In the spring of 1968, film critic Roger Ebert reviewed Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The critic couldn't fathom everything he'd just seen: What were those monoliths? What was that final sequence in that creepy hotel about? Who or what, exactly, was the "Star Child?" Ebert didn't care; he knew he'd just seen a masterpiece. Still stunned and overwhelmed, he leaned on a line from e.e. cummings to articulate his disoriented state: "listen – there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go."
That's an inexact but also kinda perfect way of encapsulating what the greatest sci-fi films do to you. They knock you out of your comfort zone, challenge your grasp on reality, and leave you with more questions than answers. You don't know what you've seen, but you know you want to see it again – to wrestle with it, try to decipher it, figure out if you could ever unlock its mysteries. This sensation doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's like the gift that the monolith gives David Bowman at the end of 2001: It transforms your consciousness into something incredible and new. Suddenly, a whole new universe opens up for you.
Annihilation is the latest in what's been a bumper crop of excellent recent-ish sci-fi films that could be described as "cerebral," "challenging" or straight-up "trippy." Those kinds of adjectives scare some viewers – not to mention executives who get antsy about the financial bottom line. Back in December, Deadline ran a story claiming that the film's producer David Ellison freaked out over Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland's dizzying adaptation of the acclaimed Jeff VanderMeer novel, featuring Natalie Portman as a scientist entering into a surreal, brain-scrambling alternative reality (known as the Shimmer) filled with horrifying mutant beasts and brain-scrambling visual wonders. Ellison reportedly called the film "too intellectual" and "too complicated" for mainstream audiences. Changes were apparently requested.
Thankfully, Ellison didn't get his way. Part of the reason why Annihilation is such an exhilarating film is because, well, it is intellectual and complicated – an elegant existential jigsaw puzzle about existence and mortality that's catnip to fans of smart, provocative sci-fi. From a crass, dollar-and-cents perspective, the bean-counters' fears were well-founded: Saddled with a C from CinemaScore and grossing only an estimated $11 million in its opening weekend, Annihilation may be too weird for the multiplex. But, as history has repeatedly shown, momentary audience indifference eventually fades as a film's lasting cultural legacy takes hold and subsequent viewers embrace what was once dismissed as "weird." Today's sci-fi head-scratcher is often tomorrow's masterpiece, speaking to its times even if audiences weren't quite ready to receive the message.
You can pinpoint Kubrick's take on humanity's evolution from apes to cosmic entities as the Rosetta stone for modern "difficult" sci-fi movies, a divisive work for some crowds and critics alike. ("The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world ..." Thank you, Pauline Kael.) Never mind the haters: Every major sci-fi filmmaker who came in 2001's wake – notably George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg – adored it. Soon, filmmakers around the globe were attempting their own variations on 2001's so-called "ponderous blurry appeal," whether it was Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 fantasy The Holy Mountain, Nicolas Roeg's excursion into the Bowieverse The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) or Andrei Tarkovsky's twin salutes to metaphysical torment, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979). The point wasn't tight plots or easily relatable characters – they were more interested in blowing your mind. Even amidst the far more mainstream sci-fi of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these films acknowledged that there was something profoundly unknowable about the human condition and our place in the universe.
And by not filling in all the blanks, these filmmakers demanded that the audience engage in a way that felt like a shared experience. Tarkovsky was once asked how he came up with the idea for Stalker – which finds three mismatched men entering into a forbidding and strange realm known as the Zone. The revered Russian director admitted that his hypnotic, meditative drama was a mystery even to him. "Naturally it occurs that certain images emerge suddenly," he offered. "But then they change, perhaps inadvertently, as in a dream, and often they transform, vexingly, inexorably, into something unrecognizable and new."
Modern mind-bending sci-fi like Annihilation owes a debt to Stalker's experimentation – not to mention its through-the-looking-glass story of ordinary people venturing into alien terrain, their consciousness warped by the strangeness they encounter. Interestingly, Garland's reasons for being drawn to VanderMeer's novel are eerily reminiscent of the Russian filmmaker's intuitive methods: "It was the atmosphere," he explained. "I found that reading the book was a weirdly similar experience to having a dream."
For much of this century, Garland has tested the boundaries of enigmatic science fiction, writing the thought-provoking screenplays for Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Sunshine and then making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, which asked questions about power, gender inequality and the evaporating line between man and machine, letting viewers sort out their feelings for themselves.
