For a while there on Fark, they were doing a lot of 10 best lists (including this really moronic “Best Animated Movies” list that should have been Akira; Spirited Away; Beauty and the Beast; The Incredibles; The Nightmare Before Christmas; My Neighbor Tontoro; Monsters, Inc; Fantasia; Shrek; and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and I’ve been thinking of doing one for a while. I decided to pick a made-up category: the 10 best intellectual science fiction movies of all time, as chosen by me.
What is an “intellectual science fiction” movie? If a movie’s plot is based on exploring some aspect of technology or culture in a fictional or futuristic setting, in a way that provokes interesting questions, that is an intellectual science fiction movie. The best ones do this with intelligence and depth, and the worst ones take a great concept and turn it into crap. This usually doesn’t include movies that explore an entire new setting, like Star Wars and to a lesser extent Star Trek (although some of the Star Trek episodes would make the list if I included television shows).
Just so you know: I am both a huge Star Wars and Star Trek fan.
Obviously, this isn’t based on gross receipts or popularity. The opinions are my own, which obviously carries its own inherent bias. Just as a warning, I am biased toward more recent movies.
Here are the movies:
No. 1: Contact (1997)
Currently my favorite movie of all time, “Contact” is based on a brilliant book by Carl Sagan. This movie explores Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials in the form of a radio signal from another star and also the trust that we humans place on technology, religion, and other humans.
Although the special effects for the movie are pretty, they don’t drive the plot, which revolves mostly around Eleanor Arroway’s experiences and search for extraterrestrial life. The acting is absolutely superb, and the technical work and music are amazing.
Sagan, who wrote Contact, was determined to make sure that “Contact” was scientifically accurate, and for the most part, he succeeded. The science represented in the movie is a combination of inspiration and hard work. The meaningless technobable is minimal. Further, Arroway has to wrestle with her dreams and the realities of her life along the way to her discovery.
The movie differs from the book in several ways, for example in the book five scientists travel using The Machine, not just Arroway. However, I believe that dropping the “hidden message from the creator in pi” plot makes the theme (searching for ultimate truths that are just out of our grasp) much stronger.
This movie is the pinnacle of the synthesis of intellectualism and story-telling.
No. 2: Children of Men (2006)
This movie, only recently released, forced its way onto this list with its dark look at a futuristic
Alfonso Cuarón did an amazing job with this movie, with many subtle indications of a world that is very much like our world and yet completely different. From the ads for suicide pills to the cult of celebrity that surrounds the youngest human, Children of Men is both a brilliant social commentary and a wonderful work of art.
Again, although “Children of Men” features huge explosions and gunfights, they are not the focus of the plot. They are simply part of the experience that the movie portrays. I couldn’t help but hold my breath during the scene where they left the apartment building, but it felt real as well.
No. 3: Gattaca (1997)
When I was a kid, I wanted to have fraternal twins someday, and I’m sure other people similarly wish they could select their children, or at least their childrens' attributes. The theme behind “Gattaca” is so enticing, so innocent. What could be wrong about making sure that our children are the smartest and the fastest?
This is the ultimate movie about eugenics, and to a lesser extent about DNA profiling and statistics. The protagonist has to fight to show that what we desire can be just as strong as who we are. This is a theme that definitely resonates very strongly with me.
Overall, this is another very interesting movie; perhaps especially for the idea that someday we’ll wear a suit and tie to travel into space.
No. 4: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This film, which introduced us to Hal 9000 and big black monoliths, was certainly a groundbreaking science fiction masterpiece. It would be ranked higher if it was more comprehensible. Can you say that you really would have understood the ending to this film without reading the book (or Wikipedia)?
The plot of this movie revolves around the discovery of a “designed” object on the moon, and a subsequent investigation to Jupiter in which the computer (programmed to act like a human) goes crazy and tries to kill all of the astronauts.
Despite some sections of the movie that could be clearer, this movie has provoked decades of discussion and speculation, and is probably one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made. It’s also one of the Stanley Kubrick’s amazing works of art.
No. 5: Brazil (1985)
I must admit, I haven’t seen “
If I understand the plot, then
The story of the making of “
No. 6: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
When I first watched “A Clockwork Orange,” I was greatly disturbed by the entire thing. However, partially through Elliot’s enthusiasm for Kubrick, I eventually came to understand why this movie is so good, and so important.
In the book, the protagonist and his hooligan friends are 15 year olds that practice “ultraviolence,” which involves rape and random attacks on people and property. Eventually he’s captured and “reprogrammed,” but it raises ethical questions about what makes someone good or bad. Can we simply cut evil out of society without cutting out some of the things that make us human?
Interestingly, I just learned from Wikipedia that the book ends on a positive note, but since the American version dropped that chapter, Kubrick didn’t know about that until after the screenplay was written. Up until this point, that makes half the movies on this list that end on a positive note, and half that tear the bottom of your soul on the way down.
No. 7: The Abyss (1989)
“The Abyss” changes the alien encounter scenario by placing it underwater, but the primary conflict in the movie is between the civilians, who take the view that the visitors are benign, and military officers, who believe that the aliens attacked a nuclear submarine.
Some of the scenes that were in the Director’s Cut include some really interesting threats that the aliens deliver to the humans involving a giant tsunami wave that rise to destroy humanity around every coast in the world. Unlike Contact, in the end there is incontrovertible proof of the aliens at the end of the story.
This is the only movie on the list that involves a nuclear weapon, but that’s to be expected because it’s a James Cameron movie. Incidentally, the novelization was written by sci-fi master Orson Scott Card.
