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11 Trippiest Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time

Summary

  • Sci-fi allows filmmakers to explore mind-bending concepts and twist reality, resulting in unforgettable and surreal viewing experiences.
  • Not all sci-fi movies take advantage of the genre’s potential for bizarre storytelling, but there are plenty of trippy sci-fi films that engage with the genre’s furthest reaches.
  • These movies range from psychedelic masterpieces that challenge the audience’s perception of reality to nightmares that delve into the depths of human existence.


While there are plenty of accessible sci-fi blockbusters, the genre is also home to some of the trippiest movies in cinema history. As a genre, sci-fi grants creators a unique level of freedom to get weird. The impossibly vast expanses of space, the endless possibilities of the future, and the tricky, reality-bending speculation involved in imagined scientific innovations all mean that the sci-fi genre is perfectly suited to stories that mess with the audience’s minds. Even though the genre has offered viewers easily digestible blockbusters like the Star Wars saga, it is also home to surreal meditations like 1979’s Stalker.

Even some of the best sci-fi movies of all time are psychedelic masterpieces that muddle the viewer’s perception of reality, using the genre to bend and twist existential concepts like time and space in on themselves. Not every sci-fi movie takes advantage of the genre’s propensity for bizarre storytelling, as the deluge of conventional space operas proves. However, there are plenty of trippy sci-fi movies that do engage with the genre’s furthest reaches, offering viewers an unforgettably strange viewing experience in the process.


11 Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly’s cult classic debut is a bizarre teen drama/sci-fi/horror blend

Donnie Darko

Release Date
October 26, 2001

Director
Richard Kelly

Cast
Jake Gyllenhaal , Holmes Osborne , Maggie Gyllenhaal , Daveigh Chase , Mary McDonnell , James Duval

2002’s Donnie Darko made an overnight superstar of its leading man, a disaffected, brooding Jake Gyllenhaal. However, while Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the titular angsty teen might have been relatable for many young viewers, the odyssey he endures throughout the movie is utterly original. Cursed with what might be predestination, Donnie is plagued by visions of an imaginary man-sized rabbit and compelled to unearth dark secrets in his small town as part of a plot that he never understands until it is too late. Donnie Darko’s ending explains everything (sort of), but the movie remains a surreal experience.

10 Beyond the Black Rainbow

Panos Cosmatos’s wild movie feels like a trip gone wrong

Eva Allan as Elena sitting in an observation room in Beyond the Black Rainbow

The plot of Beyond the Black Rainbow is deceptively simple. A mute woman attempts to escape a mysterious facility where she is held captive, discovering some dicey experiments along the way. However, director Panos Cosmatos converts this straightforward story into a delirious nightmare of jaw-dropping visuals and grating sound design, resulting in a movie that feels like a bad trip on the big screen. Driven by a pulsing, bass-heavy score, this unsettling sci-fi story is unlike any of the genre’s other offerings.

9 EXistenZ

This underrated David Cronenberg movie stands out as his oddest work yet

Jude law points a pistol in eXistenZ

Although the director is most famous for his contributions to the body horror sub-genre, David Cronenberg’s underrated EXistenZ is a rare effort from the filmmaker that leans away from this recurring obsession. Rest assured, there are plenty of weird mutations on display, including memorable organic guns that grow out of characters. However, most of EXistenZ is more concerned with nested realities as a video game developer finds herself pursued by killers in what might be a game of her own creation, reality, or a mixture of the two.

8 Altered States

This psychedelic drug drama takes its protagonist to the outer edges of existence

William Hurt in a trance in Altered States.

Director Ken Russell is famous for wild movies like Tommy and The Devils, which used a psychedelic approach and provocative imagery to shock viewers and distort traditional narrative storytelling. However, the helmer never produced anything weirder than his 1980 sci-fi Altered States, inspired by real-life writer John C Lilly’s experiments with isolation tanks, LSD, and other mind-altering interventions. Altered States follows William Hurt’s psychologist as he experiments with accessing genetic memories, but this thin plot is mostly used to facilitate some of cinema’s most striking depictions of extra-sensory experiences.

7 12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam’s time-bending thriller/satire defies easy genre labels

Brad Pitt sitting next to Bruce Willis' bed in 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys

Release Date
December 29, 1995

Director
Terry Gilliam

Cast
Joseph Melito , Bruce Willis , Jon Seda , Michael Chance , Vernon Campbell , H. Michael Walls

1995’s 12 Monkeys was a box office hit that earned positive critical reception and starred both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt at the height of their fame. It is also one of the weirdest sci-fi movies ever, beginning with the movie’s ending and working backward. 12 Monkeys tells the tale of Willis’s James Cole, a convict who is sent back from a post-apocalyptic future that has been ravaged by a killer virus. Cole’s mission is to discover the cause of the virus, but since this is a Terry Gilliam movie, things soon become much trippier than a simple synopsis implies.

6 Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s discomfiting sci-fi horror is a unique cinematic nightmare

Under the Skin

Release Date
April 4, 2014

Director
Jonathan Glazer

Cast
Dougie McConnell , Lynsey Taylor Mackay , Jeremy McWilliams , Scarlett Johansson , Kevin McAlinden

2014’s Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a nameless extraterrestrial who travels through Scotland seducing men before feeding on their life force. However, viewers hoping for a campy sci-fi horror in the vein of Species should adjust their expectations. Instead, the disquieting Under the Skin is a nightmarish meditation on gender, power, and sexuality wherein Johansson’s emotionless alien sends men to their deaths in a glassy dark void.

5 Paprika

Satoshi Kon’s influential animated sci-fi is tough to decode

Doctor Atsuko Chiba voiced by Megumi Hayashibara looks up directly into the camera in a scene from Paprika

The late, great director Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece Paprika is often compared to Inception, and both movies feature stories of antiheroes invading the dreams of other people by using cutting-edge technology. However, Paprika’s take on this idea is a lot weirder, with the heroine acting as a dream detective who must retrieve a device that allows the user to enter the dreams of others. This results in a string of sequences that are devoid of logic and even psychics as they take place in various subconsciousnesses that the heroine is leaping between.

4 Southland Tales

2006’s infamously ambitious sci-fi satire is a fascinating, glorious mess

Dwayne Johnson wearing a suit in Southland Tales

While Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko was a heady trip despite its small-town location and limited cast, 2006’s Southland Tales saw the director follow this with an endlessly ambitious, utterly bizarre sci-fi/comedy/satire hybrid. Set in the extremely near future of 2008, Southland Tales followed a string of seemingly unrelated characters as they crossed paths in a complex, labyrinthine conspiracy. These figures include an amnesiac movie star, a porn star turned reality TV creator, a veteran of the Iraq invasion, and two characters played by Sean William Scott. The plot, meanwhile, concerns the end of the world, or possibly an evil plan to control the ocean’s waves.

3 Brazil

This 1985 dystopian comedy uses sci-fi for political satire

A man with a sword in Brazil

In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a lowly clerk is told to fix a minor administrative error and ends up becoming a revolutionary terrorist by accident. While this premise might sound simple, Gilliam’s movie blends the fanciful silliness of his Monty Python days with unremittingly bleak social satire. The result is a bizarre movie that feels alternately hilarious and horrifying as the antihero descends further into anarchic madness in a sci-fi movie that was way ahead of its time.

2 Naked Lunch

Cronenberg’s William S Burroughs adaptation is a hellish vision

Peter Weller's William sits at a bar with a monster in Naked Lunch

In the vaguest possible terms, Naked Lunch is an autobiographical story of author William S Burrough’s troubled life. However, as Burroughs was a habitual user of psychedelic drugs, Cronenberg’s vision of his infamous novel includes talking typewriters, talking insects, doppelgängers, and no end of grotesque, contorted humanoid abominations. What could have been a straightforward biopic stays true to its source material and instead feels like a terrifying trip into the sci-fi genre’s darkest alleyways.

1 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick’s legendary masterpiece is just as mind-blowing as ever decades later

2001: A Space Odyssey

Release Date
April 2, 1968

Cast
Keir Dullea , Gary Lockwood , William Sylvester , Daniel Richter , Leonard Rossiter , Margaret Tyzack

Compared to most of the movies listed here, 2001: A Space Odyssey has a relatively comprehensible plot. However, the movie’s famously strange closing sequence sends its hero through the Star Gate, a twist that compresses space, time, and experience into one dimension and shatters the viewer’s mind in the process. The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a trippy meditation on existence that proves sci-fi can be truly surreal, even when a movie starts with a seemingly simple story.

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