With sci-fi / space exploration / mind-bending epic Interstellar blasting into cinemas this week, we thought we’d take a quick look at some of film’s brainiest blockbusters.
Take a look!
Directed by Interstellar’s Christopher Nolan, Inception was so complex on its initial release that it became one of the most rewatched films at cinemas. People literally came back a few days later once their brains had processed the mind-melting story. Leonardo DiCpario leads a band of besuited mercenaries into the mind – the actual mind – of a billionaire CEO in an attempt to get him to break up his father’s empire. How do they do that? By planting an idea in his mind by travelling through his dreams. Yeah, exactly.
Released to huge amounts of fanfare in 1982, Blade Runner had everything going for it to be a summer blockbuster. It had Harrison Ford post-Star Wars, a hotshot director in the form of Ridley Scott and it was based on a popular sci-fi novel. There was just one problem – a little film about an alien called ET was released the same summer and Ridley Scott created one of the most esoteric, richly-designed, mind-boggling sci-fi films ever made. It addressed all sorts of issues, from what makes humans human, how we deal with our sense of reality, the dangers of technology and lots, lots more.
Although Looper wasn’t a box-office smash, it garnered quite an amount of critical acclaim and has become something of an underground hit. Directed by Rian Johnson – who’s currently working on this unknown film called Star Wars: Episode VIII – and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, Looper was a time-travel story – with one huge difference. Bruce Willis was playing an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. Why? Because he sent himself back in time to kill himself. As well as a standout performance by Jeff Daniels, Looper had brains, brawn and Joseph Gordon-Levit in weird makeup to make himself look like Bruce Willis.
EDGE OF TOMORROW
For whatever reason we can’t explain, audiences did not flock to see Edge of Tomorrow like they should have. Based on the novel All You Need Is Kill, it meshed elements of Groundhog Day, James Cameron’s Aliens, existentialism and Emily Blunt wearing a powersuit and flying through the air with a sword made out of a helicopter rotor. A sheepish PR exec from the military is dropped into the middle of an alien invasion and finds himself endowed with a strange ability – every time he dies, he restarts and wakes up back in his body at the beginning of the day. A genuine blockbuster that had real brainpower behind it.
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
Films about reluctant assassins are reasonably common, however The Bourne Identity started the trend. Matt Damon, in a starmaking role, played Jason Bourne – a man with no memory of his previous life, save for exceptional skills in offing people. Directed by Doug Liman (who also did Edge of Tomorrow), the film borrowed from arthouse European thrillers and espionage blockbusters, as well as spawning two sequels and a spin-off starring Jeremy Renner.
PLANET OF THE APES
The first Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston, may seem dated now – but you have to think of it in context. Released in 1968, at the height of the Cold War and a time when the prospect of apocalypse looked increasingly real, Planet of the Apes came at these topics from a skewed point. It dealt with issues of race, society’s handling of what it doesn’t understand and much, much more. Never mention the Mark Wahlberg remake.
Made on a comparatively small budget, District 9 went on to smash all kinds of records, launch the directing career of Neill Blommkamp and introduce us to the ‘Prawns’ - a refugee alien race that live in slums of Johannesburg. Set in the not-too distant future, the South African city is overrun with an alien race that are seen by authorities as ‘pests’. However, when one civil servant is inadvertently infected by a spore and becomes one of them, it sparks off a chase across the city by a not-so friendly corporation who want to use him for research. Smart, blisteringly fast and chock-full of explosions, District 9 became an instant classic.
Paul Verhoeven is the king of the brainy blockbuster. Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct – all glossily made films that masquerade as over-the-top blockbusters, but have an intelligent core to them. Robocop was really about capitalism and its numbing effects on society. Total Recall was actually about citizenship and how treat the lower orders in a multi-faceted society. Basic Instinct was actually about Sharon Stone’s vagina. Starship Troopers, however, stands above them all. On the surface, it’s about a group of teenagers who become soldiers in the Mobile Infantry and fight an interstellar war with giant spiders. But take another look at it – do the uniforms look familiar? That’s because they were based on Nazi uniforms. Yes, really. Verhoeven wanted the film to be a satire about fascism and militarism. In fact, he initially wanted the film to be set in pre-Nazi Germany and follow young teenagers through the ranks of the SS. Like the film, they would be oblivious to the horrors and creeping xenophobia in their society. Even one of the infomercials in the film was copied shot-for-shot from a Nazi propaganda film.
A film about how the world isn’t what you think it isn’t all that new in sci-fi. But in 1999, it sure was. The Wachowskis smashed onto the scene with The Matrix, a dark, brainy blockbuster about how machines controlled our world through an elaborate VR system. Keanu Reeves starred as Neo, a seemingly innocuous computer programmer who just might be the saviour of humanity. Featuring state-of-the-art (at the time) CGI, a thumping electronic soundtrack and splashes of Buddhist teachings and Kung Fu, The Matrix became one of the most successful blockbusters of all time. The two sequels that followed didn’t live up to its initial brilliance, however, but The Matrix has stood the test of time and become a blockbuster with real intelligence behind it.
Like quite a lot of entries on this list, Jurassic Park appears to be a straightforward blockbuster on the surface. Genetically-created dinosaurs run rampant on a tiny island with palaeontologists. Yet, there’s so much more. What kind of film would have a philosophical debate about whether or not it’s morally ethical to create dinosaurs in the first place, let alone even have dinosaurs in the first place? Jurassic Park did. Pretty much all of the central characters were scientists – one of them was even a chaos theorist – and they were well able to handle themselves. Smart people saving the day. Who knew?