Watching philosophical movies can be a way of engaging with, learning about, and actively partaking in philosophy.
There is no doubt that philosophy can be intimidating. Writings by philosophers are often complicated, dense, and heavy. But we have something very accessible to all of us in popular culture that may be able to help us: movies. Many philosophical movies are entertaining but also have something profound to say.
Writers and directors can express a philosophical idea or theory through the visual medium of film in many different ways. We might see a character in a moral dilemma that we begin to think deeply about. A film might present some existential ideas or have an explicit representation of theories by famous philosophers like Plato or Nietzche. Or, a film could be a commentary upon the universal enigmas of our existence, such as love and death.
Many people all across the world flock to the cinema. Streaming sites now make this medium and art form even more available to the masses. Movies are perhaps the most accessible and popular way for us to learn about philosophy – something that our lives will be undoubtedly better off and richer for.
But what makes a philosophical movie? You might be wondering whether you’ve seen or come across any. Here will explore some movies that can be categorized as philosophical.
A philosophical movie is something that uses all or some of the facets available in the visual medium to express philosophical commentaries, ideologies, or theories, as well as tell a story. This could be through a mixture of things like narrative, dialogue, cinematography, lighting, or computer-generated imagery (CGI), just to name a few.
Such stories and philosophy can make their way to the audience through several genres. They can showcase something profound, deep, and meaningful to the audience, whether it is a drama, comedy, thriller, or romance, for example.
Some of these films you might not have heard of before, and some you might have seen or at least know of due to their presence and popularity within popular culture. Nevertheless, you will likely be left pondering and considering the deep themes and ideas expressed in these films for hours (perhaps days) after watching them.
Any number of philosophical movies could have made this list. There are many valuable and important ones to choose from. Here are 10 of the best philosophical movies ever made:
Hitchcock’s The Rope isn’t subtle. The philosophy that the film comments upon is obvious and explicit. It is a story about when the wrong people use the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to justify heinous crimes. Where a twisted perception of morality holds the idea that some people are superior to others.
The film is based on the 1929 play of the same name, which was based on a real-life murder case in 1924. Two students at the University of Chicago, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a 14-year-old boy, and this parallels the film’s antagonists.
The characters Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle to death a former classmate. They want to commit a perfect crime. They think it is to be morally permissible because they believe themselves to be superior beings. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (which can be translated into English as ‘superman’) is central to the movie.
What follows is a suspense-filled dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment where the philosophy is tackled head-on, and the dangers of manipulating and misinterpreting philosophical ideas are laid bare.
Ingmar Bergman is one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. He focused on the themes and subjects that are intriguing and deeply relevant philosophical inquiries into the human condition. The Seventh Seal is one of his most profound pieces of work. It is often considered amongst the best films ever made in the history of cinema.
Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) is a knight returning home from the Crusades during the black death. On his journey, he encounters Death, a hooded and cloaked figure, whom he challenges to a chess match. The conversations during this chess match and the events of the film attend to many issues, as well as the protagonist’s pursuit of meaning and understanding.
The film explores ideas such as existentialism, death, evil, the philosophy of religion, and the recurrent motif of the absence of god. The Seventh Seal is an enduring piece of cinema. It still invokes a multitude of questions and discussion, as it did during its release in 1957, and it always will.
Kubrick’s film is based on the novel of the same name and was mired in controversy upon its release. The violent, shocking, and explicit scenes Kubrick portrays felt like too much for some. Nevertheless, it was critically acclaimed and lauded for its important themes despite its disturbing tone and subject matter.
The story takes place in a dystopian, totalitarian England and follows the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell). Alex is a member of a violent gang in a society that is broken and crime-ridden. The story introduces and develops the question of morality, free will, and the relationship of these things between the state and the individual.
The film raises important ethical questions concerning individual liberty and free will. One of the central questions is: is it better to choose to be bad rather than to be forcibly manipulated and coached into being a good citizen? Therefore, suppressing individual liberty? This philosophical film throws a lot up for discussion. It is a disturbing and sometimes uncomfortable watch, but the philosophical questions it addresses are nevertheless significant.
