Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated sci-fi film Arrival has finally…err…arrived in theaters and is already generating the kind of buzz that we’ve come to associate with instant classics. Viewers are praising the film’s stunning cinematography, the commanding performance of Amy Adams, and off-the-charts entertainment value, but mostly, they are praising the film’s intelligence. What’s funny about most of the praise for the movie’s smarts is that it’s usually accompanied by just a hint of surprise. “A science fiction movie that has proven to be among the smartest films released this year?”, some skeptics say with shock in their eyes. “Who would have imagined that?”
Well, anyone who has been following the sci-fi film scene over the last 40 years or so would be the short answer to that question. If there was ever a stigma regarding the intelligence of sci-fi films, it has (or should have) disappeared years ago. While a movie like Arrival should be praised for its complex and brilliantly told narrative, we should no longer be surprised that the science fiction genre is capable of producing a movie of staggering intellect. In fact, it’s been happening for years.
Here are the 15 Smartest Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time.
15 Blade Runner
Any discussion regarding the intelligence of Blade Runner must start with the film’s world design. Whether or not the world of Blade Runner is realistic in the sense that it will come to pass in the future is irrelevant. What is relevant is the way that Ridley Scott and crew created a world that feels so consistent. There is sci-fi spectacle in this world, but everything feels remarkably lived in. Everything is equally familiar and spectacular.
However, the true brilliance of Blade Runner does lie in the film’s themes. Blade Runner draws upon biblical passages, noir films, and scientific theories to find an answer to the question, “What is the value of the life of a sentient machine in the world of man?” In the process, it also tries to calculate the value of life itself. The film isn’t alone in asking that question, but it does stand alone for the way that it approaches the issues as dilemmas rather than an issue with a simple answer.
14 Under The Skin
The 1995 film Species dealt with an alien disguised as an attractive human woman who seduced men as part of her mission. It was seen as cheap and exploitative. The 2013 film Under the Skin deals with an alien disguised as an attractive woman seducing men as part of her mission. It is absolutely brilliant. What’s the difference between the two? Execution.
Under the Skin is a complicated movie that is often paced similarly to how a high school student might pace a research paper that needs to fulfill a certain word count. Much of the movie is seemingly aimless and bizarre for the sake of bizarre. Certain revelations within the story structure, however, open the movie up to miles of interpretation. Under the Skin has been praised for its commentary on such issues as rape culture, immigration, and the role of women in modern society. It’s difficult to say which of these issues the film was specifically designed to address, but it’s even harder to deny the brilliance of how it uses a far out premise to create a strong emotional response regarding several issues affecting our world.
13 The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is a uniquely intelligent sci-fi film. It’s not an intentionally misleading movie filled with strange visuals, and it’s not a movie that requires you to rewatch it several times in order to comprehend what is happening. It is a movie that was released at a time when sci-fi flicks typically featured giant monsters causing large amounts of collateral damage. By comparison, The Day the Earth Stood Still addressed the possibility that an alien race might actually come in peace after all.
Even in the context of modern films, it’s still a brilliant piece of work. What sets this movie apart is the way that it presented the possibility that humans would be more hostile in the event of an alien arrival than the aliens would be. The Day the Earth Stood Still addressed the notion that humans were more likely to destroy themselves through fear and mistrust than be destroyed by an invading force. That notion seems more and more relevant with each passing year.
Pi isn’t the movie we typically think of when we say "sci-fi." There are no far out alien creatures or fantastic inventions that only the most imaginative of writers could possible ever imagine. Instead, this is a movie about a man with almost inhuman intellect who suddenly stumbles across a mathematical code that may very well prove to be the glue to life itself. Well, that’s one interpretation, at least. Trying to break down the many interpretations of this film is likely to leave you feeling as crazy as the protagonist.
Pi’s particular brand of intelligence is the ambition of its premise. Everyone from Wall Street brokers to religious heads become obsessed with the idea that this man has found the answer to life, the universe, and everything. It’s presented as a conflict of ideologies, but it actually has much more to say about how we are all united by a desire for understanding. Its painful ending suggests that the obsessive pursuit of such answers is the surest way to miss the point of life.
Interstellar is not a perfect movie. It’s certainly not perfect from a filmmaking standpoint (the dirty secret is that no movie is), but for the purposes of this discussion, it’s not perfect from a scientific standpoint. Some have argued that Interstellar’s own view of the end of the world is a bit too “Hollywood.” It expedites a process that could take millions of years in order to achieve a dramatic effect. Mostly, though, its imperfections can be traced back to the film’s attempts to address complex subjects such as wormholes.
