The Matrix, with its trippy, action-heavy explorations of the nature of reality (and heavy doses of trans allegory), brought mind-bending science fiction to the masses. It was, in many ways, the perfect blending of brain and brawn: a thoughtful movie, open to a wide variety of interpretations, that also happened to have some incredible and groundbreaking action sequences that leaned into old-school martial arts while pushing the boundaries of film technology circa 1999.
The first two sequels were, by any measure, less successful in conveying their themes, but, like anything done by either Wachowski, remain fascinating, if more muddled. The trailer for the upcoming sequel: The Matrix Resurrections (with Lana Wachowski going solo) just dropped, and damned if it doesn’t look pretty good:
Time will tell. But, in the meantime: just because The Matrix is among the most popular movies in the smart-philosophical-science-fiction genre doesn’t mean that it’s the only one worth watching. There are a handful of other mega-hits along the same lines, and several movies that did OK but fell by the wayside commercially. Some wear their brains on their sleeves, while others sneak in weighty themes while you’re paying attention to something else. Here are a few others worth checking out if you want to get your brain prepped for a new Matrix.
Dark City (1998)
Roger Ebert felt that Dark City was a film that tackled some of the same themes as The Matrix, but with a bit more success. I’m not sure that he was wrong. In any regard, it’s a severely underrated neo-noir with an outstanding (truly) visual style from director Alex Proyas (The Crow), a wildly uneven filmmaker whose work is nonetheless consistently interesting. This one stars Rufus Sewell as a man who wakes up without any memory of committing the series of murders for which he’s accused (a solid noir setup), but also seems to be the only one who notices that mysterious strangers come out while everyone’s sleeping to make tweaks to not just the physical city, but also to our memories.
The 2002 Steven Soderbergh version is excellent, as well, but your best bet is still to revisit the Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 original. The crewmembers of a space station orbiting the title planet are all suffering emotional breakdowns, prompting a visit by a psychologist who doesn’t fare much better. Like the Stanislaw Lem novel it’s based on, Solaris suggests that we’ll never be able to communicate with aliens (or each other) while we refuse to confront our own inner turmoil. So much of science fiction is focused on technology and plot, while this 70s classic reminds us that it can be about inner conflict as much as outer space.
Smartly, director Rian Johnson and company never slow the pace of Looper to dissect its various time-travel intricacies, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty going on. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hired killer from the future, who, one day, finds himself assigned to kill his older self (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and Young Joe hunts him while Old Joe seeks out the future killer of his wife, a child in this time who Joe plans to murder. That’s not even all of it, and while, in one sense, it can be tough to keep track of, the movie never loses sight of its characters nor its themes: love, loss, and the roads taken and not taken in all of our lives.
World on a Wire (1973)
The 1964 novel on which the movie is based, Simulacron-3, by Daniel F. Galouye, was an early-ish treatment of the concept of virtual reality, as is the resulting film. Clicking in at around three-and-a-half hours, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (relatively) low-budget epic involves a mega-corporation that makes computers capable of creating digital human “identity units,” beings so complex that they believe that they (and their world) are real. Sound familiar?
There are a couple of levels here: on one hand, Pi is a study of obsessive genius that leads to a complete mental breakdown. Darren Aronofsky’s feature directorial debut studies a man who believes that he can unlock the secrets of the universe, but the cost is, perhaps, his mental well being. But the movie is also an impressively thoughtful meditation on maths and numbers — the language of the universe, and perhaps the language of God, with which it might well be possible to predict anything and everything.
I’m not sure if we realised that we were living in a golden age, but, on reflection, it’s clear that the late 90s were a good time for thoughtful science fiction movies. Gattaca explores ideas about genetic manipulation and eugenics in smart and complex ways: Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, born naturally in a world in which almost all children are genetically modified to near perfection. He’s got poor eyesight and heart problems that mean he probably won’t live much past 30, but he’s determined to secure a spot on an upcoming space mission (the look and feel here is very much future-via-the-1960s). So he borrows DNA from a disabled Jude Law, paralysed following a car accident, and assumes the other man’s identity. A murder and love interest complicate matters, but the film brings up some troubling questions: If we’re able to create perfect healthy children, why wouldn’t we? But, then, what would be lost in the process?
Minority Report (2002)
Stephen Spielberg and the late Philip K. Dick (on whose novella this is based) make a solid team, even if this film adaptation’s big ideas sometimes get lost among the action. On the surface, the movie is about a world of the near future in which crime can be accurately predicted, and in which “criminals” can potentially be apprehended before they’ve ever done anything wrong. There’s a philosophical question here that has to do with conflicting ideas of free will versus determinism, but there’s also a more concrete level to the film: as much as we don’t like to admit that we live in a rigidly stratified society, it’s also clear that your social status at birth is just about the best predictor of your fate that there is. So how much free will do we really have, anyway?
