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15 Intelligent Sci-Fi Movies That Challenge You To Think

24 May 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Fredrick Ochami

movies influenced by Jung

For a long time now, science fiction has been synonymous with Michael Bay-esque explosions, alien invasions and super-powered humans with futuristic gadgets. For most of these films, the sci-fi aspect only exists to make the action sequences cooler, and cooler scenes mean more profits.

But there are movies that embrace the science in science fiction and challenge you to think as much as they entertain you. These are the timeless films that would make legends like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov proud, and which make up this list. If you think a movie is missing from the list, don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments.

 

15. Dark City

dark city

When Alex Proyas was still a critically acclaimed director, he made this cult hit (his best movie after The Crow). In the film, John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel with amnesia and learns he’s being hunted by the police and a group of men called the Strangers.

Roger Ebert’s best film of 1998 is visually astounding, atmospheric and intelligent, with similarities to Blade Runner and Metropolis.

 

14. Akira

Akira movie

The film takes place in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo which has risen from the ashes of the old Tokyo (destroyed by a psychic explosion). A biker gang, led by Kaneda, has a chance encounter with government officials. This leads to the officials capturing a gang member, Tetsuo, and things take a dark and bloody turn, spiraling into an unforgettable climax.

Akira is probably the most iconic anime film of all time, and with good reason. It popularized anime in the West, brought on a new art style that countless illustrators adopted, and became a massive cult hit. But, most importantly, it tackled themes like the loss of humanity, the inevitability of humanity’s destruction, our need to have a god to worship and more.

Though the film never had enough time to tackle everything in the gargantuan manga it’s based on, Akira still made a decent effort; probably because the manga’s creator, Katsuhiro Otomo, was also the director.

 

13. Donnie Darko

donnie-darko

Time travel movies tend to be complex, but they are rarely this weird. The film starts with the titular character being led outside his home by a creepy giant rabbit, effectively saving him from a plane which crashes into his bedroom. Donnie also learns that the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

Like Mulholland Drive, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of explanations. There is twist after twist, but they mainly serve to make you scratch your head. Because of how ambiguous everything is, countless forums and blogs have formed that try to analyze and interpret the film. Are some of them accurate? Only the creators know.

 

12. Inception

Inception ending

It’s hard to decide whether Inception is more of a mind-bender than Memento, but one thing’s clear: Hollywood needs more directors like Christopher Nolan. The film tells the story of Dom Cobb, a dream thief who tries to redeem himself by invading someone’s mind to plant an idea. The operation comes with unexpected obstacles and complexities, and sometimes the film feels a bit hard to follow; if you’re watching it for the first time, anyway.

The film inspired countless analyses by both audiences and critics about its themes, symbolism, and especially the ambiguous ending (just do a Google search of the interpretation of the film, and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of results).

 

11. Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

What does it mean to be human if your mind can get replaced and your entire body can be replaced with something synthetic? Can an Artificial Intelligence form a soul? These are just some of the many questions Ghost in the Shell asks.

In the critically lauded film, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg agent at the Internal Bureau of Investigations on the hunt for the “Puppet Master”, an elusive hacker. The Puppet Master hacks human-cyborg hybrids and alters their identities. The investigation leads to a climax where Kusanagi is forced to question her own identity.

The film was so rich in themes, style and originality that it (directly and indirectly) inspired many future Hollywood films, from The Matrix to Avatar. It also spawned sequels, remakes and an anime series.

 

10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

How far would you go to forget the one who broke your heart? To Clementine and Joel, it’s undergoing a procedure to make them forget they ever knew each other. But the procedure doesn’t go quite as well as you’d expect.

The film looks at the importance of memories, how attraction works on multiple levels and whether some things are just destined to happen. Charlie Kaufman, no stranger to the weird, does an incredible job writing a complex, multilayered script. From the writing to the direction and even the cast, the film is a success on every level.

 

9. World on a Wire

World on a Wire

This underappreciated gem tells the story of Fred Stiller, a cybernetics engineer in the near future who’s life changes when he’s hired to head a project involving a supercomputer.

The computer has developed an artificial world simulating the real one, and has populated it with more than 9,000 identity units, or artificial humans, who have no idea they are simulations. The aim of the simulation is to help the government to anticipate future social needs. After a murder and a disappearance, Stiller becomes paranoid as he tries to unearth what’s going on.