For that, it’s hard to fault the movie. Interstellar tackles a field of science so complicated that even the world’s most intelligent minds continue to debate about it, and it does so with the kind of grace that you typically don’t associate with Hollywood blockbusters. Whatever faults may exist in the film’s science pale in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s construction of an elaborate disaster movie that actually does make you consider the implications of the science that is occurring on-screen.
Moon shares more than a few similarities to another movie that we’re going to be talking about later on this list. It focuses on a man living in outer space who is about to complete a long solo mission. His only real companion is a computer-generated voice (expertly played by Kevin Spacey). Eventually, his mental and physical fortitude begin to wane. As his state deteriorates further, he begins to contemplate seemingly impossible realities. The question soon becomes whether they're real or in his head.
Moon’s bizarre storytelling elements told from the perspective of a man whose grip on reality is slipping lend the film a more whimsical brand of sci-fi brilliance, but the really good stuff in this movie has more to do with its realistic portrayal of space’s impact on the human body and mind (or extended periods of isolation of any kind, for that matter) . Moon is a much more intimate sci-fi flick in comparison to something like Interstellar, which allowed director Duncan Jones to really consider how every little aspect of the movie could be tailored to provide a realistic view of an incredible situation.
9 The Quiet Earth
The Quiet Earth came along at a time (1985) when the American film scene was ushering in a new era of sci-fi films aimed at an audience that wanted something relentlessly entertaining. Call it the post-Star Wars boom. The Quiet Earth, however, is not an example of that style. It follows a scientist who believes that the completion of a major project he has been working on has led to the end of life on Earth as we know it. The truth is not so simple.
Nothing is simple in this movie, actually. While not the most complicated film plot ever conceived, The Quiet Earth’s story requires you to really consider the moments in between the dialog and actions. This is a character film in which all of the characters have had their lives permanently altered by an event called “The Effect.” To understand -- or at least form a theory about -- what is going on, you’ll need to really consider several possible theories regarding the nature of “The Effect” as well as the source of those theories. It’s a tremendous example of how asking your audience to do some mental leg work can pay off in a major way.
Director Danny Boyle had a pretty clear mission in mind when he set out to direct Sunshine. He didn’t want to make a movie that featured jokes or romance (although some early versions of the draft did feature those elements). Instead, he wanted to make a movie about a group of scientists that are traveling to the sun in order to kickstart it and prevent global annihilation. Essentially, he wanted to make a movie like Armageddon that inspired you to think intelligently rather than make you feel like you desperately needed to thrust a screwdriver in your head in order to remove the part of your brain that still remembered Aerosmith.
He did a pretty good job. To be fair, Sunshine does occasionally suffer from moments of over indulgence. Certain scenes are a bit too heavy in terms of trying to convey a complicated scientific scenario or push the envelope with some bizarre implications. Ultimately though, it's a movie that makes you think. Even better, it rewards the viewers who think about it with the complex web of possibilities that function as the film’s narrative.
It’s refreshing to talk about a movie like Predestination in terms of trying to skirt the line between analysis and spoilers. Why? Well, even if someone wanted to spoil Predestination, they could explain the movie to someone for hours and that person would probably only gleam the basics from the conversation. Speaking of basics, Predestination is a movie about time travel that follows a temporal agent (think Time Cop) who is transported back to the 1970s in order to stop a criminal that appears to be traveling through time themselves.
Of course, nothing is quite as it appears to be in this world. Predestination is similar to movies like Looper in that it deals with the consequences of time travel as it relates to the timeline of an individual. To say any more about the movie’s plot would be blasphemy, but just know that there are few movies in film history that have ever dared to construct such a complicated (some would argue convoluted) narrative involving the rules and ethics of timeline alteration. All this, and a pretty great sci-fi noir film to boot.
6 The Fountain
The Fountain is, was, and may very well always be, a controversial movie. It’s not controversial because of its subject matter, but rather because it seems most people either praise the movie endlessly for its brilliance or shake their head and wonder how this 96-minute motion picture constitutes entertainment. They’re both reasonable arguments. This movie -- about a modern-day scientist, an old-world conquistador, and a spaceman who all seem to be experiencing a thematically similar series of events across three separate timelines -- is both infuriating and intriguing.
The one thing you can never say about The Fountain, however, is that it is somehow purposeless. This isn’t a movie made by a director trying to show how smart they are, nor is it a movie that is trying to disguise experimentation as art. Director Darren Aronofsky has compared the movie to a Rubik’s cube, in that he believes there is ultimately one solution at the end of the twists and turns. It’s certainly clear that The Fountain rewards those who do take the time to look for answers.
