Without further ado, here’s my list, starting with the top 3:
(Warning: beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen these movies yet.)
1.) 2001: A Space Odyssey
“Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. Um, of course he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.
But as to whether he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”
Frank and Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey,
with HAL staring at them in the background
(Image from IMBd)
From the Dawn of Man, it was early hominids’ discovery of technology that allowed our primate ancestors to flourish (using bones as tools and weapons). With the discovery of tools came the invention of practical arts like hunting—an example of how technology helped spark creativity during our primate beginnings.
In future space travel, humankind’s relationship with technology has become so complex that the HAL 9000 spaceship computer seems more human than the nonchalant astronauts it works with. But HAL quickly transforms from a human-like being to a robotic Frankenstein, as suggested by that staring red eye in the spacecraft's background. HAL is proud and sly (“incapable of error” is its claim to fame before it murders Frank and almost kills Dave). At first, Dave is not sure if HAL feels emotion, although he almost certainly believes so when he disconnects HAL beneath its eerie protest (“Stop, Dave”). While early hominids entered the next stage of evolution by coping with tools, Dave’s battle with HAL points to a further evolutionary stage—symbolized by Dave’s nebulous rebirth as Star-Child.
What does Star-Child represent—using technology to transcend human limitations, or overcoming our dependence on technology? Both maybe? Nobody is certain. Still, whether we depend on technology or try to move beyond it, 2001 shows how technology has shaped our evolutionary stages, which are marked by the Monolith (and musical themes like Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Atmospheres). For me, these insights only help make 2001 the greatest sci fi flick, if not the greatest movie ever made.
2.) Cloud Atlas
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”
Story 1: The Pacific Slave Trade
Story 2: A Musical Genius
Story 3: A Publisher's Escapade
Story 4: A Journalist vs. A Conspiracy
Story 5: A Dystopian Future
Story 6: After The Post-Apocalyptic Fall
3.) Back to the Future trilogy
“Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…”
Marty and Doc in Back to the Future
I’ll confess that much of what I know about the technologies of theoretical physics (or at least what I think I understand) comes from watching these flicks. Like in Cloud Atlas, there is a theme in the films about ripple effects in time, where using technology (like a time machine) to make a small change in the past can cause a butterfly effect that dramatically changes the future.
But as Doc implies at the conclusion of these time-traveling adventures, what matters most are the choices we make now, for this moment is where we recollect the past, remake the present, and begin the future. The three misfits of the movies learn this lesson well, and they change their lives for the better: George stands up to the school bully, Marty overcomes his rashness to name calling, and Doc balances intellect and passion—and in these ways, they all rewrite their destiny and change history.