Have you seen Annihilation yet, and if so, did it blow your mind? Alex Garland's adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel is an unsettling and eerie experience right from the start, but it takes a turn into the delirious during its final half-hour, when people turn into trees and the lead character (played by Natalie Portman) learns the true nature of the phenomenon that's transforming a large wilderness — along with her — into something utterly new and alien.
Annihilation is absolutely part of a fantastic tradition in sci-fi cinema: the movie that bends your mind and introduces concepts that are almost too big or weird to wrap your head around. In a sense, the best sci-fi always strives for that effect, but some movies are especially constructed to make the viewer feel as if his or her brain is about to bubble over and start leaking out of their ears as they distort the fabric of space, time, and/or reality itself.
So as you savor that experience after seeing Annihilation (and if you haven't yet, please try to get to a theater near you and see it on the big screen), consider checking out the list below of 18 other sci-fi movies that are guaranteed to stretch your brain cells to the breaking point. Just about all of them are essential viewing anyway, so there's no reason to wait. Your mind will thank you ... even as it turns to goo.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
There's been a lot said and written about 2001 lately (some of it by this writer) due to the fact that this groundbreaking film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But you really can't make a list of mind-blowing sci-fi films without including it. Its pace may be too stately for some modern audiences, but 2001 delivers one spectacular moment after another, from the opening "Dawn of Man" segment all the way to the classic "stargate" sequence, surely the mother of all mind-bending sci-fi scenes. And the movie's storyline — which encompasses the entire history of human evolution and how it's been "helped" along the way — is epic enough in its scope to send the imagination racing.
If you didn't know that George Lucas wrote and directed this experimental oddity (based on a student short film he made four years earlier), you would not think that this film and Star Wars were created by the same person. THX-1138 is about as far away from Star Wars as a movie can get: bleak, sterile and depressing, THX-1138 is set in a future underground dystopia where sex and love are forbidden and the citizens are little more than perpetually drugged slave labor, kept in line by a harsh, never-seen totalitarian regime. The movie's imagery is stark and claustrophobic, its design spare and minimalistic, and it creates a unique, unsettling world that remains with the viewer long after.
The Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey was based on a novel by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem and, Cold War rivalry aside, it stands as a brilliant film on its own. If a slow pace is a problem for you, better drink a Coke or two since director Andrei Tarkovsky does not give a hoot about your attention span. But the film — about a space station crew slowly going mad from their proximity to the title sentient planet — is worth the haul with its eerily beautiful imagery and deeply cerebral concepts about memory, reality, identity and time. Bonus points to Tarkovsky for coming up with another mind-bender seven years later: Stalker.
Altered States (1980)
William Hurt, in his film debut, plays Dr. Edward Jessup, a psychologist whose investigation of altered states of consciousness leads him into experiments with ancient tribal drugs and sensory deprivation tanks. They eventually cause him to regress first into the body of a primitive hominid and then into a primordial form of sentient matter, until he begins to devolve out of reality itself unless he can stop.
British director Ken Russell (The Lair of the White Worm), known for his visual and cinematic excess, pulls out all the stops here in an often bonkers but unrelenting stew of science, mysticism, religious imagery, sex and hallucinatory effects that will stun your senses.
David Cronenberg's gruesome exploration of the effect of television and media remains almost ahead of its time, as sleazy program director Max Renn (James Woods) begins broadcasting the titular sadomasochistic reality show on his TV station only to discover too late that the signal distorts the brains and perceptions of anyone who sees it.
Videodrome may be firmly set in a world that existed before cable, streaming, the Internet and social media, but its themes — the absorption of self into media, the blurring of lines between reality and fiction and the cult-like effects of personality-driven content — are arguably even more relevant now. Bonus points to Cronenberg for examining the same themes, only through the lens of video game culture, in his underrated 1999 follow-up, eXistenZ.
