15 Mind-Bending Movies Like Inception

Inception is not the only movie with a dense, twist-y plot.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated


We are currently in a Golden Age of weird, mind-bending movies like Inception, the 2010 Christopher Nolan film that saw Leonardo DiCaprio becoming a mind thief and trying to get Cillian Murphy to sell his dad’s company. That particular multi-leveled dream film is just a taste of the kind of trippy films out there that make you stare blankly after watching as you try to work out exactly what just happened. We put together a list of some of the best Inception-style movies, so you don’t have to.

Primer (2004)


Filmmaker Shane Carruth’s debut feature film Primer is one of the best examples of hard sci-fi in cinema, applying actual scientific principles and theory to the idea of time travel. But unlike, say, Back to the Future, Primer is complex enough that you will probably need a flowchart to know exactly what happened.

Fortunately, a lot of people have made exactly those to figure out the complex, overlapping timelines in Primer. Although the basic idea of two engineers (Shane Carruth and David Sullivan) accidentally discovering time travel while tinkering in a garage is simple enough, the unexpected results are anything but that.

Memento (2000)


Years before Inception, Christopher Nolan was already experimenting with twisting, convoluted plots, as proven by his breakout film Memento. This neo-noir (adapted from his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori”) was acclaimed for its use of non-linear storytelling, which is even more complex than it appears at first. 

The story follows Guy Pearce as Leonard, a man unable to form new memories after an attack that resulted in the death of his wife. Now, he uses tattoos and Polaroids to try to help his investigation, even as he has to constantly rediscover what he was attempting to accomplish only moments before and who he can trust.

The Matrix (1999)

keanu reeves the matrix

Inception is famous (or perhaps notorious) for leaving viewers unsure of exactly what is reality and what is a dream, but The Matrix got there years before. The Wachowskis’ mind-bending, action-filled classic hit pop culture with a seismic impact in 1999, instantly creating arguably the most significant science fiction story in decades.

Keanu Reeves stars in the film as a hacker (codenamed Neo) who yearns to discover exactly what “the Matrix” is after years of searching, only to find the reality of it is far huger and more terrifying than he could possibly imagine. Although the sequel films would double down on the confusion and trippiness, there is a reason why the original film is still so influential.

Shutter Island (2010)


Leonardo DiCaprio is not always thought of as one of the leading actors in the genre of mind-bending films like Inception, but here he is again. Shutter Island is DiCaprio and filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s fourth film together (a partnership that will be soon continued with the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon), and unquestionably their weirdest.

Adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island stars Dicaprio as a duly appointed U.S. Marshal in 1954 investigating the disappearance of a patient at a hospital for the criminally insane, only to begin to doubt the real identity of the missing woman, the intentions of the sinister staff, and even his own sanity.

The Prestige (2006)

the prestige lights

Between Batman movies, Christopher Nolan took some time out to make one of the most underrated movies in his filmography, the period-piece mystery The Prestige. Much like Memento, the movie draws in viewers with multiple overlapping timelines, in which we see 19th-century stage magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale enter into a rivalry that grows weirder and more deadly as it goes on.

The Prestige is deceptively simple compared to some of the other movies on this list, which is exactly as it should be: the movie is fittingly structured like a magic trick, where you think you know exactly what’s happened until, poof, you don’t.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Where Inception has multiple levels of dream-reality, the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas takes place over hundreds of years, with each time period obliquely communicating to others and cutting back and forth. This movie (adapted from the novel by David Mitchell) may be the most ambitious of the lot, which is pretty impressive considering the level of reality disruption we’ve listed so far.

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry list an impressive cast including Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, and many more, all playing multiple different characters and roles as the movie explores everything from 19th-century slave ships to authoritarian nursing homes to a far-future technological dystopia.

Coherence (2013)

Coherence is one of the most obscure movies on this list and undoubtedly the most low-budget; where Inception had a gargantuan $160 million budget, director James Ward Byrkit’s film was made for an estimated $50,000. However, it doesn’t take money to make a movie this eerie, it just takes a great story.

In this one, eight friends meet for a reunion dinner, unaware that a comet passing nearby the Earth will cause unthinkable consequences for them all. As the group’s long-buried conflicts begin to rise to the surface, they discover that the comet seems to have duplicated everything around them, including perhaps their own selves.