His open-ended, daring films are in good company with other great recent left-of-center sci-fi, most of which bombed at the box office or were micro-budget productions hiding on the margins. Before Darren Aronofsky scandalized viewers with mother!, his greatest provocation was 2006's The Fountain, a gusty, loopy sci-fi romance about a doctor (Hugh Jackman) trying to save his wife (Rachel Weisz) from cancer. But it's not just about that: The movie moves between parallel storylines involving a conquistador and a baldheaded cosmic traveler (both played by Jackman) that eventually intersect. Audiences stayed away in droves, but the boldness of The Fountain's vision overcame its flaws, attaining that rare sensation of bewildered exultation that only really trippy sci-fi can produce.
Expressing something personal while simultaneously reaching for the cosmic is a strategy also utilized by Shane Carruth, a former software engineer with an itching to get into filmmaking. His first effort, Primer (2004), ingeniously stripped away the gee-whiz euphoria around the possibility of time travel, crafting a despairing, labyrinthine logic maze that inspired every geek in the world to try to unscramble its twisting timeline. But Carruth created a code even tougher to crack with his follow-up, an equally unfathomable film that chronicled the inscrutability of love. His follow-up, Upstream Color (2013), presented us with two characters who find each other after separate traumas, and while the movie didn't feel like science fiction – no robots, no time travel, no laser guns – its woozy, mind-altering approach to dramatizing a troubled romance honored the genre's commitment to boldly going where others wouldn't.
These and other recent films – including Duncan Jones' space-madness marathon Moon (2009) and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013), which pays affectionate homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth – are making this a new golden age of unclassifiable, challenging science fiction. But why now? If 2001 was a product of its LSD times, what's driving modern filmmakers and their adventurous audiences to go on these surreal journeys?
The answer might be that, while recreational drugs remain part of our lives, people are finding new ways to expand their minds. All of us now exist in multiple dimensions online: Whether it's on social media, videogames or comment pages, we've become more accustomed to navigating other realities separate from ourselves. Meanwhile, our entertainment is more actively encouraging our interaction. And then there's the growing interest in virtual reality, with everyone from Alejandro G. Inarritu to Disney's new Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR exhibit asking audiences to abandon their passivity and become part of the experience.
Mood, mystery and dreamlike lucidity are among the chief selling points of Annihilation, which declines to satisfy all its riddles or even provide a clear roadmap of its thematic interests. Is the film a lament about ecological disaster? A cogent reminder that all our technological advancements can't protect us from a natural world out to destroy us? Is it an action-horror movie or a domestic drama? The appeal is that those answers aren't obvious – even the film's quiet final image is a puzzle open to multiple readings.
"I would hope it gives [an audience] respect," Garland said recently when asked about his desire to withhold clear-cut answers. "That they don't need to be spoon-fed. But it also creates a requirement, which is that the film is not going to do everything. … The audience member is a participant in the narrative, and if the inferences are going to be understood, and the connections are going to be felt – even if they're different inferences and different feelings – they are going to be brought by the audience member. It's like you have to join the party. And so, I think the ideal audience member for a film like that, and other films like it, is one with an open mind who's not there just to be entertained for two hours. There's a two-way process they're willing to engage in."
That's why Annihilation – like 2001, like Stalker, like any great work of WTF sci-fi – is far from "ponderous" or "too intellectual." For these films to succeed, they need our active involvement and reward us for our participation. At their heart, these masterpieces of disorientation are tapping into our collective craving to find fresh methods of deciphering the unsettling strangeness of existence. By stepping away from the strictures of narrative with their resolved conflicts and pat lessons, films such as Annihilation encourage us to abandon our comfortable passivity and enter into the twisty logic of dreams, where the emotions are more primal and the experiences can feel realer than real life.
Indeed, there's no shortage of opportunities nowadays to plug into extreme or alternative realities, but the mind-bending pleasures of weird sci-fi offer an endlessly riveting journey into the unchartered regions of our consciousness. These films' electric ambiguity is a doorway to the parts of ourselves that we can't articulate, giving us a shared language that transcends the literalness of the everyday and speaks to something far deeper and cosmic. All we have to do is be willing to take the trip.