MIND MELD: The Most Intelligent Films of Science Fiction

Much of the general populace believes that SciFi films are nothing more than dumb fun, but genre fans know better. Science fiction offers filmmakers a unique opportunity to be thought-provoking and meaningful, or at least something more cerebral than, say, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

We asked this week’s panelists the following:

Q: Which films do you think are good examples of Intelligent SciFi?

Read on to see the responses…

Joseph Mallozzi
Joseph Mallozzi, along with his partner Paul Mullie, is the executive produce/showrunner for Stargate: Atlantis. He also runs a Book Of The Month discussion at his website.

Some fairly obvious choices come to mind – 2001, Blade Runner, Contact, Gattaca, Children of Men – and while I wholeheartedly agree that they should make the list, I’d like to offer up five not so obvious candidates:


  • Ghost in the Shell (and its sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence): An existential high-tech espionage-laden trip-and-a-half that follows a cyborg assassin and her team as they attempt to track down a mind-hacking terrorist dubbed The Puppet Master. Complex yet emotionally resonant. A cyber masterpiece.
  • Donnie Darko: I recently listed this one as one of my top 20 films of the past 17 years. Many don’t classify it as SF – but it most certainly is. And incredibly smart SF at that. Young Donnie Dark sleepwalks one night and encounters a creepy guy in a bunny suit who informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie returns to waking life to discover a jet engine has mysteriously crashed through the roof of his house. What the hell is going on? An intriguing mystery unfolds.
  • The Wings of Honneamise: Back to Japan for another thoughtful and thought-provoking feature-length anime entry. This one is set on a parallel Earth where, against the backdrop of heightened tensions between two nations on the brink of war, one side prepares to launch the planet’s first manned space flight. Shirotsugh Lhadatt is our disillusioned hero, haunted by the death of a fellow astronaut, who sacrifices all for the sake of the space program and, ultimately, humanity itself.
  • Dark City: It’s taken a while, but fans of intelligent scifi are finally giving this movie it’s due. John Murdoch awakens in a hotel bathtub with no memories of who he is, how he got there, or any of the details surrounding the dead woman in the apartment with him. Suddenly, he’s on the run in a city of perpetual night whose inhabitants fall into a deep slumber at the stroke of midnight, John must piece together his past if he’s to uncover the secret of Dark City. Noir, nihilistic, and visually stunning.
  • Voices of a Distant Star: A true labor of love, Voices of a Distant Star was written, directed, and produced by Makoto Shinkai on his home computer and, despite its modest 25 minute run time, proves a profound and incredibly heartfelt film – certainly more accomplished on an emotional and intellectual level than 99% of the big screen features out there. In 2046, young high school sweethearts Mikako and Noboru are separated when Mikako is chosen for an upcoming space mission. As she journeys off to deal with a distant alien threat, she communicates with Noboru via text messages. The further away she travels, the longer it takes for the messages to arrive and, while faster than light travel preserves her youth, Noboru ages back on Earth. Beautiful.
Brenda Cooper
Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and a futurist. Her recent books include the Endeavor award winning Silver Ship and The Sea and a sequel, Reading the Wind. See www.brenda-cooper.com for more info, and for periodic reading recommendations.

I don’t watch a ton of movies. I’m a writer with a day job and a family. But I do love them, and I have some favorite science fiction movies that I think are quite intelligent. Most are classics, so I doubt I’ll be showing many of you the way to new and cool movies. But maybe they’ll pick up an old favorite and give it another go. But first I need to mention that my criteria for whether or not a movie is “intelligent” isn’t about the science once it gets over a certain bar. Heck, the communicators on Star Trek were impossibly bad science and yet we have them. Hopefully we won’t get any red matter, but that’s a different discussion. I want my science fiction movies to make me think, and to shed light on who I am or who we’re becoming as a species. I also want a good story.

So here we go, generally in order:

  • I love Blade Runner. I love the look and feel of the movie, the grittiness of it, and the way it talks the kinds of prejudices we may have to deal with in the future. I love the way it has stood up to the test of time, and the way I can watch it over and over and still get new details.
  • Next in line, a movie I learned every word of dialogue to. When my son was at the age that they like to repeat movies, we had Star Wars Episode IV. It’s the best Star Wars. Why is it smart? Well, it’s got values. I know that probably sounds fairly lame, but I really kind of liked my young boy watching Luke Skywalker walk through peril to success, an eventually learning to trust himself to do the impossible. I liked the humor when C3PO sounded like an idiot and the way R2D2 could hack into anything.
  • On the subject of first in a series, The Matrix was watchable and re-watchable and re-watchable. Burn the sequels. But the thing itself is a piece of beauty. Enough said.
  • Contact with Jodie Foster. I mean what’s to complain about when Carl Sagan write the movie? While a bit slow (it’s not as easy re-watch, and so I haven’t done it over and over and over like the others), it’s the very best shot I’ve seen at alien contact. And it – rather smartly – leaves the aliens unknown. This is better than the odd habit we have of making them all bit like Cthulhu.
  • 2001. Like Contact, another smart alien movie with a shred of hope in it. Add in the lovely character of HAL 9000, and you have the seeds for a lot of thought about the paths we’re going down. Not all in a bad way. But Hal 9000 may be the spiritual father of the whole friendly AI movement.
Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers (www.launchpadworkshop.org). He blogs at www.mikebrotherton.com.

Intelligent science fiction film? There’s not a lot of it, but it is out there. Here’s my list:

  • Contact
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Primer
  • Gattaca
  • Blade Runner
  • Minority Report
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Abyss
  • Aliens
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn

I could spend a lot of words justifying the strengths and downplaying the weaknesses of each of these, but there’s plenty of meat in them to think about after the credits roll (and before!). None are prerfect, but they’re all intelligent.

Think about these, and enjoy them.

Lou Anders
Lou Anders — a 2009/2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2008 Philip K. Dick Award nominee, 2008/2006 Chesley Award winner/nominee, and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee — is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction and fantasy imprint Pyr, as well as many critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest of which are Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008) and Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008). He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, DeathRay, free inquiry, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish, Greek, German, Italian & French. Visit him online at: louanders.blogspot.com/

Everybody knows Blade Runner and 2010, but I love using examples that people don’t immediately think of as SF – like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is a brilliant film, and also absolutely SF. There is actually a rather large body of smart-SF film already – going back to The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original). Personal favorites of mine are Gattaca, Dark City, 12 Monkeys, Delicatessen (another people don’t realize is SF) and The City of Lost Children (sadly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien film isn’t as good as his other work), The Prestige, Primer, A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Enemy Mine (first time I believed the guy in latex was really an alien), Silent Running, 2010, Equilibrium, Outland…and many many more. A recent favorite is Through a Scanner Darkly, perhaps the best PKD adaptation to date. And I’d include the first (and only the first) Matrix as smart SF. And I have a strong suspicion that James Cameron’s next one will create a new wave of smart SF – though with Moon and District 9, the wave is already starting.

Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard is a writer who lives in Vancouver. The Best of Lucius Shepard, a career retrospective, will appear this summer from Subterranean Press, and next year will see the publication of a new as yet untitled novel.

An intelligent science fiction film must be defined as a cinematic story in which the laws of science are not violated, at least in a silly way.

Well, no. Not necessarily.

Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, a dystopian noir-ish tale, set in an imaginary city (Paris in the mid-Sixties), spoofs the genre and plays fast and loose with science yet contains several unforgettable scenes that are purely genre. Though the film would likely be a chore for many genre fans to watch, it remains the seminal film in the sub-genre of Intelligent Science Fiction Films (ISFF), heavily influencing Blade Runner, as well as directors like Kubrick, Wong Kar Wai, etc.

Of course Kubrick’s 2001 is the gold standard, and his A Clockwork Orange presents a compelling portrait of a futuristic Britain in decline. Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 is an elegy to lost love in which future, past and present blend together and his Fallen Angels, though a non-genre movie, is in my view the film that best captures the cyberpunk ethos. Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 paints a completely believable near-future against which he sets his story of doomed lovers. Alain Resnais’ little-seen Je T’aime, Je T’aime is a time travel tale that traps its protagonist inside a time machine and torments him with thoughts and memories from his past. Delicatessen by Mark Caro and Jean-Pierre Juenet is a surreal post-apocalyptic black comedy set in the house belonging to a butcher who provides suspicious meats to his tenants and overlies a world populated by troglydytes who eat only grain. Slava Tsuckerman’s Liquid Sky, which played non-stop for three years in Boston, New York and Washington DC, offers a modern fairy tale of aliens and supermodels. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse 5 are both good translations of novels by Walter Tevis and Kurt Vonnegut. Alex Cox’s Repo Man tells the story of Otto, a young guy who enters the repossession business and becomes involved with a mysterious 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by a mad scientist and hunted by government agents. Alex Proyas Dark City is a story about a city controlled by strange alien masters who each night reshape its reality. In Bernard Tavernier’s La Mort en Direct, Harvey Kietel plays a man with a camera implanted in his brain who is filming a documentary about a beautiful terminally ill woman. Lar’s Von Trier’s The Element of the Crime reimagines the detective story in a near future environment and is notable for its gorgeous visuals. Duncan Jones’ Moon, a film about the costs of utopia and what it means to be human. Brazil, Alien (essentially a horror story), Tsarkovsky’s Stalker, Alex Nicol’s Gattaca…the list goes on. There are more, but these are a few of my favorites.