12 Monkeys (1995)
It’s tempting to put the 1962 featurette La Jetée here, given that it provides the source material, but 12 Monkeys is a surprisingly effective riff on and expansion of that original. Here, Bruce Willis is sent back in time to the year 1990 from a blighted 2035, a post-apocalyptic era following the release of a deadly plague. As becomes increasingly clear, there’s likely no chance of changing our fate or altering the future. So the film’s question becomes not how do we fix it, but what do we do when we know the end is nigh?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Are our memories just a part of who we are? Or are they the whole shebang? That’s the question posed by director Michael Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in this story of a couple who decide to erase their memories of each other. The stylish blends sci-fi drama with romantic comedy, elements of each genre elevating the others into something impressively memorable.
What was horrific in 1983 feels an awful lot like everyday life in 2021, and Videodrome’s VHS-era concerns are easily translated to the Internet age. In the film, there’s a new show, what we would call viral, that’s nothing but a string of abuse and horrific violence — oh, and also causes tumours in viewers. Nevertheless, the show’s a hit, and there are those who figure that’s a good thing: it’ll kill off the sickos who like that sort of thing. There’s not a simple moral here: at times, Cronenberg is lampooning our obsession with brainless entertainment, at others, he seems to be satirizing those who believe that violent TV content is enough to drive us all to kill. So the movie winds up being a twisted meditation on the idea of ugly images that we just can’t stop watching.
There are plenty of films inspired by the work of Franz Kafka: some direct adaptations, some just aping his style and themes…but Cube blends that all with survival horror tropes for something pretty unique (“unique” if we don’t count Cube’s sequels, which we kinda don’t). Several individuals wake up to find themselves in a large, appropriately cube-shaped room. The cube’s exit leads to other cubes, many of which contain traps or puzzles. Though there are hints of a greater, more cosmic mystery, the film strongly suggests that, if there was ever any point to any of this, it’s long been forgotten. That they’re just, essentially, rats in a maze moving through this puzzle because the only alternative is death. It’s bleak, but gets its point across.
Two engineers accidentally invent time travel. They’re pretty sure they did, anyway, or that they will. The most puzzling of puzzle films, Primer only works at all if you’re willing to give it your full attention, and even then part of the fun is never being 100% sure what’s going on. It’s incredibly confident, and fun in its own way. On a thematic level, it’s about getting lost in details, and about being so focused on following the trail that you’ve laid out for yourself that you never see the dangers around you. It clearly had a low budget ($US7,000 ($9,485), to be precise), but writer/director Shane Carruth makes every penny count.
Another time-travel puzzle film that’s best not to discuss in too much detail, Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s movie brings an art-house sensibility to sci-fi, beginning with a main character, Hector, who witnesses a woman being assaulted through binoculars from his home. When he goes to help, he’s attacked by a man with a hidden face. Suffice to say that Hector’s day only gets worse and more complicated from there, and it has to do with the lab down the road doing strange experiments with time. Like a European Rashomon, Timecrimes revisits its own events from different perspectives, forcing us to take a fresh look at things we thought we understood. (Be warned that some of the violence here tends toward the misogynistic.)
Blade Runner (1982)
There’s a lot going on in Blade Runner, which is both a strength and a detriment, and multiple extant versions haven’t done anything to de-complicate it. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is the title’s Blade Runner, a former police officer now tasked with hunting down and killing replicants, bioengineered humanoids living on Earth illegally. Sorting through the twisty-turny plot, though, yields some interesting questions about identity and reality, as well as about what precisely makes us human, and to what extent any of that matters. Denis Villeneuve’s worthy sequel expands on those ideas in worthwhile ways.
Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Arrival seems fairly straightforward at the outset. Relatively, anyway: the story of Amy Adams’ attempts to communicate with a wildly alien intelligence is thought-provoking, but easy enough to understand. There comes a point, though, when the film takes a turn, and it’s clear that communication requires thinking along an entirely new dimension, with a twist ending that drives the point home.
Very little is explained in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based (somewhat loosely) on the Jeff VanderMeer novel. Though intended to stand alone, that would probably have changed had the movie been successful enough to support sequels based on the other two books in VanderMeer’s series, but it’s just as well, as the film’s strength lies in its refusal to dig too pedantically into it’s sci-fi mystery. Natalie Portman stars as a biology professor and Army veteran who heads a team sent to explore The Shimmer, an area of “refraction” that’s growing in a way that suggests it will soon be a major threat. Each of the film’s characters finds something different once inside, as each is changed, their own selves and personalities refracted to reveal aspects that aren’t typically dominant.
Eight friends are hanging out on the night that a comet is passing overhead. Naturally, things get weird after they step out to investigate: without giving away too much, the house they return to isn’t precisely the house they left. Another low-budget gem that puts just enough science in its fiction, Coherence explores the idea that the scariest thing you might find on a dark and spooky night is yourself.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Both an embrace of the traditions of science fiction and a complete rejection of them, 2001: A Space Odyssey is both an exacting marvel of near-future technological prediction, as well as a sweeping epic of mankind’s trajectory from the birth of violence to our place among the stars. There are as many different interpretations of the film’s themes as there are people who have seen it, so perhaps the movie’s cheeky tagline (added after it became a hit) says it best: “2001 – the ultimate trip!” Stylistically, it’s night and day from The Matrix’s wire-fu action, but every cerebral sci-fi movie that came after it owes at least a little bit of a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece.