Many of us are suckers for mind-binding, twisted movies. Somehow movies like Inception give our brains the fodder it so very often needs after watching relentless hours of mediocre cinema that is served to us in the name of “blockbusters”. In that, it is still no surprise that Inception turned out to be a blockbuster itself when it released, grossing more than $800 million worldwide. The reviews and word of mouth for this film were stellar, as was Christopher Nolan’s unmatched enigma as a director with a penchant for delivering quality blockbuster cinema that drove the film towards the successful run that it had.
Even today, the film holds an unprecedented #14 rank on IMDb among the best movies ever made, higher than, I’m sure you would agree, much superior classics. Well, the masses function in ways known to themselves only, but that in no way takes away from the brilliance of ‘Inception’ as a film and the big ‘idea’ behind it all: Dreams. Nolan found a way to marry summer blockbuster cinema with one of the most potent sci-fi ideas in recent times, and the result was equal parts exhilarating, awe-inspiring and will be a religion among fans in a decade or so, if it isn’t already. But then again, how often do movies like ‘Inception’ get made? Rarely, right? Therefore, we thought why not put together a list of movies similar to Inception that are our recommendations and will certainly quench your thirst for mind-bending movies. You can stream some of these movies like Inception on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu.
30. Unknown (2011)
After Liam Neeson starred in the successful action-thriller, ‘Taken’ (2008), he found new fame in Hollywood as an action star and completely redefined his image among his fans. ‘Unknown’ follows Dr. Martin Harris, who after getting involved in a road crash struggles to prove his identity to the public and recap the past day’s events. Also starring Diane Kruger and January Jones, ‘Unknown’ is an intriguing psychological-action film right from the beginning which takes the audiences through the unfolding of a well-constructed plot towards a completely unexpected ending. Collet-Serra has very cleverly put the script on screen avoiding unnecessary stretches and keeping the film at a right pace. With Neeson’s expert-style performance and his ability to hold the entire film on his own makes ‘Unknown’ an aesthetic watch. Though the film received a mixed response, it led Collet-Serra to collaborate with Neeson on multiple projects in the future.
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29. Waking Life (2001)
‘Waking Life’ is more than a film. It’s about the many themes that one experiences in his/her lifetime, subtly hinting at the meaning of life. Although many of these don’t make sense, but to the subconscious it remains attached. Probably, in the later stages of life, it all starts to make sense. The unnamed protagonist, keeps meeting people in his dreams who are engrossed in their own discussions, remaining nonchalant to his existence. Soon he realizes that he too can manipulate his own dream. At first, it comes easy to him but soon he gets trapped in his own dreams. Directed as an animated film by Richard Linklater, ‘Waking Life’ is a unique take on the ever tantalizing concept of living life in an instant.
28. Transcendence (2014)
Walter Pfister who’s best known for doing some amazing cinematography work in most of Christopher Nolan’s movies made his directorial debut with this sci-fi thriller. Here, Johnny Depp plays a research scientist whose expertise in the field of Artificial Intelligence makes him very famous in the world of science for his notoriously famous experiments when he succeeds in creating a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with also the capability of displaying human emotions. Because of his success, he’s become a target by some anti-technology extremists who’ll stop at nothing to destroy his inventions.
However in their attempt to destroy him, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed i.e, to be a participant in his own transcendence. As a result, his thirst for knowledge sets him on a very dangerous path. Despite showing promise for its one-of-a-kind plot, there are a few inconsistencies within the story with poor logic which unfortunately damns its potential. Still, do give this a watch if Artificial Intelligence really fascinates you.
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27. Limitless (2011)
‘Limitless’ is the story of a writer who is stuck in a phase of limbo in his life, both professionally and romantically, until a drug named NZT allows him to access 100% of his brain function and capacity, unlocking all the potential even his subconscious mind holds. A classic case of a man thinking he’d found his genie in a bottle, yet everything spirals out of control even as he thinks he has everything he wanted. The film has some extraordinary, even trippy visuals, and that accompanied with the relentless pacing and Bradley Cooper’s performance keep you reasonably invested in this fun ride until the credits roll.
26. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s indie masterpiece tells the story of a man suffering from short-term memory loss, looking to nab the man he thinks raped and killed his wife. He makes short notes uses tattoos to remember crucial information he might forget. In a stroke of pure genius, Nolan uses twin structures for the film; a black and white sequence that is presented in chronological order and a color sequence that goes back in reverse chronology order. This gives us a sense of being in the head of our protagonist as we are denied the same information that has faded away from the memory of our protagonist.