Torie Atkinson
Torie Atkinson is a professional geek enthusiast. She’s currently the editor of Tor.com‘s blog and serves as the site’s community manager.

Though science fiction films have more popularly become a subgenre of the action movie, many directors, both in the U.S. and abroad, are still making intelligent and thought-provoking SF. Most recently was Duncan Jones’ Moon, a moody, atmospheric film starring Sam Rockwell as a lonely miner on the surface of our satellite, who has left behind his family to harvest essential resources for Earth. The film unfolds with several satisfying reveals that I won’t give away here, but it incorporates many classic tropes of the genre and yet each one consistently avoids the pitfalls of clich√©, refusing to take the path of least resistance. It’s a slow and deliberate film, but it gracefully explores fundamental questions of identity: Are two men with the same pasts doomed to share the same future? Do our memories define us, or can we choose to surpass our own programming? And if our world were a lie-if everything we believed about ourselves was wrong-could we trust even ourselves? I look forward to anything Duncan Jones is willing to throw at us in the years to come.

A favorite of mine is Dark City, which touches on many of the same themes. Our hero wakes up with no memory of who he is, or where he is, or why there is a dead prostitute in his room. (Common problem, really.) Is he a murderer? Unsure of himself but determined to learn the truth even if it’s ugly, he sets out to find himself. He soon discovers that his world-which looks part Norman Rockwell 1950s, and part gritty 1990s-is actually an elaborate experiment in which people are shuffled around on a great stage, injected with different memories to be recast as different people. Do the memories and experiences of a killer make one a murderer? Or is there some innate you-ness down there, something that cannot be erased or manipulated? It’s a smart, thoughtful look at what makes us who we are.

I would also encourage those seeking thought-provoking science fiction to look beyond English-speaking films and consider both 2046 and Metropolis. 2046 is from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, and if nothing else the film is gorgeous-sleek, dark, and oppressively beautiful. Several different storylines crisscross in time, place, and even language (the film is in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), to show one man who desperately tries to recapture a lost love. He imagines a science-fictional story in which his stand-in and an android woman fulfill the romance he was never able to fulfill himself. Obsessed with a room (apartment 2046) he can never return to, and constantly failing in relationships with women who embody part, but not all, of the woman he once loved, he becomes trapped in his own life, unwilling and unable to escape the past. The film uses visual and musical repetition to show the ruts that we can create for ourselves, and the way that science fiction can be a way to fulfill the desires we never will. I don’t unreservedly recommend it as it can be slow and oft-times deadly ponderous, but it’s worth a look for at least the visuals.

Metropolis is an anime from Japan, based on the 1940s manga that was in turn based on the Fritz Lang film (which was based on a novel-got all that?). It’s a visual masterpiece, stunning in scope and a joy to watch. In Metropolis, humans and robots coexist, but not altogether peacefully-robots who attempt to break free of their orders are terminated on sight. Our hero, a young man named Kenichi, stumbles upon a young girl with no language and no memories. Ultimately he discovers that the girl, Tima, is actually a robot built by the dictator in the image of his dead daughter. They uncover a conspiracy by the dictator that involves Tima as the key to world domination. Robots, despite their clearly individual personalities, are treated as property and not as people, so Tima must soon confront the notion that her objective, her sole purpose for existing, conflicts with the values she has grown to adopt in her brief life as a human girl. It’s a challenging, bittersweet film, and borrows heavily from Western science fiction (especially Blade Runner).

While our theaters are more likely to screen Transformers 2 than Moon, I believe that thoughtful, intelligent science fiction is still out there, if you know where to look.

19 thoughts on “MIND MELD: The Most Intelligent Films of Science Fiction”

  1. Great to see Metropolis (Tezuka) get a mention.  The animation design for the human characters is the only thing holding back that film.   Otherwise, it’s a great robot story with otherwise beautiful design choices. 

     

  2. Great to see Primer make an appearance here. The first time I watched it, I got to the end and immediately rewatched it from the beginning. I still don’t completely understand everything that happened, which is what makes it great to me!