Five people wake up in a cube-shaped room with no idea how they got there, and discover that hatches on all the walls lead to other, similar rooms — some of which hold death traps that slaughter anyone who walks in. The little group attempts to find its way out of the mathematically designed structure, while tensions rise and the purpose of the cube remains out of reach. Director Vincenzo Natali's elegantly creepy thriller is both a cerebral existential exercise and an edge-of-the-seat thriller, with an ambivalent ending that adds a layer of cosmic mystery to the whole thing. You can pretty much ignore the sequel and prequel, however.
Indie auteur Darren Aronofsky made his directing debut with this black and white, ultra-low budget but crazily imaginative and genuinely weird little flick. Sean Gullette plays Max, a socially inept, paranoid math genius who accidentally stumbles upon a 216-digit number that may be the key to the universe, a way to predict the stock market, the name of God — or all three and more. Number theory, Jewish mysticism and world finance are all part of the mix of ideas that Aronofsky hurtles at the viewer during the film's 84 minutes, creating a dizzying, surreal experience that will leave your head spinning.
Dark City (1998)
20 years after its release, Alex Proyas' neo-noir sci-fi thriller is still being discussed and appreciated as the classic that it is. A full year before The Matrix, Proyas (and co-writers David Goyer and Lem Dobbs) postulated a contained habitat in which human subjects go about their business every day, not realizing that the world as they know it is reset every night by the alien race that is trying to learn the secret of humanity's individualism.
Influenced by everything from Akira to The Twilight Zone to Metropolis, Dark City itself has become enormously influential over the years: its DNA can be found in movies like Inception, The Matrix and many others that have come out since. The atmosphere, production design, philosophical underpinnings and unforgettable visuals all combine to make a film that is both cerebral and exciting, while questioning the nature of reality in a — pardon the pun — highly illuminating fashion.
The Matrix (1999)
We remember The Matrix for its amazing action, the terrific cast and the incredible fight sequences. But let's not forget the sheer brain-melting concept behind the Wachowskis' film as well, that we are all living in a simulated reality while our bodies are used to create energy for the sentient machines that rule over us. Ideas about reality, perception, identity and much more all permeated the film as well, making it one of the more thought-provoking sci-fi action films of its time. The mythology kind of tied itself in knots in the two sequels, but that thrill of discovery and awe when learning what the Matrix was has never diminished.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Another cult classic that has seemingly been dissected and analyzed for years, Donnie Darko boils down in the end to a relatively simple concept: the way a human being's actions and choices can affect the world around him or her. Writer/director Richard Kelly creates a dreamlike, dread-inducing atmosphere and introduces some heady concepts about time travel, destiny and memory before bringing it all home with an emotional wallop that has always set this mini-masterpiece apart. Kelly has tried to do the same in his subsequent features — Southland Tales (2006) and The Box (2009) — but has not been able to achieve the same impact.
Two friends work inside a garage on a device that can change the effect of gravity and end up accidentally inventing a time machine instead. Not realizing the implications at first, they use it to do what most of us probably would — go into the past and make sure bets on the stock market — but as multiple versions of the two men begin to pile up and overlap in a constantly shifting reality, it becomes apparent that their little experiment is far more dangerous than they ever imagined.
That's more or less the plot of this super-low-budget ($7,000!) cult classic, which was written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Shane Carruth, who also stars as one of the two would-be inventors. We say more or less because Carruth deliberately makes the proceedings enigmatic and murky, reflecting the way in which time travel might affect our perceptions if it really did exist. The result is a maze-like movie that leaves the unsettled viewer with more questions and no easy answers.
The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky gets a second slot on this list with his third feature, which starred Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in a convoluted and intricately woven tapestry of three different stories across three different timelines, set in the past, the present and the far future. Aronofsky deliberately left the meaning and solution of how the three tales are connected up to the viewer's interpretation, which made this a hard sell commercially, but on an emotional, existential and visual level The Fountain contains an abundance of riches.
