This weekend, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ new movie The Lobster hits theaters. It is, in a word, weird — but there’s a lot more to it than its premise: single people in a dystopian society are required to find a lifelong companion within a certain set period of time or face being turned into an animal. It’s also a deeply sincere exploration of loneliness, marriage, and human interaction. It may be weird, but it’s also one of the most unique cinematic looks at relationships in a very long time.
But the movie’s strengths don’t come from milking the bizarre premise and emphasizing the otherworldliness of its heady premise; instead, Lanthimos coaxes an awkwardly effective lead performance out of actor Colin Farrell as a man just trying to find love wherever he can. It’s sly and subtle, and often doesn’t feel like a sci-fi film at all. This contradictory approach works out much better than simply using its genre tropes as a narrative crutch. The Lobster obviously isn’t the isn’t the first movie to throw a curveball at the sci-fi genre.
Here are ten of the best examples of sci-fi movies that transcend the hallmarks of science fiction’s visual rhetoric, by telling their stories using gentler, more nuanced cinematography.
Controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier wanted to do was tell a story about familial depression, and he used the complete destruction of the entire planet to do it. It was the first time Von Trier used sci-fi, though he had shaded in earlier films with certain elements of the genre. Epidemic used two screenwriters making a script about a plague outbreak to comment on the horrific process of creation, while Europa featured a dark fairytale alternate timeline of Post War 1945. But it was Melancholia that went full-on sci-fi for Von Trier, which features quite possibly the most beautifully tragic scene of the apocalypse ever filmed.
9. Safety Not Guaranteed
Before Colin Trevorrow became a big-time director after Jurassic World, his humble beginnings were in a small indie time travel movie based on a classified ad that requested a willing time travel companion. Trevorrow’s movie plays like a regular comedy with hints of tragedy right up until the end takes a turn for the sci-fi. It’s that kind of mastery of the genre, even when he isn’t fully invested in it, that made director Steven Spielberg and producer Frank Marshall to tap him to take over their epic dino franchise.
8. Take Shelter
Director Jeff Nichols has made a significant indie career out of making southern fried dramas like Shotgun Stories and Mud, but his best films tend to insert genre into their very realist narratives. He leaned a whole lot on the sci-fi details in his latest and first studio movie, the tragically under-seen Midnight Special. But he got the attention of the studios (with a little help from Michael Shannon) mostly because of the movie Take Shelter, about an Ohio construction worker gradually plagued by apocalyptic visions of a giant storm that will destroy the world. Like Von Trier, Nichols wisely cases the story in a family drama and lets the sci-fi play out via real sickness. Is Shannon’s character schizophrenic, or are the visions real?
7. The Truman Show
Jim Carreys best dramatic performance to date (sorry Man on the Moon), 1998’s The Truman Show functions as if it’s constructed reality was actually happening before our eyes before the ruse starts coming apart at the seams. The potentially goofy premise, which was done poorly a year late in Ron Howard’s EDtv, is played straight, and so it becomes a matter of the audience catching up to Carrey’s title character’s surreal escape. The Truman Show is simply significant only for the fact that it’s absurd TV-obsessed satire has become more true to life than its creators could have ever imagined.
Perhaps the most acidic dystopian look at totalitarian society, director Terry Gilliam’s massively influential film is like if George Orwell’s 1984 included jokes. It too centers on its main character’s inner strife, and uses the absurd rules of its sci-fi framework to its comedic advantage. Lead actor Jonathan Pryce plays his bumbling protagonist Sam Lowry as a cog in the machine slowly deciding to get free, and the movie is like one big commentary on the increasing mechanization of work and everyday life — only, you know, its hilarious.
Like Nichols, director Duncan Jones started from humble sci-fi beginnings and graduated to a studio movie, except Jones’ upcoming adaptation of Warcraft is an intimidating multi-million-dollar franchise starter. Hopefully Jones won’t forget the scrappy DIY expertise that made his debut film Moon so memorable now that he has to deal with orcs battling humans in a mystical fantasy land. Moon was great because it was a chamber piece about lead actor Sam Rockwell, stranded away from other human interaction. Its narrative twist eventually unfolds into pure sci-fi, but until then it’s a masterclass in Rockwell acting the shit out of his role alongside disembodied A.I. voiced by Kevin Spacey.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Another Jim Carrey dramatic role that also makes thoughtful use of its sci-fi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a bad rap as that movie you watched once with a girl you liked in college. Watch it for what it truly is by looking past the mind-erasing sci-fi conceit and it reveals a universally tragic story about the pain and solace of what it means to move on from someone you love. Eternal Sunshine’s director Michel Gondry would go on to dabble on pseudo-sci-fi with movies like The Science of Sleep and Mood Indigo.
Beauty, emotion, and a guy falling in love with a computer in near-future Los Angeles. Like The Truman Show, the premise of writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her is hopelessly cheesy. If it was handled by a lesser filmmaker it would have been ridiculed and forgotten schlock. But what Jonze managed to do along with Joaquin Phoenix’s sad sack Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance as intelligent OS Samantha is so subtly powerful that you forget what it’s actually about. It’s usually a bad sign when a movie genre is indistinguishable, but in this case it’s perfect.
2. La Jetee
French multi-media filmmaker Chris Marker’s indelible classic runs just under 30 minutes, and is told entirely in still frames save for a single shot. Its actually a chilly but resonant rumination on death, but it’s about the fallout from World War III nuclear war in post-apocalyptic Paris and scientists sending a man back in time to stop it. It was later remade by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys, which ditched the abstract approach, upped the sci-fi, and depleted the true emotional core of the original story. It made La Jetee somehow better.
1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg’s enduring tale of a boy that befriends an alien is among his best. Make no bones about it: it’s sci-fi, it has aliens, and begins with a giant mothership descending onto Earth. Get rid of all that and the emphasis of the story becomes the personal connection between the titular alien and the boy. E.T. might as well be a dog, or a cat, or a goldfish, or a fellow human friend. Spielberg’s story subverts the coming-of-age narrative with your best friend by injecting the sci-fi angle into it instead of grafting it the other way around.