Love and Death was a turning point for Woody Allen. His early films are comedies through and through, driven by gags, jokes, and skits. His later films (although mostly still comedic and humorous) are much more serious in tone and tackle a range of deeper philosophical themes. Love and Death is a stark indication of a transition into more focus on these themes.
The film is set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars and is influenced by Russian literature. For example, the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy – notice the similarity of the titles of their novels to the film: Crime and Punishment and War and Peace. These writers were deeply philosophical, and the ideas covered in the film are very much a tribute to these great minds and a parody to their novels.
The characters confront philosophical enigmas and moral dilemmas at several moments in the film. Does God exist? How can you live in a godless universe? Can there be a justifiable murder? These are some of the weighty conundrums the film covers. Allen makes these themes accessible through his comedy and witty dialogue. You’ll probably find yourself pondering the same ideas after watching this philosophical film.
Blade Runner is another film on his list of philosophical movies that is based on a novel: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1963, Philip K. Dick). Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) plays an ex-policeman whose work as a Blade Runner is to track down and retire (terminate) Replicants. These are humanoid robots developed and engineered by humans for use for labor on other planets. Some have revolted and returned to Earth to find a way of lengthening their lifespan.
A key theme that the film examines is the nature of humanity – what does it mean to be human? This is shown through the presentation of artificial intelligence and cybernetics in the advanced technological and dystopian future that the film is set in.
The driving theme creates an undercurrent of uncertainty. How do we determine what it means to be human? If advanced robotics eventually become visually indistinguishable from humans, how can we tell them apart? Is there a case for them to be given human rights? The film even appears to question whether or not Deckard is a replicant. Blade Runner throws up some quite stark and interesting existential questions, and people discuss its themes in-depth today.
This may be a film that you wouldn’t expect to appear on a list of philosophical movies. Groundhog Day is an iconic film and probably one of the greatest comedies ever made. It is also full of philosophy.
Bill Murray stars as Phil Connors, a weather reporter who is cynical and bitter, and ends up repeating the same day over and over again in an endless loop. He reports on the same story, meets the same people, and courts the same woman. It is fundamentally a romantic comedy, but there have been many interpretations that link the film to a theory by Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘the eternal return’.
Nietzsche posits the idea that the lives that we live now have been lived before and will be lived again and again countlessly. Every pain, every moment of happiness, every mistake, every achievement will be repeated in an endless cycle. You and people like you are just living the same life over and over again.
Is this something that should frighten us? Or, is it something that we should embrace and learn from? It’s quite a difficult concept to comprehend. But it does raise important questions about our lives: What gives us meaning? What is important to us? How should we perceive of lives and experiences and the lives and experiences of others? These Are perhaps the questions Nietzsche was trying to tackle, and also the questions Groundhog Day explores.
Who knew a romantic comedy could be so deep?
There are many philosophical comparisons that one can draw from The Truman Show. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of a reality TV show, although he doesn’t know it. He was adopted as a baby by a television network and a whole television show has been created about him. Cameras follow him 24 hours a day so people can follow his whole life. A huge television studio contains a whole community in it. Everything is fake, but Truman doesn’t know it is fake. Instead, he believes it is his reality.
Have you ever heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? The Truman Show is essentially a modern-day representation of this. What Truman sees are counterfeit projections and he doesn’t realize this as he has lived in his cave all his life – much like the shadows on the wall of the cave in Plato’s allegory. The people chained up in the cave believe it is their reality as they have lived there all their lives. Only upon exiting the cave can one become fully aware of the truth about the world in which they reside.
Descartes was heavily concerned with whether we can be sure our reality exists. The drive of the film is Truman becoming increasingly paranoid and questioning facets of the world that he inhabits. Descartes also entertains the idea that an evil, omnipotent being that has created our world and deliberately deceives us, distorting our perceptions of true reality.
How can we be sure that such a being doesn’t exist? How can we be sure that we all aren’t just living in a fake world created by a deceitful being? Or, living in a reality TV show created by a Television network?
