The science fiction genre has always flourished throughout the history of cinema, capturing the imagination and commanding impressive box office receipts along the way. But not all great SF has been widely seen, become a large-scale franchise, or been a big “event film” with A-list stars and a massive budget. Some get released and lost in the shuffle or are forgotten over the passage of time.
Great speculative fiction is often found in small scale indie film attire and art house dress or sometimes lost as the cult of admirers dwindles or gets into something else that quickly comes along.
The following list guarantees an adventurous path of imagined futures, possible pasts, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, stinging satire and much more. Enjoy!
10. The One I Love (2014)
With insight and sensitivity, The One I Love presents a sophisticated view of marriage, with a few perplexing sci-fi elements tossed in to stir the pot and tempt perceptions. There’s actually quite a lot going on in director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader’s smartly constructed chamber piece, ostensibly about a married couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) who are trying to save their marriage via an unorthodox therapist (Ted Danson) and a weekend retreat at his estate.
Now, The One I Love isn’t the only film on this list that has us biting our tongues so as not to spoil the fun of some very spirited and thrilling plot points and surprises, so let’s just say that The One I Love benefits from what desperate husband Ethan can only describe to his wife Sophie as “…some weird and like Twilight Zone shit that’s going on here and I just want to get a handle on it.”
For a feature-length directorial debut, McDowell’s is assured and keyed-in to giving audiences results that are both smart and satisfying. Having such a game cast as well as a genuinely funny and very witty script all makes for a self-effacing relationship movie with considerable sci-fi muscle. It’s so much more than what Ethan frustratingly suggests to be akin to “exploring other dimensions in some weird version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’” And if that feels like we’ve said too much, we haven’t.
9. Freaks (2018)
While the best visual gag in the very ambitious low-budget sci-fi thriller Freaks is quite possibly the sight of Bruce Dern dressed as a creepy Mr. Snowcone ice cream man, but the writer-director duo of Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein also have some serious world-building ideas in mind for audiences, too.
Freaks presents a dystopian near future/alternate present wherein genetic “freaks” with X-men-like super powers are hiding amongst us in plain sight, fearful of being collected by the government and essentially euthanized for the betterment and safety of all. And that’s why an overprotective and rightly paranoid dad (Emile Hirsch) is concerned that his daughter, Chloe (Lexy Kolker), will become self-aware of how potentially powerful she is as nosy neighbours, encroaching government agents, and yes, that ominous old guy peddling soft serve frozen treats, keep creeping closer to their inconspicuous home hideaway.
Comic book fans, and those who like the angst-y and maudlin genre fare that the Divergent and the Maze Runner films offer might really like Freaks, and it tries awfully hard to please its audience. The promise of a franchise is highly touted, and considering how great this picture looks for such a shoestring budget, let’s see more of these non-Marvel superheroes playing havoc and having their revenge on those so deserving.
8. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)
Admittedly the latest from John Cameron Mitchell, like his best known works, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), and Shortbus (2006), is an acquired taste that will only appeal to niche audiences looking for their next cult film fix, with sci-fi elements being the cherry on top. To that end, Mitchell’s got an ace in his sleeve in that his gloriously goofy sci-fi rom com, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an oddball adaptation of a celebrated 2006 short story from iconic comic book/sci-fi and fantasy scribe Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline, Good Omens).
Mitchell doesn’t disappoint, and this is the sort of late-at-night, punk-addled, quip-fuelled foray that will delight fans of subversive midnight musicals like Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Mitchell’s aforementioned Hedwig.
Enn (Alex Sharp) is a shy teenager on the fringes of the punk scene in 1970s London where he meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a charismatic young lass who rolls with a bizarre group of otherworldly girls at one of the most energetic and gonzo parties that Enn has ever been to. Soon there’s a showdown between punks and aliens –– with Nicole Kidman in the mix as an old school punk priestess named Queen Boadicea.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is perhaps something of a mixed bag in places (the punk rock musical aspect may be the film’s weakest link, sadly), but when it’s a teen love story with sci-fi interludes and funny performances from the two leads, it’s a pretty fantastic distraction and a joyful journey of youth in revolt.
7. Starfish (2019)
UK-born, LA-based director/composer/writer A.T. White makes a splash with his visionary debut feature, the monster-permeated, apocalyptic-set indie, Starfish. This artful, horror-themed character study stars Virginia Gardner as Aubrey, a young woman mourning the unexpected death of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson).
Grieving is a personal and complicated journey, and Starfish does this dour theme justice by exploring how self-condemnation can be a painful factor in saying goodbye. Holed up in Grace’s small town apartment, Aubrey soon discovers that while she was wracked with guilt something utterly cataclysmic –– and let’s just say it, Lovecraftian –– has happened to the world.
Thankfully for Aubrey, Grace has left a series of clandestine clues about the unfolding Armageddon via cassette tapes she’s stashed around town. “This Mixtape Will Save the World” reads one, and that’s enough to get Aubrey down the rabbithole in this melancholic and consistently imaginative little movie.
6. Vivarium (2020)
Similarly to the film The One I Love, perhaps the less said about the Twilight Zone-ish plot behind Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s mystery-shrouded Vivarium the better. Let’s just say that young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) get much more than they bargained for when they, on a whim, take advice from bizarro real estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) and drive out to the suburban development called Loom for a look-see.
Nightmares of marriage, parenthood, and complacency loom on Loom’s serpentine horizon, but so does much more. Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley maintain a relentless and cruel clip as this sci-fi horror film pulls willing viewers down the rabbit hole. Home sweet home this most assuredly is not, but a fun guessing game with some genuine upsets await the courageous viewer.