The movie industry is not in a great place these days. Never-ending re-makes, worn-out plots we’ve seen a thousand times and a handful of overused stars have tainted many people’s tastes for the cinema. The decline of physical effects in the wake of CG and about 50-too-many nonsensical explosions in every action movie leaves one wondering if we’ll ever recover. It very rarely happens that a filmmaker comes along with something fresh, something special– the kind of film that leaves you not only baffled, but plants the kind of gnawing existential seed inside that begins its growth long after the movie itself has ended. The type of movie that makes you question the world we live in, or the world we may soon be living in, in the not too distant future.
The following five films all bring forth these questions, and it’s only after repeated viewings that their complex narratives will begin to make sense. These movies stand as mind-bending examples of what the medium is truly capable of: turning your gaze inward and causing you to question your own existence.
5. Blade Runner (1982)
In Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a man sent on a mission to terminate Replicants who have stolen a ship and landed on earth in search of their creator. The film is a textbook example of science fiction, commenting on the flaws of humanity and the manufacturing of our human successors. It is also a film about consciousness and the idea of love. It is a beautiful, complex commentary on the human condition that stands as true today as it did upon release. Replicants are not aware of what they are and the method for deciphering who is actually a person or not is an empathy test used to force human emotions to the surface.
As if that doesn’t trigger enough questions about what’s to come (it takes place in November 2019, only 4 years away) the ending (without spoiling anything) is greatly ambiguous and has long been debated by fans and critics alike. Kind of like life. We’re already seeing the beginnings of Virtual Reality in the home, and depending on how much further it goes, it’s worrisome to think about what it could possibly do to people as a whole. We’re already deep into the cellphone zombie apocalypse, so what will happen once we’re wearing devices that can simulate a world far more interesting than the real one? eXistence, anyone?
4. The Matrix (1999)
Without Blade Runner, there would be no Matrix Trilogy. The Wachowskis’ came out with this action blockbuster at just the right time, as 1999 is long remembered for its Y2K debacle and the Internet age on a rapid increase in popularity. The Matrix changed everything about action filmmaking– from the use of “bullet time” (the slo-mo technique to show flying bullets), it’s ridiculous Wuxia-inspired fight sequences and it’s massive amounts of CGI (or at least the sequels anyway) it has lent itself to legions of blatant rip-offs.
And of course everyone remembers the infamous “red pill or blue pill” scene (which also serves as an allegory for this entire website, not coincidentally ;). It is famously harrowing for its relation to the lives most of us are living. It starkly asks: “what in your own life can’t you see?” raising questions about everything from our jobs and love lives to the economy and the way we consume media. Think about it. Are we really living, or just experiencing some flaccid facsimile thereof?
3. Wild Strawberries (1957)
As a writer and filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman was in a league of his own. Bergman, more so than maybe any other filmmaker, spent the majority of his career making films about our existence. Another great candidate for this list could’ve been the other film he made in 1957, The Seventh Seal, as its famous chess scenes with Death are now iconic and widely parodied. But Wild Strawberries is a much deeper more personal film that covers the themes of human existence, introspection, dreams, and memories. Professor Isak Borg (played wonderfully by Victor Sjostrom in his last role) takes a road trip on his way to receive a prestigious award and encounters hitchikers and other setbacks along the way. Throughout his journey he starts to have visions in many different forms; whether it’s nightmares while he sleeps, or daydreams during the day, he starts to reevaluate his life, how far he’s come and at what cost. The film deals with his regrets of how he’s treated people, his impending death and what could possibly be waiting for him in the afterlife. It’s not hard to take away from this movie the underlying theme of simply being a good person, and for years now viewers have walked away secretly questioning whether they’ve been as good or nice as they think they have, and what just might be waiting for them when it’s all over.
2. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Starring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his greatest roles, Synecdoche, New York combines the long-standing tradition of art and existence. Hoffman’s character, a playwright, is writing the play to end all plays. His masterpiece. It has to be perfect and throughout the film his tireless commitment to his art begins to blur the lines between reality and make-believe before finally spinning into a type of endless feedback loop, playing with the one thing only the mediums of film can truly play with: time itself.
Certain moments are almost shocking because time passes in a blink. Before you know it, 20 years have gone by and the play has now become a play within a play, if you will, some sort of playception almost. Without giving the ending away, it’s another movie that finishes on a very ambiguous note– again, much like life itself. Unlike the other films on this list, however, it questions the human condition in a very unique and indirect manner, bringing to light a common folly of the human condition through the artistic pursuit: just how far a person can get lost in something all-consuming, and what they claim is fulfilling, only to get to the end of their life having done in fact nothing at all. Through its clever use of time throughout the film, it makes the viewer realize how short life can be, asking them to take a much closer look at their day-to-day experiences and question their ideas of joy, sadness, and art.
1. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
The most recent film on this list is almost too obvious a choice considering the title, but Roy Andersson’s film is the perfect representation of how cinema can make you question your own existence and look at your life in a completely different manner. The film is actually the third in a loosely based trilogy about human life, with one being released every 7 years, (Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2007)) but it’s only A Pigeon… that fully encapsulates the meaninglessness of life.
Told through 39 vignettes, the film shows the reality of everyday life in Sweden, commenting on the mundane and the ordinary with moments of bleak and depressing humor. By using long, unbroken takes, a barely moving camera and incredibly clever framing, Andersson makes use of a voyeuristic technique through which he transports the audience into the everyday lives of his characters. The title is also a reference to this, because numerous times throughout the film pigeons can be heard above the actors, almost as if they’re looking down on us, wondering what exactly it is we’re up to.
To say this movie is a powerful existential mirror is an understatement. Upon just a single viewing, any thinking person could walk out of the theatre and very well choose to see their life in an entirely different manner, finding the humor in the things that can happen out of the blue and ultimately using the mundane as a tool for divining meaning from a seemingly meaningless world.
About The Author
Brian Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Montreal. When not writing he can be found at the movies or eating chicken wings, sometimes at the same time. Follow his brilliantly clever outlook on life on Twitter or Facebook.