Get ready for some mind-bending, time-traveling, thought-provoking action and storytelling — with a twist. These 10 smart science fiction movies are more about examining enduring human issues — like the nature of time and existence, perception, free will and reality itself — and less about (spoiler alert!) aliens. And there’s a little bit of everything, from big name celebrities, action flicks and Oscar-winning mega hits to low-budget sleeper successes and small, story-driven indie flicks that went to Sundance. Even better: they’re all available to rent or own digitally through VUDU on Walmart.com.
1. Moon (2009)
When it’s 2035 and you’re stationed on the dark side of the moon for a three-year mining stint with nothing but an artificial intelligence robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep you company, you’d best know yourself very, very well. Though it seemingly matters less if you’re astronaut Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), who is close to returning home to his family on earth. Until, that is, a shocking revelation causes Sam to question his identity, his purpose in life and the choices he has made (and whether they were ever his choices to begin with). You know: just another day on the job. In space.
Watch it for: its moody, atmospheric feel, character-driven story and epic performance by Sam Rockwell, who pretty much pulls off a one-man show.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
It’s hard to write about one of the best and most influential sci-fi films ever without feeling like we’re not worthy. Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) has been sent on assignment to “retire” (i.e., kill) four bioengineered beings called replicants. But the singular experience that is Blade Runner is as much (if not more) about the treatment of the subject matter, characters and setting as it is about the storyline itself. In this neo-noir sci-fi film, director Ridley Scott portrays a dystopic Los Angeles, set in 2019, that is both darkly familiar and wholly unrecognizable. And throughout he gently and not-so-gently prompts viewers to question what it means to be human.
Watch it for: its genre-defining cyberpunk style and dark (literally and figuratively) approach; its unique visual appeal (retro meets futuristic); and a level of ambiguity that’ll keep you guessing.
3. Ex Machina (2015)
It’s time to talk robots in a big way. While many of the films on our list explore the nature of humanity, this sci-fi thriller focuses on what defines consciousness and what it means to be a living being — whether human or robotic. Programmer Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) wins a chance to work with Nathan Bateman, his company’s brilliant and eccentric CEO, at his remote compound. Caleb’s task involves administering a Turing test — designed to determine whether the test-taker is human or artificial intelligence. The test subject is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a top-secret android developed by Nathan. But the distinction between the test administrator and subject quickly blurs as Caleb and Ava grow closer — and as Ava reveals that all is not as it seems with Nathan.
Watch it for: its examination of what drives beings to behave as they do; a performance that won Alicia Vikander multiple nominations, special effects that won the film a 2015 Academy Award and its setting — which is simultaneously cleanly modern and sinisterly claustrophobic.
4. Inception (2010)
Meet the Russian doll of big budget sci-fi films. This complicated, mind-bending thriller is, at heart, a classic heist movie. Only in this case, it’s not something that’s being stolen — something is being left behind. Dominick “Dom” Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team (played by an all-star ensemble cast) that has been hired to secretly implant a fabricated memory into the mind of the unsuspecting Robert Michael Fischer (Cillian Murphy). To do this, the team creates three interconnected dreams within dreams, plunging themselves and the victim deep into the realm of a shared subconscious, where things can go just as wrong as they can in the real world. Actually, they can turn out far worse: a mistake in the dream world can mean getting lost in it — forever.Inception explores both the joy and torment that can await us in our dreams. And poses the question: How do we know whether we exist in reality or a dream?
Watch it for: its critically acclaimed performances, stirring music by Hans Zimmer, dramatic special effects and its ambitious 32 filming locations across six countries including Japan, Morocco and the U.S.
5. Oblivion (2013)
Oblivion is like Moon on steroids. Everything is bigger: the talent (Tom Cruise), the action and the special effects. And like several films on our list, this one is very much about the main character questioning and uncovering his or her true self — and the new choices that spring from that process. Which sounds pretty cerebral. So just imagine all that happening in Commander Jack Harper’s (Cruise) mind in the year 2077, some 60 years after humanity has defeated alien invaders. But the war has left Earth ravaged and only a few people, like Jack and his partner, are stationed on the planet, mining resources for delivery to humanity’s off-world colony. Pretty straightforward (albeit grim), right? Sure. Until Jack ends up in a “forbidden zone” and finds out that the world is not as it seems — and neither is he.
Watch it for: yet another satisfying sci-fi performance from action hero extraordinaire Tom Cruise (including his signature dangling-from a-harness stunt), and a twist that’ll take even the cleverest sci-fi fan by surprise.