5 World on a Wire
It’s long been the pursuit of many sci-fi films to reflect some element of our world in a way that will hopefully reignite the conversation regarding it. More often than not, movies that have been credited for predicting the future really just showcased the evolution of some then-modern concept to its next most logical points. It’s possible that that was part of the motivation behind Rainer Fassbinder’s World on a Wire.
The film revolves around a technical director that begins to suspect that the program he is working on is really just an elaborate cover for a fake reality he may very well already be in the midst of. The reason that there is some ambiguity regarding Fassbinder’s intent is partially due to the fact that most people are still obsessed with how beautifully shot the movie is. It’s an understandable distraction. However, even a cursory glance at the plot reveals a story that addresses both the philosophical definitions of life (“I think, therefore I am”) and the notion that technology is ultimately going to be used by man to play God. Imagine if The Matrix contained more scenes of existential crises and fewer slow-motion gunfights, and you're on the right track.
4 Solaris (1972)
The release of 2001: A Space Odyssey helped usher in a temporary renaissance in the field of intelligent sci-fi films. (This was before it was discovered that the sci-fi genre could be used to print cash if utilized correctly.) During this period, a host of talented filmmakers all looked towards the stars in order to find the answers to questions that truly haunted them. Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of the novel Solaris is a meditation on life and loss, told via a story about a scientist that has been sent to investigate why the members of an interstellar research team have gone insane.
Essentially, Solaris is a movie about the fragile power of the human mind, and how losing the ability to rationalize can completely warp nearly every idea we cling to. It’s about many other things as well, but understanding that theme is crucial to understanding the film. Solaris is trying to make you feel as if you’ve gone insane and as if you mind has been broken. Embracing that is the only way that you’ll be able to pick up the pieces (and, hopefully, reassemble them) to risk seeing the world in a new way.
Right from the start, Gattaca deals with a subject that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: it suggests that there are some people who are pre-determined to have better lives. In the world of Gattaca, people are separated into valids and invalids. Valids are seen as the world’s brightest and most capable. As such, they are afforded a broad range of possibilities. Invalids, on the other hand, are relegated to menial labor. The film’s story involves an invalid who has decided to pose as a valid in order to travel to space.
Gattaca is kind of a play on the old Flowers for Algernon story, with the slight twist that the “inferior” man in this story is really just an unprivileged individual who must subvert the system in order to excel. Or is he? There’s some room for interpretation regarding whether or not the invalid (Vincent, played by Ethan Hawke) has actually accomplished anything based on his own merits, or if the genetics he used to skirt the system are responsible for his success. It all comes together to form a painfully honest look at the way our society values certainty, even as it relates to the prospects of our fellow man.
Primer has been called the most complicated film about time travel ever made. It’s hard to argue with that position. Charts, graphs, and thesis paper-worthy explanations have been crafted in an effort to better understand this movie about two engineers that believe they have created a temporal manipulation device that can, in essence, replicate an effect that we associate with time travel. If that scene in Back to the Future II where Doc Brown drew a chart explaining how two different timelines could be created threw you for a loop, Primer might very well break your mind with its seemingly infinite universes .
Given that time travel doesn’t exist (at least not in the way it is portrayed in fiction), it’s hard to say that Primer is an accurate movie. However, you must be impressed with the heaping piles of accurate physics and scientific data that were used to create a visual theory on how time travel may work. This is an immensely complicated movie that even the brightest of minds will not be able to fully comprehend until they have viewed it multiple times. Even then, you never feel as if you're entirely on board with every aspect.
1 2001: A Space Odyssey
Like most of the films on this list, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a very polarizing film. That divide has become more and more pronounced over the years as the spectacle of the movie’s special effects has diminished. In the absence of that absolute technical splendor is a film that some have called slow, pretentious, and even boring. Naysayers can’t stand the long shots of nothing or the wandering dialog. These are all valid complaints that should be respected. But if anyone ever tells you that 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t one of the most influential and intelligent sci-fi movies ever made, feel free to take any other opinions they may hold with a massive grain of salt.
In the same way that Plato and Aristotle used writing to try to sum up the mysteries of the universe, director Stanley Kubrick used a camera to show us how the mysteries of the universe will only be exasperated by exploring it. There are many, many interpretations of this film which will not be explored in-depth here. Besides, the argument for 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most intelligent sci-fi film of all-time has nothing to do with any one explanation, and much more to do with the fact that it is still being analyzed today, almost 50 years later.
Did we leave out your favorite whip-smart sci-fi flick? Will 2001 always reign supreme over the rest of the genre, or is it destined to be dethroned? Sound off in the comments.