There are a bevy of beloved science fiction films that are absolutely amazing, but not that hard to follow. Stories about space marines fighting off bloodthirsty aliens or police officers being reanimated into robotic law enforcers don't require the audience to do any mental gymnastics. Then, there are movies that make you feel like you need a Ph.D. in quantum physics to even start to understand them. If you've ever wanted 2001: A Space Odyssey explained, Annihilation explained, Interstellar or Under the Skin explained - and were too afraid to ask - you've come to the right place.
High-brow sci-fi isn't a new genre, by any means. In fact, it's something movie fans have been pretending to understand and appreciate since the early days of filmmaking. Whether the film is told with a non-linear narrative, features symbolic or surreal imagery to convey characters' inner thoughts, or features incredibly convoluted time travel gimmicks, "smart" sci-fi has taunted casual moviegoers for years.
Ultimately, however, when you strip away the pretense and the artifice, even the brainiest sci-fi films can be simple to comprehend (for the most part).
What's So Confusing: Considered to be one of the greatest science fiction masterpieces in cinema, and thought by many to be among the best films of Stanley Kubrick's incomparable career, 2001: A Space Odyssey is also celebrated for its refusal to answer questions or be easily understood. Starting off millions of years ago with a black monolith that magically teaches some prehistoric humanoids how to use tools, the film jumps ahead to the future, where some scientists have to match wits with a crazed super-computer. There's also a very long "stargate" segment that is just discordant music and colorful patterns, as well as a spacefaring embryonic baby.
What Actually Happens: After a black monolith is discovered in a crater on the moon, it transmits a signal of some kind to Jupiter. Several months later, a group of scientists - led by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) - embark on a mission to the planet. Their ship is aided by an AI computer called HAL 9000, but it malfunctions and wipes out everyone but Bowman. Later, Bowman is sucked into a vortex of light, color, and surreal imagery, and inexplicably ends up in a fancy, futuristic bedroom where he rapidly ages. Then he reaches out to a black monolith that appears in the room, and is transformed into a gigantic fetus inside a glowing orb that orbits the Earth. It's as simple as that.
However, if that explanation feels lacking, Kubrick did describe the ending in more detail in an unreleased 1980 documentary:
The idea was supposed to be that [Bowman] is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen as it does in the film. [...] When they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made into some sort of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back.
Actors: Arthur C. Clarke, Leonard Rossiter, Ed Bishop, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, + more
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
What's So Confusing: Christopher Nolan's astrophysics-filled space thriller is filled to the brim with big ideas, math, scientific theories, unseen advanced civilizations, quasi-time travel, superfluous characters and non-linear storytelling. The entire project feels like Nolan's attempt to make a more grounded 2001: A Space Odyssey while also confusing people more than he did with Inception.
What Actually Happens: The world (of the not-too-distant future) is on the brink of total collapse and former NASA pilot Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). After a dust storm, strange patterns appear on Murphy's floor in the dust, which she attributes to a ghost. Joseph deduces that the patterns are a message, which, once decoded, lead him to a secret NASA control center. He is sent on a mission to investigate a wormhole that may allow humanity to access habitable plants and avoid extinction. He leaves behind his family for the greater good of the world, and things go wrong.
Eventually, he realizes that there is a civilization of hyper-advanced humans who have been helping guide humanity and have transcended the boundaries of time. He ends up being able to reach back through time and send himself the message in the dust - which means he was the ghost in his daughter's room the whole time. Eventually, he sends back the data his team has uncovered in morse code to Murphy, which allows his grown up daughter to figure out how to defy gravity and build giant space stations where humanity can thrive. There's also a lot about the all-encompassing importance of love being able to conquer all obstacles, even space and time.
Actors: Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, + more
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
What's So Confusing: Darren Aronofsky's metaphysical, philosophical sci-fi metaphor for the acceptance of human mortality is a painful, somber story that deals with some heavy themes in a truly complicated way. Brimming with symbolism and allegorical historical references, The Fountain also features a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth between three different stories that take place at vastly different points in time and feature the same actors (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz), who may or may not be playing the same characters in all three timelines.
What Actually Happens: The Fountain tells three interwoven stories about the love between a man named Tom and a woman named Isabel. The first story (ostensibly written by Isabel) follows a Spanish conquistador named Tomás Verde who leads an expedition through the Mayan jungles to find the Tree of Life. The second story is set in the modern day and focuses on a scientist who becomes obsessed with a South American tree with life-extending powers. He wants to cure his wife Izzy of her fatal brain cancer. She passes, despite his best efforts, and he plants a seed at her grave. The third storyline is set in the distant future and focuses on a space traveler who inhabits a clear, spherical spaceship with a tree at its center. The space traveler is flying toward a star that is about to explode, believing he will be reunited with his late wife when they are consumed by the supernova. Ultimately, the film is about the fear of mortality and the lengths people will go to avoid it before accepting the inevitable.
Actors: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, + more
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
What's So Confusing: The film follows a paranoid schizophrenic - who is also a profoundly unreliable narrator - and is peppered with David Lynch-like horrific and surreal imagery. The character's paranoia permeates every frame, and makes it hard to know what is real and what is all part of his hallucination. Additionally, math plays a big role in the plot, as does the Kabbalah, as multiple characters search for a special number that could reveal an underlying mathematical pattern to the chaos of the universe.
What Actually Happens: Max Cohen is a brilliant number theorist who suffers from paranoia, vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, and anxiety. Cohen believes there is an underlying mathematical pattern to everything in the universe, no matter how random or chaotic it seems. He builds a supercomputer in his small apartment that spits out a 216-digit number that he soon discovers could be the key to unlocking the pattern. He quickly becomes the target of a high-powered company who wants to use the number to predict the stock market and a group of Khabbalists who think the number has a magical link to the name of god. In an act of manic desperation, Cohen drills into his own skull to destroy his memory of the number.
Actors: Mark Margolis, Ajay Naidu, Clint Mansell, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, + more
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky