Some movies are dumb. In fact, you could argue that most movies are dumb, including some of the films that are widely hailed as smart. These are the movies that feel like they should blow your mind, but also nag at you for some reason. Maybe it’s the way their plot doesn’t seem to quite hold together, or maybe the emotions or themes don’t translate as well as they should. Whatever the case may be, these movies don’t work as well as many believe they do.
In making this list, it became necessary to determine what exactly a ‘smart’ movie is. These are movies that aren’t just good-- they also have people scratching their heads for one reason or another. Their narrative methods create a world that’s complex, and they were made to be thoroughly examined. When you actually examine them, though, something’s not quite right. The smartness these movies seem to be going for doesn’t quite land. In one way or another, they’re actually kind of... dumb. Here are 15 'Smart' Movies That Are Dumber Than You Realized.
15 Shutter Island
Shutter Island is Martin Scorsese’s attempt at an outright blockbuster. While it is occasionally artful in its approach to the pulpy material at its core, the film's big twist is implausible and ultimately unsatisfying. Shutter Island spends its runtime carefully setting up a mystery about the psychiatric ward at its center, and then abandons this mystery in favor of a twist that is narratively unsatisfying.
Twists are often designed to force you to reevaluate everything that has come before, but in the case of Shutter Island, the reveal works to undercut the intrigue of much of what we’ve already seen. Shutter Island’s surprises aren’t worth everything they undercut. The film begins as a noir story, and it should have stayed that way. Of course, Scorsese is still Scorsese, so even his lesser films are wonderful to look at, and Leonard DiCaprio grounds the film admirably. In this case, it’s the script that lets us down.
Inception blew more than a couple minds when it was released in 2010, and it even managed to earn itself a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The idea of dream-invasion is particularly tantalizing for a visual medium like film, and it’s hard to deny the visual wonder of the film. Unfortunately, while the film is heavy on clever visuals and interesting ideas, it’s faulty in part because it fails to pair those ideas with a meaningful story.
While it’s clear that we’re supposed to car about Dom’s relationship with his wife, it ultimately comes across as the easiest possible storytelling choice-- one that gives the character a simple backstory but never carries any actual emotional weight. Instead, it becomes usurped by an interesting story that’s never fully fleshed out, and can still leave your head spinning no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Inception is undoubtedly an interesting film, but it’s not as smart as you remember it being. It’s mostly just cool.
13 The Shawshank Redemption
There’s no denying the charms of The Shawshank Redemption. It features winning performances from Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, and it does have some interesting things to say about the problems that institutionalization presents. Unfortunately, the whole thing is just a bit too long and way too implausible. The story of the horrors of prison life is undercut somewhat by Andy Dufresne’s escape, which is more than a little hard to swallow.
Shawshank also suffers from an overwhelming desire for sentiment, and so it decides to give its characters an unambiguously happy ending that works against the hardships the film has communicated thus far. If director Frank Darabont had decided to end things just a few scenes earlier, ending with a note of hopeful ambiguity instead of outright joy, Shawshank’s core themes would remain intact, and the story of Dufresne’s hardships during his time in prison would not feel so completely ignored.
Scream is designed as a new take on a tired genre, and in some ways it succeeds. Its main subversion isn’t an original one, but it’s valuable nonetheless. Drew Barrymore, the film’s biggest star, is killed off before the opening credits roll. Still, Scream ends up embracing many of the genre conventions that it supposes to subvert, and uses them quite effectively, to boot.
The story of a killer who’s seen too many horror movies is fresh enough to sustain itself, but it would also be easy to overlook the importance of the film, which may have played with its genre without rejecting its conventions outright. It’s hard to deny that Scream is artful and refreshing, especially since horror is a genre that is so regularly defined and weighed down by its tropes. Still, Scream isn’t all as clever as people remember it. It actually falls somewhere in between. Scream manages to be good without being as smart as its reputation, and that’s okay.
11 V for Vendetta
Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta exists in an over-the-top world where a totalitarian government has led to an uprising by the people. By comparison, the film doesn’t quite hold up. The story’s ideas about oppression come across as a bit played-out in the film adaptation, and the ending feels a both obvious and forced. V for Vendetta is meant to be incendiary. It’s the story of a terrorist who fights against an oppressive police state by blowing things up. V, the terrorist, also has personal reasons for these attacks, and the comic book prods at uncomfortable questions about the nature of opposition.
In the film, many of these questions are drowned out by the obvious villainy of the world these characters inhabit. This is a world in which any act is justified, and the questions related to V’s ultimate moral standing are relegated to the background because of the fun you have watching him onscreen. V for Vendetta wants to be more thoughtful than it is, and it could have been. Sadly, that’s not the case.
10 Twelve Monkeys
La Jete is an undeniably great film. It’s innovative, exciting, and surprising, and it should make an excellent full-length feature. Unfortunately, there’s something lacking in its feature length adaptation, Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam directs the film with a distinct eye towards the surreal, but that undercuts the emotional stakes that resonate so deeply in the original film.
La Jete also works in part because of its simplicity. Of course, because Twelve Monkeys blows the concept into a film over two hours in length, there’s also a central mystery that further complicates and clouds the story. The film does have some undeniable charms, but the core ideas about fate and destiny get lost amidst everything else that the film attempts to achieve. The final reveal is also a fairly obvious one, as we realize that Bruce Willis’s character watched himself get murdered when he was only a child. A twist like that works in La Jete, which couples it with an interesting form and a short runtime. Twelve Monkeys can’t live up to that feat.
Neil Blomkamp burst onto the scene with District 9, a compelling and relevant film. The film's strong message and good intentions far outweighed how on-the-nose it could be. By contrast, Elysium uses science fiction to tell a story that is only so-so, and is incredibly simplified. The basic themes at the film’s core stem from economic inequality, but they're fairly boring and obvious. Elysium follows Matt Damon as he liberates an oppressed working population from a rich upper class that has actually separated itself from everyone else.
Blomkamp’s ideas may be strong, but the allegory here is a bit painfully obvious. As the situation is presented, those at the top are basically just selfish, and there’s no perceivable reason for them to horde the wealth as they do. Couple that with an unconvincing accent from the villainous Jodi Foster, and Elysium doesn’t hold up as the smart sci-fi it set out to be.
A controversial pick, at least in part because it’s still in theaters, Arrival thinks it’s weighty and deep, but something about its execution is just a little bit off. The film tells the story of a linguist who is tasked with communicating with an alien species that has just landed all over the Earth. As a story about the need for understanding and communicating effectively with one another, Arrival is a gripping and fascinating film. It’s when it begins to become dependent on its plotting that things go off the rails.
Eventually, the linguist at the film’s center is forced to save the world from self-destruction and explain that the aliens who have come to Earth are there peacefully. Arrival uses this deadline to create cheap stakes, and its ultimate resolution is largely unsatisfying as a result. Director Denis Villeneuve gives the film some astonishing visuals, and manages to stretch a fairly small budget quite a ways. In spite of that, Arrival bites off more than it can chew, and ends up suffering.
Christopher Nolan is a visionary director, but his impulses as a writer can sometimes lead him astray. Interstellar created a complex world with fairly accurate science, but ended up reducing all of that to a simple idea about the love between a father and a daughter. This culmination is supposed to be profound and moving, but it’s watered down in part by the difficulty the film has establishing its characters in the midst of its intergalactic story.
Nolan’s idea, that love is the one thing that transcends time and space, is not a bad one. Unfortunately, the reveal is as ham-fisted and clumsy as possible, and it leads to a movie that’s filled with unnecessary tangents and relationships that are difficult to swallow. The bonds between all of the characters are implausible and confusing, and the film’s ultimate themes are simple and ultimately unfulfilling. Interstellar wants to be 2001, but it can't quite get there.
6 American Beauty
American Beauty was widely celebrated upon its release, but its reputation has only fallen in the years since. The story of a suburban family that appears to have everything, but is nevertheless feeling unfulfilled, seems rather whiny in retrospect. It’s the kind of movie that luxuriates in a world that is largely problem-free and grafts a problem onto it.