  3. Surprised nobody mentioned the original Solaris. Sure it’s got pacing like molasses, and some sequences would be better cut from the movie, but at its best it makes my brain fizz with speculation like no other. What is humanity; what is the nature of communication — with ourselves, with others, with that which is alien? How do loyalty and nostalgia create identity, create personal reality? And how does a high tech society figure into it and relate to earth and nature?

    The Andromeda Strain is intelligent for showing the scientific method in action.

    If short films can be counted, They’re Made Out of Meat is a fun favorite.

     

     

  4. Dark City is an all-time favorite, but has been well represented in this list. I’d also add Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer” and Speilberg’s “Minority Report.”

  5. I agree, John M.  “Colossus: The Forbin Project” is an excellent adaptation of D.F. Jones’ novel, well imagined and featuring Eric Braedon as a perfect Charles Forbin.  It’s on DVD.  I have it.

    Ahem…  People?  WHERE THE HELL IS “FORBIDDEN PLANET?”   That movie is the epitomy of intelligent SF.  It is 53 years old and yet the dialogue and effects still hold up today.  Yes, the effects may not be on par with some of today’s blockbusters, but imagine how fans must have reacted to that film and its unapologetically high-concept, intelligent scripting and pacing back then.  I would have thought I had died and gone to Heaven, kinda like how I felt when I saw Star Wars ANH in 1977.  I would not even begin to try to count the number of times I have watched and marveled at FP and never get tired of it.  My favorites are:

    2001, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Star Wars (ALL of them, yes, even the ones with the reggae amphibian), and the little space opera that could, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

    Shame!

  6. Oh, and did I mention Planet of the Apes?  No?  Okay.  Planet of the Apes.  Christ!  Rod Serling wrote it, a vast improvement over Boulle’s boring novel.  If Serling ain’t intelligence, what is?

  7. A few that nobody mentioned (in alphabetical order as I look at my DVD shelf):

    Alien Nation (though the show is admittedly better, but it did the “aliens as metaphor for earthly race issues” thing every bit as good as District 9)

    Back to the Future

    Children of Men

    eXistenZ

    Flatliners

    Godzilla (’54)

    The Incredibles

    Sunshine (…perhaps? Yes?)

    Videodrome

    Wall-E

  8. I whole-heartedly agree on “Forbidden Planet”.  I still think it’s one of the greatest SF films of all time.

    Gattaca is also arguably my all-time favorite film.

  9. Great to see PRIMER mentioned. Even greater to get to know that there are movie buffs who watched it more than once. What’s greatest is that like me, there are a few who still find somethings un-understandeable. A good list, in all regards.

  10. Oh for god’s sake!

     

    Star Wars is not smart, not none of it, not no how, not ever.

     

    It is cartoon. It is Yogi Bear in space suits. Star Wars is the film that made smart SF movies impossible to get made. I walked out of the first film, which I saw in the first week it was released, saying “Well THAT sucked ass!” My mind has reeled ever since at the accolades that accrue to this POS. Everyone says “Well, this episode is stupid, but the rest are still good.” No They aren’t. They bite too.

    “But the special effects are great!” Yeah, ok, that was the justification I heard for the first film and yes at the time it was true. So what? Special effects with no story to back it up is nothing but bright shiny crap, magpie movies.

     

    You can keep it.

     

     

  11. 1-Donnie Darko

    2-Dark City

    3-2001 A Space Odyssey

    4-Contact-Jodie Foster

    5-Alien’s

    These are my five fav.

  12. I prefer writing and reading science fiction to fantasy, so it pains me to say that Hollywood has rarely if ever made a truly intelligent science fiction movie. Certainly nothing that can compare to the best of the fantasy movies, films like FIELD OF DREAMS, HARVEY, THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT, PORTRAIT OF JENNY, a number of others.

    – Mike Resnick

  13. my faourite: a movie can’t just be a classic or have a famous director or recognized actors. the story has be thought provoking and the characters have to be worthy of your attention, especially for a 21st century audience. I hate movies that are mentioned simply because they are classics.

    Here are my favourites:

    -Serenity (2005)

    -Gattaca

    -Saw

    -Inception (2010)

    -Brazil (1985)

    -Star Trek (2009)

    -Idiocracy

    -Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind

     

  14. Really, there’s Kubrick and then there’s everyone else. His 2001 and Clockwork Orange are far and beyond most SF works in cinema. Then you have Bladerunner and Cronenberg following behind. Everyone else is far below these guys.

  15. I second Serenity, and I’m surprised that no one mentioned District 9, which was excellent.

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