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14 'Stupid' Sci-Fi Movies That Are Secretly Brilliant

Updated May 19, 2021 6k votes 1k voters 106.3k views14 items

List RulesVote up the sci-fi B-movies that are smarter than you first thought.

Cheesy sci-fi movies can be great fun to watch. Even more fun is when you discover one that's secretly brilliant underneath. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the mediocre special effects, wooden performances, or outrageousness of the plot. You can overlook the substance for that reason. Many times, you don't even notice how smart the movie is until you see it a second time.

The following sci-fi movies are like an optical illusion. They look a certain way from one angle, yet look altogether different once you shift your perspective. While these might not all be all-time classics, they're certainly underappreciated when it comes to content. Going the cheap, easy route would have been a snap. Instead, they chose to infuse their plots with political themes, sociological ideas, clever metaphors, or good old-fashioned satire.

Which of these seemingly stupid science-fiction movies is the most secretly brilliant? Your votes will determine the answer.

  • Why It Seems Stupid: Where to begin? You've got an orange-haired Milla Jovovich in a weird-looking outfit made of strategically applied straps, Bruce Willis as a cab driver with a ridiculous haircut, Gary Oldman sporting a soul patch and a partially shaved head, and Chris Tucker dressed like a mannequin in the window of the world's tackiest department store. Toss in some flying cars and The Fifth Element looks like something a 12-year-old boy would conceive of while daydreaming in math class.

    Why It's Secretly Smart: The combination of these and other kooky factors has inspired a number of fascinating interpretations. Writer/director Luc Besson once told an interviewer that the theme of the movie is "What's the use of saving lives when you see what you're doing with it?" In other words, it's a nihilistic tale about the deterioration of morality in the world. Others have made compelling arguments that the story is about politics, gender identity, or environmentalism. Whatever your interpretation, there's enough going on in The Fifth Element to inspire thought about What It All Means. Truly dumb movies don't do that.

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: Former wrestler Roddy Piper plays a drifter who discovers a magical pair of sunglasses. Whenever he puts them on, he's able to see aliens roaming around disguised as humans. In looking into it further, he discovers they have a plot to exert mind control over the population. The plot sounds like writer/director John Carpenter pulled a bunch of random words out of a hat and then made a movie about them.

    Why It's Secretly Smart: They Live is actually a very smart political satire. The aliens plant subliminal messages in front of humans, issuing commands such as "OBEY" and "CONSUME." Carpenter intended it as a satire of the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, with the aliens coming in, subtly seducing the population, and then depleting the Earth of its resources. Critics of Reaganomics often accused them of having a similar impact on other counties, as well as on the economically disadvantaged people of this country. If you pick up on those political undertones, the movie suddenly plays as a whole lot more than a cheesy sci-fi flick. 

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: Based on a book Stephen King wrote under the pen name "Richard Bachman," The Running Man is set in the far-reaching future of 2019. Prisoners are given a chance to escape their sentences by appearing on a game show. If they can outrun a group of heavily armed "stalkers," they will be rewarded with a full pardon. The very thought of putting inmates on a dangerous game show is enough to elicit chuckles. This isn't exactly The Shining. And the game show host is played by former Family Feud host Richard Dawson!

    Why It's Secretly Smart: The Running Man was able to anticipate where entertainment was headed. Although the story has a satiric quality, it rightly predicted that audiences would crave more and more outrageous entertainment in the future. The game Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself playing is reminiscent of some of today's shows - from Cops to Fear Factor to American Ninja Warrior - where the pleasure comes from watching people in hazardous or potentially injury-inducing situations. The movie is a scathing indictment of television executives' willingness to reap big ratings by pandering to the most base instincts of viewers. 

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: The movie is set in a future where violence no longer exists. That in itself is a stupid idea. A pleasant thought, for sure, but in no way realistic. Then toss in Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes as a cop and a criminal who have both been cryogenically frozen. When the latter is set loose, the former has to be thawed out like a sirloin steak in order to catch him. Oh, and Rob Schneider's in it.

    Why It's Secretly Smart: The plot itself is a standard good-versus-evil kind of thing, but the fictional world in which Demolition Man takes place is anything but standard. This future has been sanitized. Not only is there no violence, but stuff like swearing and alcohol use has been outlawed, as well. Frankly, it seems pretty boring until the cop and crook start to liven things up. If there's a point to the movie, it's that we can only appreciate calm when there's a little bit of chaos in there for contrast. That's a surprisingly philosophical take for a Stallone action movie.

    Low-key brilliant?