Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has earned a cult following. Here are some other 21st-century sci-fi films with the same vibe.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind arrived in 2004 amid a glut of high-end science fiction projects with very large budgets. The multiplexes were dominated by the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Harry Potter franchises during the early years of the new millennium, as well as the Star Wars prequel trilogy and similar fare. In contrast, Eternal Sunshine was low-key and largely bereft of special effects, relying more on surreal imagery and a seemingly normal reality in its tale about a machine that could selectively erase painful memories.
Those qualities helped turn the film into a cult classic, as well as provide a calling card for director Michel Gondry’s unique style of filmmaking. But Eternal Sunshine isn’t the only 21st-century science-fiction film to embrace such techniques. Even as special effects technology has advanced to the point where filmmakers can create anything they imagine with enough money, equally talented filmmakers have invested their vision in smaller movies hinging more on intellectual concepts than strong visuals. Fans of Eternal Sunshine would do well to seek them out. They’re presented here in order of release date.
Wristcutters: A Love Story Shares Eternal Sunshine’s Sense of Humor
Wristcutters is more fantasy than science fiction, depicting a purgatorial afterlife where people who commit suicide go after they die. Their new lives seem intended as a punitive measure – everything there is just a sadder, blander, more crumbling version of the world they left – and as the film’s protagonist explains, everyone stays put because if they kill themselves again, the next place might be worse. His amiable post-death existence is interrupted by the arrival of a free-spirited young woman who maintains that she was placed in this universe by mistake. The film’s dreamlike tone and sly sense of humor are very much in keeping with the tone of Eternal Sunshine, as well as carrying a surprisingly heartfelt romance at the center of it.
Children of Men Is a Though-Provoking Look at the Future
Children of Men has one of the higher budgets on this list, along with a director in Alfonso Cuarón who can move comfortably between big studio productions and indie fare. Most of the money goes towards a high-powered cast, including Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine. But its future is anything but glamorous: a sad, slowly failing civilization where human beings have stopped having babies and are looking at a gradual fade into oblivion. Cuarón reveals the world with his signature extended shots, giving the audience ample time to contemplate how close this world still is to the real one.
Timecrimes Carries Deep Lessons About Humanity
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo could readily fill several slots on this list, with the English-language Colossal just a pair of giant monsters away from the same vibe. Timecrimes is a head-twister of a story about a man who idly spies on the house next door, only to find himself drawn into a time-travel mystery in which he may be both killer and victim. Vigalondo takes care to keep the actual process of time travel as low-key as possible, focusing the audience on its protagonist’s dilemma rather than the scientific specifics of how time travel works. It results in a wicked cause-effect paradox, among its other virtues, along with the sad realization that human beings cannot help but be themselves.
Moon Prioritizes Storytelling Over Sci-Fi
Like Vigalondo, director Duncan Jones has several projects that belong on this list, including 2011’s Source Code, which posits a slightly more effects-laden version of the dilemma from Timecrimes. Moon became the director’s calling card and, but for a few exterior shots of a cart across the lunar surface, could conceivably work as a stage play. Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut harvesting energy on the lunar surface amid a three-year stint away from Earth, who comes across evidence that he may not be alone. The sci-fi trappings serve as little more than world-building, giving Rockwell a chance to deliver one of his best performances to date while meditating on a classic sci-fi theme of what it means to be human.
Looper Takes a Unique Approach to Time Travel
Rian Johnson’s Looper wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, but it served as enough of a calling card to secure the director Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. He focuses on time travel here, and as with Timecrimes, the film takes a singular approach to the subject. The technology is the purveyance of organized crime, who come up with some unique ways to make themselves rich with it, as well as sending those who cross them back in time for assassins in the past to execute. Trouble comes when one of them is ordered to kill his future self and decides not to go along with the program.
Her Is a Bittersweet Love Story
Spike Jonze found a perfectly strange sci-fi couple in Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. The former plays an isolated writer in a future society, the latter an OS on his phone designed to serve as his ideal companion. Jonze made his name on quirky indie fare, and while the futuristic society here shows the hallmarks of advanced special effects, the story revolves around Phoenix talking to a disembodied voice on his phone. It’s as haunting and bittersweet as Eternal Sunshine, with an equally wise view of the fragility of love.
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