Donnie Darko (2001)


Richard Kelly’s cult science fiction film Donnie Darko helped make a star out of a young Jake Gyllenhaal and turned Gary Jules’ sorrowful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” into a number-one hit, which is already pretty impressive. But when you consider this spooky movie also deals with teen angst, culture wars, child abuse, and a giant skeletal rabbit creature named “Frank,” it is downright amazing.

Gyllenhaal stars as the titular character, a troubled teen whose room is destroyed by a fallen jet engine in a freak accident, which just becomes stranger when it is discovered that there was no plane it could have fallen from. Buckle up for this one, it’s going to get weird.

Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan is well-represented in mind-bending movies, with Memento, Inception, and now, Interstellar. This Matthew McConaughey film is undoubtedly the grandest in scope of his movies, as a dying Earth attempts to find a new planet to save the future of the human species.

That alone would be a good premise for a science fiction movie, but Nolan goes full in on the potential ramifications of interstellar (get it?) travel, including time dilation, wormholes, tesseracts, and what initially seem to be alien space ghosts from the future. All that, and it’s a movie about the love of a father for his family and the lengths he will go for them.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Widely acclaimed as Jim Carrey’s greatest performance (for those who haven’t seen The Cable Guy), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined the actor’s shocking sensitivity, the immense talents of co-star Kate Winslet, the twisty filmmaking abilities of director Michel Gondry, and the dense writing of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. 

In doing so, they all had a part in creating one of the most beautiful, merciless examinations of a difficult relationship ever put to film. While the convoluted paths of memory and reality are the draw of the film, it is the depth of emotion that makes this one especially great.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

The Butterfly Effect is likely the darkest movie on this list, with Ashton Kutcher (not usually known for his intensely grim performances) playing a young, deeply traumatized man who finds that his early experiences of blackout amnesia were actually caused by his ability to travel back in time and attempt to change the future for the better.

Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s film demonstrates the futility of trying to change the past, except to make things worse. While the Theatrical Cut of the film mines some pretty chilling territory, you really have to see the Director’s Cut alternate ending to really experience its horror.

Source Code (2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal is back, this time in a much more stripped-down but no less trippy movie. Source Code (directed by Duncan Jones) stars Gyllenhaal as a U.S. Army pilot who finds himself waking up in the same eight minutes on a train over and over, only to realize he’s part of a simulation to discover who bombed the train. Or is he?

Source Code co-stars Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, and just gets stranger as it goes on. The action-packed film ends on an odd, peaceful moment that recalls the final ambiguity of Inception, and leaves us wondering if this is truly where the story ends.

Predestination (2014)

This film was based on the short story “—All You Zombies—” by science fiction grandmaster Robert Heinlein, which might key some of you in as to the nature of the title. Ethan Hawke stars as an unnamed time traveler attempting to stop the mysterious “Fizzle Bomber” from killing thousands in the 1970s, only to find himself unable to stop it in time.

From there, Predestination gets more complicated, as Succession’s Sarah Snook becomes involved as a woman recruited for secret agencies that are fronts for other secret agencies, a baby is born and abducted, and the Fizzle Bomber is finally caught. In the end, you’ll have more questions than ever.

Triangle (2009)

Director Christopher Smith sets up a classic horror film premise in Triangle, and then just makes it stranger and darker. Melissa George stars as the stressed mother of an autistic child who takes a boat trip with a group of acquaintances, only to end up stranded on a deserted, spooky ocean liner after a sudden storm capsizes them.

In true horror fashion, George and the other survivors find themselves being picked off by a mysterious masked killer on the ship, but things get really bizarre and complicated as the body toll rises far higher than there are people on the ship. If you like slasher films with a mind-bending edge, Triangle is for you.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival is a science fiction film that deals with one of the most intriguing concepts in the genre: humanity’s first contact with aliens. Unlike many other movies, however, director Denis Villeneuve (working from a short story by acclaimed writer Ted Chiang) is focused on the mechanics of communication, and how humans could possibly interact with creatures with a literally otherworldly perception of the universe. 

Arrival stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as two scientists struggling to communicate with the visitors, finding themselves changed by the very nature of language and perception. This is a sorrowful and intense movie, and just as emotional as the heartbreak of Inception.