6. Primer (2004)
Behold: the mother ship of time travel movies. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. And yet, this 79-minute indie cult flick is known as one of he most complicated films ever made in that genre. That could have a lot to do with the low budget (less than $10K), which meant that the highly intricate story — rather than special effects — had to carry the movie. It also helped that one of the main actors (Shane Carruth, who also wrote, directed and scored the movie) is a former engineer with enough of a technical background to weave this mind-melting tale. Primer is the story of Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), two engineers who accidentally create a time machine. But not the nice, neat time machine of Doctor Who. It’s more like: What would a time machine built by MacGyver be like? Though that’s the least of Aaron’s and Abe’s worries, since they’re visiting neither the distant past or future: they start traveling within their own timelines. Which means they very quickly have to start dealing with time paradoxes. And then it gets really interesting. So interesting, in fact, that the movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
Watch it for: the sheer mental challenge it poses for viewers: this movie is not for those times when you just want to space out on sci-fi. In fact, right after the movie you’ll probably want to search for an article or video that explains in great detail exactly what just happened. We sure did.
7. Adjustment Bureau (2011)
What if even the seemingly insignificant moments in your life were actually being secretly and expertly orchestrated to a very particular end? In other words: What if you had no free will? Those questions become reality in this romantic sci-fi thriller. Congressman David Norris (played by Matt Damon) learns that he’s being manipulated by agents of the Adjustment Bureau, a shadow organization tasked with making sure people’s lives play out according to “The Plan.” In David’s case that means keeping him apart from Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), his elusive new love interest. You might think that the threat of both ruining your future and being lobotomized by the Adjustment Bureau would steer David clear of Elise. But this is, after all, a love story (starring the actor who brought the relentless Jason Bourne character to life on-screen). So are a few fedora-clad agents armed with time travel portals going to be enough to dissuade David? Not. Even. Close.
Watch it for: its soft, gooey center of romance wrapped in a crunchy time travel shell and sprinkled with free will. Oh, and for all the amazing fedora action.
8. Looper (2012)
Like Primer, Looper also deals with time travel and time paradoxes. Though in this case time travel takes on much darker motivations: greed and murder. The year is 2044 and 25-year-old Joe (played byJoseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a “looper,” a contract killer who murders people sent back through time. But being a looper also means agreeing to murder your older, future self once your contract is up. Under normal circumstances no paradox would be created, since a young looper would kill his older self as soon as he arrives in the past. But extreme circumstances (and determination) create a situation where Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and Young Joe exist in the same 2044 timeline. And worse, they’re working against each other toward opposite goals. Amid all the time travel and telekinesis that ensues, the film explores real life issues, like the people and experiences that change us deeply and how they inspire us to be better versions of ourselves, even at great personal cost.
Watch it for: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar portrayal of Young Joe (complete with mannerisms and a facial prosthetic that make him an exact mirror of Bruce Willis’s Old Joe). And telekinesis. Because most of us probably need more I-can-move-things-with-my-mind action in our lives.
9. Predestination (2014)
Sure, we could explain the mechanics of this complex time paradox sci-fi thriller. But we just can’t bring ourselves to deny you the challenge of figuring it out as the film unfolds on-screen. Because if you’re willing to follow all the story threads, you’ll get to the kind of mind-blowing conclusion that sets this Australian movie apart from most others in its genre. So we’ll just give you the basics. Mr. Doe (played by Ethan Hawke) is a time traveling agent posing as a barkeep in 1970 New York City. His mission: recruit a new agent to replace him so he can retire. So why does he strike up a conversation with John (Sarah Snook), a seemingly forgettable, downtrodden writer? And what is it about John’s inconceivable past that makes him the one person in the world who can replace Mr. Doe? Get ready to suspend your disbelief as Predestination artfully plays with both the idea of free will and the notion that everything happens for a reason.
Watch it for: Sarah Snook’s critically acclaimed performance and a story-driven plot that relies on smarts rather than special effects.
10. Cloud Atlas (2012)
Cloud Atlas unfolds against the backdrop of reincarnation: lives past, present and future — and the notion that souls can evolve over lifetimes. This German-American film expertly stitches together six very different story lines that span geographies and time, from the Pacific Islands in 1848 to the Hawaiian Islands in 2321. Yet though the stories are distinct, in each case there is some sort of communication (a journal, piece of music, manuscript, oral tradition) that acts as a thread, leading one tale into the next. Another big continuity point is the all-star ensemble cast itself (starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry). The 13 primary actors each play no fewer than three different characters across the six stories. Throughout, the film relies on a combination of solid storytelling — in turns poignant, dark, hopeful, funny and heartbreaking — special effects and makeup artistry to create an epic and immersive experience.
Watch it for: its unique and vivid presentation of both the journey of the soul through multiple incarnations and an exploration of how our interconnectedness influences all of us. And for its incredible range of character portrayals, settings, costuming and makeup effects.
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