What’s our purpose on this earth? This eternal question has been tackled by philosophers, scientists—and moviemakers.
Thousands of years ago we were similar to other species, whose only purpose is feeding themselves, getting away from predators, and procreating. But our lives have changed dramatically, and when survival is no longer at stake, we start looking for deeper truths.
In trying to explain ourselves and the world around us, we have created countless stories, articles, and art pieces devoted to the human psyche. Cinema is one of the best ways to make one think and maybe learn something.
When people talk of philosophical movies, they tend to bring up The Matrix by The Wachowski Brothers, but this is far too obvious an example.
Great writers know that a gripping plot is not enough to make the audience care about the characters and their life choices. And it matters not if the movie is a drama, a comedy, or an action flick: any genre is capable of exploring the fabled human condition.
This is a list of smart movies that make you think.
1. Solaris (1972).
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
This complex philosophical movie is rightly considered a masterpiece of Soviet cinema. It combines science fiction and drama in a way that was groundbreaking for its time.
The Solaris mission has established a base on a planet that appears to host some kind of intelligence, but the details are hazy and very secret. After the mysterious demise of one of the three scientists on the base, the main character is sent out to replace him.
He finds the station rundown and the two remaining scientists cold and secretive. When he also encounters his wife who has been dead for ten years, he begins to appreciate the baffling nature of the alien intelligence.
2. My Dinner with Andre (1981).
Directed by Louis Malle.
The film is both confusing and fascinating, and the excellent writing keeps you fully invested for the entire 110-minute runtime.
Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, apparently playing themselves, share their lives over the course of an evening meal at a restaurant.
Gregory, a theater director from New York, is the more talkative of the pair. He relates to Shawn his tales of dropping out, traveling around the world, and experiencing the variety of ways people live, such as a monk who could balance his entire weight on his fingertips. Shawn listens avidly, but questions the value of Gregory’s seeming abandonment of the pragmatic aspects of life.
3. The Lobster (2015).
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
When we talk of philosophy, we usually discuss our place in the universe. But some believe that love and all the strange forms it can take is actually more central to our being.
A love story set in a dystopian near future where single people are arrested and transferred to a creepy hotel. There they are obliged to find a matching mate in 45 days. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal and released into the woods.
4. The Truman Show (1998).
Directed by Peter Weir.
The Truman Show is an accomplished study of the human mind that forsakes routine on a quest for higher truth.
Truman is a man whose life is a fake one. The place he lives is in fact a big studio with hidden cameras everywhere, and all his friends and people around him are actors who play their roles in the most popular TV series in the world: The Truman Show.
Truman thinks he is an ordinary man with an ordinary life and has no idea about how he is exploited. Until one day he finds out everything.
5. The End of Evangelion (1997).
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki.
A bright example of a mind that refuses to be part of the surrounding world.
Teenager Shinji Ikari is the pilot of Evangelion Unit 01, one of several giant cyborgs designed to fight hostile supernatural entities called Angels. Eventually, Shinji is pushed to the limits of his sanity as he is forced to decide the fate of humanity.
6. Fantastic Planet (1973).
Directed by René Laloux.
Nothing beats seeing humanity in a primal state and learning the source of all the needs and desires that plague us today.
In the distant future, the gargantuan blue humanoid Draags have brought human beings (called Oms) from Earth to the planet Ygam, where they maintain a technologically and spiritually advanced society.
The Draags consider Oms animals, and while they keep some as pets, others live in the wilderness and are periodically slaughtered by the Draags, who wish to control their population. Draags have much longer life spans than Oms, but reproduce much less. An Om rebellion is imminent.
7. The Social Network (2010).
Directed by David Fincher.
The movie cleverly used dialog to turn a spotlight on the characters’ personalities and motivations.
On a fall night in 2003, Harvard undergrad and computer programming genius Mark Zuckerberg sits down at his computer and heatedly begins working on a new idea. In a fury of blogging and programming, what begins in his dorm room soon becomes a global social network and a revolution in communication.
A mere six years and 500 million friends later, Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in history... but for this entrepreneur, success leads to both personal and legal complications.
8. The End of the Tour (2015).
Directed by James Ponsoldt.
This drama raises really deep questions, making the viewers analyze their own choices.
The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace's groundbreaking epic novel, Infinite Jest.
Do you have favorite philosophical movies? What are they?