The Truman Show is critically acclaimed and is a very popular film. It also brings important ideas from Plato and Descartes into a modern context. Not bad for 103 minutes of Film.
The Matrix trilogy is huge in popular culture. It has been quoted, referenced, and parodied many times over. Each film attends to and draws upon many philosophical ideas and theories. The first one of the philosophical movies in the trilogy – The Matrix – takes a place on this list because of its impact on popular culture and how it exposed famous philosophical ideas to the masses as a Hollywood blockbuster.
The predominant theories explored in The Matrix are the same as in The Truman Show. This time our protagonist is Neo (Keanu Reeves). Neo is a software developer but by night is a hacker who meets a rebel named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) because of a message he receives on his computer. Neo soon learns that reality isn’t what he perceives it to be.
Again we see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and René Descartes’ theories about our perceived reality. Except this time humanity’s illusory cave is a vast simulation powered by a giant computer called The Matrix. This time the evil, malevolent being that has created our perceived world is an intelligent computerized system that simulates a false reality.
The Matrix is a must-watch if you want to learn about relevant philosophical concepts that have been of interest for as far back as 2000 years. It is also a groundbreaking piece of cinema in terms of its story, CGI, and the philosophy it presents. Just the attempt at making such a film alone is something to marvel at.
A recurrent philosophical theme in cinema is the question of what our perceived reality is. This has been prominent in philosophical movies on this list, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception is no different. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a group of people intending to implant an idea into a corporate executive’s mind – Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) – by entering into their dreams and disguising themselves as projections of the individual’s subconscious.
The group penetrate Fischer’s mind in three layers – a dream within a dream within a dream. The main drive of the film is the action that plays out in Cobb’s attempt to fulfill his aim of implanting the idea. But the audience is gradually starting to consider what is the true reality as the characters delve deeper into the dreams.
Plato, Descartes, and Aristotle can all be drawn from this philosophical film. How can we be sure that what we are currently perceiving isn’t just a dream? In what ways can we tell, if any, whether what we are experiencing is a dream or reality? Is everything just a trick of the mind? Is everything just a projection of our subconscious?
Inception raises these questions thrillingly and entertainingly. We are even left to consider whether the whole film has just been a dream of Cobb’s. The ambiguous ending and this idea have been discussed extensively since its release.
Perhaps a film director who is most associated with philosophy is Terrence Malick. Malick is lauded for his enigmatic philosophical meditations in his films. They attend to many deep subjects as characters often deal with existential crises and feelings of meaninglessness. This is certainly true in one of his most ambitious and critically acclaimed films: The Tree of Life.
Jack (Sean Penn) is bereaved due to the death of his brother at the age of nineteen. This event happened years ago, but the character revisits his feelings of loss and we can see it through flashbacks to his childhood. Jack’s memories act as a representation of the existential angst that he feels. A looming question seems to hang over the whole film: What does it all mean?
Existentialism and phenomenology are key to this movie as Malick explores the facets of the individual’s experience in the world and the universe. What is the meaning of life? How do we make sense of it all? How should we deal with feelings of existential dread? Malick tries to tackle a lot and attempts to provide answers to these questions.
The Tree of Life is a reflection upon the human condition and upon questions that we may all be faced with at some point in our lives. It is also a stunning piece of cinema and one you should watch just for the experience of it.
The medium of film is endlessly accessible to everyone now more than ever. The purpose of this art form is to showcase the human experience in moving pictures. We can watch stories that present this human experience on a screen and so, we can gaze at our humanity as if looking in a mirror. Cinema is valuable because, like all art, it helps us deal with difficult questions.
Philosophy is the study and questioning of the fundamental nature of existence. When movies explore philosophical ideas, then this combination can prove to be of great importance. The film industry is one of the most popular and mass-produced art forms. Integrating important philosophical theories and concepts into it will mean many people can glance at the works of great thinkers and consider subjects that are important to each one of us.
Philosophical movies can and do hold great value to us. They provide entertainment as we marvel at the story before us whilst also finding ourselves questioning and considering important facets of our existence. This can only be of benefit to us all.