5 Movies That Employ
Philosophical Subtext


By Sami El-Hadi

Film has always been a powerful medium for expressing philosophical ideas. From The Seventh Seal to Citizen Kane many great films are celebrated for their philosophical sub-texts. Here are five which seem to present distinct philosophical positions and ideas:


1. The Matrix and Cartesian Scepticism

An obvious choice when thinking about films with philosophical premises, this sci-fi action flick posits a world where humans perceive a false, simulated reality while their bodies are used for fuel by evil sentient machines. This alludes to the thinking of the famous rationalist and ‘father of modern philosophy’ Rene Descartes.  

Descartes doubted all of his fundamental beliefs in an attempt to discover what can be known with certainty, famously concluding  that we can only know that we exist as thinking beings: ‘I think therefore I am’.  From this he reached the rather worrying conclusion that we can never really know that the world we experience isn’t all an illusion created by a ‘malevolent demon’.
One thing Descartes argued was that our experiences of the world can be illusory and contradictory; our senses often seem to deceive us, so how can we trust them? In one scene in the film Keanu Reeves’ Neo experiences déjà vu and is told by the other characters that this is down to a ‘glitch in the matrix’. Could it be that every time we perceive such an illusion it is actually an imperfection or fault in the fabric of a false, synthetic reality? Probably not.  
While the philosophy in this film may be a little contrived it does raise some of philosophy’s most fundamental questions, and is a portrayal of what’s known as ‘Cartesian Scepticism’. However there is an overall tendency to favour roof top jumping and slow motion gunfights over long-winded philosophical musings.

The Writer's Journey with Christopher Vogler2.  Fight Club and Existentialism

Fight Club is, among other things, an exploration of the human condition and of the perceived emptiness of human experience. It could therefore be seen as an Existential film. Existentialism is a broad philosophical school of thought but is often associated with despair, angst, alienation and the notion that our existence has no meaning beyond that which we apply ourselves. Much like the themes and aesthetic of this film it’s pretty grim stuff.

Ed Norton’s nameless insomniac protagonist could be seen as suffering an existential crisis. He feels empty despite his perfect catalogue home and resorts to going to meetings for the terminally ill to cure his insomnia and make himself feel comparatively ‘alive’, eventually starting an underground fight club for disenfranchised, alienated young men with the enigmatic Tyler Durden who (spoiler alert?) of course turns out to be a projection of his schizophrenic mind. (Surely everyone already knew that).              

3. The Big Lebowski and....um...Dudeism

This cult comedy by the Coen brothers may not strike you as the most profoundly philosophical piece of work, but how many films can say they’ve spawned a whole religion?  

‘Dudeism’ or ‘The Latter Day Church of The Dude’ is devoted to the laid-back philosophy of the film’s protagonist Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (portrayed by Jeff Bridges). Of course this clearly falls into the category of half-baked, pseudo philosophy but also note the film’s references to Nihilism with the three Germans lead by Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers: ‘He doesn’t care about anything, he’s a Nihilist’.  

4. The Truman Show and Solipsism

Like The Matrix, The Truman Show depicts a character who inhabits a false reality. It tells the story of Truman (Jim Carrey) whose life is quite literally a charade. Inadvertently starring in his own TV show his world is in fact a giant set and all of his friends and family are actors. The key difference here is that Truman is the only one who is being fooled by this false reality.   
This idea that Truman is isolated, the only one who is ‘real’, means the film could be read as an expression of Solipsism. This is the notion that we can only be sure that our own minds exist and everyone else’s minds (and the world) could be false or not exist at all.

Truman is surrounded by a false world of false people and gradually starts to realise that things don’t add up. Solipsism also stems from Descartes’ brand of scepticism and is seen as a legitimate position because we can only have second hand experience of the minds of others, we can never really know them.

Many people said they felt a sense of paranoia after seeing this film, as if they were in their own TV show.  Solipsism is supposedly something which occurs to all of us at some time in our lives and it is this paranoia, that we are the only one who is ‘real’, which the film plays on.

5. Blade Runner and the Philosophy of Mind

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic broaches a contentious issue within the philosophy of mind, associated with what is known as ‘philosophical zombies’ (honestly).

This bizarre sounding thing is a being which is indistinguishable from a normal human in every way apart from the fact that it lacks conscious experience or sentience, much like the ‘replicants’ in Blade Runner.  The question is: does such a thing constitute a human?

The idea of philosophical zombies is generally used as a thought experiment against Physicalism, the notion that there is nothing more to the world than physical properties, there is no such thing as an immaterial mind or soul. If this is the case than a philosophical zombie would be exactly the same as a normal human, despite lacking any kind of subjective consciousness, feeling or emotion.  

In Blade Runner, the moral question is whether the replicants which Deckard (Harrison Ford) is hunting are actually ‘human’ despite being artificially constructed. They are supposed to be identical to humans in every way except for their lack of emotion and when they do display such human qualities (one of the replicants, Rachel, tells Deckard she loves him) it is unclear whether they are just cleverly imitating human behaviour. The film also contains interesting philosophical ideas about artificial intelligence and the implications of man playing God.

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About The Author

Sami El-HadiSami is originally from East London and recently finished his second year at Sussex University studying Philosophy and Film.

After graduating he plans to do a Masters in some area of film studies.

He loves watching and talking about films and would one day like to make his own or work in film journalism.~




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Movies That Employ Philosophical Subtext