No. 8: Vanilla Sky (2001)
I can’t quite believe that a Tom Cruise movie made my list, but here it is. When I went to see this movie, I had absolutely no idea that it was a sci-fi. I thought it would be more along the lines of “Almost Famous,” probably a drama about a musician.
This movie came out two years after “The Matrix,” but the way that it questions reality is substantially more nuanced, although the themes are very similar.
Some of the things that make Vanilla Sky special are the way that it revolves around the choices of the main character. There is a vast conspiracy out there, but it’s his conspiracy and in the end it’s a solution that he built. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, the acting is also very good.
No. 9: Metropolis (1927)
This is another movie that I haven’t seen, but you probably haven’t seen the whole thing either. Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction epic has sadly been lost over time. Still, this is one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made.
This movie, about deep class divisions in the future, is so inspiring that just the poster led writer Osamu Tezuka to create his own version about the nature of authority and consciousness.
There are Manchurian Candidate themes in “Metropolis” too. A member of the ruling class uses a robot doppelganger to lead the lower classes into revolt, anticipating that he will then be able to eliminate them.
No. 10: Flight of the Navigator (1986)
There’s always a movie on the list that people hate, so mine is this eighties movie, which contains one of the best portrayals of time travel that I’ve seen. The whole premise (with faster than light travel, time travel, telepathy, and a morphing silver spaceship) is interesting, but when I first saw this movie, I thought that the treatment of the protagonists return eight years after he disappeared was very well done. I haven’t seen it in years, but I really liked it.
Besides, it has a happy ending, and lists should have happy endings.
There are so many other amazing movies that didn’t make it onto this list. Some of the others that come to mind are Phenomenon, Powder, Minority Report, Starship Troopers, Equilibrium, and The Cell.
There are some really bad movies in this category out there though. I picked out ten more movies that are bad, either because they try to be intellectual and fail, or because they take a wonderful premise (or short story) and manage to turn it into crap. Just for fun, they’re in the opposite order than the first list.
No. 10: Mission to Mars (2000)
This and Red Planet came out at the same time, and the later was obviously the better movie. You see, in this movie, the “face on mars” is really an alien spaceship that seeded life on Earth and then stayed behind. Perhaps you have to see it to understand how much it sucked.
No. 9: Total Recall (1990)
They wouldn’t have survived on the planet while the atmosphere was forming. And why would the aliens bother leaving the device in the pyramid if they weren’t going to use it? The only really interesting question it raised for me was “Would a triple-breasted whore make more money than a double-breasted one?” Incidentally, this is based on a Philip K. Dick short story, and I think he’s a great sci-fi writer. This will come up again later.
No. 8: Bicentennial Man (1999)
The idea for this movie isn’t quite as bad as the execution. Robin Williams? Two hundred years old? The fact that he could eventually replace machine parts with human replacement organs? That speech that the judge makes? I want my 132 minutes back. This was based on a work by Isaac Asimov.
No. 7: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)
This is basically the same movie as Bicentennial Man, except that it was well executed . . . until the end. When I watch this movie, at the point where David is trapped in the helicopter, I turn it off. The alien machines spoiled the whole thing for me. Why would they reactivate him instead of just tapping his memory? Why did they recreate his mother? Why did they have those horrible accents? This is otherwise a good movie, but that ending just ruined it.
No. 6: Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
This is the Star Trek that tried desperately to become a Star Wars, but fell miserably on its face. True, I don’t dislike it as much as “Nemesis” but the premise of this movie was counter to what seemed to be the theme of the Star Trek franchise, which was that eventually things all things can be understood. Suddenly there’s mystical magic in Star Trek? I don’t buy it for a moment.
No. 5: The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Whatever intellectual content there was in this movie was already covered in detail by Dan Brown’s book. And all the books that he (probably) plagiarized from.
No. 4: The Saint (1997)
Okay, I know, let’s take the premise of cold fusion, involve a pretty scientist that needs notecards to understand the concept, throw in a love story, and then make the entire thing a spy movie. And throw in a bunch of Catholic dogma that didn’t make much sense either. Yeah, I can’t imagine why this didn’t work.
No. 3: I, Robot (2004)
The Foundation Series (of which I, Robot is a auxiliary short story) is an amazing series of books, and this title was bought and then slapped on a Will Smith vehicle. The reason the books give for robots that are able to harm humans involves the development of the “Zeroth Law,” which allowed robots to kill humans in order to benefit humanity as a whole. You could have made a mint off that premise, instead of making it just a pretty action flick where Will Smith beats down on robots.
No. 2: Next (2007)
This isn’t even out yet, but it is based on a Philip K. Dick story, and let’s face it: apparently scripts based on Asimov and Philip K. Dick stories don’t make very good movies (the only exception so far being “Minority Report”). It stars Nicholas Cage, and while I like his movies, it’s not because they make me think.
No. 1: Paycheck (2003)
See, this is why Next makes it on the list even though it isn’t out. Palmistry? Lasers that can see the future? A memory device that plays like a first person shooter? At least Dick’s original story had a cool ending (not involving a lottery ticket). How on Earth did they make this so bad? They got fairly good actors, and they had a cool concept and a big name. This movie should be embarrassing to everyone involved.
Update: Yeah, I farked up the "I, Robot" description as the good people at Fark were so kind to point out. Fixed now. I have no excuse but temporary insanity.
Update 2: I have now seen both Brazil and Metropolis, and I was right, they both deserve their places on this list, although if I was to rewrite it now, I would bump Brazil up by one place on the list.