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25. Open Your Eyes (1997)
Say, you’ve a perfect life with friends and family and you’re content with it. Suddenly an accident changes everything and leaves everyone that you loved, for dead. What you’ll do? Wouldn’t you give everything to get back those precious moments? Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, this Spanish film tells the story of a disfigured man and his tryst to overcome his past, as his dreams keep showcasing fragments of it. Revered by critics and audiences alike for its intelligent story, it caught the attention of Tom Cruise who produced its equally successful American Remake – ‘The Vanilla Sky’.
24. The Machinist (2004)
A lot of people and online posts must have urged you to watch ‘The Machinist’ solely to witness Christian Bale’s dedication to his craft, and his astonishing weight loss (and back) to portray a deeply disturbed character suffering from Insomnia. True, the man is at the top of his game here, but that does not take away from the film’s dark brilliance in telling a psychologically complex story of a protagonist who increasingly suffers from delusions separating real from imaginary, as a mystery regarding one of his co-workers and an accident at work deepens.
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23. Total Recall (1990)
Dennis Quaid, just like a few other normal human beings, lives a normal life, with his beautiful wife for company. But at night, he gets these strange dreams about a mysterious lady in a mysterious place. Discouraged by everyone, upon asking about his dreams, he reaches out to Rekall, a company who specialises in planting memories for fantasy. But as the procedure starts, Quaid starts getting flashes of a subdued memory. And all of a sudden, his world does not seem to be the one he practically lived his entire life. Or so he believed. Based on Philip K Dick story, which incidentally served as a prequel to the ‘Minority Report’, ‘Total Recall’ was considered to be way ahead of its time.
22. The Prestige (2006)
In the game of one-upmanship between two magicians, who channel the deep-rooted hatred for each other, to a lifelong feud which elevates to something sinister and goes beyond imagination and we the viewers, remain as the mute spectators, watching with our incredulous eyes. Directed by Christopher Nolan, ‘The Prestige’ is a dark tale of bruised ego of men obsessed with secrets. With its clever climax, the film will surely leave you thinking for days.
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21. Interstellar (2014)
I consider ‘Interstellar’ to be a close cousin to the monument that is Inception. The first similarity that would strike the mind would of course be Christopher Nolan, but Interstellar, I believe is made of the same raw fiber as Inception is. Both of these are films that stage brilliant sci-fi concepts, one venturing into the labyrinth that is the human mind through dreams, the other into the vast unknown in space where time and even physical space are tangible enough to gauge directly. Yet still, there is a human element connecting these stories, a father pining to return to his children, overcome with grief over a loss they cannot necessarily fix, set against cerebrally overwhelming set pieces. From Hans Zimmer’s score, to the mind bending visuals, to the overall narrative structure and the treatment of a grandiose idea in a humane way, ‘Interstellar’ is everything you love about ‘Inception’, donning the face of a space opera.
20. Looper (2012)
Very rarely do we ever see how time travel in movies are incorporated in such a unique way. This movie is one of those rare few. Directed by Rian Johnson, this film is set in futuristic 2044 where criminal syndicates use contracted killers called “loopers” to kill victims using time travel. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Joe, a looper whose job is to hunt down the men sent from the future and into the past so that he can then properly dispose their bodies. After a while, the mob then decides to “close the loop” thereby sending Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) to the past so as to assassinate him. When the two meet, they have to figure out what to do with themselves with each of them having personal and conflicting agendas to fulfill. It truly is a very thought provoking film which combines the themes of futuristic sci-fi and some good old action sequences. A very smart and tout thriller, ‘Looper’ probably the most underrated movie of the entire list.
19. Minority Report (2002)
Spielberg, in his own words described the film as “fifty percent character and fifty percent very complicated storytelling with layers and layers of murder mystery and plot”. I say it is obviously more than that. Its theme of continually questioning about the existence and purpose of free will, or if the will to act individually would hold any merit if the future were known beforehand is ingeniously exploited through the actions of the lead, Tom Cruise, who is in terrific form, and the predicament of the precogs. Visually a standout, the film is a must watch if you love murder mysteries embroiled in time.
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18. Source Code (2011)
Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Colter Stevens is a pilot and a part of secret program of the government, by which he is given to relive the last few minutes in the life of another man, who died in a train explosion. Stevens is needed to learn the identity of the bomber, but when he takes up the task, he sees many things are at stake, the least available being time. ‘Source Code’ gives a new twist to the time-travel films we are used to seeing, and does so brilliantly. You will be surprised by how much this movie is like Inception.
17. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
A movie which borrows a similar concept of time loop from ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993), this film’s plot is set in the future when Earth is invaded by aliens, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) – a public relations officer who barely has an combat experience is forced to go into an almost suicide mission battling the aliens. Though he is killed in battle, he finds himself unexpectedly in a time loop where he re-lives the same day preceding the battle every time he dies again and again. Using this opportunity to improve one’s fighting kills, he teams up with Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) as they seek a way to defeat the extraterrestrial invaders.
