The 16 most intelligent sci-fi films ever made

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

The IQ at the multiplex this summer has taken a sharp turn upward with the long-awaited release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight and his first all-original script since his tiny indie debut, 1998's Following.

Don't get us wrong: Inception is action-packed, massive filmmaking on a grand, crowd-pleasing scale, and it doesn't look down its nose at the genre. But it's also a movie that demands that the audience pay attention and think—something all too rare during the summer blockbuster season (especially this one), when moviegoers are practically encouraged to check their brains at the door.

Nolan's gamble may prove too challenging to crowds looking to cool off and have some fun, but we think it's worth the effort. With that in mind, here's a look at some other sci-fi movies that have offered viewers more than just a roller-coaster ride—with some of them perhaps a little too smart for their own good.

Thinking caps on, everyone ...

2001: A Space Odyssey

The granddaddy of all thinking man's sci-fi films, Stanley Kubrick's cosmic vision lifted the genre right out of the drive-ins and double features and finally earned it critical respect. Kubrick also trusted his audience to make their own conclusions and not have everything spoonfed to them—which thrilled some and baffled others.

12 Monkeys

Leave it to the wonderfully weird Terry Gilliam (Brazil—a pretty smart flick itself) to bring us Bruce Willis as the most messed-up time traveler ever. Based on the short French film La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is a tragic romance wrapped in an elegant paradox—but audiences went along for the ride.

Children of Men

With no meteors striking the earth, nuclear weapons going off or global warming drowning yet another CG rendition of New York, Children of Men is a frighteningly realistic portrait of a civilization going down. Its world looks just like our own, maybe just 15 years from now; its characters are average people who accidentally become heroes or villains. In short, it's a masterpiece, and no one went to see it because it wasn't a "holiday" movie (it came out at Christmas) or a special-effects blitz. Do yourself a favor, go find it and watch it right now. Please?

Dark City

Dark City is a perfect example of a movie that might have seemed "too smart" when it first came out but later picked up a following and is widely considered a work of near-brilliance. Director Alex Proyas (Knowing) plays with the nature of reality and identity and asks some real philosophical questions—all while creepy, pasty men in black coats chase Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connelly around an urban hell right out of German silent cinema.


Director Darren Aronofsky's first movie mixes number theory, stock market manipulation, paranoid schizophrenia and Jewish mysticism all into one 90-minute, high-contrast black-and-white mind-f--k of a movie. Whoever thought a 216-digit number—which could be the secret name of God or the solution to all of Wall Street's problems, depending on whom you ask—could be so creepy and compelling to look at onscreen?


Pi and Primer share a lot of similarities: they're both low-budget as hell (Primer is a real bargain, reportedly costing $7,000 to make), and they both rely on extreme cerebral calisthenics instead of whiz-bang effects and explosions. Yet while you can kind of follow Pi, Primer's story of three friends who invent a time machine and keep relooping themselves into the past gets so tangled that we doubt even 2001 supercomputer HAL could sort it out. And we mean that in a nice way, guys.

The Matrix

What is real? What isn't? What if this was all some sort of virtual reality and we didn't even know it? Those are some of the heady questions posted by The Matrix, which also manages to work martial arts, hacker culture, mechanical monsters and a hovercraft into the action and never feels dumbed down for doing so. Nobody had any problems understanding this movie—although the two sequels tripped themselves up with too much of everything.

Quatermass and the Pit

Imagine a movie where a grand theory about man's evolution also tackles creation myths, alien invasion and just where we get the idea of the devil from. That's what this '60s British gem, based on a BBC miniseries, is talkin' about. It's scary and fun and thought-provoking, although the rumpled, aged and bearded Professor Quatermass might be a bit too cerebral for modern action-hero fans.

Altered States

This movie has so much dialogue whizzing by about quantum states, evolutionary mutations, sensory deprivation and cosmic consciousness that your head is spinning even before William Hurt (in his screen debut) turns into first an apeman and then a big tub of primordial soup. Some of it feels like leftovers from the '60s, which is why chunks of the movie haven't aged well, but it's still like mind expansion without having to take the drugs. Groovy!

Minority Report

The fact that this was a huge hit for director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise tends to overshadow how smart this movie is—not just in its main themes about predestination and free will but in the details of its portrayal of a surveillance society that doesn't look too far from now. It's gritty and sophisticated stuff ... it's just too bad that the ending sucked hard.


Based on Carl Sagan's book, Contact offers probably the most realistic depiction to date of what might actually happen when we get our first signal from an alien civilization. The movie's first two-thirds are thoughtful and provocative; its final act gets a little too over-the-top. And oh yeah, we wish Matthew McConaughey's badly written role were removed from the picture entirely. But for the most part, Contact tells it like it could be.


Gattaca is such a subtle, understated film that it's no surprise audiences never connected to it in a big way. Its lack of pyrotechnics is more than balanced by its rich, thought-provoking exploration of human bio-engineering and the dangerous ethical and social cans of worms that could open up. This is sharp stuff, and you need to pay attention.

The Fountain

It's purely a fluke that director Darren Aronofsky got on this list twice, but it's no fluke that The Fountain was criminally overlooked and underrated when it came out in 2006. It's either three separate stories or three strands of the same doomed love story that spans all of time and space, posing questions about immortality, the existence of God and the search for meaning along the way. We'll admit it's a little tough to figure out what it all means, but hey, they said that about 2001 too, didn't they?

The Day the Earth Stood Still

We're talking about the 1951 original here, and not the pointless, blank-faced 2008 remake. This compact, simple yet still awe-inspiring film poses bold questions about humanity's place in the universe, whether we deserve to be there in the first place and whether we've got what it takes to make it to the galactic big leagues. It's simultaneously inspiring and depressing, but it's touched a nerve with people for almost 60 years.


Many of the smartest sci-fi films tackle bigger themes than just "will E.T. be friendly or nasty when he finally shows up?" This little independent gem is both a rugged, realistic look at a near-future space mission and a poignant character study of a man who suddenly has to question his own existence, and whether he has any control over his own life. It was never going to be a big hit (and was not meant to be), but if you haven't seen it yet—this is what great science fiction is all about.

Donnie Darko

Time travel, alternate universes and changing the course of history are all part of the fun in this mind-bender disguised as a teen high-school horror film. Over the years, repeated viewings either bring Donnie Darko into clearer focus or make you wonder if writer/director Richard Kelly even knew what he was doing—but you still feel smarter for having tried to figure it all out.

Class dismissed!