How psychedelic science fiction conquered the world

The mention of “science fiction” likely conjures images from Star Wars or Star Trek, dystopias ranging from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale, or Westworld-ian futuristic societies where technology has altered what it means to be human. But a psychedelic strain of sci-fi, present for decades in the genre, is becoming more pervasive in the mainstream — and promptly refracting the world into an impossible and mind-bending pattern.

As psychedelics themselves take center stage in a larger cultural moment in the United States, from the increased popularity of microdosing to the city of Denver decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms, psychedelic science fiction has emerged as a space to discuss, debate, and explore the ecstatic and embrace the ambiguous. The murky definition only helps the pursuit. “While easy to recognize, ‘psychedelic’ remains harder to define,” Mark Cole wrote in a 2016 Clarkesworld article looking at psychedelic science fiction’s roots in the 1960s. Cole ultimately arrives on a vague yet succinct definition: “What defines psychedelic matches the physical effects of hallucinogens.”

The advent of visual effects has opened a door for modern psychedelia. The recently concluded television series Legion has prominently featured psychic warfare, ambiguous realities, and surreal time travel, among other forays into the odd. Stranger Things, while less overtly esoteric, indulged in the bizarre imagery of psychic experiments and sensory-deprivation tanks, straight out of Ken Russell’s 1980 cult classic Altered States. Ant-Man director Peyton Reed said in interviews that he also lifted from Altered States for Ant-Man and the Wasp. And the Quantum Realm scenes in Avengers: Endgame featured some of the headiest visuals ever seen in a movie of that scale — as well as a plot line centered around traveling to a microscopic dimension where the flow of time is fundamentally altered.

The psychedelic stretches beyond blockbusters. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation made use of narrative ambiguity and groundbreaking visual effects to tell its story about exploration, betrayal, and evolution. Independent films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s The Endless transport viewers to bizarre and harrowing corners of the world, where the borders of consciousness blur and the nature of physical laws bends into something incomprehensible. This fall will bring even more forays into the strange and sublime on screens both small and large. Richard Stanley, no stranger to the bizarre corners of cinematic science fiction, is adapting one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most bizarre stories with Color Out of Space.

And Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy’s upcoming series Undone, which premieres this Friday on Amazon, uses hallucinatory imagery to depict the life of a protagonist who navigates space and time in increasingly surreal ways as she searches for the truth about the death of her father. The show’s trailer promises a host of surreal visuals — including prominent use of rotoscoping, albeit of a very different variety than what showed up in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly.

Ant-Man floats in the multicolored, cloudy Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp
Ant-Man in the Quantum Realm.
Marvel Studios/Disney

Much has been written about the influence of the late Philip K. Dick on contemporary science fiction, and given Dick’s forays into psychedelia and religious visions, it’s not difficult to detect some overlap. But the rise of psychedelic science fiction on a larger scale isn’t as directly connected to Dick’s legacy as it first seems. By and large, the phildickian qualities that have trickled into TV and film adaptations of his work are those that focus on shifting identities and a sense of “but is this the real world” — as opposed to some of the even headier and more psychedelic characteristics of his work. It’s telling that an adaptation of Dick’s hallucinatory Ubik has never made it to the screen, for instance, despite numerous attempts.

One exception is A Scanner Darkly, which tells the story of an undercover cop, Bob Arctor, investigating a strange new drug. While undercover, Arctor develops a second personality — meaning that he is, for all intents and purposes, his own quarry. That the undercover officers meet while wearing an ever-changing garment that hides all identifying qualities adds another layer of ambiguity and visual weirdness to the proceedings.

The animation is largely subtle: The animated versions of the cast, including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder, generally resemble themselves. Sometimes, however, the visual effects rapidly shift things into the realm of the uncanny, echoing Arctor’s fraying mental state. In one bizarre scene, Downey Jr. briefly transforms into a humanoid cockroach.

Creating the right visuals for such a distinctive narrative posed a challenge for the filmmakers. Bob Sabiston, head of animation for the film, created the software used for rotoscoping, and had previously worked with Linklater on Waking Life. To hear him tell it, having an established visual style helped considerably with the film’s more surreal elements. “For the most part Scanner was realistic,” he recalled. “There were only a few distinct scenes where it became surreal, and even those were done within the bounds of the style laid out for the movie.”

alma and her mother stand outside a hospital as the sky breaks into shards like glass in Undone
The sky shatters in Undone.
Amazon Studios

“I think the animators wished there was more craziness going on in the visuals,” Sabiston added. “But even though it’s a sci-fi story, it’s rooted in the mundane, banal life of that household.”

