Philosophy shapes every action in our lives, whether we recognize and understand it or not. So, it should come as no surprise that there are quite a few heavily philosophical movies.
If not studied, or even despite of it, it’s wormed its way into our noggins through slogans and zeitgeist. By this I don’t mean to say that all movies are not influenced by philosophy. They are. But it is usually plenty splintered and unfocused. To borrow from Nietzsche, they muddy the water, to make it seem deep.
Philosophical Movies: An Overview
Still, a few movies slip through that are thematically rooted in not only philosophy in general but a specific philosophy. Call them philosopher-fan-fiction.This doesn’t mean they’re skillfully done. And on the other hand, there are plenty of quality philosophical movies and films related to philosophy that are generally philosophical but not in any specific way. Meaning, some great films may not owe allegiance to any one school of philosophy but certainly deal with subjects students deal with in philosophy school (see what we did there?).
This can help their success too. Sticking to any single philosophy can be somewhat off putting for some (see: The Fountainhead). Most artists want to invite people in. Some… don’t. We’ll talks about them too. Honestly, they’re some of our favorites.
But that’s somewhat of a rarity in philosophical cinema, to have an exclusionary philosophy that dominates like a totalitarian on screen. Often, that affect comes off more weird than bad from an artistic standpoint. But it’s out there, and it can be great. Can also be very bad.
When there’s a bad philosophical movie (e.g. Mother! by Darren Aronofsky — sorry!), there are many possible reasons to blame. In terms of most-seen causes for derailment of a perfectly good idea, repeat offenders include:
- A filmmaker tries to be their own philosopher
- A screenwriter took a philosophy class once and kind of likes thoughts and stuff
- The end product becomes an imitation of other philosophical works of art
10 Philosophical Movies That Enlighten and Entertain
But sometimes you get the perfect marriage between solid film making and philosophy. That’s why we put together this list of movies for you to watch for the first time or the thousandth. Let’s get started.
WARNING: Most every entry includes massive spoilers, some more major than others. This is unavoidable because a movie’s climax often makes its philosophy plain more than any other part of the film.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Director(s): John Milius
Writer(s): Robert E. Howard (story, source material), John Milius and Oliver Stone
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, and Max von Sydow
Synopsis: A vengeful barbarian warrior sets off to avenge his tribe and his parents whom were slain by an evil sorcerer and his warriors when he was a boy. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1982
Philosophical Influences: Friedrich Nietzsche
You might be rolling your eyes. “I thought these were good movies?” Well, you probably never saw the original Conan the Barbarian. If you did, and still didn’t think it was good, you probably felt awkward staring at the glorious Greek god on screen. It’s okay. Arnold Schwarzenegger was once an absolutely beautiful man. That’s intimidating. We get it.
But Conan the Barbarian was not only a good movie it was a very philosophical movie despite what you may think. It was entertaining even though there’s little dialogue because the sum total of things is “Wow, that Conan is awesome.
Conan’s father and his people, the Cimmerians, live in the time before time, so to speak, the fictional Hyborian Age. Pretty quickly into the movie, Conan’s people are murdered by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his band of warriors. Why? Meh.
Anyway, little Conan is spared death but sold into slavery. He’s chained to a grindstone, the “Wheel of Pain,” which he pushes round and round. It makes him into Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, he’s sold to another master, who makes him into a gladiator. Eventually he’s able to earn his freedom and is released, which results in immediately being chased by dogs (lots of “not kill” here).
He stumbles onto a tomb for an Atlantean General (as in Atlantis) and lifts the dead guy’s sword. BAM. Conan ain’t messing around anymore.
This entire philosophical movie is a love song to Nietzsche. First, it opens with a black screen and the philosopher’s most famous quote. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Nietzsche pioneered the concept of Ressentiment (no, that’s not misspelled). His idea was basically that the first morality of man was the master-slave and it in turn created good and evil. Basically, slaves didn’t like being slaves so they resented their masters and wanted to hate everything about them in order to salve their wounds, thus thinking of those traits as bad or evil.
