Skeptic, cinephile, bookworm, gamer, history buff, armchair scientist, occasional YouTuber, habitual cringe inducer, reluctant realist.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie these days that doesn’t have at least one uber-brainy character hanging around somewhere. From mad scientists to brilliant detectives, evil masterminds and wild-eyed inventors, they’re literally all over the friggin' place. But most of those big brains are only incidental to a film's plot. What about the movies where being freakishly intelligent is actually what the film is all about?
Unfortunately, not many of those kinds of movies exist (Hollywood must not be too into brilliance; who’d have guessed?). Sure, there are some nice movies about gifted musicians and a few biopics here and there about great scientists, but as far as films about genius go... not so much. Nevertheless, through tireless effort and extensive, painstaking research (well, okay, not really) I’ve managed to track down the best ones I could find and listed them all here for your enjoyment; each and every one in its big, cognitively-enhanced glory.
Ordered from the worst of their kind to the best of their kind, here they are. Enjoy!
10. Rain Man (1988)
Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a self-absorbed yuppie who learns that his long-estranged father has bit the big one. Even worse, the old man didn’t leave him a dime of his three million dollar estate. Feeling cheated, Charlie heads out to track down who inherited the money in his place — only to find that the whole thing went to his institutionalized, autistic brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) who Charlie didn’t even know existed.
Shocked that his inheritance was going to someone without even a concept of what money is, Charlie proceeds to sneak Raymond out of the mental institution in an attempt to gain custody of both him and his millions. During their long cross-country road trip back to Charlie's home, however, it begins to become evident that perhaps Raymond isn’t quite as brainless as he appears.
One dropped box of toothpicks later, it’s found that Raymond is an autistic savant. While he’s incapable of communicating or interacting with other people in any normal sense, he’s got a photographic memory that allows him to perfectly recall anything he sees (even if he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing) and is a genius in mathematics (a veritable human calculator, he’s able to find the square roots of huge numbers in a matter of seconds). Aware that he could use these skills to his benefit, Charlie decides that he can find other ways of cashing in on his Wapner-lovin’ brother, even without the inheritance. And maybe — just maybe — they’ll grow a bond along the way (aww).
Since it could be argued (probably correctly) that Raymond’s human calculator abilities aren’t strictly the main focus of this movie, we’re going to go ahead to give it the lowest spot on our list here. But don’t fret. As far as good movies in general go, we’re perfectly aware that this is definitely a Top 5 material. Definitely, definitely Top 5 material.
9.) Transcendence (2014)
In the 2014 film, Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster: a famous expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence who’s been working tirelessly on a way to create machines that combine both all of human knowledge and the full range of human emotions. Good news for science, not-so-good news the anti-technology extremist group, Revolutionary Independence from Technology (R.I.F.T.). These guys are basically the sci-fi equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church — which is bad. They can’t stand the technological revolution and are willing to do whatever it takes to end it, even if it requires ending their own life.
Pretty early in the film, the R.I.F.T. carries out a series of synchronized attacks all across the country, destroying several laboratories and shooting Will with a radioactive bullet; while he survives the gunshot, the chemical the bullet was coated with is rapidly killing him. While on his deathbed, Will allows his best friend (Paul Bettany) and scientist wife (Rebecca Hall) to use the technology he’d been working on to upload all of his thoughts and memories onto the internet so that his consciousness can live on even after his body has died. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
Before they know it, Will’s dead, and his consciousness has run amuck all over the damn place. After acquiring all of mankind’s knowledge, plugging into Wall Street, becoming capable of controlling all computers and machinery, and even learning how to control people’s minds (with nanotechnologies he inserts into their skin) Will becomes almost god-like. Now that he’s practically omniscient and omnipresent, this new “A.I. Will” has the power to do almost anything. The question becomes: will he use these powers for good… or for evil? (*cue dramatic music*)
Transcendence is hardly a groundbreaking film and the acting is all fairly humdrum most of the time (sorry Johnny, but it’s true). It’s not as much bad as it is mediocre. Nevertheless, at least it’s better than The Astronauts Wife. And, for that, we can be thankful.
