The Best Quasi-Science Fiction Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

Who doesn't love the inexplicable, transportative moviegoing experience? I remember seeing Wim Wenders' documentary about Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club, and floating on that one for days. I thought I was going to see a concert film, but it took me to a place I'd never been before and did it in a unique way.

I'm also a tremendous science fiction fan, as this is the safest way, usually, to get audiences in "the zone." (note – I hate the expression "the zone," but sometimes cliches, even if they are the names of fad diets, work best.) When a movie dabbles on the edge of sci-fi and is able to take you in unexpected directions, that's when I really start to get excited.

This week, taking a break from some of the more clear cut categories (e.g. "World War II movies") I'd like to offer up some examples of movies that you wouldn't at first consider as science fiction, but still take on (for me) the properties of good sci-fi. Some actually try to "pass" as sci-fi without any of the usual techniques (more on this in a bit) and some do precisely the reverse: have such a remarkable texture that they seem otherworldly.

Maybe this category is too heady or only makes sense to me. At the very least, I'm going to recommend eight titles you may want to check out. And no, I'm not including Tree of Life because that just came out! But I think you may have a sense of where I'm headed with this. . .

Powaqqatsi (1988); Godfrey Reggio, director

The most artistically successful head film ever made is, no doubt, Reggio's 1982 masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi. You've probably seen that or at least have been meaning to and if you haven't, well, trust me, you've seen its influence because its radical look at cityscapes was a massive paradigm shift in visual storytelling. My heavy cinema pals and I call that movie "Big K" and it's been a major point of discussion for me since I first saw it in an art class in middle school.

Okay – here's the thing. That major milestone has had two kinda-sorta sequels. 2002 brought Naqoyqatsi (not that good) and 1988 gave us Powaqqatsi, a pretty good also-ran.

Powaqqatsi is more clearly about something (the emerging industrialization of the third world) whereas "Big K" was just, like, you know, about everything, man. . .but there are still pockets where you can blast off into abstraction.

Alas, cinematographer Ron Fricke wasn't on board for this, but composer Philip Glass was and Godfrey Reggio's ability to take images from nature, capture them in unusual manners and juxtapose them in significant ways still is a remarkable trip.

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005); Werner Herzog, director

The Wild Blue Yonder is a terrific experiment in cinema from one of the great maverick directors that, if one were seeing with absolutely no context, could indeed pass for straight sci-fi.

Brad Dourif (quite possibly from another planet in real life) tells us his story of being a stranded alien from the Andromeda Galaxy. Intercut with his tale are coinciding images, but all taken "on loan" from the archives at NASA or from oceanographers working in Antarctica.

It is a master class in how to manipulate an image – but also a cool yarn on its own merits.

Herzog tried his hand at this twice before. Some of the sequences in his Gulf War I film Lessons of Darkness take images of oil fires, music and narration to hint at a science fiction saga. His earlier African travelogue Fata Morgana is a hallucinatory journey with almost no narrative at all.

Alphaville (1965); Jean-Luc Godard, director

The French New Wave is over 50 years old and we are still feeling its effects. Fashion and design have never quite shaken it and, believe me, if the mumblecore kids could afford Black & White 16mm they'd use it.

Alphaville is a great entry point to this subgenre of cinema, primarily because it is such good fun. Its story is straight-up sci-fi – a secret agent must infiltrate an all-poweful computer – but Jean-Luc Godard's penchant for irreverence is right there on the surface. He made no attempt whatsoever to create a science-fiction mise-en-scene, even though the film is set in the future and on another planet. He just shot modern buildings at night, business machine computers, radio towers, white hallways and used sound effects. And somehow decided an olympic-sized indoor swimming pool was where shot prisoners should go.

By taking the mundane and just saying "this is something else" (see the video above for examples) it not only has adds a playfulness, it disorients us from the usual sci-fi tropes and makes everything feel all the more odd.

For All Mankind (1989); Al Reinert, director

This was a gutsy move. NASA allowed documentarian Al Reinert access to six million feet of film and 80 hours of interviews to create a collage about "our" experience of going from the Earth to the Moon. At no point are any of the the voices or faces credited, and with Brian Eno's etherial score this film eventually takes on a somewhat group consciousness.

It is very, very heavy and filled with gorgeous imagery. For years it was the designated DVD (oooh, you have a DVD player?) to put on in the background at parties. Now I've got the Blu-ray and on nights I can't sleep I put this on and lay on the floor naked with this on a loop until morning. Okay, I've only done that once.

Sans Soleil (1983); Chris Marker, director

There's nothing remotely sci-fi about this film except for the Japanese synthesizer that will make images out of musical tones – which may in fact be real but I'd prefer to think is imaginary.

Sans Soleil is a travelogue, taking documentary footage and presenting them against fictitious letters written by a cameraman on a quest to understand the nature of memory. It is a dense as hell movie – one you can watch three times and still not fully follow – but it is endlessly fascinating, amusing and, most importantly, not a chore to watch.

Director Chris Marker has had quite a career path. He started as an editor (he worked on the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog) and today makes shorts and is a mixed-media artist (his installations can be found in some of the finer modern art museums, and he was among the first to play around with CD-Roms as art.) For my money, he hit the high water mark with this intoxicating cinema-poem about chasing down elusive dreams.

There's no real way to describe the movie without using all sorts of fancy-pants sounding words, so just, please, do yourself a favor and rent it. The Criterion Collection disc comes bundled with his short film La Jetee, a story rendered in voice over and still images that was remade by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys

Stalker (1979); Andrei Tarkovsky, director

Another one with almost nothing to clue you in that this is sci-fi. . .other than people laying in the grass and having visions of running water and religious iconography float along in long, moody tracking shots.

Deep in a warded off "zone" sits "The Room," which is rumored to make your dreams come true. The government doesn't want you to get there so to get there you need a guide. Cut to a lot of spooky shots of smoke and people behaving incoherently. Trust me, it's a trip, and actually more interesting, I feel, than the director's more famous (and more overtly sci-fi) film Solaris.

The above video is a fan edit. There's not much out there about this one, but if you can track it down you won't be disappointed.

Defending Your Life (1991); Albert Brooks, director

Calling theological subjects science-fiction may be inflammatory to some, but if Marvel can brush away the divine aspects of Asgardians by simply saying "hey, they're aliens," I think this is okay.

Before he was the baddie in Drive Albert Brooks was an envelope-pushing comedian and filmmaker. In Defending Your Life he explains that after you die, your soul then goes to, as he puts it, an EPCOT Center-esque place where you are, essentially, put on trial. If it is deemed that you lived your life subservient to your fears, you don't get to "move on."

There is cool architecture and people in white robes, so I consider in sci-fi.

It's a very funny film with a high concept and interesting moral. This one hit me a little harder than the more revered Groundhog Day.

The American Astronaut (2001); Cory McAbee, director

In a setting that's part-dustbowl/part-future The American Astronaut has sequences that are taken directly from the illogic of your dreams. Of course, I'm assuming that your dreams include spaceships with interiors that are just, like, floating rooms from thrift stores. (No? It's just me? Okay.)

The American Astronaut is one of the very few science fiction experiences that will remind you of an off-Broadway play, as the sequence above will exemplify. But it isn't B-picture pulp and it isn't campy (despite a premise involving kidnapping "The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman's Breast" in an attempt to have him sire offspring for the Queen of Venus.) Strange? Yes. But campy? Somehow, not. Definitely worth checking out if possible.

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