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

Updated May 19, 2021 6k votes 1k voters 106.2k 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: For starters, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! is based on a series of trading cards. Not exactly substantive source material. It possesses a campy look, with big-brained aliens screaming "Ack! Ack!" as they vaporize dim-witted humans with their ray guns. The entire movie has the aesthetic of a 1950s sci-fi flick - not the good kind, but the kind that served as the "B-picture" on a drive-in double feature. 

    Why It's Secretly Smart: Burton is, to a large degree, lovingly satirizing those wacky old features. The joke that the only way to foil the Martians is to make their heads explode by playing the music of country music crooner Slim Whitman is a hilarious riff on the often absurd methods of defeating aliens in the pictures that influenced it. Beyond that, Mars Attacks! has a sly political angle. Jack Nicholson plays the president of the United States, an inept buffoon with no clue how to respond when the aliens arrive. Politicians and government institutions are portrayed as woefully inept at keeping the public safe.

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: This Roger Corman-produced cult favorite is about the "Transcontinental Road Race," an event in which drivers operate cars modified with various sorts of weapons. During the course of the race, they get extra points for wiping each other out - and for running over innocent pedestrians. The movie seems like a violent version of The Cannonball Run upon first glance. 

    Why It's Secretly Smart: Death Race 2000 was made in 1975, and it was nothing less than prescient in foreseeing how extreme televised entertainment would become. Audiences are glued to the Transcontinental Road Race, thrilled by each new elimination. Corman and director Paul Bartel recognized that people crave more and more outrageous sights because they become continually desensitized to envelope-pushing content. Eventually, they argue, senseless carnage gets turned into just another sport.

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: An FBI agent undergoes a medical procedure to have the face of a terrorist transplanted onto his head. The terrorist, meanwhile, has the agent's face transplanted onto his head. The two then chase each other around. Of course, the movie never addresses why their different body types change along with their faces.

    Why It's Secretly Smart: Face/Off is not unlike any of the comedic body-switch movies, except in this case, it's only the faces that are being swapped. Consequently, the movie looks at the idea of identity, asking if people would behave differently if they looked different. Viewers are invited to consider how our personalities are formed by our appearance. The FBI agent, for example, finds himself more inclined to tap into an edgy side once he knows he resembles the terrorist. The action scenes are thrilling, but it's the film's intellectual side that makes it truly special. 

    Low-key brilliant?
  • Why It Seems Stupid: Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror can be viewed as a standalone movie or as half of the double bill known as Grindhouse. The thing everyone remembers about it is the sight of actress Rose McGowan sporting a machine gun for a leg. It also has corny dialogue, grainy photography, rough edits, and even an entire section that's labeled as "missing" onscreen. Everything about it looks like some cheap-o production from the '70s or '80s.

    Why It's Secretly Smart: That's exactly the point. Rodriguez was aiming to recreate the feel of grindhouse flicks - those disreputable exploitation movies that played in the worst, most rundown cinemas of any city to which they made their way. He does a brilliant job capturing that shoddy aesthetic, while simultaneously celebrating the undeniable cheap thrills it provided. Grindhouses don't exist anymore, so Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's companion movie Death Proof exist to give audiences a small taste of what it was like to spend an afternoon inside one of those theaters. Here's a great example of a film also serving as an act of film criticism.

    Low-key brilliant?