This is a very clever and intense sci-fi spectacle with clever use of humour followed by some stunning visual effects, terrific alien design and some beautifully orchestrated battle sequences as we get to see Cruise and Blunt strapped up in full body artillery, being transformed into ultimate fighting weapons, and going to great lengths by testing one’s physical prowess .
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16. The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Chaos theory is a mind-boggling theory. According to it a small event at some place could lead to influential events far away. When Eric Bress and Mackye Gruber made this theory into a film, obviously that was going to be something we hadn’t seen before. Evan (Ashton Kutcher) is a teenager who frequently blacks out due to unbearable headaches and is transferred to the past, where he can make alterations to his life and of others too. But when he finds out that small changes in the past can drastically change the present, Evan finds himself in macabre parallel realities. It is not a perfect film, but it is a damn interesting one.
15. The Fountain (2006)
‘The Fountain’ is a film that is so much more than just a mind bending movie with a confusing plot for a spectacle. It talks of man’s everlasting quest with the phenomena that are birth and death, man’s feeble attempt to control either, and how the two form a cyclical relationship with each other. It does so through three congruous timelines, and is essentially the story of a broken man coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife. I found myself completely at a loss of words trying to pit the film under a single genre or category, and in that, the film defies boundaries and presents something that is to be viewed devoid of a critical eye, to be felt first, and fathomed upon later.
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14. Mr. Nobody (2009)
To watch this brilliant film with a closed mind is simply an extended exercise in futility. I would rather like to think of Mr. Nobody as a sustained mental exercise. As the happenings unfold on screen, there is a plethora of parallel thoughts and theories that crowd your mind, each coming at you with lightning speed, which is essentially a part of the viewing experience. Imagine an RPG where you have to make crucial decisions at certain points, and all of these decidedly lead to different outcomes, each spread out through alternating realities. To manifest such an idea in a film this good is an achievement unto itself and its central theme of the future, its uncertainty, the chaos theory, of existence and everything in between is a treat of a puzzle to piece together.
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13. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
While watching and reading up on ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, I was made aware of a term that would virtually encompass all the films in this list, called rubber reality, wherein the reality that our protagonist experiences is different or alternative from perceived reality, and/or not ‘real’ at all. ‘Inception’ is an important milestone in that genre, but ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ may be when the genre truly defined itself and came into its own. Yet still, it isn’t as well appreciated as the other mind bending movies of that era. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ starring Tim Robbins is the story of a Vietnam war veteran, shell shocked, and recovering from the death of his son, haunted by visions he finds hard to segregate between visions and reality. In an increasingly complex spiral, the film takes you through not only Jacob Singer’s psyche but also his emotions with an underlying philosophical, almost prophetic tone.
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12. Fight Club (1999)
Undoubtedly so, ‘Fight Club’ is the film that redefined cool for an entire generation. With more number of catchphrases and dialogues that are today as iconic as the film itself, more so than any other modern film, its impact on the cinema viewing audience and the current rebellious psyche of impressionable minds cannot be denied. At the same time, it established Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) as an instant messiah for twenty somethings searching for a fleeting meaning in life. The film derives equal notoriety from its critiquing of the shallow existence of our times, as it does from its ending, quite literally mind blowing. If you are looking to engage in endless intellectual conversations and a state of complete dissuasion once the film ends, look no further.
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11. Coherence (2013)
‘Coherence’, a story of eight friends at a dinner party experience a troubling chain of reality bending events, is essentially based on a scientific theory referred to as Schrödinger’s cat theory. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. In simple terms, it is the possibility of existence of multiple simultaneous realities at the same time.
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10. Predestination (2014)
‘Predestination’s a befitting reality to how time-travel movies are made, and how uncertain they are. It embodies a timeless traveller, revolving in time between 1945 to 1993 in search of the fizzle bomber. The film is based on a concept known as predestination paradox. Predestination paradox is a sequence of events (actions, information, objects, people) in which an event is among the causes of another event, which in turn is among the causes of the first-mentioned event. How the timeless traveler makes his own creation possible, as ‘the snake that bites its own tail, again and again’ will astound you and leave you thinking.
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9. Upstream Color (2013)
It’s next to impossible to pinpoint one thing that ‘Upstream Color’ is about, but on a broader perspective it explores the symbiotic relationship between man, animal and nature through the personal journey of two individuals to self discovery after they have been stripped off everything they know and possess. Metamorphically, ‘Upstream Color’ is multi-layered, but primarily it’s about the things that are outside and beyond our control.
