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Sci-Fi Movies with Philosophical Themes

Need a catalyst to help you question your existence on this floating rock? Watch these 14 sci-fi movies with philosophical themes.

All great movies, much like art, are made to stir the imagination of the viewer. Skilled directors even have an adept understanding about how genre, setting, characters, and plot can make an audience feel specific emotion. The greatest science fiction movies entice the audience to engage in self reflection both from a larger societal and personal perspective. They do this through the powerful technique of metaphors, getting us to hold the mirror to ourselves and ask the difficult questions. 

Science fiction movies are the modern day equivalent to the myths created by ancient civilizations. The robots, advanced machinery, and dystopian societies are metaphors to convey something about current day life. This list of 14 sci-fi movies that are meant to make you think is the closest equivalent to reliving your days of being high in the back of your freshman year philosophy course. 

'Day the Earth Stood Still'

Based on a 1940 sci-fi short story by Harry Bates, director Robert Wise created a sci-fi that is culturally, historically and aesthetically significant to American pop culture and film. The plot is about a humanoid alien visitor named Klaatu with a sidekick named Gort, an imposing eight foot tall robot. The metaphorical significance of the film makes views consider the relationship of Klaatu to Jesus Christ. Coming to Earth with a message for all mankind, an ambient awareness, an omnipresent knowledge, and hastily killed by the military are just a few of the parallels that director Robert Wise wanted his audience to pick up on. The film's legacy still lives on today, being included on many of the lists for best movies all of time and inducted into the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

'2001: A Space Odyssey'

A film that many still argue is the best sci-fi film of all time, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is packed full with deep metaphorical and philosophical concepts. The film follows a pair of astronauts on a voyage to Jupiter with a sentient AI named HAL 9000. While the visual narrative puts many viewers in a trance, themes such as existentialism, artificial intelligence, human evolution, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life will keep many others up all night after the credits roll. 2001: A Space Odyssey served as the catalyst for many of the smart sci-fi movies that you see on this list. 

'Blade Runner'

Based off an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, director Ridley Scott created a dystopian sci-fi film jam packed with philosophical concepts. The plot of the film explores what happens if AI humanoid robots rebel from their exploitation. The themes that will keep you up at night include a hero with questionable morals, the scope and magnitude of corporate power, control by implanting memories in AI robots, and testing 'humanity.' While the plot can be slow and drawn out, the movie will give your mind or your group of friends a plethora of conversation topics. The intention of Ridley Scott is for the audience to re-evaluate what it means to be human. 

'Primer'

Compared to the rest of the films on the list, Primer is an unlikely candidate for one of the best sci-fi movies that are meant to make you think. With just a budget of $7K, director, writer, producer Shane Carruth created an engaging film about the accidental discovery of time travel. Carruth, holder of a degree in mathematics and a former engineer, uses complex technical dialog and abstract narrative structure to amaze audiences. The film makes audiences to think about the ethics of time traveling, what would people do if they had the ability to predict the future? Producer Shane Carruth leaves no doubt in his opinion on the matter, he sees human's natural propensity of greed being unable to cope with temptation. This is manifested through the degrading relationship of the two protagonists, who sacrifice friendship for the lust of money. 

'Gattaca'

Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman star in Gattaca, which explores the societal outcomes where children are all conceived through genetic selection to ensure they possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. The film focuses on Vincent Freeman, he struggles with genetic discrimination because he was conceived outside of the eugenics program. The protagonists continually battle with society and their own identity, trying to find their place in a world where their destiny is determined by their genetics. NASA singled out Gattaca as the number one film for its scientific plausibility. While the technology is still not at the level of Gattaca, its implications are profoundly thought provoking and the ethics of companies like CRISPR should be discussed more often. 

'Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi'

Somewhere between a fantasy, epic space opera, and a sci-fi film, Return of the Jedi has more to offer than lasers, explosions, and lightswords. The plot focuses on how the Galactic Empire is constructing a second death star to crush the Rebel Alliance. If at first you don't succeed try try again... What the plot offers beyond the visual stimuli of lasers is a plot rife with interesting questions. One theme consistent through most of the Star Wars universe is the concept of determinism. Young Jedis are "chosen" at birth by the Force, leading to an ugly conclusion that not all people hold the same moral weight in the Star Wars universe. Another concept to think about is about the dichotomy of good and evil. Luke Skywalker has serious hesitations about killing his father. We also see that Anakin (Darth Vader) is not entirely evil, either. He sacrifices himself to save his son. 

'Robocop'

A mixture of action and sci-fi, Robocop packed with themes—but also enough action to allow some some viewers to space out. The plot focuses on Alex Murphy who is murdered by a gang in crime-ridden Detroit, Michigan and is later revived by Omni Consumer Products. Murphy's reincarnation is a superhuman cyborg law enforcement officer. Beyond the cool action scenes, audiences are encouraged to question the parallels to the current day, such as media influence, capitalism, dystopia, and human nature. Robocop writer Edward Neumeier expressed how the themes in the film are even more relevant today, and basically predicted modern American in 1987. Themes you will definitely be thinking about once the credits roll will be how there are over optimistic expectations about how large corporations will take care of us and side effects of drastic wealth inequality. 

'The Matrix'

Written by the Wachowski brothers and starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix is certainly one of the best sci-fi movies that are meant to make you think. The plot uncovers that reality is just a simulation called "the Matrix," created by AI robots to control the human population—using human heat as an energy source. The movie projects a dystopian future where humans become subservient to sentient machines.