So being rich, proud, and beautiful became evil and its opposite, which Nietzsche claims was summed up in a nice term as “meekness,” became awesome. Basically, his argument is they deluded themselves to avoid shame. He claims this was the dawn of Christianity (skipping Judaism, apparently). But, and Nietzsche has a point here, meekness isn’t really a great trait. It just means you’re weak, poor, and ugly. Conan the Barbarian is none of these (well, he’s poor at first… but wait). People should strive to be like the masters, even if they’re a slave, because those qualities aren’t bad things.
Well, in fact, Nietzsche goes a bit off the deep end here, using his Ressentiment argument to transition into the idea that exceptional people should leave morality to “the masses” and instead follow an “inner law.” Conan definitely follows his inner law. Good job, Conan.
God is Dead
Conan gets a lead on Doom from a witch during some pillow talk before she has sex with him and gets a little too freaky by turning into a demon mid-coitus (seriously, you need to watch this movie). Conan and some pals he meets along the way head to Shadizar. They don’t find Doom, but they do find one of his snake cult’s temples.
Oh yeah, Doom runs a snake cult. Go figure.
Anyway, Conan’s little gang decides to burgle the place and steal some valuable jewels. When they get drunk to celebrate, some guards arrest them and take them to the king. Ol’ King Osric, instead of beheading them, asks glistening Überman Conan to rescue his daughter from Doom’s snake cult at the Temple of Set. Nice. Now he knows where Doom hangs out. Conan’s new buddies are chicken, but he remembers that he’s Conan so decides to go alone.
Nietzsche, for a philosopher, sure had a peculiar hatred of morality. Without going into a thousand footnotes, he basically saw it as baseless and futile. Nothing matters, “God is Dead,” and the only form of pleasure or “happiness” mankind can feel is through the accomplishment of a goal, no matter what that goal is based on.
Apollonian & Dionysian
Well, Conan steals some stuff and feels awesome. Then he drinks, because it feels awesome and why not? This is a philosophical movie, yes, but it’s about an awesome philosophy that supports being awesome.
Nietzsche talks about the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo, god of reason and blonde hair, represents logic, clarity, and harmony. Dionysus, god of getting drunk, represents disorder, intoxication, and emotion. These two things balance each other and also show, through their eternal battle, the futility of both.
So, Conan makes a concerted effort to rip off his enemy and then potentially throws his progress out the window by getting smashed and living it up. Sober, he decides to, you know, have goals and stuff again.
More “Doesn’t Kill You”
Conan sneaks in to the temple, gets caught, and nearly dies on the “Tree of Woe” by crucifixion until his buddies find him and take him to a witch. Some ghosts arrive and the group kicks their collective, ghostly asses.
They attack Doom again, get beat again, and one of them dies, so they retreat. Then, Conan, already proving himself as outright nuts, decides to go back for another. This time he wins after a showdown where Doom tries to hypnotize him but Conan overcomes it with his will (similarly muscular, apparently).
Nietzsche loves will. He saw the instinct of self-preservation as just a misinterpretation – it was really our desire to exert our will on the world, which he called the will to power. Conan defeats death because he doesn’t feel like it. He keeps coming after Doom despite every attempt by Doom to convince Conan that he’s just not that into him. And the final battle is literally a battle of wills.
Conan is the Übermensch (or Überman). He eschews all previous dogma (which is highly dominated by snake love), lives by his own rules, and generally does what he wants while being awesome and feeling awesome about being awesome. Even the setting, an Age out of time, is somewhat a representation of Nietzsche’s belief of Eternal Return.
This is not reincarnation. He thought we would literally be us in our bodies again. Kind of like a circle you’re trapped in. And the only way to rise above this was to be an Übermensch and generally not care that you’re doomed to repeat your mistakes and hardships, because, you know, whatever doesn’t kill you … The Hyborian Age is like a mash-up of every ancient barbarian culture, but it’s not like anything from our known history. Maybe it’s the next version, where Conan arises and throws things off just a little bit by being such a good Übermensch.
In summary, Conan the Barbarian is an enjoyable philosophical movie because of, not despite of, its reliance on Nietzsche’s philosophy. See, Nietzsche’s wacky beliefs resulted in some pretty life affirming messages. Shrug off your hardships; you’re great now. Try to be awesome, because that’s not really a bad thing. And have values but don’t just borrow from old texts for the hell of it, even if (and in Nietzsche’s view, especially if) that means you must make up your own.