The core story is about a doctor (Jackman) searching desperately for a cure to the cancer that is killing his wife (Weisz), and all three narratives revolve around the human desire to not only understand the mystery of death, but transcend it. The science is less important that the characters' quests to find the answer, with religion, history, mysticism and philosophy all thrown into the mix. Like a lot of films that expand one's consciousness, The Fountain can seem impenetrable in some ways, but it's worth making the effort.
Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) made his feature-length writing and directing debut with this twisty tale of time travel that begins with a woman taking off her clothes in the forest and ends with multiple versions of a man named Hector running around trying to stop himself from taking actions that he's already too late to prevent (or something like that).
Time travel is always tricky and Timecrimes can induce a headache as you try to think through the story's conundrums, but Vigalondo somehow holds it together in a fast-moving and mind-stretching thriller that kicked off this director's eclectic and always interesting career.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
There is no easy way to describe this feature debut from filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, and in fact we won't try to pretend that the movie is an easy sit. Taking a page or two from Cronenberg, Aronofsky, Kubrick and other iconoclastic creators, Cosmatos has fashioned a hallucinatory epic about science, memory and the nature of reality, all centered around a psychopathic scientist and the psychically gifted young girl he holds prisoner in a malignant underground lab. We've watched Beyond the Black Rainbow twice and still aren't quite sure what it all means, but it is a striking, often strangely beautiful head trip all the same.
Speaking of head trips, no one is likely to forget the sight of an entire city block in Paris bending toward the sky and folding in on itself the way it did in Christopher Nolan's epic. Or what about Joseph Gordon-Levitt battling a hotel security guard in a somersaulting, gravity-defying corridor? Inception is a collection of one amazing image after another -- all of them warping reality in the strange way that only dreams can.
Nolan's movie is, literally, a head trip — a journey into a man's mind to plant an idea and make him think it's his own — and what makes it dazzling is the incredible way one subconscious dream world is layered upon the next, creating multiple realities operating at different rates of time, and all within one single human brain. In Inception, each of us contains parallel universes that can all be deadly or enthralling.
Under the Skin (2013)
Loosely adapted from the satirical/surreal novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien being who drives around Scotland in a van and picks up men, only to lure them into a strange black void where they are killed and perhaps consumed. A divisive film when it came out, Under the Skin is anchored by Johansson's otherworldly and brave performance, along with some truly trippy imagery. Its meandering plot and murky themes may leave some viewers more bored than awed, however, and it leaves a lot of the story purposely ambiguous.
Strangely enough, some of the biggest and most cosmic ideas in sci-fi cinema these days are introduced in the smallest films. Coherence is a tiny little movie written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, filmed in his own house and basically done without a script — Byrkit provided a basic outline of the story and hired improvisational actors who he knew could work the material on their own. The story revolves around eight people having a dinner party when a comet passes over the Earth and creates multiple realities, with the people from the dinner and their doppelgangers from the other realities crossing between the universes and creating chaos in all of them.
All of this is done with almost no special effects or grand visual flourishes at all, but the notion of knowing that there are multiple versions of yourself — some not so nice or some having a better or tougher life than you — is a supremely eerie one that Byrkit and his game cast milk for maximum dread and dramatic potential. Coherence will freak you out and leave you wondering what's happening to "you" in the reality next door.
A lot of the movies on this list, as you might have noticed, deal with time travel — always a concept that can set the mind reeling — and Predestination does so in an especially ambitious and awe-inspiring manner. Its plot (adapted from a story by sci-fi giant Robert A. Heinlein) is complicated, to say the least, with Ethan Hawke starring as a time traveling agent tasked with preventing a 1975 bombing and finding himself involved with a mysterious doomed romance from the past. The eventual answer to it all is elegant and mind-melting at the same time, while stretching the very ideas of time travel and destiny to their breaking points. We wouldn't want it any other way.