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Action movies can be absolutely fantastic, but they’re rarely smart. They’re fun, loud, and engaging – but not usually thought-provoking. Even sci-fi action movies tend to eschew cerebral concepts for a litany of explosions.
For example, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek is a great movie, but it lacks most of the philosophy of the originals. More lasers, but fewer ideas. The Star Wars series is the same way: wonderful films, but light on the concepts.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a bunch of movies that combine hard-hitting action with deep concepts. These are smart, thought-provoking films that won’t bore you. We have shortlisted eight of the smartest futuristic movies for your pleasure, so let’s kick things off with a classic.
The Thing (1982)
There are plenty of classic 80s movies that haven’t held up well over the years. Predator, TRON, and Weird Science may be classics, but few would argue that they’re actually any good. John Carpenter’s hit 1982 film The Thing is not one of those movies. With minor exceptions, the film hits just as hard now as it did when it was first released in the 1980s, with few traces of corniness.
The desolate arctic setting is still claustrophobic. The monster effects are still spectacular. The blood test scene is still heart-stopping. The isolation and paranoia still grab you and pull you in. The movie is a triumph of action and tension, and mandatory viewing for any horror fan.
It’s also smart – smarter than any of its 80s horror peers except maybe Alien. The film gets a lot of credit for its inventive premise. An alien that can restructure its tissue at will would make for a brilliant science-fiction short story.
More than that, the movie shines in its attention to detail. The Thing is packed with secrets and clues. The full story unfolds only after many viewings. It’s a movie that you need to watch closely, because there is a lot of stuff to see. In the final scene, who’s human and who isn’t? The answer is only revealed to those who pay enough attention.
District 9 is an intellectual roller-coaster written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. It careens between high concepts and brilliant performances, and robots shooting pigs at people. One the one hand, District 9 is a unique first contact story, conveyed with the imagery of South African apartheid. On the other, it’s an action movie about alien weaponry that makes people explode. The result is a joyous mess of a film that’s a pleasure to watch.
District 9 represents a fine line that Blomkamp has been failing to walk ever since, with disappointments like Elysium and Chappie. There’s something in it for everybody, and its psychotic marriage of the cerebral and the totally stupid is entirely unique.
Children of Men
Children of Men is one of the best sci-fi films ever made, and yet you’ve probably never heard of it. You may know the director, Alfonso Cuarón, for his more ambitious and much worse film, Gravity. If you liked Gravity at all, you simply have to see Children of Men. It’s so good. Holy crap, it’s good.
Children of Men drops viewers in the middle of a slow apocalypse. In the aftermath of a sterility plague, the world is falling apart. The London of the future looks like a third-world slum. This is a thinking man’s cataclysm. The world isn’t succumbing to monsters or robots – it’s succumbing to despair.
This movie is ridiculously tense. Cuarón’s signature long shots contribute to some breathtaking action sequences. They also hammer home the hopelessness and soul-sickness of the film’s crumbling Earth. Children of Men would have made a great short story, and it makes an even better action movie. You won’t feel good after you watch it, but you will be thinking about it for months to come.
On the surface, Minority Report is a straightforward Tom Cruise vehicle about futuristic cops who use psychics to prevent crime. Not something you’d expect to get you thinking. But you’d be wrong about that.
A prescient justice system raises a huge number of moral and practical questions. The film is almost forced to spend its run-time exploring these questions. The result is a dense and complicated movie wrapped in a slick veneer of a sizable budget, plenty of gadgets, and endless shots of Tom Cruise running away from things.
To put a bow on the overall package, the visual design is also superb throughout. The gadgets are awesome, and their famous user interface is so frickin’ cool that it had a permanent impact on UI design.
The Matrix is a film in which brilliant concepts and writing are made to serve a fundamentally dumb premise. In the style of Jeopardy, The Matrix is the answer to the question, “What’s the smartest excuse we can come up with to make a dumb kung-fu movie?”
The result is not only the best kung-fu movie ever made, it’s also most people’s only introduction to a bunch of philosophical concepts. What is reality? Do we have free will? Can we make intelligent machines? If so, what would they be like?