The result? A philosophical movie where the epitome of physical perfection breaks his slave chains, sets out on a journey to kill his father’s murderer by whatever means necessary, and wins by overcoming normal physical and non-physical limits because he doesn’t really recognize them.
The Matrix (1999)
Director(s): Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writer(s): Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss
Synopsis: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1999
Philosophical Influences: Plato
This is only referring to the original Matrix, though the basic jumping off point subsequently applies to the entire trilogy. But while the original was pretty much all Plato, the sequels tried to squeeze in other philosophers in order to add some variety. Subsequently, these movies suck.
That’s what happens when you mix philosophies, even in life. Things end up sucking. Admittedly, Plato is the father of most every philosopher, arguably every philosopher, though his disciple Aristotle is akin to a son giving his daddy the middle finger. So I can’t fault the Wachowskis for trying to mix in the lineage, but still… things end up sucking.
This entry won’t include a plot breakdown, because there’s really no need. This philosophical movie is essentially “The Cave; OK now go.” The plot, apart from the high concept’s set-up in the first half, is just a build-up to bullet time.
The Allegory of the Cave is a work of fiction by Plato, I guess because non-fiction hadn’t been created yet. This one story can pretty much sum up Plato’s entire philosophy for those wanting to keep their sanity and not read all of his treatises. It is part of The Republic, and it’s a fictional conversation between Plato’s buddy Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon.
Here, Socrates is presenting a scenario that would show how the real world is an illusion, because Socrates was the kind of guy who liked to throw up a lot of “what ifs” before lighting up a cigarette, sitting back in his La-Z-Boy, staring deep into your eyes, and saying with a soft reedy voice “pretty deep stuff, huh?”
The scenario starts in a cave. Some prisoners have been chained since birth. Their legs are bound so that they prohibit them from walking, and their heads and necks are fixed so that their entire lives they’ve stared at a wall. There’s a big raging fire behind them that casts light and shadows against the wall where the prisoners stare.
What’s more, there’s a raised walkway between the fire and the prisoners, so that gaoler passersby cast their shadows on that same wall. People walk across, sometimes carrying things on their heads or arms, making different shadows. Noises accompany these things as well – and it’s a good thing the prisoners don’t understand language or they’d have to hear Midge complain about always being the one who lugs the water jug.
Well, Socrates supposes, the prisoners would mistake these shadows as real things, not shadows of real things. And they’d mistake the noises that accompany the passersby as coming from the shadows themselves. These silly prisoners would start thinking those clever prisoners (wait, I thought they couldn’t turn their heads, how’d they know there were prisoners?) who could guess which shadow would come next really understood reality. “Man, that Gene really gets it. He knows the amorphous blob that makes a racket will follow the oblong blob that is really quiet.”
Their whole society would grow out of their understanding of the shadows on the wall.
The Red Pill
Well, one day a prisoner is freed – by Midge, let’s say, who needs some help lugging that water – and permitted to stand up. Midge shows the fella the actual things that made the shapes, probably starting with the water jug, but the prisoner can’t make sense of it.
“Nah, I think that shadow thing makes more sense.”
Here, Socrates pushes the plot around and starts supposing a lot of events. Suppose the prisoner is compelled to look at the fire; he’d probably be blinded and try instead to look at the shadows, because, well, they’re darker (though it seems more logical to just close your eyes for a minute).
Well, suppose someone grabs the prisoner and forces him up and out of the cave, wouldn’t the prisoner be pissed at that guy? And let’s say it is high noon outside. Well, that’s a lot brighter than the fire, so now the guy is again blind (this is pre-sunglasses, mind you) and can’t see anything “real” these people keep yammering about. He’d get that the sun is the “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing” (516b–c).
Well, Socrates’s prisoner hero is a nice guy so he decides to return to the cave and his brethren, to tell them the truth. I mean, he’s thinking “Here I am, a worldly fella with knowledge of seasons and stuff, so why don’t I knock some sense into these dumb slobs?”
Secretly, he wants to slap Steve, the guy who thought he was awesome because he could predict the amorphous blobs. Well, in Socrates’s story, the prisoner even tries his hand at the shadow game and discovers he sucks even more now than before because he realizes they’re just dumb shadows.
