More than any other film genre, sci-fi can reshape and morph itself into different categories. While sci-fi may be considered a niche genre to mainstream audiences, a closer look at the highest-grossing movies quickly dispels that notion. Out of the top 10 highest-earning films worldwide, seven of those films had heavy sci-fi elements. From Avatar to Endgame, audiences love the imagination and spectacle that comes with the genre.
While sci-fi seems to enjoy mass success, the mystery genre doesn’t seemingly make the same impact at the box office. However, many viewers fail to realize that some of their favorite sci-fi films are mystery stories. From Blade Runner 2049 to Minority Report, these two genres have often complimented each other and led to some classic mystery films whether audiences realized it or not.
The following entries contain spoilers for the films discussed.
‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (1979)
Ten years after the original Trek series was canceled, Paramount released Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This movie about a mysterious and destructive cloud named V’ger quickly approaching Earth will keep fans guessing until the end.
Like any good mystery, this film pulls a bait and switch using Trek fans’ familiarity with the series to make them believe V’ger is yet another hostile alien the crew must defeat. However, they and the audiences realize he’s no alien but a machine. What starts as your typical sci-fi adventure becomes a mystery as the crew tries to figure out why V’ger is headed to Earth and how this machine became sentient. This plot device separates this series from its counterparts as it avoids having a villain and instead gives the protagonists a question they have to find the answer to.
‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017)
While Ridley Scott‘s original Blade Runner was not a mystery film and was pretty straightforward, its sequel would shake things up. Set in the same futuristic dystopian as the first, an AI is tasked with finding the offspring of a human and an artificial human, a “replicant.”
Like the original, 2049 is about the search for a fugitive. However, in the former, audiences are introduced to the replicant fugitives early in the film. In 2049, viewers have no idea who K (Ryan Gosling) is searching for, adding a mystery to this series. On K’s quest to find the missing replicant, the film throws two red haring at audiences. One is a female replicant working as a sex worker, and the other is K himself. The mystery of this film leads to a more impactful ending when K realizes he’s not the child and his life doesn’t have the meaning he thought.
Unlike Top Gun, Tom Cruise and Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion didn’t blow fans away at the box office. The mystery of a drone technician stationed on an abandoned Earth who finds an astronaut in a cryotube may have been more mysterious than audiences could handle.
Oblivion was marketed as the next big sci-fi action movie. Fans were blindsided when they sat down for a slow burn as Jack tried to connect the dots and figure out the identity of this mysterious astronaut he’s seen in back flashes. Oblivion is slow and contemplative, and it takes time to revel in its mystery. Now that audiences understand Oblivion is a mystery film, it has enjoyed a nice resurgence on Netflix.
In June 2018, Blumhouse took a break from its usual horror fare to deliver the sci-fi action movie Upgrade. The revenge flick is about a grief-stricken widow who uses a sentient cybernetic enhancement called STEM to find his wife’s killers.
Upgrade may look like the typical revenge action movie, but it’s a mystery murder film set in the future. When STEM helps Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) whittle down the suspects of his attack, the film becomes more like a cop procedural as each suspect leads them closer to his wife’s killer. Staying true to the mystery genre, Upgrade pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet when it’s revealed the killer is hiding right under his nose.
Denise Villeneuve‘s 2016 sleeper hit gave audiences a much-needed break from tent pole movies with this sci-fi mystery. After 12 alien spacecraft arrive in various countries worldwide, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with deciphering their language and discovering the aliens’ purpose for coming to Earth.
While most don’t think of Arrival as a mystery, the plot is driven by Louise’s determination to figure out the aliens’ language and what they want before the world is thrown into chaos. Another mystery is simultaneously going on when Louis starts getting visions of her future daughter, who has yet to be born. In the end, Louise realizes as she learns their language, it allows her to see memories from the future.
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Steven Spielberg‘s 2002 hit is a classic “Who done it” masquerading under the guise of a sci-fi film. In a future where three teens can predict murders before they happen, one cop refuses to accept that he’s predestined to commit the next murder.
Some viewers may not think of this film as a mystery because cop John Anderton (Cruise) is not trying to find a killer but instead a motive. John and the viewers already know that he is the killer, but why? The mystery aspect of the film arises as John tries to locate his future victim. John ultimately finds his victim and decides not to kill him, showing that everything is a choice and nothing is predestined.
Natalie Portman stars in this underrated film about a biologist who investigates a bizarre site where nature is turned upside down by a shimmering glow. This film’s ending will leave viewers everywhere scratching their heads.
Annihilation‘s opaque plot taunts viewers and protagonist Lena who’s constantly trying to unravel the mystery of the shimmer. Every new clue Lena finds about the shimmer leads to more questions. Director Alex Garland leaves a lot of ambiguity in this film, allowing viewers to conclude what the shimmer is and Lena’s final fate at the film’s end.
After finishing his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan tried his hand at a planet-hopping space adventure. An ex-astronaut takes a crew into a wormhole to find habitable planets to colonize.
If there’s one thing Nolan does well, it’s a mystery. From Memento to ThePrestige, Nolan is a master at creating a puzzle out of his movies. From the wormhole in space to the mysterious “ghost” communicating with the characters, Nolan sets up different pieces, and the audience must put the pieces of the puzzle together to get the complete picture of the film.
‘The Invisible Man’ (2020)
In 2020, director Leigh Whannell reimagined 1933’s The Invisible Man, updating it for a new generation. This successful film, about a woman whose dead abusive ex-husband is somehow stalking her, is as much of a mystery as it is a horror film.
Most fans consider this a horror thriller. However, if the title weren’t named TheInvisible Man, fans would have no idea who or what is torturing Cecelia. Things get even murkier when the film purposely makes it unclear whether her “dead” husband or his brother is her attacker. Even when Cecelia realizes her husband is alive, she has to prove it to her loved ones.
Synchronic was a surprise hit for Netflix and audiences during the pandemic. Anthony Mackie stars in the film about medic Steve, who is trying to find his friend’s daughter, Brianna, who gets lost in time after taking a drug that allows the user to travel to the past.
Synchronic is the epitome of a mystery film as it goes out of its way to tell viewers as little as possible. Steve acts as the audience surrogate because he’s just as confused about what Synchronic drugs do and where Briana has gone as the viewers. The film leaves little clues hinting at what’s happening that only make sense an hour into the film. Synchronic trusts its audience to have the patience to sit and work out its mystery, just like Steve.
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