In spite of some truly interesting performances and Sam Mendes’s smart direction, American Beauty falls flat because it is trying so hard to be profound. The story of this middle class family could be an interesting one, but it gets bogged down by the question of existential beauty, which is one that the film is not remotely ready to tackle head on. Instead, its resolution suggests a beauty in the world around you, but has little to back up that idea. American Beauty reaches for complex ideas, but it never addresses them.
M. Night Shyamalan is better known at this point for his disappointments, but he started his career with several remarkably successful films. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are both widely revered, and it wasn’t until Signs that the problems with Shyamalan’s storytelling methods began to rear their head. The story follows Mel Gibson as a man of God who has lost his way, and who eventually finds it again following an alien invasion.
All of the things that worked so well in Shyamalan’s first two projects become his undoing here, as he decides that the aliens who have invaded Earth are actually allergic to the thing it has in the largest of quantities – water. Despite some early moments of genuine suspense and a few truly harrowing sequences, Signs falls victim to rather simplistic plotting that feels like plotting as it's happening. It’s not Shyamalan’s worst film, but it’s the one that previewed the disasters to come, and it’s not nearly as smart as you might remember.
Bradley Cooper is a bona fide movie star now, but in 2011 Limitless was his first shot. Despite his charismatic work in the lead role, the film ultimately crumbles around him. The story of Limitless is about a man who takes a drug that expands his mental faculties, and vaults him to the top of the financial world. Of course, once he’s there he runs into all sorts of problems and realizes that he may be in over his head.
Limitless isn’t entirely without worth, but its main problem comes from how perfunctory everything seems. When you hear the film’s premise, you immediately know exactly what will happen, and Limitless does very little to add thematic relevance to these ideas. It plays out exactly as you expect it to, and it’s no smarter than you might expect it to be. When considering films like Limitless, it’s important to remember one simple but universal rule: a smart protagonist does not automatically make a smart movie.
3 The Matrix
As revolutionary as The Matrix was when it hit theaters back in 1999, much of it feels dated now-- and not just visually. The philosophy at the core of the film focuses on the idea of being more than a mindless drone, and fighting against the loops that consume daily life. While it may sound like a cool idea, The Matrix simplifies the ideas at its core, and chooses to distill them into a form that will be exceedingly digestible for audiences.
The Wachowskis' direction is solid, and the pair manage to build a world that is distinct from our own both in palette and in style. The technophobia which is at the core of the film is perhaps its largest problem, in part because it’s a criticism that feels so rote. Of course technology can be dangerous. Of course it’s bad to think of a world in which humans are mindless drones. The Matrix leans heavily into its metaphor, and the metaphor is incapable of supporting the film in return.
2 Fight Club
Fight Club stunned audiences when it debuted, in part because of a climactic reveal that blew its fair share of minds. Ultimately, though, Fight Club falls victim to the frantic thesis statement that consumed much of art during this period. To begin with, Fight Club is a movie about men that spends much of its time contemplating just how hard things have gotten for them. It’s also obsessed with the problems of a generation that feels abandoned by culture, one without a crisis that must be solved.
As a result, Fight Club feels kind of whiny, and its plotting becomes unsatisfactory after you understand what’s happening. The materialism Tyler Durden so heartily condemns feels somewhat dated in our current climate, but it also feels like the contemplation of a culture that was unable or unwilling to contend with more interesting and complicated questions. David Fincher has become a widely acclaimed director in the time since Fight Club, but his later films possess a maturity that Fight Club sorely lacks.
There are two entries on this list devoted to the question of what might happen if humans had access to 100% of their brains. In Lucy’s case, the answer seems to be complete power over space and time. Scarlett Johansson, always a captivating screen presence, finds herself overwhelmed by a film that only gets more ridiculous as it proceeds.
Directed by Luc Besson, Lucy’s concept becomes increasingly fantastical as the film progresses, and despite some interesting visual ideas, there’s little to tie them together. Everything Besson does could have been interesting, but in a different context. Here, it all feels played out and downright ridiculous. Lucy’s problems are hard to defend, in part because her search for answers doesn’t make sense when you consider all the knowledge she should already have. Lucy really wants to be smart. Its imagery can be beautiful, but its plotting never is. Unfortunately, it’s just plain dumb.
Which 'smart' movie did you later realize wasn't so smart? Let us know in the comments!