In honor of the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we make our picks for the best cerebral science fiction films of all time. Here are the top ten picks!
The job of science fiction is to push boundaries. Indeed, the very description of science fiction suggests going a bit further than established fact. Science fiction is supposed to build on the known world around us. It is supposed to explore the unknown. When science fiction is at its best, this exploration is being fueled by our own human condition. The reason we are exploring outward is because there is an uncertainty inside. We feel incomplete in some regard, and the answers might be out there.
Science fiction films that can best communicate the relationship between the universe and our own minds tend to be the films that leave a lasting impression. This is my pick for the 20 films that do the best job of this. These are cerebral films which care less about escapist entertainment, and more about challenging the way you view the world around you. These are films that strive to make a difference in the lives of their audiences not by entertaining them mindlessly (although they can do that on occasion), but by making their audiences have to make the most of their brains. They can change perspectives, which is why they are often some of the most influential films ever made. They can also be challenging, which is why they are often described as “hard” science fiction - they’re not made for everyone.
Many of them are among the most challenging films ever made. Sometimes their filmmakers made them purposefully difficult to watch in order to elicit a certain response. For others it seems like you need notes just to understand the dense plot. But the reward in watching cerebral science fiction films goes beyond what is on the surface. They yield hidden treasures of incredible filmmaking and profound realizations from deep inside your own mind. In this regard, they are true to the nature of science fiction as you, the audience, become an explorer.
For picks # 20-11, click here.
Now for the top ten picks...
10. The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain is probably the most controversial pick on this list; it’s not easy to follow, it’s not really committed to science fiction, and audiences/critics never really seemed to like it. They’ve called it overly ambitious, unfocused, and confusing. I don’t care. The Fountain is an profound film built on some of the gutsiest filmmaking I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. For one, Aronofsky essentially eschews traditional storytelling for something more abstract. This is a big turn-off for many people who disliked the film. It ended up confusing them and they mistook confusion for stupidity. I would argue that great films SHOULD confuse you. If the ideas that they are presenting are so far beyond the established norm, they shouldn’t be easy to digest. They should take time and meditation to become fully realized. That’s what The Fountain REQUIRES. Furthermore, with his innovative storytelling techniques, Aronofsky not only allows additional interpretations of his film, he invites them. It’s a film that is designed to show us different things when examined with different light sources. It’s thoughtfully constructed in a beautifully dense, intellectually challenging way. There’s nothing else like it.
9. Brazil (1985)
Brazil is 1984, but as a satire. It’s wild, twisted, and incredibly inventive. As a comedy, the bleak ideas become easier to digest. Gloom and doom may be necessary as a motivator to incite change, but it doesn’t draw you to the edge of your seat; you’re cowering in fear. Brazil is still meant as a warning, but in such a way as to invite you to enjoy the irony of the situation rather than push it away. The entire production is orchestrated to achieve this result. Ingenious set design, witty dialogue, and an energetic direction help to deliver this unique vision. On top of all this, the film builds on itself as it goes along, ending with a brutal whiplash ending that is the definition of crazy. Relentlessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and funny, Brazil is a heady scifi film unlike any other.
8. Inception (2010)
Comparisons with The Matrix are expected. The Matrix essentially broke the mode as far as being an action film that wasn’t just dumb entertainment. However, despite being on the same branch of the family tree, Inception isn’t a retread at all. Inception earns its spot on this list for not only its incredibly inventive and mind-bending plot, but also because it is just a great example of well-executed big budget cinema. In addition to tossing around heady concepts unlike we’ve seen in big-budget cinema before, Inception provides us with compelling action sequences, spectacular production design, a genre-redefining soundtrack, intelligent characterization, and terrific acting performances. The Matrix may have made the idea of a film like Inception possible, but Inception took that opportunity and pushed out the boundaries of action cinema even further.
7. Children of Men (2006)
Perhaps the most haunting dystopian film ever made, Children of Men is a harsh but exciting film. Alfonso Cuaron expertly contrasts the difficulties of his future world with the strength of the human spirit. From the eye-opening first scene, to a thrilling chase sequence later on, the film is unrelenting. Around every corner is danger, but the films’ devotion to courageous characters in the midst of this turmoil gives us hope. It’s a strong message to keep on fighting and to do what you know is right, no matter what odds you face. The most impressive aspect of Children of Men, though, is its relevance. It speaks of socioeconomic turmoil, terrorism, a refugee crisis, and misinformed masses. While many of the films on this list earn their places for the way they use science to expand our consciousness of the universe around us, Children of Men explores something a little more achievable. It shows us what the human species is capable of, both good and bad.