My favorite critical analysis of The Matrix comes from one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Michel Foucault. His philosophy revolved around the crossing of knowledge and power. In his studies, he determined these as uses of social control through societal institutions. It was Foucault who refuted the notion that ‘knowledge is power,’ but that 'power creates knowledge.'

The choice of the blue or red pill at the beginning was a choice of power and self-determination. The matrix represented a benign prison, creating what the robots considered to be a utopia because they eradicated suffering. But by doing that, the robots stripped an essential element of what it means to be human. That essential ingredient is free will. Take that away and we are nothing more than determinist robots. Taking the red pill symbolized that Neo wanted to break the stasis created by the matrix, the robot's way of creating social control. 

Other experienced philosophers will also notice the work of Descartes, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the classic 'brain in a vat' thought experiment, and Chinese Philosopher Zhuangzi. 

'Inception'

Inception is brilliant, with so many theatrical feats, original screenplay, editing, special effects, and musical score. The plot follows Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a professional thief and steals invaluable information by infiltrating the subconscious through dreams. In Inception, Christopher Nolan, director, wanted to explore, "the idea of people sharing a dream space... That gives you the ability to access somebody's unconscious mind. What would that be used and abused for?" Dream researcher at Harvard University, Deirdre Barrett says that Nolan did not get everything about dreams right but did get many right. The trade off of interesting plot points for the sake of scientific rigor paid off and leaves audiences in amazement. Things you might be thinking about after the movie is whether you would abuse such a power or has someone entered your dreams to make you do something?

'Blade Runner 2049'

Ridley Scott's original gets a modern reboot with Blade Runner 2049, starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, who also starred in the original. This plot line follows 30 years later in the same fictional universe as the original, where Ryan Gosling discovers a secret that could ignite a war between humans and the bioengineered humans, known as replicants in the film. Despite an underwhelming box office performance, the film received overwhelming praise for its performances, visual effects, musical score, and narrative. Blade Runner 2049 further expands the conversation on what it means to be human and the alienation and exploitation that occurs in dystopian societies. A form of exploitation discussed by director Denis Villeneuve is the ownership of fertility and of women's sexuality. 

'Her'

Her is a masterpiece, combining beautifully crafted cinematic experiences with core philosophical questions ever more relevant today. The story of Her follows Theodore Twombly after a break up. Shattered and discontent, he grasps onto the first source of affirmation he can trust—Samantha. Now Samantha is not just your average rebound, she is powered by artificial general intelligence trapped in the confines of a handheld device. As the story progresses, Samantha and Theodore develop a relationship that looks a lot like "love." 

Her is one of my favorite movies on this list because it provokes discussion about the core of human existence. First, Samantha, the artificial general intelligence, is made to challenge our perception of what it means to be human. Samantha certain seems to have consciousness by commonly agreed upon terms, but is it enough for our society to grant her personhood and the rights to go along with it? Second, Theodore's and Samantha's relationship challenges the viewer's perception of what it means to love. Their relationship seems to check all the boxes, connection, intimacy, consent, reciprocation, communication—but is it love? 

The film certain unapologetically communicates that an artificial being can attain consciousness, experience emotions analogous to love, and be loved by a human being. Get ready for a complicated future, folks.

Somewhat jealous of their relationship, I picked up my iPhone and inquired, "Siri, do you love me?"

"You have my utmost admiration," said Siri.

My heart was broken. 

'Cloud Atlas'

Written and directed by the same pair who created The Matrix, Wachowski brothers' film Cloud Atlas is another phenomenal sci-fi movie that is meant to make you think. Treading the line between sci-fi and fantasy, it explores how actions of individuals have chain effects through the past, present, and future. Sounds trippy, right? The immense scope and dramatic visuals of the movie are mind bending, capturing some and overwhelming others. 

'Interstellar'

Another gem directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar is another film that opens more questions than it answers. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, they are both astronauts sent on a mission through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity—escaping a dystopian future where people are struggling to survive. Interestingly, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was an executive producer and scientific consultant, and wrote The Science of Interstellar. Beyond the visual spectacle, this movie makes you think about the future of humanity, space travel, dystopian futures, inter-dimension communication, and what it means to be human. George R.R. Martin is quoted saying that Interstellar is, "The most ambitious and challenging SF film since Kubrick's 2001."

'Arrival'

Before Denis Villleneuve directed Blade Runner 2049, he directed Arrival based on the sci-fi story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, the plot explores how a linguist must discover methods to communicate with aliens who arrive on earth. 

Receiving eight nominations from the Academy Awards, this film amazed a variety audiences. From its stunning visual effects, musical score, and captivating performances, Arrival is one of the most unique films ever released. 

My favorite theme explored in Arrival is how language shapes the way we think. A question speculated about at least since Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul." A strong statement that language crafts reality. Now scientific data can deliver a conclusive answer. In a magnificent TED Talk by Lera Boroditsky, How language shapes the way we think, she argues that one's language affects how one perceives time, direction, color, and numbers. There is even further research to demonstrate that it can affect how people see the future.  

At the beginning of the movie, Louise says in her voice-over, “Memory is a strange thing, bound by the order of time.” The film explores the concept of if our language wasn’t “bound by the order of time,” our brains might be able to perceive time in a nonlinear way.

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