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[In honor of this weekend's extra sensory experience, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Fango asked director of the excellent, trippy explorations of identity I CAN SEE YOU and THE VIEWER, and Glass Eye Pix sound design extraordinaire (you've heard his eerie work in the likes of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, STAKE LAND and THE INNKEEPERS), Graham Reznick to give us his favorite pieces of mind bending cinematic psychedelia.]
This summer sees the release of several exciting science
fiction films, some of which are steeped in the realm of the psychedelic
(BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) or the otherworldly unsettling (PROMETHEUS). In honor of the recent trend, here’s a look
at five of my personal favorite reality bending, psychedelic, and incredibly
terrifying science fiction films.
In no particular ranking order:
1) David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (1993) / eXistenZ (1999)
Full disclosure: I'm
cheating a bit here. This is two films,
David Cronenberg is no stranger to brain-tweaking science
fiction. Some of his most well known
films delve into the pulpier side (SCANNERS—which, for the hardcore sci-fi
aficionados out there, is remarkably similar to the John Brunner book THE WHOLE MAN and the Kafka-esque (THE FLY),
but his greatest achievements in psychedelic, reality altering sci-fi would
easily be the companion films VIDEODROME and eXistenZ. They're not two films in a series, exactly,
but two variations on a theme: the invasion of reality through mind altering
media. The idea that some overwhelming, evil
"other" can insidiously infect our perception of reality itself is a powerful
one, potentially even more frightening than a physical invasion.
While VIDEODROME is already in pretty much every psychedelic
sci-fi film fan's library (or should be! There's even an awesome Criterion
edition.), eXistenZ has become a bit of an underrated gem. It arrived in 1999 when "virtual
reality" still meant "big face goggles and chunky humanoids barely on
the edge of the uncanny valley" and "virtual reality" was still
an actual phrase people used. Unlike
previous virtual reality films (I'm looking at you, THE LAWNMOWER MAN!) its
portrayal of the world inside a video game looked suspiciously like everyday
reality, with real actors and real locations.
Suspiciously, being the key word.
In 1999, eXistenZ's representation of the quirks of video game existence
and interaction seemed quaint and niche, but in 2012, with virtual personal
assistants who can sing "Daisy, Daisy" on command and tend to repeat
themselves every three answers, it feels closer and closer to the reality we
currently inhabit. Are we still in the
2) Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER (1979) / SOLARIS (1972)
Okay, I'll admit it.
I just couldn't choose between which one of these two brilliant
Tarkovsky films, STALKER and SOLARIS, to put on this list. They're very different. They deal with different themes, and have
radically different aesthetics (Soviet Space Futurism and Soviet Nuclear
Meltdown guilt). But, I've always found
it fascinating that Tarkovsky, a name not usually brought up as a "master
of sci-fi," actually directed some of the greatest examples of the
form. So, two films for one entry,
STALKER seems like the slightly less accessible of the two,
but it has one of the simplest and most powerful plots in all sci-fi. Three men travel through The Zone (an area
where the normal laws of reality no longer apply because, potentially, some
sort of "alien" event has occurred), led by a Stalker (someone who
can guide them), hoping to get to The Room, a sacred space at the heart of The
Zone where your hopes and dreams can come true.
So they say. And that's basically
that. The men walk slooowly through The
Zone (which eerily resembles Chernobyl, years before the meltdown occurred) and
they deal with strangely labyrinthine physics anomalies and near-magical events
that cloud their minds. While some
modern directors have unfairly been accused of the "slow burn"
approach (I'm looking at you, Mr. Ti West!), STALKER employs a nearly comatose
pace. That may sound like a criticism,
but Tarkovsky’s precision, mastery, and conviction makes STALKER one of the
most unbelievably tense and frightening movies I have ever seen.
SOLARIS, on the other hand… Well, I'll just say that if
you've only seen the (admittedly pretty decent) 2002 Soderbergh remake, you owe
it to yourself to see the original. They
share a story, but littleelse. *Tone* is
the key thing in Tarkovsky's version—we believe the psychological state of the
main character so deeply that the film itself bends around his subjective
interpretation of events. And when the
rug is pulled out in the supremely devastating final scene, we realize we
always knew it was coming, but we were never willing to believe it would.
3) Rainer Werner Fassbinder's WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)
Here I go again, entry number three and I can't even stick
to my own silly rules.
This one isn't a movie at all: it's a T.V. miniseries in three one-hour
parts. It’s also recently received a
fantastic release from Criterion (in HD, too). In WORLD ON A WIRE, the
programmers of a virtual world see strange anomalies in their own reality that
mirror anomalies in the world they created. While the plot twists of WOLRD ON A
WIRE may come across as somewhat cliché, this is because in the years since
1973, the theme of "levels of reality" has been practically done to
death in bigger budget action sci-fi (I'm looking at you, THE MATRIX!). However, Fassbinder's sci-fi epic was prior
to the rise of video games (or, any video games, really), and therefore
pre-dates the entire set of visual and narrative shorthand that clouds many
movies dealing with the subject (I'm still looking at you, THE MATRIX!). And still, with its complex visual framing of
actors within mazes of mirrors and glass, characters who vanish into thin air
and out of existence, and menacing stalkers who look like lost members of
Kraftwerk, it nails the creeping horror of a reality out of balance (in a way
that closely resembles eXistenZ, another movie ahead of its time). Which makes
WORLD ON A WIRE *doubly* ahead of its time.
I'm not even sure people in 1973 could watch this series without having
4) Ken Russell and Paddy Chayefsky's ALTERED STATES (1980)
Oh, ALTERED STATES! The final word in science meeting
mysticism on film. And look! One entry, one film!
