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 PhD in quantum physics to even start to understand them. If you've ever wanted 2001: A Space Odyssey, Annihilation, 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 nonlinear 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).
- Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
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: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter
- Released: 1968
- Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
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, Mark Margolis, Ethan Suplee
- Released: 2006
- Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
- Photo: IFC Films
What's So Confusing: Time travel always makes stories more complicated, and few movies are more complex than Shane Carruth's Primer. This low-budget sci-fi drama is intentionally confusing, as that is the inherent nature of time travel itself. Several different versions of the main characters all exist at the same time and try to interact with other versions of their past and present alternate timeline selves. The film is a brilliantly crafted looping, chaotic spiral of contradictions and calamities.
What Actually Happens: Two friends, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), are part-time inventors who accidentally invent a time machine. The machine is a simple rectangular box that can be used to travel short distances back in time - but only as far back as when the machine was first switched on. The pair decide to use the machine to make money in the stock market, but then become increasingly reckless until Abe decides that it's too dangerous to continue using. He uses a back-up fail-safe time machine to travel back several days to convince Aaron to never use the machine. However, the plan fails and the two have a falling out. They reconcile for a bit - and also use time travel to save Abe's girlfriend from being shot - but eventually part ways.
Aaron travels to Europe to use the machine for his own gain, and Abe stays in his hometown to continuously try and find ways to try and sabotage past-Aaron and Abe in their efforts to ever use the machine in the first place.
- Actors: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford
- Released: 2004
- Directed by: Shane Carruth
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
What's So Confusing: The dense, time-jumping narrative takes place during six different time periods, and features the same dozen main actors playing completely different characters - who are often different races and genders - during each time period. Tom Hanks goes from playing a scheming English con artist in 1849 to playing a rugged mountain-dweller in a post-apocalyptic 2321 Hawaii. At one point, during a segment that takes place in Neo Seoul, Korea, in 2144, a bunch of the actors play Korean characters, which drew some controversy at the time. Also, the super-advanced future looks like it takes place in the distant caveman-era past. And it's hard to figure out how any of the storylines or characters relate to each other in any way.
What Actually Happens: Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is a tale of how a person's actions ripple through time and impact future generations in ways that are unknowable and unpredictable. Each of the six stories are essentially self-contained vignettes with their own messages, and they are linked by either characters or events that occur in the preceding story. The journals of Adam Ewing from the 1840s intersect with a young composer in the 1930s. The composer's lover goes on to be an atomic physicist who reveals a criminal conspiracy to a reporter in the 1970s. That reporter goes on to write a book which is later read by an elderly publisher in 2012.
The life story of the publisher, who escapes from an evil nursing home, gets turned into a film that inspires a "fabricated" clone servant in a dark, future Neo Seoul, Korea, in the 2140s. That fabricant rebels and is later ended by the fascist government, but not before her story is digitally recorded. After the fall of humanity, her recording survives and the tribespeople of the post-apocalyptic future worship her as a deity. The film is all about how decisions and actions echo out into the future and shape history. One character sums it up by saying, "My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?"
- Actors: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess
- Released: 2012
- Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Tom Tykwer