must pass to emerge in a random reality. Fortunately, the creators chose to ground this film by showing only two different realities (House 1 and House 2) for most of the story. One thing to note is that the Lee and Beth in House 1 are in dark blue font, whereas the Lee and Beth in House 2 are light blue. This is because those are different copies of Lee and Beth, who never left the house.

Why did the creator of this chart make such a hard-to-decipher color choice? To understand that requires the bit of knowledge that people from each reality may have one of three types of glowsticks: Red, blue or green. However, as the plot complicates to infinity, you get more glowsticks and identity dissociation than a warehouse rave. The two shades of blue is the author stating "Hey these two copies have blue glow sticks, but they aren't the same people."

One more interesting thing to notice is the use of actual positional relevance, as it pertains to the group carrying red glowsticks. The red group of Mike, Laurie, Emily, and Kevin is seen outside House 1, but doesn't actually enter the house nor have much of any affect on the plot. The creator reflects this by positioning the red group just outside of the first house on the chart. This is a hard concept to pull off, as evidenced by the time I scaled every flight of the Sears Tower trying to follow my map north to Canada.

Predestination (2014)

Predestination is an Australian science fiction film which I can't decide if it's underrated or ridiculous. If you haven't seen it, you're in luck, as the film is available in its entirety on YouTube. In fact, if you're thinking of watching the film, do so now before reading on, as I've got more spoilers than a used Honda lot in Tokyo.

The film has its share of plot twists. Actually, I should probably say "plot twist" since the same shocking revelation is used repeatedly. It's all explained with this colorful chart, also by Barry Krishna.

While this may seem complicated, it's actually pretty elegant considering it is attempting to explain how the male main character, the female main character, and the baby which they conceive ARE ALL THE SAME FREAKING PERSON.

Still, this graph does leave some questions, like how does getting one's face burned off then replaced make one look hot, like Ethan Hawke hot?

Primer (2004)

When a film starts with a dissection of electromagnetic reduction, and then gets MORE complicated, you know it's up there with the most complicated films of all time like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rashomon (but only because I don't understand Japanese). Unfolding into at least nine separate timelines, Primer is the kind of film that demands a visual in order to understand what is going on. Like this one from Unreality Mag .

The collage of intersecting timelines come together to form a complete masterpiece like a Jackson Pollack painting. What is most impressive to me is the detail: In terms of significance, there is a huge range of events detailed. From something as complicated as: 

"Aaron(0) is knocked out but drugged breakfast. Aaron(2) stashes him into the attic. Aaron(6) appears and starts a brawl with Aaron(2). But Aaron(6) is exhausted and Aaron(2) (the hooded one) wins. However, after this they speak and Aaron(6) convinces Aaron(2) to leave: the reason is that Aaron(6) has already lived through every event, and recorded conversations like Aaron(2) wanted. So Aaron(2) leaves but before that Aaron(6) tells him what happened with him. Aaron(2) becomes the narrator, who calls Aaron(0) to inform him what happened. What happens after this, that is not known by Aaron(2) (because he leaves here). E.g. 5:00 Aaron(2) goes to his own flat and injects drug into Aaron(0)'s breakfast,"

All the way to things as simple as:

"In the flat they are again trading stocks, Abe(4) eats muffins, Aaron(5) watches television."

The fact that this chart even needs to exist illustrates a major shortcoming of the movie: It's really difficult to tell which copy of the characters is on screen at any given point in the film. I wrote Primer's creator/director/composer/midnight shopper Shane Carruth and suggested some ingenious changes for any future sequel. Namely, each timeline iteration of a character could have a distinguishing feature: For instance, in one timeline, the character of Abe could have a handlebar mustache and in another he could be wearing a wacky oversized sombrero. My idea floored Carruth so much that he has not been able to respond at all, no doubt left speechless by my exciting innovation.

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan's sharp sci-fi film details a group of specialists as they journey through different and fantastic realms of the subconscious. What I learned most from this film was that the subconscious is a lot deeper than I expected. I'm pretty sure an exploration of my subconscious would just be an empty room with a light bulb that turns on whenever I need to pee.

As the characters distribute through multiple levels, all with their own different time speeds, keeping track of what is going on can be difficult. Unless of course, you have a good chart, like this one from ChartGeek, created by Daniel Wang:

There are several elements which make this chart quite easy to understand. Primarily, the x-axis is time, a universally executed concept due to its extreme usefulness. This makes it simple to glance at the chart to see what's going on at different points of the film. Another thing I love is that the graph doesn't try too hard to convey the fact that time is flowing at different speeds at each level. Doing so could distort the x-axis, which would make me freak out; I have had a suspiciously strong infatuation with the x-axis ever since I woke up from a long plane ride.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

As one of the only space exploration series set in the past (in fact, I can't think of any series set so long ago nor so far, far away), BSG was already bending brains in terms of keeping track of the timeline. Luckily, Billy Ray Stephens, Jr. created this handy chart detailing every major moment in the history of humans, skinjobs and Centurions.

The first thing to note is that there is a sort-of key at the bottom left. Each race has its own color showing exactly what happened. Skinjobs are the pink line, maybe because a lot of skin is pink; A.I. is blue, perhaps to express their cold, robotic nature; and humans are red, which is certainly because humans' spines glow red when they are excited (I can't be the only one).

You have to appreciate the effort that went into linking the tale carried out through over a hundred hours of storytelling. It's unique to see a chart that spans galaxies yet has a "You Are Here" sign.

Saw (2004)

You might be saying to yourself, "How is Saw a ridiculously complicated movie?" In which case, I guess you've never felt the utter confusion-turned-horror at waking up somewhere strange and realizing you were in a trap. I guess you've never felt fear swell in your chest as you attempt to decipher a maddening series of needlessly complex clues, lest some critical body part get gruesomely mangled. I guess you've never rushed a frat.

Well, for the victims of Jigsaw, who presents inordinately challenging life-or-death situations, every Saw movie has new opportunities for ridiculously complicated trials. Plus there's this chart by Brent Cherry, which is intentionally left maddeningly incomplete (what do the vertical lines mean? WHAT DO THEY MEAN?!)

This chart covers the first six Saw films and goes from left to right in chronological order, as a good graph should. What makes this chart refreshingly understandable is a key, an achingly-missed element of most modern complicated graphs explaining ridiculously complex films. This chart should get even more useful when they decide to resume the franchise decades from now. Although the filmmakers might want to just copy the death twist from the original Saw and reveal that all the characters have just been faking their deaths by lying motionless for decades in piles of glass or syringes or whatever.

Memento (2000)

Memento is a mind-blowing Christopher Nolan film about a man who has no short term memory. To simulate the chaos of this disorder, Nolan presents the story in two threads: One that starts at the chronological beginning and works forward, and one which starts at the end and works backward, as detailed in this chart from the Wiki:

I'm a bit more inclined to criticize this graph, which details the two threads in terms of the time of the actual story and the time of events in the film. This construction really fits the "hilariously complicated" theme, as it sacrifices explaining the twists of the main character realizing what is true and what isn't, which is the real cerebral challenge of the film, in lieu of explaining the timestamps of each scene. It's also hilariously unnecessary, as Nolan clearly indicates which thread is which by shooting one in color (the reverse timeline thread) and one in black and white (the forward thread).

This also illustrates a pet peeve of mine about complicated charts: the inclusion of big, black lines that aren't actually part of the chart. In this chart, it's the lines extending from the yellow boxes explaining various plot points. I've seen Memento many times, and so I was confused by what I thought was a straight black line extending from the beginning of the film to the endpoint, which is apparently "Story Start." It turns out, the line is simply to show us that, SPOILER ALERT, the story begins at the beginning.

Star Trek

In no other fictional universe is shirt color more critical than Star Trek. We all remember the episode where lovable scamp Wesley tosses his lucky red cap into the washing machine, turning everyone's shirts red which caused the death of the Enterprise's entire crew.

Luckily, a chart has been created to keep straight all the shirt colors and deaths in the first forty episodes of the Original Series.

This chart takes a little translating to fully understand the information it conveys. Luckily, it's simpler than it looks, as the chart was designed by Matt Bailey, who teaches Google employees how to increase their elegance in chart-making. There are three things being conveyed: Number of people killed in each episode (and their shirt colors), number of fights in each episode (represented by phasers), and whether or not Captain Kirk was involved (represented by a picture of Hollywood heartthrob James Garner).

One thing which becomes extremely visible when the data is presented in chart form is that the first batch of episodes didn't treat red shirts any more cruelly than any other color. Then, there is an extremely sharp shift toward killing only red shirts. Something that might not be apparent (or perhaps was apparent to everyone except me) is that only every other episode is listed; the rest are represented on the graph but their episode title isn't there. This is due to a courteous decision by the chart maker, as listing every episode would make the chart so wide you'd have to scroll at warp speed to ever reach the end.


I hope these feats of transposing sci-fi greats to the x- and y-axis were ... well, you know what? Let's set the bar low: I hope it was at least better than looking at graphs in high school math. Perhaps these will even inspire you to take your favorite show or movie and attempt to show it in a chart. Maybe that's all I need to stop getting unreasonably angry when I can't understand why the Flintstones has a flying alien time traveler.