by John

In August 2014, director Darren Aronofsky was invited by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to be part of a panel discussion titled “Movies in Your Brain: The Science of Cinematic Perception”. The filmmaker, who is known for his surreal and disturbing works, shared his views on how the human mind perceives mind-bending concepts explored in movies.

Wait – aren’t movies meant to entertain?

For readers who are familiar with Aronofsky’s films, you know they aren’t straightforward narratives. His feature debut Pi (1998) explored the relationship of the universe to mathematics, while his second film Requiem for a Dream (2000) pushed cinematic boundaries by featuring some of modern cinema’s most graphic scenes. The movie starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans is also known for its haunting music score composed by Clint Mansell.

Aronofsky then moved on to work with major movie studios, but his signature filmmaking style remains. The Fountain (2006) starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz left viewers scratching their heads, while The Wrestler (2008) was an unconventional story featuring a heartbreaking performance from Mickey Rourke.

Elsewhere, Natalie Portman took home a Best Actress prize at the 83rd Academy Awards for her performance in Black Swan (2010), a terrifying look at a ballet dancer’s obsession with artistic perfection. And you thought the biblical epic Noah (2014) starring Russell Crowe, Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Anthony Hopkins would be a simple narrative? Trust Aronofsky to deliver a visually-arresting film that invited controversy for its unconventional storytelling.

Not much is known about Aronofsky’s seventh feature film. Based on the publicity materials released, we only know that Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive at their doorstep.

Is the official title “Mother!” with a capital "m", or the lower-case “mother!”? What does the exclamation mark at the end of the title mean? Previously known as "Day 6" during production, we are pretty sure Aronofsky’s latest work is going to be one intense experience. Meanwhile, here are other films that mess with your mind like a roller coaster ride.

1. Are You Scared, Baby?

With so much secrecy surrounding Aronofsky’s movie, the Internet is abuzz with fan theories. One interesting take is how 2017’s mother! is the Oscar-nominated director’s take on 1968’s Rosemary's Baby. Netizens are using clues and easter eggs in the film’s promotional materials (check out the poster above!) to discuss whether Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are trying to force Lawrence to birth the devil.

If you have watched the psychological horror film helmed by Roman Polanski, you would know how Mia Farrow’s pregnant protagonist went bonkers suspecting that her baby is going to be used by an evil cult for their rituals. Based on the bestselling 1967 novel of the same name by Ira Levin, Polanski’s American debut is a horror classic that was recognised at major awards and festivals. In 2014, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Throughout the film, you will be kept uneasy as Farrow’s titular character experiences twisted and sadistic events involving witchcraft and Satanic rites. It gets your mind spinning, fearful and curious at the same time. How the filmmakers pieced together the sequence to lead up to the movie’s last scene will leave you disturbed for days.  

Rosemary's Baby

2. An Island Vacation, Anyone?  

Leonardo DiCaprio loves to take up intense roles. In 2010, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a psychological thriller based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name. DiCaprio plays a U.S. Marshal who travels to a psychiatric facility on the titular island after one of the patients goes missing. While investigating the mystery alongside his partner officer played by Mark Ruffalo, strange revelations begin creeping up the duo’s backs.

As the film progresses, you begin to realise that things aren’t what they seem. Scorsese does a good job handling the psychologically intense subject matter. When the plot twist is revealed, it feels more heart wrenching than shocking. The emotional payoff is worth your while, thanks to the two leading men’s strong screen presence. They are accompanied by Ben Kingsley who plays the facility’s lead psychiatrist, and Michelle Williams who delivers an affecting performance as DiCaprio’s wife.

Shutter Island

3. Did The Spinning Top Fall? 


Why does DiCaprio like to be involved in movies that mess with your head? In the same year, viewers were treated to Inception, another mind-melting film starring the 42-year-old actor. Perhaps the most mainstream title of this genre (the big budget production cost US$160 million to make, and was handsomely rewarded with a worldwide box office return of US$825.5 million), it has also spawned countless fan theories.

DiCaprio plays a thief who steals information by infiltrating people’s minds. This one-liner does not do justice to director Christopher Nolan’s complex script which blurs realities like no other film. Packaged as a heist movie, no other movie has managed to pull off a mind-twisting plot like this. The movie burrows into your brain and sinks you deeper and deeper into your sub-consciousness. While it is thrilling to sit through the movie’s 148-minute runtime, there is no way you can fully know what happened when the credits begin to roll.

The ensemble cast is also a highlight of this critical and commercial success: Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine each holds his or her own ground in the film. Hans Zimmer’s music score is emotionally engaging, and Wally Pfister’s cinematography is breathtaking. It is a pity that the 83rd Academy Awards did not recognise it with the Best Picture accolade (out of the eight nominations, the film took home the Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects prizes).


4. Is Everything Meaningless?

American-born British filmmaker Terry Gilliam may be 76 years old, but judging from his last directorial work, it is clear that his mind is ticking faster than most of us. In 2013, Gilliam made The Zero Theorem starring Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry and David Thewlis.

We shall try to describe the film’s premise: Waltz’s Qohen Leth is an introvert who works in dystopia that has been hit with bureaucracy and technology. He pedals a stationary bicycle and controls a joystick to solve a mysterious mathematical formula known only as the “Zero Theorem”. The lonely man is also waiting for a phone call that will supposedly enlighten him with the Meaning of Life. Phew – how’s that attempt to sound coherent without coming off as ridiculous?

Gilliam’s work may be filled with existential angst, but there is a lot of philosophy to be deciphered within its 111-minute runtime. There are many metaphors which require repeated viewings to grasp, and you aren’t going to get a clear answer what the Meaning of Life is when the movie ends. You are distracted by the supporting cast’s strange getups (watch out for brief appearances by Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw), but you get a nagging feeling that there is something which needs to be decoded. Judging from Gilliam’s filmography (Brazil, 12 Monkeys), this is one mind-bending ride that pays off if you are willing to plough through the disarray of confusing elements. 

The Zero Theorem