Let’s face it: with most fantasy movies, conspiracies are thin on the ground. We have a clearly delineated battle between good and evil; the good guys brandish righteous weapons, the bad guys chew scenery. Sci-fi, of course, is crawling with conspiracies, but not everybody wants to sit through three hours of Tom Cruise playing with his new iPhone. Still, some great speculative fiction involves sinister forces that try to sneak past the protagonists – and sometimes succeed. So if you like a little conspiracy with your spec, sit back, relax, and let these seven movies teach you never to trust anyone, ever.
The mother of all conspiracy fantasies, Dark City follows a protagonist who doesn’t know who he is, why he’s in a bathtub, or why there’s a dead woman in his hotel room. As the plot slowly unspools, John Murdock begins to realize that whatever goes on at midnight fundamentally changes everyone in the city every night – and erases their memories, so he can’t trust anyone for longer than a day. Even though the ending isn’t as bleak as you might fear, the ominous treatise on identity is plenty creepy, and brings a new meaning to that City Limits sign.
Part film noir, part sci-fi, all Angela Bassett. Strange Days presents an all-too-prescient view of a torn-apart L.A. on the eve of the year 2000, where a thriving black market sells off SQUID tapes that you can plug in to literally relive someone else’s memories. Everything’s going swimmingly for our bottom-feeder Lenny Nero until an old friend turns up dead right after telling him about a mysterious tape she’s left for him. Nero enlists Angela Bassett’s Mace to help him retrieve the tape, and things go downhill from there. It’s not a sophisticated conspiracy, sure, but isn’t there something lovely about watching everyone in the movie take their turn shooting at Lenny.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Nothing says conspiracy like mysterious villagers, fantastic beasts, and Monica Belluci! This atmospheric tale begins when government agent Fronsac and his Iroquois companion Mani arrive in a small village to investigate a series of wild-animal attacks. The animal’s legend grows daily, and as the two men attempt to determine whether the animal is supernatural, they get caught up in religious struggles, secretive and alluring nobility, and dozens and dozens people who need their asses kicked in slow motion.
Mixing The Hound of the Baskervilles with Dangerous Liaisons (and Last of the matrix-icans), Brotherhood of the Wolf manages to be almost everything to almost everyone. Where it falls down on the job: the conspiracy resolves itself with a reveal both creepy and laughable – thanks for that, Vincent Cassell.
The Stepford Wives
The conspiracy behind this suburban dystopia is no secret – the men of Stepford systematically murder their wives and replace them with submissive domestic robots. The concept has become pop-culture shorthand, but the dread of the original movie hardly diminishes knowing what’s coming, right down to the last scene of our heroine’s doppelganger blissfully shopping for groceries amidst a dozen other Stepford Wives.
(An even creepier conspiracy; the 2004 remake, even with its sunnier ending, still found a market for a movie about docile housebots – this time, played for laughs. Scary stuff.)
City of Ember
City of Ember, the movie adaptation of the 2003 Jeanne Duprau novel, is a young adult’s view of conspiracy; adults, full stop. Whether a clueless parent or a malicious mayor, this movie doesn’t trust anybody over thirty. In the underground megacity of Ember, last outpost of humanity, the power is slowly going out. With supplies getting scarce, it’s up to young messenger Lina and pipeworker Doon to find a way out of the city before a) the city collapses, b) the Mayor finds them, or c) a giant mole eats somebody. (It happens. I don’t know what to tell you.)
There’s really nothing like a straight-up Catholic conspiracy to bring up dramatic visuals. In this underrated low-budget quasi-horror flick, atheist Frankie begins to manifest stigmata. Gabriel Byrne, the Hunkiest Priest in the World, is dispatched from the Vatican to debunk her claims. However, as she suffers increasingly horrific bouts of wounding and possession, the Hunkiest Priest in the World begins to suspect that the Vatican knows something it isn’t sharing, and is more than happy to kill Frankie to keep the secret safe.
The Catholic Church definitely falls on the dark side of this conspiracy, so if you’re devout, give this a pass. However, if you like demonic house panting, flaming bedclothes, and Italian accents that sound like the Spicy Meatball guy, have we got a conspiracy for you.
House of Flying Daggers
Mei’s a blind dancer (or is she?) who has ties to the criminal House of Flying Daggers (or does she?) Captains Jin and Leo, upstanding police captains (or are they?), agree to let her go in hopes she’ll lead them to Flying Dagger headquarters (or will she?), but plans get complicated when she falls for an undercover Jin (or does she?), and Leo is not all he seems (or is he? Wait, no, he’s not. Sorry. It gets confusing.)
This visual masterpiece boasts stunning scenery, beautiful composition, and one of the most complicated plots in recent years. Just assume that everyone in the movie is conspiring against everyone else; then enjoy the fight scenes with a light heart, knowing what’s coming.