8. Powder (1995)
After his pregnant mother was struck dead by a bolt of lightning, Jeremy “Powder” Reed was born with some very strange anomalies. Like, bizarre.
With porcelain white skin and not a hint of body hair, you could tell just by looking at him that he was different. But it was more than just his albino appearance and baby smooth complexion separating Jeremy from society. Due to an electric charge that his brain now possessed, electronics would go completely bonkers in his presence; he could bend spoons with his mind; metal objects were attracted to him like magnets; his IQ was off the charts; and he could even use his hands (which were capable of shooting bolts of electricity) as defibrillators — you know, if the opportunity ever arose (Spoiler: It does). Furthermore, he also appeared to have the unusual abilities to read people's minds and transfer feelings to one living creature to another. I dunno. He’s was in tune with nature or something, I guess. Anywho.
Adding even further to Jeremy’s oddities, he also happened to be a shut-in. Raised by his grandparents (after his father abandoned him) he grew up hidden away in their basement, working on their farm and never being permitted to leave their property. His only knowledge of the outside world derived from his extensive collection of books, which (being insanely smart) he’d memorized word for word. After his grandparents die, however, Jeremy finds himself forced to attend school and meet other human beings for the very first time. Where it soon becomes apparent: perhaps being hidden from away the world wasn’t so bad after all.
In Powder, we get our first example on this list of just how crumby humanity can be when faced with people they can’t understand. In a way, it’s sorta like Edward Scissorhands. Only more depressing and directed by a convicted pedophile (that's right, look it up).
7. Charly (1968)
Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson) is a sad, sad figure. He’s mentally retarded, has no family, works as a janitor at a bakery where his coworkers habitually make fun of him, and he lives in a barren little room with no friends to ever keep him company. Even more heartbreaking, he’s been attending night school for the last two years, where everything he learns slips from his memory as soon as it enters. He’s goodhearted and tries hard, but his mental disabilities aren’t anything he can escape through mere study alone. He’s a prisoner to his own mind, incapable of ever escaping its handicap.
That is until one day when Charly’s teacher, Alice (Claire Bloom), introduces him to some doctors who want to use him as a test subject for a new intelligence-enhancing surgery they’ve been developing. Charly agrees and within no time his brain begins showing improvement. With the help of Alice, he completes elementary school courses in five weeks, finishes his high school work in three, and makes the grand leap from rote memorization to abstract theory. With his capacity for learning growing rapidly, Charly’s IQ even begins to surpass his teachers. After living a life shrouded in the darkness of his confused mind, Charly can finally see — for the time being, at least.
While Charly is technically science fiction, this isn’t your typical “sci-fi” movie. There aren’t any blinking gizmos, mad scientists, or any of the other telltale signs of that genre. The film actually plays more like the much later and somewhat similar true story movie, Awakenings (1990). Which is a good thing; that movie was boss. About three quarters of the way through Charly, though, all that potential quickly starts going downhill when the series' hippie-dippy montages start occurring that all look like scenes from a less-good version of Easy Rider. It’s… odd. Before that, though, it’s a pretty decent little movie.
6. Little Man Tate (1991)
Little Man Tate is about a seven-year-old child prodigy named Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd). Capable of reading by the time he was still in his highchair, it was instantly obvious that Fred was a natural-born genius. By the age of 7, he was already writing poetry, playing piano at competition levels, painting highly detailed murals, and showing what appeared to be unlimited skills in math and physics. As with most geniuses, though, Fred’s high intellect had the unfortunate consequence of making him the weird kid among his peers. Long story short, Fred was lonely.
His only real friend in life was his single, unsophisticated, working-class mom, Dede (Jodie Foster). Well-meaning and doing her best to raise and be pals with her pint-sized genius, Dede was nevertheless far from his intellectual equal, and a poor substitute for friends his own age. When a psychologist named Jane (Diane Wiest) comes along, though, offering Fred a chance to attend a school for gifted children, an opportunity has finally arisen for Fred to make friends he can relate to.
From here on out, the crux of the film goes back and forth between being about Fred’s struggles to fit in and the passive battle between his mother and psychologist (who are both desperately vying for Fred’s care and attention, in two totally different ways). While it can sometimes lay on the melodrama a little thick, Little Man Tate is, overall, a cute little movie with some occasionally funny moments (although, nowhere near as good as the later child prodigy film, Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), which was omitted from this list due to it being a true story). Best of all, however, we get a cameo from a young Harry Connick Jr. who’s apparently a pioneer in the wigger game — Who knew?