At over 3 hours long, the film is slow-paced almost to a fault, especially when compared to today’s breakneck blockbusters; but this is the signature style of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It might not have been as revolutionary as Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but if you have the patience, World on a Wire is well worth your time.

 

 

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  • Frank

    Can Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind really be considered Sci-Fi??

    • george peter

      Plus, can Upstream Color and Primer really be considered movies?

      • D Train

        Upstream Color is brilliant arthouse cinema. Certainly not to all tastes but very original and geniously crafted. 🙂

        • george peter

          Too brilliant arthouse “cinema” and too geniously crafted for my tastes, indeed.

          • BaronMarx

            Plus, can George Peter and his opinions really be considered relevant?

        • Jeffrey Nelson

          I’m all for cerebral sci-fi cinema, and loved the rest of the films on this list, but I thought UPSTREAM COLOR, after a promising beginning, devolved into a pretentious pile.

    • Alan

      Why wouldn’t they?

      • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

        with Donnie Darkgo there is no “science” involved, just phillosofical concepts I guess

        • shane scott-travis

          Donnie Darko explores time travel and how that affects the psyche.
          It’s a genre blend for sure, mostly horror, but sci-fi is present.

    • D Train

      Eternal Sunshine is straight up science fiction, in fact, Charlie Kaufman said it was his homage to Philip K Dick and it shows. The film’s premise rests on a company that alters memory via scientific brain surgery. A film doesn’t need flying cars and jet packs to be speculative fiction, though the two films you mention, Frank, do fringe on other genres as well. 🙂

      • Frank

        I feel like it’s the opposite. Eternal Sunshine cannot be limited to a single genre, and if anything it isn’t Sci-Fi. The brain surgery and time travel only acts as a backdrop for the real events taking place. They act as a metaphor for the characters’ way of getting over their past. The film’s genre fringes on Sci-fi but you cannot call it that.

        • Marcel Gendron

          Ive not seen it, but your analysis is intelligent.

        • Lars Franssen

          Isn’t the science bit just a backdrop for philosophical explorations in most good science fiction movies? Otherwise, why would anyone except physics geeks even watch science fiction? And why would a list like this exist?

          To me, therefore, Eternal Sunshine is definitely science fiction, while Donnie Darko is not. The time traveling is utterly unscientific.

        • skainstein

          I understand what you’re saying but I don’t agree. Eternal is about memory manipulation, of course the main analisys on the movie is about what that manipulation does too the self, so it’s philosophical or pscicologial. Well pscicology is a science, ergo sci-fi.
          Just because in the past all sci-fi was about spaceships, alliens and other amazing things, it doesn’t mean that the new sciences can’t be introduced to movies and extrapolated.
          Donnie Darko is another example. It merges psicology with physics. What it does is to introduce psicology where physics doesn’t have answers, creating a scientific theory that no scientist can say is impossible. The truth is that we don’t konw if what Donnie does is possible or not… But most people think is just stupid or very imaginative. They forget that the biggest secrets in universe still remain secrets and noone as THE answer.

    • Cryptid

      Donnie Darko is closer to being Horror or Fantasy than it is SciFi. But these days people are too young to know what science fiction used to be and instead only need it to be mentioned in a film to be considered science fiction. Which is quite sad and pathetic.

  • shane scott-travis

    Great list! Missing is Stalker, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, The Fountain, Zardoz, who and Cloud Atlas. 🙂

    • Cryptid

      Zardoz, a great film that is completely misunderstood. Albeit is a very bizarre film. Yet what is even more odd are the Sean Connery fans that have never heard or it.

  • Jasper Superior

    It’s been a few days since we last had a list which featured 2001 at the top. Honestly, that’s too long. I can’t get enough of it.

  • Marijn Sies

    Interstellar!

    • MichaelTodd

      Intersmeller

      • Marijn Sies

        Hahaha! Now that’s awesome wordplay… :p
        Why is Interstellar funny to you?

        • MichaelTodd

          Thanks. I wouldn’t say I found it “funny”, just boring, pretentious, and without a trace of humor like most of his films. I’m a huge fan of “Intelligent” Sci-Fi though—2001 and Solaris are my favorites. Loved Moon too, but his next one Source Code made me think “Horse Load”. I digress.

  • localman22

    I would include . . . Idiocracy. That movie, especially its beginning, uses biting satire to make valid points about the direction of society and many aspects of media. Even today, every time I see some advertisement claiming some kind of secret ingredient with a fancy made-up name, I exclaim, “It’s got electrolytes!”

