There’s no question that hordes of people will swarm to theaters to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” on opening weekend, and most of them will get their money’s worth — it’s yet another visually dazzling comic space opera about intergalactic heroes trading banter in their meandering quest to save the universe. Writer-director James Gunn was already onboard to direct a third entry before this one hit theaters, a signal that this vibrant formula works really well for a lot of people. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for a big, flashy blockbuster like “Guardians” has the power to overwhelm everything else out there, and drown out memories of other first-rate science fiction storytelling from recent years that still deserves a larger audience. Here are a few of them worth checking out this weekend. Trust us — “Guardians” will be there next weekend, too.
“Beyond the Black Rainbow” (2010)
The first (and so far only) effort from the wondrous mind of writer-director Panos Cosmos, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is the wacky midnight movie you never knew you needed: The eighties-set story follows the efforts of a demented brain scientist who has coopted the efforts of his laboratory to study happiness in order to hold captive a young girl with psychic powers. The movie is pure nostalgia for the heyday of John Carpenter and outlandish horror-comedy of “Return of the Living Dead,” and its mesmerizing narrative unfolds within the confines of an eerie, shadowy compound lit with neon colors and set to a period-appropriate score reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. While the plot recalls elements of “Firestarter,” Cosmatos reaches for psychedelic heights in the trippy climax, an exciting escape sequence involving mutants and other devilish beings. With images that make the CGI in “Guardians” look downright amateur, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is a constant marvel. It’s a wonder that the filmmaker pulled off this uncompromising vision in the first place, and it will leave you wondering why he hasn’t made anything since then.
“Sleep Dealer” (2008)
Alex Rivera’s Sundance-acclaimed dystopian drama takes place in a future where a massive wall divides America and Mexico (sound familiar?) while migrant workers are no longer allowed into the country and instead use remote-controlled machines to accomplish tasks from afar. Their lives are lonely, hopeless and dominated by the fear of military persecution. One of them is a smart young hacker who builds a receiver on the side and taps into government signals, but that’s just the first twist in a far-reaching sci-fi adventure that brilliantly anticipated much about present-day technology — not to mention the fears surrounding immigration, which couldn’t be more topical today. If the “Guardians” formula seems to lack much in the way of depth, “Sleep Dealer” provides the ideal alternative.
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (2007)
When “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” first took off on Adult Swim, the outlandish TV show quickly developed a cult following. Even so, the concept of several living fast food items who live together near the Jersey Shore and go on a series of inane adventures is a tough sell for the feature-length treatment — which was what made “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters” such an outrageous delight. The discursive plot found Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad inexplicably trapped in Egypt, escaping to space, and eventually upending modern history through some inane gobbledygook involving time travel and space aliens. With its wildly entertaining story about otherworldly creatures careening through comic showdowns, the movie is a genuine precursor to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and a whole lot funnier throughout.
“Europa Report” (2013)
The found footage genre has been done to death, but occasionally filmmakers find fresh approaches. That’s certainly the case with “Europa Report,” director Sebastian Cordero’s look at a group of astronauts marooned on Jupiter’s moon in search of life beneath the surface. Blending awe with the mounting terror of possible beneath the surface, the movie finds the crew members (including one played by Sharlto Copley) enduring an intense accident in the dark void of space, then losing communications with Earth and forced to fend for themselves with the icy resources at their disposal on Europa. A wonderful example of when less is more, “Europa Report” manages to convey the sense of excitement and terror of exploring a new world through small glimpses and the way the surroundings impact the people who find themselves in the thick of it. If the space travel in “Guardians” seems a little hard to believe, “Europa Report” will set you straight.
“Z For Zachariah” (2015)
Craig Zobel’s minimalist post-apocalyptic drama is a bit like “Jules and Jim” in the wasteland: A trio of survivors (Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine) hole up in a rustic country home in the wake of a disease that has destroyed civilization, and wind up in an awkward love triangle that finds both men pining for Ann’s affections. Despite the dreary, suspenseful atmosphere that percolates throughout the movie, all three actors deliver measured performances that make it hard to settle on a single protagonist. At the end of the world, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy, and “Z for Zachariah” toys with a few possibilities. Much in the same way that the “Guardians” crew bicker so often that no single character emerges unscathed, Zobel’s characters’ biggest foe is each other.