Christopher Nolan blew moviegoers away back in the summer of 2010 when he unleashed his sci-fi opus Inception. It was a heist movie, but instead of infiltrating a bank vault or a jewelry store to steal some money or diamonds, the characters infiltrated someone’s mind to steal an idea. Inception is one of the most thought-provoking science fiction epics in recent memory, but it was hardly the first work of sci-fi cinema to make its audience think. That’s actually the basis of the whole genre. Here are 10 Sci-Fi Movies That Will Make You Think As Much As Inception.
10 2001: A Space Odyssey
The ultimate thought-provoking sci-fi epic, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a true cinematic masterpiece. It starts off with the “Dawn of Man,” which suggests that primates evolved into humans when they discovered violence, and it ends with the discovery of a higher life form than our own. Kubrick collaborated on the script with seminal sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, and it’s rammed with lofty ideas about space exploration, extraterrestrial life, and artificial intelligence. When he made 2001, Kubrick set out to make the definitive science fiction film, and it’s fair to say that he succeeded. It’s every sci-fi movie rolled into one.
In a future world where aliens have landed and left a portal called “the Shimmer,” Natalie Portman’s husband heads inside to see if he can get to the bottom of it. He becomes the only person to ever return from the Shimmer, but something’s different about him and he doesn’t last very long back in the real world. Portman heads in there to finally get some answers, and what she finds is truly shocking. From Ex Machina director Alex Garland, Annihilation is a clever, terrifying, and visually dazzling sci-fi horror thriller. However, only the United States, Canada, and China go to see this stunning film in the cinema. Netflix deprived it of a theatrical release everywhere else, which is a shame, because it would’ve been jaw-dropping on the big screen.
8 Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of the two works — along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer — credited with creating the cyberpunk genre. Set in Los Angeles in the then-distant future of November 2019, it stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” who is tasked with tracking down rogue replicants (artificial intelligences that are indistinguishable from real people and have infiltrated society) and terminating them.
7 District 9
Shepherded into production by Peter Jackson, Neill Blomkamp’s feature directorial debut District 9 is one of the most intelligent sci-fi allegories of the 21st century. Set in a world where aliens have landed in South Africa, District 9 is a study of humanity’s fear of “the other” and social segregation. The aliens have been confined to an internment camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The film is presented like a documentary, complete with filmed interviews and surveillance footage to really sell the realism. Even though there’s a spaceship hovering above the city and brine-like aliens populating every scene, District 9 feels real.
Inception isn’t the only breathtaking sci-fi epic that Christopher Nolan has given us. He also directed Interstellar, a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. It’s set in a sadly accurate near-future where Earth’s natural resources are rapidly running out and humans need to find a new home. Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a farmer who is hired by NASA to join Anne Hathaway and her team of astronauts on the mission to find a new planet to populate. A lot of Nolan’s movies could be considered epics, but Interstellar has a really gargantuan scale.
Duncan Jones’ first movie, Moon, is a mind-boggling sci-fi odyssey. Sam Rockwell stars as a clerical worker on the Moon who is coming to the end of a three-year solitary mission, looking forward to returning to his family. However, it slowly dawns on him that his lonesome life on the Moon isn’t what he thinks it is. There are some harrowing plot twists along the way — would it really be a science fiction movie without a couple of shocking twists that shatter the lead character’s conception of their own reality? Moon is like Silent Running if it also had a HAL 9000-esque untrustworthy A.I. character.
4 Children of Men
Set in a dystopian future in which all women are infertile, Children of Men stars Clive Owen as a nihilistic man waiting for the end of humanity who is hired to protect the only pregnant woman in the world. Helmed by the great Alfonso Cuarón, who would go on to direct such instant classics as Gravity and Roma, Children of Men is a movie with provocative themes, a strong premise, and characters who go on a real, tangible journey. Cuarón made the movie with inventive filmmaking techniques — including one sequence in particular that’s shot in a long, continuous take — and a bleak visual palette.
3 Minority Report
The stories of Philip K. Dick have given us some of the most interesting and brilliant sci-fi movies ever made. (This is the second one on this list alone.) Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, is set in a future where the police can predict crimes before they even happen. It raises dozens of ethical questions.
Can you convict someone of something that didn’t actually happen, no matter how sure the PreCrime unit is that it would? Cruise’s character John Anderton, one of PreCrime’s best detectives, finds himself charged with a future murder and has to go on the run as he figures out who he’s going to kill and why.
2 Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a staggering achievement of storytelling. From beginning to end, we’re not sure who we can trust. An employee from a tech corporation wins a contest and is flown out to a remote woodland residence to meet the company’s reclusive CEO. There, the employee learns the true meaning of the contest: to test the CEO’s new cyborg, Ava. Within the first act, Garland sets up three characters: Caleb, the audience’s surrogate entering the strange world of the story; Ava, a naive-seeming cyborg; and Nathan, Ava’s designer. Then, he spends the second act turning these three characters against each other, building to an explosive third act.
1 The Matrix
Will you take the red pill or the blue pill? When Inception was released, critics immediately drew parallels with The Matrix. Both are action-packed sci-fi epics about a team traversing an unseen world, challenging their perceptions of reality. However, there are plenty of differences between Christopher Nolan’s suave thriller and the Wachowskis’ curious blend of William Gibson-influenced cyberpunk, Japanese kung fu movies, and allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The great thing about The Matrix is that it’s an all-time great sci-fi movie and an all-time great action movie. Few movies have managed to stand among the best of two genres.