Blue streaks forming the impression of flying through space.
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Many modern science fiction movies tend to use the veneer of science fiction as a way to plug plotholes or feature elaborate explosions and action. There’s always a time-travel portal to stand in as the deus ex machina, and some advanced robot or alien who only seems interested in killing everyone.

I like those movies as much as the next fella. But some filmmakers do make a sincere effort to imagine other realities and technologies that inspire in the way classic science fiction does. It doesn’t mean the films have to be the on-screen equivalent of reading an MIT paper on quantum entanglement or something, just that they spin a decent yarn inspired by actual science.

The below are a few slightly less commercial selections, instead of obvious choices like Interstellar or 2001 or Chef, that science fiction movie where Jon Favreau dates both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara. That’s the future I want.

Primer

Primer is easily the best time travel movie I’ve seen because it feels like you might just be watching a documentary about two guys who actually made a time machine. The special effects, or lack thereof, certainly bear this out. This is not a flashy film: there are no chase scenes, no colorful portals with beams of light, and no characters quickly aging. Two guys make a time machine in their garage, and it’s so realistic-seeming that part of you wants to take notes.

It’s not without flaws. The film is dense and could use a bit more clear storytelling, which is probably why there are multiple charts online trying to figure out what actually happens. But it’s compelling nonetheless, and might cause you just for a second to want to call a friend and see if he’s free this weekend to tinker in your garage.

Annihilation

One of the basic things we ask from a good science fiction movie is to create, at least momentarily, a sense of awe. Annihilation does this with concepts that have barely been explored in movies, and feels like something out of a Twilight Zone episode (one of the good ones, not that pig-face thing).

Scientists go on a secretive expedition into a zone where the laws of nature seem to have been warped. Hijinks ensue. The movie does make a core mistake many science fiction movies make: delving into superfluous horror and scare moments that are fun, but distract from the more interesting plot. Still, it’s a respectable effort and yet another reminder to never go into the woods with friends.

Coherence

If most dinner parties turned out like the dinner party in Coherence, I’d show up to them more often. This party occurs on the night of an astronomical anomaly (thanks for nothing, Google Calendar), and the group of friends see their reality get bended in ways that for once is not related to drinking too much pinot.

There are doppelgangers and glow sticks and secret codes, and it’s way more entertaining than dinner parties where people ask what you do and pretend to be interested. It has independent, low-budget film written all over it, with dialogue that feels like it’s from one of those single-room plays. But much of the movie works, and you won’t miss the lack of explosions or spaceships.

Dark City

The Matrix and Dark City are one of the instances of two similar films that came out around the same time, which I like to imagine is out of spite, like that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm featuring spite stores. We all benefit regardless. Dark City is a combination of The Fugitive with film noir and a futuristic comic book. I’m probably missing a few dozen genres (German expressionism, Dracula, etc).

We’ve all been there–you wake up with no memory as the prime suspect in a series of murders, getting chased by pale people in hats who can fly. The visuals in Dark City are stunning, with buildings morphing into each other and people’s lives existing on a seemingly thin veil of reality. If you want to be one of those annoying film nerds, when someone brings up The Matrix, you can respond with, “Actually, I prefer Dark City.” But don’t be that guy. Both are good.

Moon

Moon is admirable for taking a simple science fiction concept and exploring the logic of it, and you also get to watch Sam Rockwell act crazy for an hour and a half. So it’s win-win. A lunar mine engineer is ending his stint working far from home and seems to encounter a younger version of himself who doesn’t make for the greatest space roommate.

Nothing like a bad space roommate. The film is effective at imagining a future that’s both foreign and familiar, a reality that we’re nowhere near, and yet if we found out that a company was doing what the one in the film does, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. For all I know, How-To Geek is employing me in the exact same way. But I’m probably wrong.

Profile Photo for Chason Gordon Chason Gordon
Chason Gordon is a staff writer and editor for How-To Geek. His writing has previously appeared in Slate, Vice, Input, and The Globe and Mail, among others. He currently lives in San Antonio, but is on a month-to-month lease.
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