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8. Donnie Darko (2001)
‘Donnie Darko’ follows the adventures of the troubled title character as he seeks the meaning behind his Doomsday-related visions. The time-line in the story is directly dependent on the audiences’ ability to remain coherent and adapt to understanding the concept of time travel. Even though it is dense with ideas and nearly impossible to understand in one-viewing, very few films enjoy such cult following. One of the other uniquely beautiful things about ‘Donnie Darko’ is that while there are a ton of explanations available on the internet right now for what exactly conspired during its runtime, and numerous breakdowns of its much talked about ending, each viewer will have a somewhat different interpretation of its multi-layered script doused in possibly every science fiction concept in this list; this is as open ended as it gets.
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7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
I know many might find its place here on this list surprising, but ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is as much a film about science as it is a love story. The concept of memory-erasing that the film is based on is so mind-boggling that most of the first-time viewers find themselves in a maze of complex theories. Ultimately, the film intertwines science and romance with magical results. Charlie Kaufman examines the painful realities of human relationships using the bizarre nature of the human mind and memory. We often cling on to certain memories for no reason but they keep us alive in some ways and that’s what makes our lives worth living and life turns into an absolute misery the moment they fade out from our minds.
6. The Matrix (1999)
When I consider action movies and sci-fi movies today, and of the yesteryear, I always tend to see them in a pre-matrix phase and a post-matrix phase, which, I believe is a testament to the impact the film has had on modern sci-fi and action films. It is true when they that ‘The Matrix’ changed things. Not only did it break completely new ground with its story, it scored high on an extremely stylistic treatment, both visual and cerebral, giving us an instant sci-fi classic for the ages. Much like ‘Inception’, here too the subject’s realisation of the simulated world he was trapped in allowed them to perform humanly impossible tasks limited only by the mind’s imagination; an uncanny similarity that I thought of much later, but helped me appreciate both movies even more.
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5. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
’12 Monkeys’ centers around James Cole (Willis) in the 2030s, who is a prisoner, and is recruited for a mission and is sent back to the 1990s to gather information about a fatal plague, which has wiped a large part of the population. The thing, which is to be noticed throughout, is the relation of him with the manic Jeffrey (Pitt) and subtle and desperate romance with Dr. Katherine Railly. Directed by Terry Gilliam and co-written by David Peoples, who previously authored ‘Blade Runner’, ’12 Monkeys explores the subjective nature of memories and their effect upon perceptions of reality through the concept of time-travel.
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4. Primer (2004)
‘Primer’ is not just a film; it is an elaborate science puzzle. In short it is about two friends who (sort of, accidentally) invent a form of time travel. Initially, they think of using it just to make money, but soon selfishness and shortsightedness lead them to create so many overlapping timelines (at least 9) that they lose control of themselves, their friendship, and the technology. To fully understand each and every aspect of ‘Primer’ requires multiple viewings. When you finally “get” the film, don’t be surprised if you feel ecstatic and victorious, not very different from how you feel when you are able to solve a difficult puzzle.
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3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
A first watch of ‘Mulholland Drive’. results into the following: A head scratch, confusion, brainstorming, realization, acceptance. Only after you accept that what you have watched is nothing short of a miracle, you go for second, third, fourth watch, to appreciate the nuances, to laud at the filmmaking, the editing, the performances and to glean some sense out of the cerebral and haunting piece of cinema. A film that is discussed even today, around 15 years after its release and yet, not every question about the film has been answered. ‘Mulholland Drive’, quite simply, offers the greatest cinematic mystery of all time.
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2. Paprika (2006)
The most direct relative of ‘Inception’ as a film in the list, ‘Paprika’ is the last anime feature film directed by Satoshi Kon, and features the use of a technology called dream therapy that allows its user to access a person’s dreams, and by extension, his subconscious. I daresay that ‘Paprika’ goes a step further than even ‘Inception’ in detailing the frailty and personal yet sensitive nature of dreams and the world they are capable of unlocking if viewed in the film’s context. It is a quiet work of genius, with outstanding animation and great moral fiber at the story’s core. Don’t miss it.
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1. Shutter Island (2010)
‘Shutter Island’ is a story of two federal marshals, Edward Daniels and Chuck Aule, who visit an offshore island where a mental asylum for criminally insane houses the most vicious murderers and rapists, to solve a case of the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando. As Edward builds up his case, he tries to uncover the truth behind the activities at the facility, while being haunted from his days in war and the death of his family. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, ‘Shutter Island’ is the most twisted film directed by Martin Scorsese till date, which takes the levels of suspense, mystery, and thriller elements to new benchmarks in Hollywood. The film which is set in the 1950s uses elements of detective thrillers combined with the traits of a psychological horror and delusional story-telling by a disillusioned narrator.
‘Shutter Island’ is easily one of the most atmospheric movies I have seen, and everything including the score, the locales, the cinematography, the forsaken island, the lighting; everything, creates an eeriness that produces moments of genuine, lasting horror that stays long after the final twist is done blowing your minds.
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