Every summer is filled with big, schlocky, popcorn sci-fi films. Aliens show up, humanity bickers, and ultimately, we go try and blow them up. But Arrival, the new drama out in theaters on Friday, is different.
Instead of the same overblown Independence Day approach to an alien invasion spectacle, the new sci-fi film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, isn’t particularly concerned with action, adventure, or any detonating objects. The most action you’ll see in this movie is lead character Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a college professor and linguist, trying to decipher an alien sentence. It’s riveting, introspective stuff that has more in common with intellectual dramas than it does with its obvious genre. But it isn’t alone in that regard. There’s been plenty of intellectual, thinky sci-fi that’s come before it.
Here are some of the best examples.
Leave it to legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky to make a sci-fi film completely unlike anything that came before or after. Stalker takes place in a vaguely dystopian future that looks very much like the past. Unassuming and resolutely abstract, the movie posits a surveillance-heavy world where the titular character helps guide two men on an expedition to a place called “The Zone,” a mysterious region deep within an unrestricted area that can supposedly fulfill its inhabitant’s innermost desires.
The film has the typical somnambulant beauty of Tarkovsky’s films, but it’s perhaps the best example of the director taking an outlandish idea and treating it with serious existential importance within its science fiction context. It says a lot about human impulses without being overt, just like the best parts of Arrival.
9. Ex Machina
Filmmaker Alex Garland’s directorial debut has a simple set up. An employee is invited to the secluded compound of his company’s CEO to test the artificial intelligence the CEO created. The only problem is the artificial intelligence ends up being a humanoid female robot whose consciousness is steadily increasing beyond human comprehension.
Garland’s composed direction and intelligent screenwriting actually makes details like Turing tests or arguments about cognition into compelling drama, thanks in large part to the pre-Force Awakens pairing of Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as the employee and CEO respectively. The backbone of the film, however, is actress Alicia Vikander’s graceful, alien-like performance as the robot, Ava. It’s a movie that will teach you a thing or two about what it actually means to be human, but also what it means to be a robot trying to think it’s human too.
8. The Man Who Fell to Earth
David Bowie was probably an alien in real life anyway. Director Nicolas Roegs 1976 film stars the musician in his film debut as a paranoid alien named Thomas Jerome Newton, who is an extraterrestrial pioneer looking for safe haven on planets to potentially save his dying race.
Unfortunately, the excesses of planet Earth corrupts Newton and he falls into the earthly trappings that could befall any fractured human being: He becomes an alcoholic, gets into drugs, enters into an abusive relationship, and is eventually captured by the U.S. government for experimentation. Its exploration of the Other is kind of a drag, but then again, so is planet Earth.
7. Upstream Color
Perhaps one of the more challenging contemporary films ever released, the inability to be easily categorized is what makes filmmaker Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color so incredible. It chronicles the strange love story between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), and how both of them have seemingly gone through the same traumatic experience involving the life cycle of an unusual symbiotic parasite that passes through humans and pigs and then blooms into unearthly orchids. All the made-up biology is merely setting for Carruth’s story about what drives us to define ourselves to others in ways we know render us heartbreakingly vulnerable.
Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi extravaganza is like the reverse of The Man Who Fell to Earth, except it’s really a story about a father and a daughter. Matthew McConaughey — in full-on McConaissance mode — stars as Joe Cooper, a man who makes the heartbreaking decision to leave his young daughter to journey out into the stars to find a habitable planet as Earth falls deeper and deeper into a worldwide drought. Nolan’s movie is an earnest attempt to match big scientific ambition with personal emotional profundity, kind of like Arrival, and for the most part it gets there through a mix of great performances and perfectly embedded special effects.
4. Solaris (1972) and (2002)
Tarkovsky was responsible for the first adaptation of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s source material, while filmmaker Steven Soderbergh took a crack at it 30 years later. They approach the story of a lonely group of astronauts stationed above a planet that is causing them to hallucinate physical manifestations of their own consciousness in slightly different but equally important ways.
Tarkovsky’s glacially-paced film emphasizes the human grief of its main character, while Soderbergh’s movie hews closer the Lem’s novel with a bit of Hollywood flair by casting George Clooney in the role of Chris Kelvin, who has to decipher the appearance of his wife … who committed suicide years earlier. The space stuff takes a serious backseat to the philosophical conceits.
4. Blade Runner
Arrival looks totally different than Blade Runner and is essentially about completely different things, and yet it makes perfect sense that director Denis Villeneuve is at the helm of the Blade Runner sequel, because he loves embedding legitimate themes into a wider genre tapestry. Ridley Scott does too.
His original is ostensibly a neo-noir action movie about Harrison Ford trying to hunt down and kill rogue robots, but it’s also concerned with some pretty complex topics. Environmentalism, globalization, corporate greed, and genetic engineering are all folded into the film’s gorgeous sci-fi grime.
Robert Zemeckis’s weepy 1997 adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel is almost the exact same movie as Arrival, except it has an added dose of religion and hope. A disaffected academic learns there’s alien life in the universe and is set on a course to communicate with the extraterrestrials but calm her past (and future) failures in the process. They also both have an impressive non-charismatic pairing of lead romantic performances.
Think Jodie Foster matched up with Matthew McConaughey lacks any sort of spark? Try Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. But that kind of nitpicking doesn’t disqualify either one. Whereas Arrival wants its message of inclusivity and communications firmly stationed in science and human reason, Contact welcomes the idea that 100 percent assurance also might best be backed by a little faith as well.
2. La Jetée
The least science fiction-y sci-fi film possibly ever made, Chris Marker’s influential short film La Jetée says more in its 28-minute runtime than any far-reaching three-hour epic could possibly imagine.
Told almost entirely in still black-and-white photographs with unsettlingly straightforward voice-over narration, Marker’s time-travel tale is about a prisoner in post-apocalyptic Paris sent back to before a nuclear war “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” It’s somehow bleak and hopeful at the same time, using its existentialist tendencies to question fate, death, and impermanence without seeming like a tedious sci-fi slog.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
It’s appropriate that a film with such a monolithic reputation is partially about a monolith. Legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions about the meaning of life in 2001, but the difference between his and other similarly ambitious films is that he made it look so effortless. The film spans what is seen as the entirety of human evolution, from early apes straight through to the next unknown step in human consciousness.
It’s famously uneasy to explain for good reason. The universe and everything it is, is open to interpretation to everyone who can experience it. It doesn’t take an evolution-inducing alien slab to realize that.