Sci-fi and dark obscurity go together like Kim and Kanye – look no further than Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange for proof of that. And given that one of the greatest things about the genre is its ability to reflect contemporary fears and anxieties about society in a fictional setting, things can wind up getting pretty freaky indeed. From parallel post-apocalyptic worlds and alternate dimensions to cyperpunk dying-earth narratives, outlandish sci-fi has it all. So, here are 10 of the darkest, most obscure sci-fi movies you probably haven’t seen, but are definitely worth your time.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto
The Japanese cyberpunk flick offers up a grim, dystopian vision of a world that is so reliant on technology that its inhabitants are succumbing to it in the form of transformations. The first clue that this late ’80s flick is going to be a little bit special is when the viewer sees “The Metal Fetishist” cram a rod into a wound he made in his own leg. From thereon in, the movie descends into full-on, no holds barred obscurity. When a business man – later to become the titular Iron Man – accidentally runs over the fetishist in the street, he gradually begins to find more and more metal sprouting within his body and slowly transforms into a machine. Many hallucinations later, the fetishist returns to do battle with the businessman.
Tsukamoto must have spent days creating the imposing black and white metal dystopia fraught with imaginative landscapes full of scraps of wire, men and women extruding cables, wires, drills and other machine parts from their skin in epic showers of blood. Tetsuo is as weird as Eraserhead, only weirder.
Most oddball feature: It’s the businessman sporting a rotating drill-bit penis that no one can forget. Messed-up, lunatic genius.
No Blade of Grass (1970)
Director: Cornel Wilde
Somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1977’s Star Wars, something very peculiar happened. Wilde, surrounded by ’70s darkness of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, shifted his focus to environmental disaster, societal breakdown and the end of all things. No Blade of Grass’s trailer warns of “A vision of chaos and destruction that could come true. Perhaps it’s happening now!” And today, the alarm bells still ring. The movie features a virus attacking the world’s food supply, plunging the world into anarchy and cannibalism. Chariots of Fire actor Nigel Davenport leads his family out of London and into the countryside, where he runs into biker gangs and rapists – it’s a weird, outlandish mix of anti-government paranoia and environmental concern. In an age concerned with the end of oil and the death of bees (creatures that pollinate our food supplies) – this is one apocalyptic sci-fi film that is as scary and relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Most oddball feature: In the movie’s last third, the British twee factor is suddenly replaced by some kind of weird exploitation influence, with Mad Max-esque biker gangs and horrible brutality.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Director: David Cronenberg
Even those who have read William Burroughs’ book of the same name and get the themes that run through his work, will have a solidly confusing night in watching this movie. How do you make a book – reminiscent of drug-fueled fantasies, with potent vignettes ranging from sexual encounters, the highs and lows of heroin use, and fictional dystopian societies – into a movie? Cronenberg himself has been quoted as saying, “It’s impossible to make a movie out of Naked Lunch. [It] Would be banned in every country in the world.” Now, isn’t that a movie that you want to see? It begins with an exterminator whose philosophy is to “exterminate all rational thought.” His wife injects insecticide to get high and gets him hooked, too. A pair of cops question him on suspicion of narcotics and leave him to be interrogated by a massive bug. And that’s before the film turns really strange. Cronenberg certainly jacks up his career-long obsession with body horror and atrophy; it’s a movie for people who dig obscurity – and probably no one else.
Most oddball feature: Skittery roaches and black centipedes ejaculating six-foot reptiles called Mugwumps.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Godard’s Alphaville is a cry of protest aimed at those obsessed with science and logic, set in a world where emotions are considered obsolete and public exhibition of them is illegal. The bizarre, genre-bending yarn takes a hardboiled film noir and sets it in a futuristic sci-fi dystopia – weirder still, one without any special effects whatsoever. In the movie, secret agent Lemmy Caution travels to the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville on a three-tiered mission: to search for missing agent Henry Dickson, to capture and kill the creator of Alphaville, and to destroy the space city’s grating, dictatorial computer, Alpha 60 (Godard himself had the lines of the machine spoken by an actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice box).
By no means a conventional sci-fi, all of the movie’s elements combine wonderfully. The black-and-white cinematography turns mundane, everyday objects into the props of a convincingly dystopian future world, right down to the hotel lobby.
Most oddball feature: Archly intellectual American sci-fi mixed with black-and-white detective film cliches and ground-breaking visuals, re-envisioned through French New Wave techniques.
Director: Shane Carruth
There was some serious buzz surrounding Carruth’s 2013 sci-fi dramaUpstream Color, but he started out with Primer, an inscrutable low-budget movie costing about the price of a used car (just $7,000, to be exact), following two scientists who build a time-travel machine. To say that this sci-fi movie is obscure would be a huge understatement. It’s a time-travel story, but it sets aside the usual time-travel padding for something much stranger and ultimately more believable. It’s insanely complicated and mind-bendingly obtuse at times, but it’s the rare movie that’s worth the effort to figure out what in Kubrick’s name is going on. As for the science itself, it is evidently bizarre and absurd; Carruth, who also stars in the flick, began his working life as an engineer – and it shows. For all its obscurity, however,Primer is a brilliant rebuke to a dumbed-down movie world. In fact, it’s so chock-full of obscure details that multiple viewings are definitely required. So, if you haven’t seen this one yet and now intend to, make sure you do some pretty heavy reading around the subject!