    • SYS

      I never knew a movie could be equally funny and terrifying all at the same time. I think anyone that has seen that movie becomes a little paranoid about the things we see happening in society today that we may have not noticed. Sometimes I walk into Costco..lol!!

      • localman22

        “Welcome to Costco . . . I love you!”

        When I see those “Interview on the street” comedy bits that show how dumb some people are . . . it makes me wonder if Idiocracy might have been a documentary from the future . . .

    • esteban

      that movie scare me

    • skainstein

      It may be a comedy… But it’s a damn serious subject they show in this movie. I belive it’s one of the best predictions of our future… sadly 🙁

  • SYS

    Splice, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Lawnmower Man, Alien, Sunshine..

  • Andre Troesch

    Thirteenth Floor, Scanners, eXistenZ, Equilibrium, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, A Clockwork Orange, Long Dream, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Limitless, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, Cube, Save the Green Planet, Westworld, Metropolis, The Butterfly Effect, 1984, Children of Men, THX 1138, Snowpiercer, Parasite Eve, The Last Man on Earth, The Andromeda Strain, A Wind Named Amnesia

    • skainstein

      Those are all great

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Most of these don’t “Challenge you to Think”. What on earth does Equilibrium makes that is so complex and hard for an Adult to understand?

  • Andre Troesch

    Also They Live, the movie might not be “Intelligent” but the concept of an alien race ruling us using subliminal messages is intriguing and frightening.

  • Jeffrey Nelson

    I would add NEVER LET ME GO to this list.

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  • Olympia Singh

    They Live (1988)

  • Laila Middleton

    no offense but primer is THE WORST movie I HAVE ever watched and wish i could get that time back and that horrible movie burned out of my memory. I was excited to watch it cause I read an interesting review and it was the biggest mistake. The movie is so pointless!

    • Winay Mahajan

      agree

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Watch more movies.

  • Brandon Thompson

    Solaris > 2001

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Only if you are a hater or plain stupid. Not even Tarkovsky would agree with that.

      • Brandon Thompson

        A couple of things make me not care about what you just said. Tarkovsky didn’t like 2001. I might think Solaris is 10/10 and 2001 is 9.5/10 so how does that make me stupid? And seeing how your replying to other people’s opinions just makes you look ignorant. Try starting a proper conversation with people instead of thinking you’re better than everyone else, because you’re not.

        • Jules F. Melo Borges

          That’s a very snobbish answer coming from a 3-word-comment. He didn’t like 2001 (That’s before making Solaris) nor Solaris, his own movie.
          Common Sense states that if you had the trouble to say ‘Solaris > 2001’, then you must think there’s a significant gap between them. That’s like a basic principle, or you are just being irrelevant. And talking about relevance…
          I’m not here to have ‘conversations’ with such a shallow statement.

          • Brandon Thompson

            My honest thoughts on 2001 are that it’s slow and boring, especially that I don’t care and any character in the film. On the other hand Solaris has a great conflict at its centre and drives the movie really well. I don’t think Solaris is Tarkovsky’s best film but I certainly do like it.

  • David Pollison

    I would add the 2009 Swiss movie Cargo.

  • ntinos ntinos

    primer is as shit as a movie could ever be…

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      You must be new into this “Movie” stuff…

  • Lars Franssen

    Blade Runner made me think.

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Plan 9 made me think too.

  • skainstein

    Primer goes too deep into scientific theories to get nowhere in the end. It is basically a movie about nothing at all

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Still quite demanding.

  • Abraham Morales

    Matrix?

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Unless you are an adolescent or completely clueless about Sci-fi, there’s nothing complex about it.

    • Adrian

      I’d consider Matrix 2 and 3, as they challenged me to think what on earth I was thinking when I went to see them.

  • ttt

    cool list, my adds:
    coherence
    arrival
    cloud atlas
    under the skin

    • Jules F. Melo Borges

      Coherence is worthless.

  • MnkyLv

    Also,

    Zardoz
    1984
    Brazil

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    I appreciated both Primer and Upstream Colour but feel that they would have benefited from a few more crumbs to the lost viewers. Fine list overall though.

  • Jules F. Melo Borges

    Movies like Dark City, Inception and Akira “Challenge you to think”? Ah, Go to hell.

  • Oscar Medina

    What about “The Man From Earth?

  • Camilo Caballero

    What about Stalker and A Clockwork Orange? And on the more recent ones, what about Ex Machina, Under the Skin and Arrival?