The sci-fi genre has come a long way since Fritz Lang’s 1927 groundbreaking silent-film masterpiece Metropolis envisioned the dystopian future and incorporated thematic subject matters about technology, capitalism, and social oppression.
Since then, the sci-fi genre has evolved with many great films worth discovering. From space exploration to time travel and artificial intelligence, here are 10 Cerebral Sci-Fi Movies Worth Exploring.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
An underrated sci-fi epic that deserves more attention back in its initial release during the summer of 2001, A.I. Artificial Intelligence combines Steven Spielberg’s mix of sentimentality and spectacle with the late Stanley Kubrick’s clinical and cynical storytelling approach. The result? A one-of-a-kind genre film where Spielberg did a great job honoring the cinematic legacy of his decades-long close friend, Stanley Kubrick, who sadly died in 1999.
Sure, I have to admit the movie did suffer from some of Spielberg’s overwhelming tendency for mawkish sentimentality. But for most parts of the movie, the sci-fi angle of a Pinocchio-like story about the epic journey of an android (Haley Joel Osment) seeking the Blue Fairy in the hope of becoming a real boy is both touching and thought-provoking. The latter is particularly evident with the movie asking intriguing questions like what makes us human — a significant theme in the movie that instantly reminded me of Blade Runner (which we will get to in a bit).
Arrival may have been Denis Villeneuve’s first foray into the sci-fi genre. But he proves to be a versatile filmmaker, blending the intellectual sensibility of Kubrickian style within the movie’s familiar genre convention. That familiarity in question is the alien invasion that landed on planet Earth. And this kind of movie usually includes an expert of sorts, which in this case, we have Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, who is a linguistics professor.
But Villeneuve isn’t interested in settling for a typical big-budget Hollywood type of sci-fi spectacle, ala something like Independence Day. It’s more of a Robert Zemeckis’ Contact-like cerebral narrative approach, relying instead on weighty themes of time, memory, as well as loss, and the expression of language. A language that is related to the communication between humans and aliens and how it shapes and influences one’s understanding and perceptions.
Blade Runner (1982)
No list of sci-fi movies — cerebral or not — would be complete without mentioning Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 masterpiece may have been a box-office flop back in the day but it has since become a highly-influential genre classic.
Having seen the original theatrical cut and the 2007 version (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), the former famously suffered from Harrison Ford’s awfully monotonous voiceover narration and an out-of-place happy ending. The 2007 version thankfully removed these shortcomings. Regardless of which version you see, Blade Runner benefits from mixing sci-fi with the 1940s and ’50s film noir elements. The use of illuminated neon signs & billboards, along with the seemingly endless rain and fog, are all brilliantly incorporated to establish a distinctly dystopian landscape (in this case, the 2019 Los Angeles).
Spectacular visuals aside, Blade Runner also raises all-important questions related to humanity and identity crisis. Harrison Ford may have been the show’s star, but it was Rutger Hauer whose sympathetic antagonist turn as Roy Batty has had a lasting impact. His affecting-as-ever “tears in rain” monologue remains one for the ages.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
A sequel that shouldn’t have existed because Blade Runner is best seen as a one-off movie. Any attempt at a follow-up will likely be dismissed as a cash grab. But in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, he manages to pull off the impossible. Blade Runner 2049 is a better-than-expected sequel.
Villeneuve, working from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay, expands the mythology of the Blade Runner universe while honoring the legacy of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. This includes the ever-pondered questions behind the existential meaning of humanity and identity without slavishly adhering to the first movie’s thematic storyline. Villeneuve even goes as far as subverting the fate and expectations of the new protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, thanks to his sleight-of-hand direction.
Blade Runner 2049 is also a technical triumph in every area, notably Roger Deakins’ arresting cinematography in a dystopian 2049 Los Angeles and the rundown burnt-orange Nevada desert.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam took the basis of Chris Marker’s French New Wave landmark short La Jetee and made 12 Monkeys uniquely his own. He cleverly blends post-apocalyptic sci-fi elements with time travel and an end-of-the-world virus outbreak. The latter even eerily mirrors the harsh reality of our recent real-world pandemic era.
