Philosophy. A subject that is often translated as the “love of wisdom,” and has had humanity’s greatest minds baffled for as long as there were great minds to baffle. Why are we all here? Does anything matter? What does it all mean?
With clever subtext and profound themes, film is one of the greatest mediums to depict philosophical thinking since Aristotle scribbled down his theories onto papyrus. Whether it’s high-tech science fiction, intimate romance, or the newest wave of existential horror, there will always be a form of media that seeks to sit down and ponder The Big Questions. As such, here is a list of four of the best philosophical films in modern history, and what it is that makes them so brilliant!
4 The Matrix (1999)
While choosing The Matrix as one of the best philosophical films of all time may not be the most subversive of choices amongst movie buffs, there’s a reason that it has sustained such a long-standing reputation in cultural history (even amassing an inordinate amount of sequels, including the recently released The Matrix: Resurrections).
Led by Keanu Reeves as the character Neo, The Matrix is a dystopian science fiction film where humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulation and used by machines for their energy source. Alongside a band of fellow rebels, including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo seeks to bring down the rule of the machines and reinstate true freedom amongst humans.
In a mid-90’s application of Rene Descartes’ Cartesian doubt, The Matrix brings up fundamental questions about consciousness and the ‘truth’ of existence; except, in this adaption, Descartes’ theoretical ‘evil demon,’ an omnipotent being designed to trick Descartes into believing what he perceives, is replaced by the The Matrix’s ‘evil machine.’ While the sequels were generally disappointing, the original film was a pivotal creation in developing a new wave of science fiction and bringing philosophy to the big screen and, as such, deserves its plaudits and acclaim.
3 Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004)
If you were given the choice to erase someone from your mind, would you take it? Named after a line from the 1717 Alexander Pope poem, “Eloisa To Abelard,“ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a critically acclaimed film that questions the nature of the correlations between love, memory, and metaphysics. Written by Charlie Kaufman, the creator of Being John Malkovich, this film is widely regarded as one of the best products of the early 2000s.
Succeeding the end of his tumultuous relationship, Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey) discovers that his former partner Clementine Kruczynski (played by Kate Winslet) has undergone a state-of-the-art surgical procedure designed to completely and exclusively erase Joel from her mind. Keen to avoid being the only party to suffer, Barish makes the choice to undergo the same procedure in hopes of erasing Clementine. As the story continues, every nostalgic and painful memory of their relationship is relived through Joel’s mind’s eye during the process of erasure, until Joel realizes he wants to keep her – even if it’s just in his memories.
Venerated for its striking visual appeal and symbolism, from the color of Clementine’s hair to the choice of New York filming locations, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deftly questions the value of a life lived without pain and love (and their unchangeable state as two sides of the same coin).
2 Fight Club (1999)
Despite the legendary first rule of Fight Club, we should all still be talking about it. Originally garnering lukewarm success upon its initial 1999 release, including the Venice Film Festival premiere where Brad Pitt stated, “The first joke comes up – and it’s crickets. It’s dead silence,” Fight Club has since prospered as a cult classic. Written by Chuck Palahniuk, adapted into a screenplay by Jim Uhls and directed by David Fincher, the all-star cast and production team successfully managed to create one of the most memorable films in modern history.
Fight Club reveals the story of the Narrator (played by Edward Norton), a depressed insomniac who is sick of his life and ends up moving into an abandoned building with his peculiar new soap-salesman friend, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). As a cluster of disturbing and unexplainable events begin to occur, The Narrator hatches a plan to find out who his new friend really is.
In relation to the plot’s sociological rebellion against consumerist corporations and personal vendetta of a life lived without potential, this story pulls from every corner of the social sciences – What are the effects on humanity when it’s expected to exist under an oppressive society? How does the human mind protect itself from prolonged pressure and monotony? What does the notion of ‘consciousness’ really mean? Overall, Fight Club has earned its place as one of the greatest films of all time.
1 8 1/2 (1963)
In the fine tradition of writers writing about their inability to write, 8 ½ follows the character of prestigious director Guido Anselmi (played by Marcello Mastroianni) whose personal and professional life implode during the production of Anselmi’s next big film. The film is a beautiful poioumenon (a story about the making of itself), a self-referential allegory to real-life writer and director Federico Fellini’s experiences following the great commercial success of his earlier film, La Dolce Vita (1960).
As Anselmi’s guilt surrounding his numerous marital infidelities and failure to initiate personal growth begin to emerge, the film’s narrative shifts between a selection of dream and fantasy sequences that act as a direct window into Anselmi’s soul. When he is criticized for sleeping with other women by his wife, Anselmi fantasizes about being bathed and adored by the harem of women he loves; when the imagined women begin to reflect his conscience and mock his immorality, he controversially fantasizes about physically whipping them into submission. Despite Fellini’s figurative self-insertion as the leading man, Anselmi is not portrayed as a likable character.
Though the brief intermissions of Wagner’s The Ride of The Valkyries might make you long for the moderately more straightforward Apocalypse Now, the film acts as a classic insight into the male mentality and the effects of self-absorption on creativity, while simultaneously addressing the philosophical topics of human purpose, the ethical conundrums of intention, and the question of morality surrounding traditional Catholic beliefs. Not to mention the fact that few men have ever looked cooler in a suit and sunglasses than Marcello Mastroianni.
Director Lilly Wachowski has said that The Matrix series is a “trans metaphor,” and a brilliant one at that.
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