While A Scanner Darkly’s visuals are distinctive and stylized, Sabiston considers the work of the animation team to be a kind of collaboration with the cast. When asked about creating visuals that reflect a character’s particular mental state, he replied, “I think that sort of thing happens very naturally if the artist is given freedom to interpret the scene, at least with rotoscoping. You have the underlying video performance, which anchors it to reality, so everything the artist layers on top is a sort of an interpretive mask.”

“I think the animator’s inclination is to push it in whichever emotional or psychological direction is indicated by the character,” Sabiston added. “It may seem like it would be a challenge, but often it’s the organic result of an artist being in the flow, doing their thing.”

On the other side of the psychedelic science fiction spectrum from A Scanner Darkly is Annihilation. Here, a research team — played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny — ventures into “The Shimmer,” a region where the boundaries between life forms have broken down and the laws of time and space no longer apply.

The process for creating the pearly barrier involved abundant trial and error, according to visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. “The Shimmer was described in the screenplay as being like a heat haze but with a ‘glassy liquid quality,’ which gave us an insight into the kind of thing Alex [Garland, the director] was looking for,” Whitehurst explained. “We knew that it needed to keep what was inside fairly hidden to build up mystery, so it couldn’t be too glassy. We knew that it needed to have movement because it is described as continuously expanding, and that it would have, in some way, to reflect the alien presence in the film.”

Eventually, Whitehurst said, a chance encounter on location sparked inspiration. “We happened upon a large puddle which had a thin film of petrol on the water surface,” he said. “That film gave a striking rainbow effect which we all commented on at the time.” Combine that with a number of other aesthetic touchstones, including the Mandelbulb and Antoni Gaudí’s Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, and the design was finalized.

The process of creating distinctive effects for Annihilation wasn’t limited to individual scenes, though — and it was, much like the Shimmer itself, in constant flux. “As the edit evolved, we had to redesign the effects so that the overall filmic flow was maintained,” Whitehurst recalled. “We started to see design themes emerge as we, and the art department, worked on the visuals for the film. For example, as we homed in on using a Mandelbulb variant as our physical representation of an alien, the art department took it on and started to make mandelbulb-shaped fungi and lichens to dress the sets.”

For Whitehurst, this process was both holistic and taxing. “Ideas were always sparking other ideas for different sequences, and this continued after the shoot as the edit evolved,” he said. “I think the film’s evolution and in design mirrored what the characters went through on screen, and the complexity of the relationships between every design element in the film was more complex than anything else I’ve ever worked on.”

the prismatic rainbow shimmer drips down into the grass in annihilation
The Shimmer in Annihilation.
Paramount Pictures

How did we get here? In the new book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies, Erik Davis, no stranger to the intersection of the strange and the cultural, ventures into the history of a quartet of writers and thinkers — Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and the Illuminatus! trilogy authors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson — to find answers. Despite their focus on the 1970s, a number of Davis’ observations resonate with the current cultural moment as well, and help to explain the foothold that psychedelic science fiction has right now.

Early on, Davis discusses the effect of the Nixon administration on, well, everything. “What Nixon and his cronies initiated did go on to warp American reality,” he writes, citing the “uncanny tropes [that] are inextricable from the matter of Watergate,” among other things. A residential administration whose upending of norms causes observed reality itself to splinter? That has a familiar ring to it. Davis also ties the psychedelic movement discussed in High Weirdness to the early days of the internet — and if one believes that the internet has a pocket of psychedelia hidden away deep inside of it, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision that the circa-now omnipresence of all things online might have also created a subtle craving for the same thing in mainstream pop culture as well.

“Today, as memetic noise eats consensus reality, and conspiracy thinking is weaponized by parties across the political spectrum, a sort of existential vertigo has opened up beneath our feet,” Davis writes toward the end of his book.

It’s a succinct description of the contemporary condition, and a recipe for just why psychedelic science fiction narratives have begun to resonate for such an audience. What the coming years will bring for American culture remains to be seen, but pop culture’s forays into the deeply strange show no signs of abating.


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