The movie may have all the sci-fi trappings that feel so familiar, complete with the premise of a protagonist (Bruce Willis’ James Cole) being sent back in time to find out how the deadly virus outbreak comes to spread in the first place. But Gilliam is hardly your average filmmaker.
Instead, 12 Monkeys is more of a subversive sci-fi film that explores not only the past and present but also the consequences of the space-time continuum and other thematic elements, covering fantasy and reality to sanity and insanity. And most of all, the title itself shows that nothing is as it seems.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan gamely explored the fascinating concept of “a dream within a dream” in Inception and incorporated it with a mix of a heist thriller and James Bond-like action set pieces. The story is truly one of a kind, where ideas can be planted in a dream by infiltrating the unconscious mind of the intended target.
Nolan’s labyrinthine narrative style matches well with his equally out-of-this-world special effects, defying gravity as well as logic and physics (the spectacular street-folding sequence comes to mind). His love for practical action and stunts are on full display as well, notably in the 360-degree hallway fight scene.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 seminal cyberpunk anime classic may have been nearly 30 years old. But it remains as thematically and culturally relevant as ever. Like how the ever-evolving technology changes human perception, behavior, and relationships. Or the philosophical meaning of being human and identity crisis, as evident with the human-like cyborg protagonist of Major Motoko Kusanagi.
Beyond its layered storyline lies the anime’s distinct visual landscape (the dense Hong Kong-like fictional New Port City) and impressively staged action set pieces (the iconic water fight scene). Then, there’s Kenji Kawai’s atmospheric yet haunting score that perfectly sets the overall existential dread of the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A groundbreaking sci-fi epic of an intergalactic mission and journey into the unknown, Stanley Kubrick’s still-influential-as-ever 2001: A Space Odyssey is a cinematic and intellectual experience like no other. The extended prologue itself is a masterstroke of audio-visual filmmaking — the opening credits sequence accompanied by Richard Strauss’ monumental orchestral piece of Also Sprach Zarathustra and “the dawn of man” sequence, where the apes interact wildly with the arrival of a mysterious monolith.
2001: A Space Odyssey also famously tackled philosophical questions about artificial intelligence (in this case, the supercomputer HAL 9000 voiced by Douglas Rain) and space exploration, human evolution, and technological innovation. Not to be forgotten, the legendary Douglas Trumbull’s practical special effects which somehow create a realistic vision of space exploration before CGI even existed. That means meticulously-detailed models were used for spacecraft scenes and wires to create a zero-gravity environment.
The oft-told time travel concept has never been as complex as they are in Shane Carruth’s $7,000-budgeted (!) sci-fi film Primer. The story follows two ambitious entrepreneurs, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who work around the clock to invent a device to travel through time. The conceit may sound deceptively simple, but I can assure you it is not.
But Carruth chose to delve deeper into the aforementioned concept by blending hard science and quantum physics. The movie is also an intricate puzzle box designed to challenge the viewers to uncover all the enigmatic events, paradoxes, and loopholes faced by the duo.
The Matrix (1999)
Beyond the uber-cool action sequences and then-pioneering bullet-time special effects, The Matrix is more than just a technical marvel. Kudos also go to the Wachowskis for blending the familiar perils of man vs. machine against a backdrop of philosophical questions regarding reality and fantasy.
The Matrix also famously referenced the “down the rabbit hole” metaphor in Alice in Wonderland, exploring the basic human nature of curiosity and a journey of self-discovery, which can be seen throughout Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) character arc. The Matrix may have spawned two sequels and a revival, but none of them came close to achieving the creative heights of the first movie.
Movies, to me, are more than just a visual form of escapism. They can be reflective, funny, thrilling and whatnot and they inspire me to write since childhood. I grew up watching genre movies ranging from action to horror and sci-fi and one of my favorite movies is Stanley Kubrick’s (overrated, really?) The Shining. Now working as a freelance writer, part of my job includes covering from writing movie reviews to feature articles