Well, his prisoner buddies think his eyes got jacked up by those blobs. “Jeez, I don’t want my shadow-lookers to be tampered with,” they would say. I mean, that’s a pretty important thing to these prisoners in the cave. Well, Socrates supposes, if he started unshackling them they would probably kill him in order to keep their eyes intact. Regardless, they’d see these crazy people that want to mess with their eyes as scary and they’d resolve to stick to shadows.
SCHWAAAAAAAAAAAM. I just told you the plot to The Matrix.
In retrospect, this philosophical movie is a bit of a rip-off, considering that Plato’s Republic was a work of fiction. Too bad his lawyers died more than 2,000 years ago. They just threw in some guns and made the jailers evil machines, though the evil part was pretty much there in the source material, considering they were jailers.
But, it is a really good movie. Why? Well, because all science fiction has that caveat of “but this is all made up.” So, if your premise is that everything is made up, the people inside that made up world should be able to do anything they want.
They took Plato’s idea and ran with it. It’s a pretty consistent work, following the idea to a logical conclusion. Neo can alter The Matrix. Well, the freed prisoner could sweet talk Midge into walking by when she normally wouldn’t, making Steve look pretty stupid when he predicted that the quiet blob would walk by instead of Midge the Loudmouth.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Anthony Burgess (novel)
Starring: Malcom McDowell, Patrick Magee, and Michael Bates
Synopsis: In future Britain, charismatic delinquent Alex DeLarge is jailed and volunteers for an experimental aversion therapy developed by the government in an effort to solve society’s crime problem… but not all goes to plan. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1971
Philosophical Influences: Determinism and B.F. Skinner
A Clockwork Orange is the first entry on this list that is heavily influenced by a philosophy but spits in its face. Inventively, it does this by making its hero the vilest bastard ever known to man.
This philosophical movie is hard to watch. The “hero” goes about with his gang raping and beating people for fun. He’s just downright evil, and there’s not much reason given. Brilliantly, there’s never an example given for his motivations.
He’s either a nut or a nihilist, depending on how nice you feel like being. There is not a single scene where you see his father beating him at home so that you can surmise that he’s just a product of his environment.
No. He’s doing this all on his own. He definitely has free will.
Determinism & B.F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner is not really a philosopher in the truest sense, though that won’t stop tons of people claiming he is or following him like his is. He was a psychologist who fancied himself a philosopher, who created Radical Behaviorism, a “philosophy of the science of behavior” (because if you slap “philosophy” on something, you’re in the club, I guess).
He’s a charming fellow who once said, “It is a mistake to suppose that the whole issue is how to free man. The issue is to improve the way in which he is controlled.” In his essence, he is a proponent of determinism, which supposes that everything that happens couldn’t have happened any other way because it was influenced by the things that led up to it.
Well, Skinner proposed, why not control those things and thus control the men? He thought he could prove determinism by giving men treats for certain behaviors and doling out punishment for other behaviors in order to create a desired man.
Our main character from A Clockwork Orange is eventually arrested. And some real B. F. Skinners (can we make that a thing, please?) decide they’d like to practice this plan they’ve been salivating over called the Ludovico technique. Alex, the evil little prick that he is, sees this as an opportunity to get out of typical prison life and maybe get out early. This treatment involves giving the patient drugs that make him sick, then strapping him in a chair and forcing him to watch violent things and experience other things they believe contributes to this violent behavior, like music from his favorite composer, Beethoven.
At first, Alex is all excited that he gets everything he loves handed to him, but when the sickness kicks in he’s insanely pissed off. At this point, you actually feel bad for the little sleaze. It’s a great sign of the movie’s brilliance that it’s able to make this “technique” actually seem worse than Alex in comparison.
After his release from prison, being heralded as “cured,” Alex runs into a series of events where he’s unable to defend himself from those like him because of his treatment. He’s been turned into the victim. What’s even more important is that he still wants to be violent and evil, but every time he tries he gets violently ill and has to stop.
In the end, his series of torture at the hands of others leads the government to reversing the process. He’s thrilled.
In the end, the philosophical movie’s statement is that B. F. Skinner’s proposed techniques can work in a pragmatic sense, but ultimately they don’t change anything because the patients’ minds are still warped even if they can’t act on their impulses.