5. Lucy (2014)
In our only balls-to-the-wall action movie, director Luc Besson, the guy who brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element, hooks us up with yet another badass female action hero lead in the 2014 film, Lucy.
Scarlett Johansson plays the titular the ass-kicker in question. She’s a normal American girl in Taiwan who finds herself forced to act as a drug mule for some very unfriendly gangsters who have taken her prisoner. Their apparent goal is to grab a variety of different victims and have each carry a mysterious blue drug out of the country for them. Instead of having them carry the bags of dope hidden away in their luggage, however, they’ve instead sewn the bags into each person’s flesh. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, before Lucy even makes it out of the country, the baggie she’s carrying rips open inside of her, leaking its mysterious contents into her bloodstream.
Whatever the drug flowing through Lucy’s veins is, it’s doing a whole lot more than giving her a buzz. Almost as soon as it hits her system, she’s capable of fighting bad guys with Matrix-like precision, she’s suddenly impervious to pain, she’s controlling people’s minds and bodies, exhibiting a superhuman IQ (spitting out deep one-liners in the process), and recalling long-forgotten memories from as far back as her birth. Clearly, this was no normal drug. And its effects are only growing.
The basic gist of the film is that it’s going by the old myth about how “we only use 10% of our brains”. Which is, of course, total nonsense. But that’s okay. Lucy is about the action, not the science. And as the film progresses, and we watch the drug enhance Lucy’s mental capacities up from one percentage point to another, there’s plenty of guns, explosions, and thrills to distract from the fatally flawed plot points.
4. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
One of the greatest crappy movies of the 1990s, The Lawnmower Man begins with a well-intentioned scientist (played by Pierce Brosnan) who’s developed an incredible new way to increase human intelligence using only drugs and virtual reality (yes, virtual reality). However, after his testing of the method on chimps ends in disaster, the scientist is sent on leave from his lab, forced to work at home. With no one to test his experiments on, he decides to secretly convince a mentally handicapped lawnmower man, named Jobe (Jeff Fahey), to be his guinea pig (a seemingly reprehensible move, but he really did mean well). And after only a short while of testing, it becomes undeniable that the experiments are a resounding success when Jobe indeed does become smarter — a lot smarter.
Within no time, Jobe’s teaching himself how to drive, learning new languages, and even beginning to develop a relationship with a local woman whose grass he cut. Later, his intelligence even begins to surpass that of the scientist helping him. Jobe’s improved intelligence isn’t just meeting expectations, it’s surpassing them at a rapid pace and showing no signs of slowing down. It's not until Jobe begins exhibiting mind-reading powers, telekinesis, and an ill-conceived plan to “cleanse this diseased planet” that things start to go south. By then, though, there’s no turning back.
With silly dialogue, an absurd premise, and some cringe-inducing CGI, The Lawnmower Man has all of the charm and style of those old Stephen King miniseries’ from the mid-90s. Which is a good thing; and not very surprising since it was actually inspired by a King story (although it was nothing like it). While it may not be quite as good as one of those classic made-for-TV gems, as far as some mindless entertainment, you could do worse.
3. Limitless (2011)
In Limitless we follow the story of Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), a struggling, down-on-his-luck writer who, as of lately, has had it really rough. He lives in a rundown apartment, he can’t come up with a book idea, and his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) just left him after it became unavoidably clear that he’s going nowhere in life. So when Eddie runs into an old acquaintance who offers him a mysterious “smart drug” that’s supposedly designed to make him smarter, he figures why not? It’s not as if things could get any worse.
As soon as the pill takes effect, Eddie’s mind clears and all begins to make sense. He starts learning and analyzing things at an unparalleled rate, with a perfect recollection of any and everything he’s ever seen. Ideas come to him effortlessly and he can suddenly see the solution to any problem put in front of him. It’s as if his eyes have been closed his entire life and now, finally, they’ve been opened.
