What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “philosophical film”? The Matrix, most likely, an obvious example of a movie—or franchise—that explores timeless questions: Who are we? What is reality? Are our lives nothing more than elaborate simulations programmed by hyperintelligent supercomputers? Okay, that last one may be of more recent vintage, but it’s closely related to that ancient cave allegory of Plato’s that asks us to consider whether our experiences of the world are nothing more than illusions emanating from a “real” world that lies hidden from view. Another influence on The Matrix is Rene Descartes, whose dualistic separation of consciousness and body receives the maximum of dramatic treatment.
But The Matrix is only one film among a great many that concern themselves with classic problems of philosophy. In a 2010 post for Mubi, Matt Whitlock compiled a list of 44 “Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy.” Along with The Matrix, other films of the past couple decades get mentions—The Truman Show (“the true home of Plato’s Cave in modern movies”), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Being John Malkovich, Inception. Also appearing on the list are classics like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—which illustrates, Whitlock writes, “The Angst of The Absurd.” All of these films appear under the subheading “Famous thought experiments or discussion of a famous philosophical problem.”
Another category on the list is “Movies featuring a philosopher.” The media-savvy Slavoj Žižek gets two mentions, for 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and 2005’s Žižek! (excerpt above). Since Whitlock compiled the list, Žižek has received yet another feature-length treatment—2012’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Astra Taylor, director of Žižek!, also included him in 2009’s The Examined Life, alongside Peter Singer, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor, and Cornel West. After the documentaries, we have “Movies with philosopher as a character,” including Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein, with Clancy Chassay as the irascible logician, Roberto Rossellini’s 1958 Socrates, starring Jean Sylvere in the title role, and, of course, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, with Tony Steedman as “So-Crates.”
The final three subcategories in Whitlock’s list are “Movies featuring the ideas of particular philosophers,” “Movies based on Novels written by famous philosophers,” and “Other.” In the last basket, Whitlock places the PBS string-theory documentary The Elegant Universe and Finnish performance artist M.A. Numminen’s bizarre adaptation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Whitlock narrows the field by ruling out “movies that make you think deep crazy stuff” or those with “some new ‘existential twist’ on common topics.” Instead, he sticks to those films “that (seem to be) incarnations of classic philosophical thought experiments or movies that have a major philosophical problem as a main theme… that include topics that a serious student of philosophy needs to understand.”
Like most such lists, this one doesn’t claim to be definitive, and the four years since its compilation have produced several films that might warrant inclusion. Yet another reference from 2010—William G. Smith’s Socrates and Subtitles: A Philosopher’s Guide to 95 Thought-Provoking Movies from Around the World—casts a wider net. But Whitlock’s list seems to me a very useful starting point for thinking about the relationship between philosophy and film. Below, see the first ten films on the list:
Examined Life (2008)
The Ister (2004)
The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2009)
Being In The World (2010)
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (2001)
When Nietzsche Wept (2007)
The Last Days Of Immanuel Kant (1994)
The Alchemist Of Happiness (2004)
Take a look at his full list here, and by all means, offer your own suggestions for films that fit the criteria in the comments section below.