It doesn’t change free will. Everything and everyone has conspired to make Alex change but he just doesn’t want to. So there.
A Clockwork Orange is the best film of all-time about Determinism because of the inclusion of B. F. Skinner. Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to have a plot. Every movie with anything resembling a plot counters Determinism completely, because plot requires characters with some ounce of free will.
The B. F. Skinner angle supplies a device that can serve as an interrupter or obstacle to the “hero” with free will, something he must overcome.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Director(s): Frank Darabont
Writer(s): Stephen King (short story), Frank Darabont (screenplay)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Gunton
Synopsis: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1994
Philosophical Influences: Existentialism
“Get busy living, or get busy dying,” Morgan Freeman’s voice says in the halls of time that float through space on a majestic white stallion.
Really, this philosophical movie is great because of two things: Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman because this was the first movie where people sat up and realized that if you give Freeman something to say, he will damn well say it. So, let’s give him a lot of vaguely deep things to say. And Tim Robbins, meanwhile, acts.
But he acts as an existential hero, which might take some explaining.
Existential and existentialism are used so widely now that they convey very little meaning. “He’s having an existential crisis.” What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t really mean much. But I don’t blame people for not understanding existentialism.
It’s downright impossible to wrap your brain around because its metaphysics and its epistemology are indecipherable. But, its ethics aren’t. They boil down to “just do your thing, man.” Don’t blame others or society for your actions.
Don’t feel connected to anything, because anything is nothing, nothing is anything, and everything is definitely something that is nothing – wait, sorry, I lost my mind there for a minute due to an existential crisis.
Detachment from Materialism
Basically, the goal of a man following existentialism is to not have their self-worth connected to anything material. You should feel like you’re a good man because, well, you’re you. Good job, you.
But Shawshank takes a philosophy that could never be consistently lived by and makes a movie out of it by means of selectivity. Andy Dufresne (God, I can hear Morgan Freeman even now, that magnificent bastard) doesn’t really have a problem being locked up. Meh. Life happens, man. He feels he drove his wife away, contributed to her murder, so who cares if he’s innocent.
You know, he hurt her, man. Who cares what he did or what he said or what happened or who he did or didn’t kill, man. That’s all logical stuff based in reality, with facts and stuff. If this sounds stupid, you should read some existentialist books.
Getting Busy Livin’
What’s important is that Andy Dufresne finds a way to live and maybe not be depressed in this mad, mad world. Like, get some pictures of Rita Hayworth (able to make any man happy) or listen to some music. Really, Andy’s idea of happiness is eerily similar to the life lived by those in retirement homes. But at its heart, the movie is about routine being a bit of a solace. I wonder why…
Well, let’s look at Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the few purely Existentialist philosophers. His widely used quote, and the basis of his philosophical principles, is that man is, sadly, “condemned to be free.” Jeez. Isn’t that a good thing? Well, in Sartre’s world reality doesn’t exist (told ya the metaphysics were wonky), but we live in it. Whoops. So, well… good luck with that. We have to choose things, and we’re responsible for it, but all of it is meaningless.
Oh, and death isn’t an escape. No. See, when you die your body ceases to have that “you” essence. So now it’s just a cold, limp part of reality, which is a sham. Congratulations on finally being a complete sham. So, what do you do?
Well, The Shawshank Redemption actually presents, for the first time, the only plausible way to live Existentialistically. And we receive this presentation from that velvet-tongued demi-god.
“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight. And the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that – but prison is no fairy-tale world. He never said who did it, but we all knew. Things went on like that for a while – prison life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Andy would show up with fresh bruises. The Sisters kept at him – sometimes he was able to fight ’em off, sometimes not. And that’s how it went for Andy – that was his routine. I do believe those first two years were the worst for him. And I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this place would have got the best of him.” (IMDB)
The Burden of Free Will
Except, see, that prison… yeah, your prison is life, buddy. Both Red and that old guy from the library, Brooks, discover this when their sentence comes to an end. They’re in the same cesspool, just now they have even more free will, and free will sucks. Give me more routine! Damn this “condemned to be free” stuff!
Well, Andy has got it solved. See, there’s a place in Mexico… “They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.” Yep, the best you can hope for is a place with no memory, because that memory would just remind you of things like free will.
