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 are often challenging to the viewer, and so 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.
When I started making this list, I thought it would be easy. I had a handful of films in mind that I wanted to include, but the more I thought about it, the more additional films I came up with. It was very difficult to narrow down the top 20, and really it mostly came down to personal preference. Here are a few MORE films which it hurt me a bit to leave them off the list. They are every bit as wonderful as the top 20, and I would definitely recommend if intelligent science fiction is your thing:
- Moon (2009)
- Gattaca (1997)
- THX 1138 (1971)
- Dark City (1998)
- Interstellar (2014)
- Cloud Atlas (2012)
- World on a Wire (1973)
- Primer (2004)
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
- Looper (2012)
- The Thing (1982)
- Altered States (1980)
- A Scanner Darkly (2006)
- eXistenZ (1999)
Now, let’s look at my picks for #20-11:
20. Akira (1988)
Akira is a groundbreaking anime film, a piece of art that ushered in a new era for the genre. Although it is inferior to the other film it gets compared to most often (Ghost in the Shell), that doesn’t make Akira a bad film. In fact, it is great film all on its own. In many ways, Ghost in the Shell builds on what makes Akira so great. For one, animation is the best way to bring to life the techno-biological future in which the story takes place. It makes the bizarre stunningly beautiful. Likewise, the futuristic vision of Akira is both ahead of its time and exceedingly cool. On top of the actual plot being thought-provoking, the presentation of the film is quite spectacular. Not only is the animation iconic, but the soundtrack and editing all make Akira a very special viewing experience.
19. Minority Report (2002)
Spielberg has made some smart science fiction films in the past, but I believe that Minority Report is the one that is the most effective. Spielberg is best known for making adventurous, fun movies. Somehow, with Minority Report, he is able to tie in that adventurous movie watching experience with a high-concept Phillip Dick-based science fiction plot. That’s not supposed to be possible, yet Spielberg pulls it off. Somehow, Spielberg manages to make a film that entertains both your eyes and your mind. Everything from the production design, to the special effects, to the acting and the dialogue works together to deliver an incredibly rare motion picture experience.
18. Ex Machina (2014)
You might notice that I left Garland’s other heady sci-fi film, Annihilation off of this list. That is because I didn’t really like it as much. Ex Machina, on the other hand, was a film that caught my attention and still hasn’t let go. Garland takes an idea that has been explored before in film, artificial intelligence, and reviews the implications in a more direct and meaningful way than we have seen before. This is a very real challenge that our species is on the verge of facing, and so Garland’s choice to explore both the social as well as technological implications is a smart one. Garland manages to take a topic that would have seemed abstract a few years ago and makes it realistic. In doing so, it really resonates and demands your attention.
17. Pi (1998)
Pi might be considered “hard” science fiction due to its devotion to mathematics, but it is light on the traditional science fiction. Pi is a phenomenal film, full of dense energy, striking black and white photography, and a central conundrum that will drive you mad. Darren Aronofsky’s debut is something that sticks with you because his talent allows his vision to come through clearly. No, the film is not clear, but it isn’t supposed to be. That’s the point. It asks so many great questions about the world around us that the complexity of it all literally drives the main character mad. The film is so impactful that I had to find a way to include it on this list, even if it isn’t as “sci-fi” as everything else here.
16. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Time travel is always a difficult subject to broach in film and TV. If not utilized correctly, it can seem like a cheap gimmick. Too often are films focused exclusively on the mechanics of time travel rather than its implications. 12 Monkeys is a film that looks at the implications. In fact, it actually spends zero time on mechanics. That leaves plenty of screen time for great twists and memorable performances. Like any Terry Gilliam film, it’s got a lot going on. But the bombardment of ideas and images isn’t haphazard. There is purpose and thought built into every extravagance. It unfolds like a crazy mystery, but a mystery that can be solved in two different directions.
15. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell represents a whole slew of thought-provoking sci-fi anime films that have been released over the past two decades. As is the case in Akira, the use of animation is the perfect match for thought-provoking science fiction films. It allows a certain fluidity and artistry that would not be able to be otherwise captured. It also provides a human connection to far-out ideas that are difficult to grasp. Building onto the creativity is an action-filled plot. Like some of the other films on this list it balances big ideas with big action. That’s a recipe for entertainment on multiple levels.
14. Stalker (1979)
Like Pi, Stalker doesn’t really have a lot of science fiction happenings, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a very provocative film. As a director, Tarkovsky’s main focus is always on the human condition. He’s so great at exploring what it means to be alive as a person that I am willing to overlook the lack of actual science fiction going on in Stalker. It could all just be a government-fueled conspiracy for all we know. On top of the philosophy, Tarkovsky brings us a film that is beautifully ugly. I’ve seen nothing else like it. It is purposefully off-putting. Purposefully boring. In creating those responses, Tarkovsky fishes out ideas that are very profound.
13. Donnie Darko (2001)
The star of Donnie Darko has famously remarked that he has no idea what the film is about. Usually, that would be a problem, but in this case, it’s an asset. You see, Donnie Darko is a very special film. A film that is many different things at once. The only thing that it is not is straightforward. It is a perplexing puzzle in which each member of the audience might come up with their own explanation. The best part of movies like this is that everyone is right. Movies like Donnie Darko rely on personal perspective, and so one else can tell you how to interpret the movie. You have to watch it and decide for yourself. To me, movies like this are the very best type of film. Your interpretation makes it personal, and unique to you.
12. Planet of the Apes (1968)
I had a tough debate with myself whether or not to use the new Planet of the Apes films on this list rather than the original. After all, the new films are a more modern, better realized version of what happened back in 1968. However, the original Planet of the Apes film was a groundbreaking achievement. Although the new films are all great, I don’t feel that they eclipse the thought-provoking and envelope-pushing agenda of the original film. Both the new films and the original do share one thing in common, innovative use of special effects to pull off the filmmakers’ visions. Furthermore, I don’t need to explain how great the original Planet of the Apes is – I already did that, here.
11. The Matrix (1999)
So The Matrix has a lot of action, but I wouldn’t call it a mindless action movie. In fact, it’s a brilliantly smart action movie – which is a rarity that deserves recognition. Unlike most of the other films on this list, it finds a balance between traditional cinema appeal and paradigm-shifting storytelling. It also helps that The Matrix ushered in a new era of special effects on the big screen, fitting into the tradition of heady science fiction films advancing the medium thanks to their boundary-pushing endeavors. And so, even though The Matrix is more action-driven than most of the other films on this list, it definitely belongs.