A Harvard psychology professor (William Hurt) begins to
experiment on himself, at first using sleep deprivation tanks and then moving
on to the communal drugs of ancient cultures, in his hellbent quest to find the
original "first thought" of our collective consciousness.
Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for us, what he finds is that
"inside" reality and "outside" reality are not separated by
a wall as much as a weak psychological barrier, which, in his quest, he has
gleefully trampled. So influential and
beloved is this film that FRINGE has recently utilized plot points, props (the
sleep tank), and even a cast member (the wonderful Blair Brown, who, in ALTERED
STATES, utters my all time favorite line in a movie, to William Hurt: "Even sex is a mystical experience for
you… I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of
Some of the effects have been accused of being cheesy or
dated (I'm looking at you, monkey man scene), but in the context of Ken
Russell's artistic palette of films, they're masterful and chilling psychedelic
visuals which (along with the insanely terrifying score) are so effective in
unmaking reality, stripping it all the way back to primordial ooze, you'll
swear you've spent some quality time in the tank right there along with Hurt.
Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, had
previously written NETWORK, one of the most prescient explorations of the
existential crisis of the individual's place in a corrupted, corporate run
society. In ALTERED STATES, he explores
the existential crisis of the individual's place in the mundane, agreed upon
reality of everyday existence. Unlike in
the more cynical NETWORK, he offers a valid and moving solution in ALTERED
STATES... and it's simpler than you might think.
5) Philip K. Dick's UBIK (1969) / UBIK: The Screenplay
And now, my final entry on this list of films, Philip K.
Dick's 1969 novel "Ubik." Books
are movies, right?
There's a lot of great reality-altering science fiction out
there, but Philip K. Dick pretty much takes the cake. Someone once said Philip K. Dick would
achieve naturally in a hundred years what L. Ron Hubbard spent millions of
dollars trying to force. He probably
influenced very other entry on this list, directly or indirectly. His work has been optioned and adapted more
than most other authors (I'm not looking at you, Stephen King), probably
because it's so cinematically viable—it's usually short, pulpy and funny, it's
got mind-blowing hooks, and the thought-provoking core ideas are so strong that
the plots of the movies can often be altered to suit whatever star needs a
Super Cool sci-fi summer vehicle. Which
is the problem, really, because so much of what makes Philip K. Dick brilliant
is not the thought provoking / mind-blowing hooks, but how his humble and
tortured characters deal with their crisis.
But, this isn't a critique of what does and doesn't make a great PKD
adaptation, this is about the only book of his he directly approached on
cinematic terms: by re-writing it as a screenplay.
However, UBIK is not an easy book to describe in terms of
movie log lines or one-line descriptions.
It's got telepaths. It's got
telepathic warfare. It's got a
"temporo-path" (a girl who can shift timelines around to suit her
needs). It's got a breakneck pace that
hits the ground running on page one.
It's got some of the scariest weak-at-the-knees moments in any story (book,
movie or otherwise). And it's got the
genius notion (and implementation) that reality-alteration itself can be
harnessed and used like a weapon. I
really don't feel comfortable saying too much about the plot of UBIK— there are
too many spoilers at stake—but if you're a fan of any of the other films on
this list (or the like), you desperately need to read this book right
away. Philip K. Dick does not have any
masterpieces (His oeuvre is like a steady stream of rapidly evolving
obsessions; he doesn't settle on one idea long enough to perfect it. And why bother? He's got a million more, just as great. ),
but if I had to point to one book that encapsulates all of what he does well
and all of what he has influenced, UBIK would be the one. A++++ WOULD BUY AGAIN. And I have, like 14 times, because I keep
lending the damn thing out and never getting it back.
A quick note about UBIK: The Screenplay, which was written
in 1974 but not published until 1985, after Dick's death: if you can get your
hands on a copy, it's worth reading, but only after reading the novel. Dick's sense of screenwriting was blossoming
but not refined. UBIK might have made a great film (and still might), but Dick’s
screenplay is what seems like an intriguing first stab at the medium.
6) WOAH, SECRET ENTRY!
Jean Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965)
Oops, caught red handed.
I knew it wasn't going to be "five films" from the very start,
but I did it anyway! I guess some people
just weren’t meant to play by the rules (I’m looking at you, me).
The plot of ALPHAVILLE is, at first glance, fairly
straightforward: Lemmy Caution, secret
agent, lands in the extra-planetary "Alphaville," a city whose
inhabitants are brainwashed and controlled by a computer. He must kill the bad guy, free the people,
and escape with the girl. Only, this is
a semi-abstract French New Wave film, and it's shot in 1965 Paris with very
little special effects. (Bonus Trivia:
Eddie Constantine, who plays Caution, has a cameo in WORLD ON A WIRE)
I was torn about putting ALPHAVILLE on this list because it
doesn't deal directly with the "twist" of perception the way the
others do, but eventually I realized that Godard's psychedelic new wave sci-fi
neo-noir masterpiece perfectly achieves and embodies the common thread between
most of the other entries. Godard plays
a beautiful trick on the viewer's perception of reality. We are presented with a reality familiar to
us (Paris), and all the rules of that reality are altered so subtly and
carefully that we simply do not see it as the same reality we inhabit. We fully believe the world of Alphaville as
What's particularly important is that this is achieved
through narrative tricks and poetic cinematic expression, not CGI or other special
effects. There's nothing inherently
wrong with a special effects extravaganza, as long as it knows what it's doing
with its narrative, but it's exciting and refreshing to remember that it only
takes a slight tweak to our fragile perception of reality to lead us into a
completely unfamiliar world.
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