Most oddball feature: The detached nature in which Carruth eerily portrays scientists not as cliched geeks but authentic, flawed heroes.
Director: Terry Gilliam
It’s the story of the small man up against the huge, faceless powers that be – in a 1984-style future, with Monty Python-esque touches of humor – magnificently staged in the now-demolished buildings of Britain’s industrial past. Low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry escapes the monotony of his day-to-day life with a recurring daydream of himself as a hero saving a beautiful damsel in distress. Investigating a case that led to the death of an innocent man instead of wanted terrorist Harry Tuttle, he meets the same damsel and – in trying to help her out – gets caught in a web of deceit.
One of the most unsettling and obscure elements of Brazil is Gilliam’s own admission that the world he’s created is “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.” Some viewers might say that – given scenes involving what appears to be a giant boozing tramp appearing on the horizon amid white clouds – Gilliam overshot those five degrees by just a slither. But that’s part of the beauty; it’s weirdly cryptic enough to have shock factor, while subtly touching on the very real absurdities of modern life.
Most oddball feature: Mrs. Ida Lowry’s personal plastic surgeon stretching her facial fat so incredibly tight that she looks like Michael Jackson impersonating Munch’s “The Scream.”
Director: Michael Crichton
Westworld is the ultimate theme park movie experience – more reminiscent of a terrifying, technological Jurassic Park than anything else. That’s not surprising really, given that the movie’s director – a young Michael Crichton – went on to write the dinosaur novel 13 years later, bringing Isla Nublar into our vision with its cloned dinosaurs and their ability to wreak all kinds of havoc. Not altogether so different, the Westworld theme park transports visitors into a long-gone world of the past (party like the Romans, joust in medieval times or duel with gunslingers in the Wild West – the whiskey is flowing and the whores are free!). Unsurprisingly, something goes very, very wrong indeed.
The park’s attractions – the robot citizens – snap, and begin to mercilessly kill all of the guests. Hey, even the most sophisticated of computers can crash! Yul Brynner plays the relentlessly creepy problem robot, like the original Terminator, only much, much scarier than Arnie’s ever been. It’s packed to the rafters with sci-fi obscurity and set to the unusual backdrop of a western.
Most oddball feature: The blank faces of the malfunctioning androids being popped open to reveal lifeless sensors and machine parts shaped like…real faces.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
A stunning and often forgotten French masterpiece by Delicatessen’s directors, The City of Lost Children is superior to their first effort in every way. The mythic sci-fi fairytale – in which a mad scientist kidnaps kids for his own experiment – seems to warn about the loss of imagination in an overly technologized world. Although the plot is too disjointed to carry much weight, the movie does feature monsters in masks, multiple Santa Claus’s and Siamese twins being brutally sliced apart. Then there’s the hordes of deep-sea divers, Cyclops who have one eye replaced with computerized hearing devices in order to visualize sound, disembodied brains in jars and performing fleas… And all of these creatures living in a world that looks like it’s made predominantly of brass and shadows. With a musical score by Twin Peaks’ Angelo Badalamenti, watching The City of Lost Children is like being caught inside of a child’s most obscure nightmares in the most emotionally disturbing and enthralling way possible. Go see it.
Most oddball feature: The overwhelming visual sequence in which the space traveler is sucked into a cosmic vortex of sound and light.
Mr. Nobody (2009)
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
In 2092, after all disease has been eradicated, 118-year-old Nemo (“nemo” means “nobody” in Latin) is the last mortal on earth and is being closely watched in his day-to-day life, just like Truman Burbank. At first glance Mr. Nobody seems simple, but simple is one thing that this film isn’t. Our hero is revealed to us at different stages in his life, flitting back and forth between the differently-aged Jared Letos, allowing the viewer to piece together the story for themselves as our protagonist recounts his life story to a psychiatrist. He relays the difficult choices he faced in the wake of parental divorce and the various women who brought love into his life. But his memories are inconsistent and as an obscure plot unfolds before the viewer, we’re warned: Be aware of excessive choice – overload can make us question the decisions we make before we even make them, setting us up for unrealistically high expectations. The trippy, existential sci-fi romance set in present, past and future, shows the best and worst parts of human beings and is truly far-out in it’s message that more choice equates to more happiness.
Most oddball feature: The unicorns, the helicopters delivering the ocean, the future world in which everyone has their own genetic pig, and a sub-reality where everyone wears argyle.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Tarkovsky movies are obscure at the best of times – heavy symbolism which appears to add up to nothing and pieces of poetry and philosophical ramblings that are near impossible to decipher. Stalker is a weird, imagist allegory of the perils of intellectualism in Russia – and more than a little strange. The eerie sci-fi vision of a forsaken world is also pretty unforgettable in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. In an unnamed country at an unspecified time, there is a fiercely protected post-apocalyptic wasteland known as The Zone. An illegal guide, whose mutant child suggests unspeakable horrors within The Zone, leads a writer and a scientist into the heart of the devastation in search of a mythical place known only as The Room. Anyone who enters The Room will supposedly have any of his earthly desires immediately fulfilled. But as is typical of dystopian settings, a gradual disintegration begins before the devastation, and the protagonists end up wading – up to their shoulders – through radioactive waters. It’s grim.
Most oddball feature: Stalker’s dream – as the camera pans over a crystal-clear stream showing upside down trees, a gun, goldfish in a bowl…and a female voice whispering an apocalyptic verse.