5 Atypical Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Make My Brain Hurt

Maybe it was my excitement for the revival of Twin Peaks or maybe it’s just sheer chance, but I’ve spent much of this year watching atypical (and very entertaining) sci-fi movies that I just can’t seem to crack. Not gonna lie, I love it when I don’t fully understand a movie because it adds to the value of it. If I spend days, weeks even, tugging at the themes of a heady film, it means the implied agreement that a movie should offer me its runtime in entertainment has been exceeded. Sometimes it’s nice not to have cut-and-dry answers to a story’s mysteries. Sometimes it’s the most frustrating thing in the world. The films I’ve listed below don’t frustrate me so much as invite me to be a bumbling thematic detective. Each also fits the following criteria:

  • It’s fantastic.
  • I saw it for the first time this year.
  • I do not fully understand it and I want to.

Death Watch (1980 – dir. Bertrand Tavernier)

This movie feels like it should be relevant to the present day, at a time where the line between documentary and fiction (between news and news-like entertainment) is at maximum blur. The story is simple: in a vague future setting, death by illness has become rare, a concept which has resulted in a cultural fascination with premature death. Enter Death Watch, a television program in which the last days of a terminal patient are broadcast to the world for entertainment. What makes this particular story so compelling is that this patient has defied the whims of the TV producers and gone on the run with a total stranger. She thinks she is hiding from public eye and giving herself a chance to live out her last days in anonymity, entirely unaware that her new companion is an agent of the TV station who has undergone a procedure to have his eyes made into hidden cameras.

This causes tension. Our cameraman feels conflicted about the deception but needs the money for his family. Our subject wants anonymity but is cultivating an unavoidable level of fame.

Death Watch is minimalist sci-fi done right. No zaps, beeps, or boops, but rather a focus on strong characters and heavy-handed motivational shifts. But what is the film trying to say? I. DON’T. KNOW!

Stalker (1979 – dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

So at some point in the future a bunch of portals randomly open up, each leading to mysterious, otherworldly “zones.” These zones are presumed to be dangerous due to the fact that those who enter never leave. Eventually this leads to military personnel being placed at each zone’s entrance to prevent folks from entering. Stalkers are professionals who will sneak people into said zones in the hopes of reaching the center where, it is told, one’s greatest desires will come to pass.

Stalker tells the story of one such mission. Three nameless men: Stalker, Writer, and Professor work their way into and through a zone while having poignant arguments about the nature of existence, desire, and a litany of other topics which are par for the Russian sci-fi course. At almost three hours, Stalker should be completely insufferable, but instead it is uncommonly enthralling. The sci-fi conceit is milked so thoroughly to explore so many wildly thought-provoking concepts that I emerged from the theater with my brain feeling like it did hundreds of sit-ups.

But when all of these explorations congeal into a whole product, what is it about? Everything? Nothing? GAH IVE GONE CROSS-EYED!

Bringing Out the Dead (1999 – dir. Martin Scorsese)

Nic Cage is an alcoholic paramedic who is so jaded by his nightly brushes with death and insanity that he starts envisioning the ghosts of patients he was unable to save. At the same time he finds an acquaintance in the daughter of a comatose man, while a hard strain of heroin – The Red Death – makes its way through the city streets.

This is a very raw, strange movie, and it’s clearly another step in Scorsese’s never-ending path toward finding some sort of salvation through cinema. As Cage’s character sees his appreciation for life growing increasingly tenuous, I began to wonder if the film was advocating the concept that existence, fleeting as it is, is ultimately worthless. Or maybe it’s doing the exact opposite, advocating that our opportunity to exist, no matter what form it takes, is the most valuable thing there is.

There’s also the question of morality. Are the morally just responsible to spread morality? If their methods of doing so are immoral, does that cancel out the duty?

I can’t decide. In fact, the only firm conclusion I’ve drawn is that if I ever find myself in a situation where Tom Sizemore is the first responder tasked with saving my life … I’d like to check out please. It was a good run.

The Ninth Configuration (1980 – dir. William Peter Blatty)

I put this one on after Blatty passed away earlier this year. Make no mistake, this is a very personal film for Blatty, much in the same way that Slaughterhouse-Five was a very personal novel for Vonnegut. What I mean is that this creation is clearly the spawn of a specific event in Blatty’s life. My guess is that it came from his experiences working in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Air Force.

Bet you didn’t know that was a thing. Me neither. Don’t worry I’m just as scared of it as you are.

The film takes place entirely at a castle which has been turned into a psych ward for veterans. Their individual ailments range from tragic to hilarious, causing a tonal juggling act which The Ninth Configuration handles admirably. But therein lies the question: is this meant to paint a portrait of the challenges of PTSD? Is it meant to condemn treatment methods? Maybe it’s just meant to illustrate the idea that mental health is one big gray area through which only the bold and open-minded can venture.

Or maybe it’s just a forgotten precursor to Shutter Island. I can’t tell, but it’s way too idiosyncratic of a film to dismiss as empty weirdness.

Birth (2004 – dir. Jonathan Glazer)

I’ve never met a Glazer film that didn’t leave me broken in some type of way, and Birth is no exception. The plot is ripped straight from The Twilight Zone: a young widow meets a child who claims to be the reincarnation of her deceased husband. The thing is, he’s really really convincing. Supernaturally so. This results in a significant amount of drama and trauma for everyone involved, and man oh man does it hurt to watch it all go down.

But by the end we are not given any answers. Was this indeed a case of reincarnation, or was it just a sinister coincidence? A well-researched prank? At any rate, I wonder if this is this meant to represent the idea that the permanence of death outweighs the permanence of love, or maybe the other way around. The ambiguous finale can be read so many different ways and each interpretation offers a different theme. So maybe Birth is one of those “means whatever you want it to mean” kind of things, but if it isn’t, I desperately need to know.

So yeah, if you’ve got any insight please let me know. I’d like to sleep tonight. I’d also like to watch each of these phenomenal flicks again, but who has the time? Do you? Please say yes because I don’t.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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