The greatest science fiction movies sometimes aren't labeled as science fiction at all. As with literary novels like The Road and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, some classic movies explore alternate or futuristic worlds, even as they slip under the radar of mainstream (or alternative) audiences. Call them slipstream, or "stealth science fiction." Here's our list of 15 great movies you may be familiar with, but didn't know were science fiction.
Methods: We compiled a list of 35 or so movies that we believed were unsung science fiction classics. And then we winnowed it down, eliminating movies that weren't great, or which everybody already acknowledges as science fiction. And here's what we ended up with.
8 1/2. A director, trying to finish his next movie — a science fiction epic — becomes creatively blocked, and starts falling into a fantasy world of his own id. The real and the imaginary become more and more blurred, until you can't tell what's happening in Guido's head and what's actually happening.
Adaptation. Okay, we just talked about the reality-warping powers of Charlie Kaufman's movies, but Adaptation deserves to be included here. Everybody acknowledges Eternal Sunshine and Being John as science fiction or slipstream, but Adaptation also warps reality in amazing ways, with its made-up mind-warping flower and blurring twin Kaufmans.
Babe: Pig In The City. Okay, first of all, Babe himself is a mutant, as we discover in the first Babe movie, where his miraculous powers of reasoning and communication startle the humans around him. And then this sequel takes him to Metropolis, a city that's a CGI blend of 5 cities. Mad Max maestro George Miller creates his most compelling future dystopia yet.
Brimstone and Treacle. The 1980s were full of movies where people are sort of aliens. Blue Velvet and Sex, Lies & Videotape both feature characters who are so alienated and bizarre they might be from outer space. But B&T is the ultimate alien-among-us movie. The title might fool you into thinking Sting is the devil, but the movie doesn't actually say so. He's like the protagonist of Karen Joy Fowler's classic novel Sarah Canary — a strange interloper that we're never told is an alien. We just sort of know.
Chumscrubber. This dark comedy takes place in a weird alternate present where everyone's on prescription drugs, and reality starts to blend with the video game of the movie's title, which is all about a postapocalyptic warrior who carries his own severed head. It's a Tim Burton-esque suburbia without any actual Edward Scissorhands.
Confederate States of America (CSA). This is possibly the greatest alternate history movie ever, because it does such a great job of reworking our media-saturated culture to a very different timeline. It's yet another "South won the Civil War" narrative, but with a sharp satirical edge to it. In the early 21st century, large swathes of America still own slaves — and drugs like Prozac are used to keep the slaves under control, as we see in fake ads. CSA is not just alternate history, it also pays tribute to Brave New World.
The Conversation. This Gene Hackman film takes surveillance technology to its furthest extreme. Says Film.com: "Decades ahead of its time, the brilliant final scene shared with us a glimpse of the future that was to come in which technology could see or hear us at almost any time. And Hackman's performance nails down a generation's feelings on the coming technology."
Deep Cover. Lawrence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum star in this tense thriller about a fictional designer drug created by a combinatorial chemist. The brutal drug trade becomes a metaphor for the destruction of the nation-state by the global economy.
Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. All of Jim Jarmusch's movies are full of quasi-aliens, but this one is actually a superhero narrative. He's a black samurai who works for the Mafia, and he communicates via carrier pigeon. He clings to the Bushido, the way of the Samurai, in the midst of a world of randomly murderous thugs, and seems to have almost superhuman fighting abilities. Plus he can communicate somehow with his friend who only speaks French. (Telepathy?)
The Manchurian Candidate (original version). A Korean War hero is brainwashed and reprogrammed, using unreal mind-control techniques, to kill the president. The film derives a lot of its spooky menace from the Communists' bizarre mind-warping of Lawrence Harvey. The Jonathan Demme remake substitutes a microchip brain implant for the original's brainwashing.
Modern Times. The original movie about human alienation from technology is also, arguably, the first cyborg movie. Charlie Chaplin becomes so ingrained in his dehumanizing factory work, he actually becomes part of the machine he works with. And then, in a famous scene, he's literally swallowed up by the gears of his machine.
Pleasantville. We dissed this movie a while ago, but it actually is a terrific film. A brother and sister pass inside their television set, thanks to a hacked piece of technology in their remote control, courtesy of Don Knotts. The black-and-white world of the 1950s sitcom where the siblings get stuck is a metaphor for sexual repression and lost innocence, but also an alternate reality which they access through technology.
Sneakers. It's the ultimate spy movie and possibly the greatest of the hacker movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Robert Redford leads a team of hackers who discover the ultimate codebreaking machine, which can decode literally anything. You could argue the ultimate decoder is just a fancy McGuffin, but it's wound in to the movie's theme of hackers uncovering secrets.
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. Half documentary, half bizarre sexual-psychological drama, Dušan Makavejev's strangest film explores the weird science of Wilhelm Reich, who believed you could collect orgasmic energy in "orgone boxes." It ties that science in with the sexual (and social) repression of Communism, culminating in a representative of Communism having sex with a woman and then beheading her with her own ice skate.
Zelig. Woody Allen not only made Sleeper and the mad-science-heavy Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, he also gave us this story of a man with the strangest superpower of all: he can blend in with the people around him. He not only acts like whoever he's with, he looks like them too. This movie also dips into alternate history, with its warped version of World War II.