6. Forbidden Planet (1956)
I would say that Forbidden Planet is the film on this list that was the most ahead of its time. This is not necessarily because of the actual topic of the film, or the method of space travel that is depicted; both of those aspects are still pretty far-out. Forbidden Planet was ahead of its time because of how it brought science fiction to the big screen both physically and narratively. It was a futuristic adventure like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers (both of which happened on TV), but leaning more towards science than fiction. It’s full of so many important firsts for cinema - first film taking place entirely on another planet, first film with an electronic score, one of the first films to depict a humanoid robot, one of the first major films to combine live action with animation. Most importantly for the purposes of this list, the film’s plot is just as ahead-of-its-time and thought-provoking as the production. It’s based on Shakespeare, but with heavy influence by Sigmund Freud's study of the psyche. It explores the power of the human mind, and provides explanations for the seemingly unreal using pseudo-science. It’s easy to see why Forbidden Planet was a huge influence on Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
5. Arrival (2016)
Arrival is an anomaly among the modern sci-fi scene. Science fiction films are common nowadays, but rarely are they as cerebral as this one. Part of the reason is that audiences simply don’t show up to watch smart science fiction films, and so these movies hardly ever make money any more, which makes them a very rare treasure indeed. Arrival is even more of a treasure because not only is the storyline very thought-provoking, the entire film is expertly crafted towards this type of a viewing experience. Everything from the sound, to the cinematography, to the use of flashbacks helps the narrative achieve something profound. The plot itself is non-linear, and the way it unfolds and ultimately ends is incredibly creative. In addition, the film’s topic - achieving world peace (or at least cooperation) in a time of distraught - is one that will always resonate, and especially in this day and age.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This film stars a big name comedian known best for his physical humor, it’s directed by a man best known for his whimsical indie films, and it is written by a man who had received two Oscar nominations for writing dramas. Those attributes don’t necessarily lead you to believe that this team could be capable of producing one of the best science fiction films of the 21st century, but they did. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect blend of all of its contributors’ best attributes. Jim Carey’s personality makes us feel for his character. Michel Gondry’s aptitude for magical realism allows the film’s harsher moments blend seamlessly with its lighter ones. Charlie Kaufman’s ability to involve ordinary people in extraordinary happenings is what makes this film so smart and so emotional at the same time (kudos belong to an excellent A-list cast, too). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to take science fiction to a mostly new place; the romantic comedy. And it more than succeeds.
3. Solaris (1972)
Solaris is Tarkovsky’s response, in a way, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. His criticism of 2001 was not that it was slow and plodding, but that it was sterile. Tarkovsky is a filmmaker who is fascinated by the human condition. His films meditate on religion and philosophy, and he is often referred to a poetic filmmaker. It’s no wonder than his first science fiction film ends up being a very challenging, but also mesmerizing picture. In Solaris, Tarkovsky essentially claims that there are more mysteries inside our own heads than there are in the universe around us. We follow the main character as he leaves to explore outer space, but most of the film is spent looking inward. Flashbacks, dreams, spoken passages, and hypnotic interludes all play a part in a downright fascinating experience. Soon we realize the connections to our own lives. We feel the pain of past regrets and feel the joy of our happy memories. Science fiction is rarely this deep, this personal.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Whatever you are looking for in a great cerebral science fiction film, Blade Runner has it. Do you want innovative special effects? Blade Runner features some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen on film. How about a thought-provoking story that uses technology to explore an inner conflict that affects us all? Blade Runner utilizes artificial beings to discuss the importance of self-identity. Do you want a character-driven plot? How about a noir, but updated for the 21st century? You like poetic dialogue that’s endlessly quotable and still sounds cool 4 decades later? Or a production that enhances all of these attributes? Blade Runner is the kind of film that has only gotten better with age because of the fact that it checks all the boxes. It is the near-perfect heady science fiction film.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In contrast to Blade Runner, 2001 doesn’t check all of the boxes of our expectations. That’s what makes it so great. It is so unexpected. So unfamiliar. So different than anything else. But it’s one thing to just be different. It’s another thing to be different on purpose and to accomplish what it set out to achieve. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t necessarily easy to watch. It doesn't adhere to the norms. Instead, it ventures out on its own away from convention. Here, it finds something more profound. More compelling, and more memorable than anything else on this list. By eschewing the common film attributes, 2001: A Space Odyssey becomes something more than just a moving picture. It becomes a form of art. It is both forward-looking and a historical recount. It is simultaneously relating to each of our lives while also discussing something bigger than the human species as a whole. It is a vision without equal, and an accomplishment of the highest merit.