The Shawshank Redemption’s saving grace, which makes it a good philosophical movie, is that Andy DOES have free will no matter how much he hates it. He wants to get out of prison. Why?
Well, it’s never really explained why, except maybe because outside he would be able to surround himself with pictures of hot chicks while he drinks beer, stares at the ocean, and forgets about free will. But along the way life in prison presents obstacles, which he kind of mopes his way into overcoming. Still, he’s a purposeful man, even if his purpose is to have no purpose.
Oh, and did I mention that we get to hear Morgan Freeman talk? I like movies where Morgan Freeman talks.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Director(s): Sidney Lumet
Writer(s): Reginald Rose
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and Martin Balsam (and nine other dudes you may have seen before)
Synopsis: A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1957
Philosophical Influences: Socrates
12 Angry Men is a philosophical movie about a trial, but you never see the trial. It’s all set in the jury deliberation room in a one-act play style. Henry Fonda plays Juror #8 (yep, no names), and he’s the only one not willing to vote not guilty during the first “let’s make this quick” vote.
He technically votes not guilty, but he makes it pretty clear that he isn’t voting not guilty, it’s just that he doesn’t think he can vote guilty.
Well, this causes everyone to lose their minds and the rest of the philosophical movie speeds along in a brilliant example of how cinema doesn’t have to include explosions to be riveting. Everyone thinks the young defendant is guilty for different reasons, and it slowly becomes clear that none of them really believe this because of the facts.
They all have prejudices and beliefs outside the juror room that have caused them to vote guilty, and they’re all different. Juror #8 beats them silly just by “supposing.”
As I said before, Socrates liked to do a lot of supposin’. His big thing was asking questions. Through doing this he broke down others’ beliefs systems because they eventually had to admit they didn’t know squat. It wasn’t really that Socrates committed himself to being a jerk, he just truly believed there was no meaning to anything – but that didn’t stop him from hoping that one day someone would have actual answers to all of his series of questions.
One famous Socrates quote is “I only know that I know nothing.” Good job, Socrates. We always love your insight at our planning meetings.
His incessant questioning of the mob-rule democratic nature of Athens made him the social gadfly of the time and eventually led to his arrest, trial, and sentence of death. In fact, one of the reasons he chose not to escape was because he knew his tendency to annoy people with questions would lead to him being in the same position no matter where he went.
The Socratic Method in Action
Here’s ol’ #8 doing his best Socrates impersonation:
“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s SURE. We nine can’t understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us.”
Really, any trial movie owes a little to Socrates, with his reliance on not having a pre-determined belief, asking questions to get to the truth, etc. It’s the Socratic Method, which both science AND law schools still teach. In the end, you don’t get any eternal answers, but you sure figure out if you have a real reason for your belief.
Not Having the Answers is Okay
It’s like a belief stress-test and every critically thinking person uses the Socratic Method practically every day in some form or another. “Why am I getting ice cream? Oh, it’s yummy. But why should yummy matter? Oh, because I enjoy food. But why should food give me pleasure – screw it. I’m buying this ice cream, Socrates!”
But 12 Angry Men is the only movie where the main character, truly a hero in this circumstance, doesn’t ever say he has any answers. He just keeps countering everyone else’s answers, and he always judo flips the argument back to them. He’s also never mean or very excited about it. Like Socrates, he debates with the demeanor of a dad watching a little kid try to build a spaceship out of Legos.
This philosophical movie also leaves you feeling great about life, because one can only hope that everyone in the legal profession went about it like good ol’ Socra – I mean, Juror #8. Of course, this galactic shrug of “I don’t have the answers” might not always work in real life. Still, when set in a courtroom it’s an open and shut case.
Groundhog Day – Friedrich Nietzsche
Director(s): Harold Ramis
Writer(s): Harold Ramis, Danny Rubin
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell
Synopsis: A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again. (IMBD)
Release Date: 1993
Philosophical Influences: Friedrich Nietzsche
Bill Murray doesn’t make much of an Übermensch. But this is basically, when viewed through the Nietzsche prism, a philosophical movie about Eternal Return and a man trying to form his values. He only breaks the cycle when he shapes himself into a talented achiever and breaks away from every existing value-system, including materialism.
