10 arthouse sci-fi movies to watch before the apocalypse

The science fiction genre isn’t all chrome and alien invasions. Here are some movies that will move you in a different way.

by Douglas Greenwood
25 August 2021, 8:00am

Think of science fiction movies and the same subject matters will always spring to mind: alien invasions obliterating cities; life in the future, set aboard steel spaceships hurtling towards life on a new planet; a world in which artificial intelligence has completely overrun human life and we’re all, quite frankly, fucked. Sci-fi movies that make big bucks at the box office are fun, but seldom intellectually stimulating. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are plenty of more low-key, emotional, arthouse science fiction films that are worthy of your time.

Whether you’re looking to stare down the barrel of ‘why do we exist?’ in movie form, or simply want to envision a slightly more creative vision of what the future might look like, here are 10 arthouse sci-fi movies that will change your perception of the cold-hearted genre.

1. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Let’s start this with a contemporary classic, shall we? Spike Jonze, the American movie auteur and i-D cover photographer, made a masterpiece in the early 2010s with Her, pairing artificial intelligence with real romance. In it, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is struggling following a break-up from his childhood sweetheart, and is confiding in a sultry-voiced virtual assistant named Samantha to get himself through it. Though her tone and conversation is entirely a work of computer science, Theodore soon finds himself falling desperately in love with the non-existent woman behind it.

2. Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

Lizzie Borden has long been a cinematic trailblazer, unafraid to make bold stylistic and thematic choices — hence why her adopted name is lifted from the (acquitted) rumoured axe murderer from 19th century Massachusetts. In her most significant film, Born in Flames, she created a fictional New York set 10 years after a revolution created a socialist utopia in which the stringent rules imparted by the traditional oppressor (read: old white men) are becoming eerily familiar of the way things used to be. As a result, a scrappy leader of a women’s army named Adelaide decides to stage a new revolution, bringing down a society that oppresses women, queers and Black and brown folks. Incendiary, damning guerilla filmmaking, crafted on a shoestring budget.

3. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

Manhattan in the 80s was already a fever dream of colour, sex and hard drugs. Imagine that pictured through the lens of a Russian sci-fi filmmaker, and you get Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. Set in New York, his neon cult classic is a riff on the old school American fairytale, albeit told with aliens, heroin addicts and nymphomania. Margaret is a model hellbent on making it big in the city’s fashion industry who falls into the grasp of a sex-obsessed drug dealer called Adrian. Soon, her life spirals even further when a UFO flies down and the aliens on board take hold of her body, leading to even wilder consequences.

4. Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)

Before Leos Carax made Adam Driver sing a ballad mid-cunnilingus in his puppet baby rock opera Annette, he was trying his hand at a different riff on a weird movie sex scene with Mauvais Sang. An 80s sci-fi thriller starring Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant and Michel Piccoli, it’s set in a Paris of the future. A new STI is coursing through society called SBTO, infecting people who have sex without any real affection and, eventually, killing them. There is an antidote, though, but it’s locked up behind the doors of a big pharmaceutical company’s lab. A woman enlists two petty crooks to try and steal it, in an attempt to stop SBTO from spreading. Trust Leos Carax to make an anti-big pharma movie as nuts as this.

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5. After Yang (Kogonada, 2021)

Now this one can go on your future watchlist, as it’s yet to hit theatres, but worthy of your time. Kogonada’s 2017 movie Columbus unpacked the push and pull of small-town life and the people who find themselves simultaneously allured and deterred by it. His latest, After Yang, is an equally meditative look at technology occupying a large, almost blood tie-like space in our lives. In it, a family is coming to terms with their android nanny breaking down, having to shift their lives to take care of their daughter in its absence. Upon discovering this android, who was like a brother to their child, can’t be recovered but his memories can, they find themselves reflecting upon their own purpose, and just how much of a life this strangely sentient robot lived.

6. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

You often forget that Lars von Trier, maker of often egregiously violent and ugly films about the human condition, possesses the power to convey beauty once in a while. Melancholia, his 2011 feature that spawned an award-winning turn from our queen Kirsten Dunst, was a strangely meditative film in his oeuvre. In it, she and Charlotte Gainsbourg play sisters, preparing for the wedding of Kirsten’s character Justine, as a planet that’s steered off course hurtles towards earth, threatening to obliterate them all. It’s a film inspired by Lars von Trier’s own depression; a meditation on how the threat of total destruction can often be the most inspiring route to brand new creation.

7. Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)

A box office bomb that received mixed reviews from critics, Tank Girl was destined to die in the mid-90s. But this trashy movie has instead gone on to become a cult classic, as all good flops do. Set in a post-apocalyptic universe in the year 2033 (lol, why does that not feel so far away), it follows a tank-driving young woman who’s hellbent on launching a tirade against the establishment that has stolen full control of the earth’s last remaining water supply. Rebellious, sexed up and blessed with a soundtrack curated by queen Courtney Love, this movie is still a mad watch 26 years on.

8. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

No man does long, drawn out, contemplative, depressing arthouse sci-fi quite like our boi Andrei Tarkovsky. Over the course of his career, he made a handful of movies that dealt with the burden that is existing, through the lens of off-kilter, dystopian universes. The best of the bunch is Stalker. Made in 1979, this film tells the story of an expedition into a Chernobyl-like land known as the “Zone”, led by the eponymous Stalker alongside a writer seeking inspiration for his next project and a science professor, seeking answers that can only be found in this dizzying space. It functions as a sci-fi, sure, but like Melancholia, this is a film about how abstract universes can act as metaphors for life’s great unanswered questions. Knock back a Red Bull and enjoy.

9. Sankofa (Haile Gerima, 1993)

A 90s film that uses a surreal, semi-sci-fi twist to tell a wider tale about confronting colonialism and slavery, Haile Gerima’s Sankofa is an underseen masterpiece. It opens on a fashion shoot in Ghana. Mona, a Black American model, is posing in former slave castles when she suddenly spirals into the past, winding up on a slave plantation in North America, living the life of her ancestors. Haile Gerima spent 20 years researching the film, which deftly explores the nuances of Black American history by adopting the concept of “Sankofa” itself: a term that’s used to explore the purpose of the present by addressing the pains of the past.

10. 2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004)

Our In the Mood for Love king, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, unveiled a sort-of sequel to that film in 2004: a sci-fi romance titled 2046. Set in 60s Hong Kong, it tells the tale of a writer working on a science fiction novel, part of which we live in during the film too. He is writing a novel set upon a train. On this train, characters are heading towards a mysterious destination in which they can rediscover and store their fleeting memories of the past. Meanwhile, in his own life, the author is engaging in a series of romantic relationships; the idea of memory and connection spilling into his own life in an equally grandiose and overwhelming manner. A disparate and dizzying film made up of 10 unique parts, a lot of 2046 shouldn’t add up — characters talk to each other in different languages but understand each other — but it remains a wild semi-sci-fi classic from a master filmmaker.

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