The Matrix has become our go-to cultural reference for all of these questions. Which is amazing, because it’s also a movie where flying kung-fu masters beat the crap out of each other. With virtual reality tantalizingly close at hand, The Matrix has actually never been more relevant.
A modern classic, Interstellar is a phenomenal action movie from the master storyteller that is Chris Nolan. There are so many gripping sequences: The ticking clock on the ocean planet keeps your heart in your throat, and the “docking” scene is surely one of the tensest things ever committed to film. I can’t say too much about the “ice cloud” planet for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that entire portion of the movie is fantastic.
In terms of the film’s intelligence, Interstellar is rather frustrating.
There’s so much about it that’s clever: The robots are completely rad, and account for about 40 percent of the charisma of the cast. Almost all of the physics are perfect. The dust-bowl setting is evocative and horrifying. The renderings of the black hole and wormhole are both accurate and totally unique. Even the design of the spaceships combine realism with an off-the-charts cool factor. Which all adds up to make his movie almost perfect. Almost, but not quite.
The frustration is present because the movie often neglects the things it’s good at to focus on the lame parts. The human characters aren’t very charismatic, with one notable exception. The storyline can be very melodramatic. The “alien” plotline makes little sense compared to the rest of the film. With a slightly different focus, this great movie could have been the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 21st century. Unfortunately, it’s merely really, really good.
Blade Runner is a sci-fi classic about a police officer tasked with tracking and killing renegade androids hiding in a Los Angeles of the future. The film is rife with moral ambiguity – the androids are bio-engineered, not mechanical. They’re clearly slaves, not robots.
Harrison’s Ford character is a slave hunter, and the film pulls no punches on that point. The action sequences are brutal, and the film takes time to explore the characters before they are unceremoniously murdered.
Much of the credit the film gets for its intelligence comes from its subtlety. There are plot points, crucial to the story, which are never explicitly stated. The film is rich with details and clever hints that build out the mythology. Seemingly bizarre details become significant with a deeper understanding of the film.
Blade Runner is a rich, complex movie, and you’ll find yourself thinking about it years after you see it. One piece of advice: in the original cut, some of the subtlety is ruined by a bad studio-mandated voice-over. Definitely watch the Director’s Cut or Final Cut if you possibly can.
Another Nolan film, Inception tells a near-future story about a team of criminals who manipulate the rich and powerful by entering their dreams. Inception isn’t my personal favorite Nolan movie (that would be The Prestige), but it is the most watchable of all of his films.
The movie combines some startling actions sequences (the fight in the hotel hallway is tremendously cool) with plenty of neat ideas. The movie also has a complex plot that it does a good job of explaining to the audience. It’s not nearly as elaborate as, say, Primer, but it’s also much cleaner and (arguably) easier to follow than that particular time-travelling epic.
Inception is a great example of a film in which the concepts and the movie-making work well together. It would have been very easy to create a very conceptual film about exploring dreams without taking full advantage of the distortions of time, space, and gravity. Inception, in contrast, capitalizes on the possibilities created by its premise to construct memorable visuals and action scenes.
What Makes For a Smart Movie?
You may well disagree with this list, and are likely to already be penning a rather frothy reply. That’s fair: action movies are relatively easy to identify, but “smart” can be harder to pin down.
However, I will say that all of these films listed here leave room for the viewer to explore a little. The universes are deep enough to wonder about, and to go for a mental walk in. You can find yourself asking questions, and feel like there are satisfying answers somewhere. All of these movies will stick in your head, and you’ll find them turning up, over and over again, for the rest of your life. If that’s not smart, I don’t know what is.
As for what brilliant movies may be missing from the list, that’s where you come in. If we have missed something really unforgivable, let us know in the comments, and we may do a follow-up article at some point in the future.
Image Credits: Cartoon brain via Shutterstock, Screenshots taken from The Thing, District 9, Children of Men, Minority Report, The Matrix, Interstellar, Blade Runner, and Inception.