Slowly, Eddie begins to improve himself and his life. He finishes his book within 4 days, he learns to play the piano in 3, he becomes a master at mathematics, he starts working out, cleaning up, taking Wall Street by storm, and even reconciles with his old girlfriend. Life becomes perfect. Well, almost.
Thankfully, this paradise doesn’t last (it would be a pretty boring movie if it did). Eddie, now a smart drug junky, will not only lose his intelligence whenever its effects wear off, but could possibly even die. This is especially bad news, considering he’s running low on his supply with no way to get another fix (his dealer has been murdered). Before his supply is gone, Eddie will have to think quick to figure out what his next move will be.
2. Phenomenon (1996)
1996’s Phenomenon is about the normal-turned-strange life of George Malley (John Travolta). Liked by everyone and living a modest life as a mechanic, George was just your average, congenial, small-town good guy. Happy but unremarkable, there was never anything too special about him. That is, not until the night of his 37th birthday when he looked up the stars only to see a mysterious light in the sky that knocked him off his feet — endowing him with a superhuman intellect, in the process.
Life began to change after this. After previously struggling for months to learn Spanish, George could now absorb entire languages within a matter of minutes. He beats the town doctor at a game of chess for the first time ever. He reads at least two books a night. Incapable of sleep, he starts coming up with ingenious scientific inventions to improve fuel and energy powers. And, most bizarrely of all, he also finds that he has the miraculous ability to move objects with the power of his mind, and can even detect earthquakes before they occur. Whether what he saw that night was a UFO or a hallucination, George doesn’t know. Either way, though, his ordinary life has suddenly become a whole lot more extraordinary.
Like Powder, Phenomenon is another movie that shows us how townsfolk can get all up in arms over someone for being different. But don’t be confused: this movie isn’t quite ambitious or pretentious enough to be shooting for any kind of deep message. In fact, it can be downright schmaltzy at times. But that’s alright. At its core, this is just your typical, fluffy-but-fun 90’s romantic drama, which has the added bonus of also having a novel little science fiction element that’s pretty fun to watch. As for the schmaltzy parts, who cares? A little mindless sentimentality never hurt anyone.
1. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a 20-year-old South Boston bad-boy with a chip on his shoulder. Raised as an orphan, with no family to speak of, the majority of his days were spent hanging out with his deviant pals, hanging out at bars, and getting into fistfights. In his alone time, he could be found doing math equations on his bathroom mirror and speed-reading through every book he could get his hands on. As it turns out, Will is a Southie super genius. How do you like them apples?
Working as a janitor at a prestigious university, one day Will sees an impossibly difficult algebra equation written on a blackboard. On a whim, he decides to solve it. It’s a move that ends up garnering his brilliance some attention by a well-respected professor who’s shocked to find that a prodigy has been mopping his classroom floors. Eager to take Will under his wing and groom him into being the next Einstein, the professor tracks Will down only to find that he’s been arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Desperate to have Will work with him, yet painfully aware of his clearly unresolved emotional issues, the professor agrees to bail Will out under the condition that he starts seeing a psychiatrist. Reluctantly, Will agrees (cue Robin Williams and an avalanche of poignant, heartwarming moments).
Winning Oscars for Damon, Williams, and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting is one of the few movies that both critics and audiences alike went nuts for. And rightfully so. With a good blend of humor, drama, and tear-jerking scenes, it’s a very well-balanced movie. Not to mention it was directed by Gus Van Sant (awesome) and was chock-full of Elliot Smith songs (double awesome). As far as movies about geniuses go, this is the crème de la crème.
nicomp really from Ohio, USA on November 19, 2015:
I have over a hundred hubs not featured since the rules were changed. Too many product capsules: spammy elements.
The Gutter Monkey (author) on November 19, 2015:
Haha yeah, I know what you mean. I hadn't intended to publish here when this was written — as so many of my previous articles have gone unfeatured as of late — but I figured why not give it another shot here. What the hoot. I figure, worst case scenario, I'll take the article somewhere else if I get unfeatured.
But anywho. Thanks for dropping by!
nicomp really from Ohio, USA on November 19, 2015:
Good analysis. It's a shame that HubPages will prevent Google from seeing your article because it has too any product capsules in it. Heaven forbid we should try to sell something.