The Truman Show – Plato
Director(s): Peter Weir
Writer(s): Andrew Niccol
Starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris
Synopsis: An insurance salesman discovers his whole life is actually a reality TV show. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1998
Philosophical Influences: Plato
Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a guy who lives in a cruel reality show where he’s the only one not in on it. The similarities to Plato’s allegory of the cave are obvious, but The Truman Show goes the extra step by putting more than one twist on the old story. In total, it’s a better original work of philosophical art than The Matrix, but it’s not as consistent to Plato’s philosophy as the bullet time vehicle. In my book, that makes it more enjoyable, but I digress.
Gattaca – Determinism
Director(s): Andrew Niccol
Writer(s): Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law
Synopsis: A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1997
Philosophical Influences: Determinism
In the future, eugenics picks up where Skinner left off. Before birth, specialists alter everyone’s DNA in order to give them a boost in intellectual and physical acumen. But this sucks for Vincent Freeman (get it?). His parents missed the boat and left him to be an outcast in a society of genetic supermen who get all the best jobs based only on their DNA reports.
So, Freeman pays an exemplary specimen (Jude Law, though I would have chosen Schwarzenegger to represent genetic superiority) for his identity in order to dupe the future’s NASA into giving him a job as an astronaut. This movie is enjoyable but focused on the wrong thing. It’s more interested in Freeman’s attempt to hide his genetic identity instead of showing him rightly deserving the job.
Ultimately, viewers may still say to themselves, “maybe it’s better to make sure my baby is an Olympian.” At the end, the philosophical movie expects you to cheer for him and you do, but you don’t exactly get a mountain of evidence to support your cheers.
American Beauty – Existentialism
Director(s): Sam Mendes
Writer(s): Alan Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Synopsis: A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1999
Philosophical Influences: Existentialism
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, pre-public embarrassment) is having an existential crisis! Well, thankfully this term actually applies. The entire movie is yet another lovesong to a philosophy. I’m just disappointed in these Hollywood folks for not giving the philosophers’ estates some dough. For those wanting a blow-by-blow, there’s a great breakdown elsewhere on the web. Incidentally, I chose Shawshank simply because it makes you feel good inside at the end, and American Beauty makes you want to find a noose. Call me selfish.
Inherit the Wind – Socrates
Director(s): Stanley Kramer
Writer(s): Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith
Starring: Spencer Tracey, Fredric March, Gene Kelly
Synopsis: Based on a real-life case in 1925, two great lawyers argue the case for and against a science teacher accused of the crime of teaching evolution. (IMDB)
Release Date: 1960
Philosophical Influences: Socrates
We could probably also categorize this philosophical movie as science versus religion. Its plot concerns the based-on-real-life trial of a professor who goes against a town’s law of not teaching evolution. The defense lawyer’s use of the Socratic Method to undercut everything about the prosecution’s defense, including its lawyer and key witness, is sheer brilliance. Still, in typical Socrates fashion, the philosophical film doesn’t pretend to make a pronouncement one way or another. For more philosophical movies with Socratic influence, see nearly anything in the category of law, crime, or science.
Conclusion: Philosophical Movies
Did we really blow it? Or did we tickle your fancy? Maybe we gave you a few ideas for philosophical movies to watch tonight.
Let us know in the comments below if we left out your favorite philosophical movie. Remember, we put Conan on the list, so we’re up for some wild pitches.
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Shame Enter the Dragon never made it into this… zen buddhism for the win!!
Brilliant article! Read something worth bookmarking after a long long time..
Sorry about that. Should be OK now.
The matrix boxset has a very interesting documentary called “The matrix and philosophy” which contextualizes the movie with several philosophers. Yes, Plato is probably the most prominent but the movie is influenced by many more philosophers and philosophies. It’s on youtube as well. So check it out !
Very nice article btw !!!
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Can’t believe No Country For Old Men doesn’t get a mention under existentialism. Sure, it’s perhaps more heavy on nihilism but there are several parallels. American Beauty is a masterpiece – great choice. Shawshank felt a bit too intentionally heartwarming and happy to truly reflect existentialism. It didn’t portray the sense of meaninglessness of life’s path that existentialism seeks to, the happy ending and escape felt like a matter of fate, which didn’t feel true to existentialism, in my opinion.
Brilliant article. Good job man