Scientific exploration represents the intellectual pursuit of the unknown. It's a quest for knowledge that has driven many to obsession or even madness, especially when failure looms increasingly overhead.
All kinds of films have been made about enigmatic characters who dedicate their lives to science and experiments. Such films tend to be sci-fi thrillers, but there are also compelling dramas and hilarious comedies that bring fresh energy to the premise.
Here are my picks for the best movies about scientists and their experiments, spanning the gamut of genres but all still worth watching for their own special reasons.
13. Junior (1994)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson
Comedy, Romance, Sci-Fi (1h 49m)
Directed by one of the best comedic directors in history, Junior is a cautionary tale of scientific experimentation if there ever was one.
Our story finds two scientists, Dr. Alex Hesse (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Dr. Larry Arbogast (played by Danny DeVito), who have created a new pregnancy drug to cure infertility.
Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape threatens to derail the duo's experiment: due to ethical reasons, they can't test the drug on real human subjects. So, Alex decides to take the drug himself—and despite precautionary measures, even he couldn't predict what happens next.
Yes, that's right: we're kicking off this list with a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger impregnating himself! Don't worry, as most of the other films on this list will be more serious. But if you're looking for an easy-to-watch comedy, don't let Junior's poor critical reception deter you.
12. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring James Olson, Arthur Hill, David Wayne
Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller (2h 11m)
Directed by Robert Wise, The Andromeda Strain is a classic film to watch if you're interested in movies about scientific experiments.
Dr. Jeremy Stone (played by Arthur Hill) is tasked with leading a team of scientists to contain the spread of an extraterrestrial organism that lands on Earth. However, it soon becomes clear throughout their experiments that they're way out of their depth...
Based on the phenomenal novel by sci-fi extraordinaire Michael Crichton, the film adaptation was lauded for its suspense and its creative use of split-screens long before it was widely used.
11. I Origins (2014)
Directed by Mike Cahill
Starring Michael Pitt, Steven Yeun, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Drama, Mystery, Romance (1h 46m)
PhD student Ian Gray (played by Michael Pitt) is studying the evolution of the human eye. One day, while attending a college party, he meets a woman with the most beautiful eyes he has ever seen.
Later, several years in the future, what begins as a purely scientific study turns into something much more: an experimental investigation into the origins of the human soul.
Directed by the unconventionally meditative Mike Cahill, I Origins is an underrated sci-fi drama that's well worth your time.
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly
Biography, Drama (2h 15m)
Directed by Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind follows the life of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. (played by Russell Crowe), who was a real person and commonly known as John Nash.
Demonstrating himself to be a brilliant scientist and economist, Nash not only gains the attention of the CIA, but eventually starts working there to help advance the field of cryptography.
However, paranoid delusions gradually start to blur the lines between his personal life and reality. Russell Crowe went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for A Beautiful Mind.
9. The Nutty Professor (1996)
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Starring Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett Smith, James Coburn
Comedy, Romance, Sci-Fi (1h 35m)
The second (and last) comedy on our list is another terrific adaptation of a classic piece of literature: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was written by Robert Louis Stevenson back in 1886.
Exactly 110 years after publication, Stevenson's novella was given a comedic spin with The Nutty Professor.
In a bid to win the heart of his dream woman, Sherman Klump (played by Eddie Murphy) is desperate to lose weight. So, he conducts an experiment using his vast knowledge of biochemistry.
While he does successfully lose an enormous amount of weight, it comes at a terrible cost... The Nutty Professor stars Eddie Murphy in an impressive seven roles, and it's a laugh-out-loud affair.
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 45m)
Planet of the Apes started as a novel in 1963, which was turned into a film series in 1968, then rebooted into another film series in 2011 starting with Rupert Wyatt's acclaimed Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Will Rodman (played by James Franco) is a chemist who's experimenting on chimpanzees with an innovative new serum that's one step closer to finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, the serum has unforeseen effects on the primates...
Featuring Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar using revolutionary performance capture technology, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best cautionary tales of science gone awry.
Remaking this iconic franchise was a risky decision given that there was a previous reboot attempt in 2001 with Planet of the Apes, which went nowhere due to all kinds of production difficulties. Fortunately, Wyatt pulled it off and the resulting series is just fantastic.
7. Hidden Figures (2016)
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Biography, Drama, History (2h 7m)
Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures is a biographical film that brings us an incredible story that should've been told long ago. Fortunately for us, we get to experience it now.
The narrative follows three women scientists: Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine Goble Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe).
Despite their instrumental contributions to America's success during the Space Race, these women were buried and remained unrecognized for years. Why? Simply for being African-American.
Hidden Figures is the tough but inspiring journey of how these women worked to gain the respect that they deserved without ever giving up even in the face of constant discrimination and harassment.
6. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Directed by James Marsh
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Biography, Drama, Romance (2h 3m)
Stephen Hawking is a man who needs no introduction, but in case you've been living under a rock for the past several decades, suffice it to say that he was one of the most brilliant minds of modern science.
In The Theory of Everything, we get to see his genius on display as he excels at the University of Cambridge, where he published all kinds of groundbreaking works on theoretical physics.
However, perhaps more interestingly, we're given insight into his tumultuous personal life and the challenges he faced as a victim afflicted by ALS (a neurodegenerative disease that affects muscle control).
With a heart-melting score and stunning performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything truly encapsulates the human desire to understand the world we're born into.
5. Contact (1997)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (2h 30m)
Based on the 1985 novel by Carl Sagan, Robert Zemeckis adapted the grounded sci-fi drama to great success.
Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) is a SETI scientist who makes a breathtaking discovery: an alien transmission.
After establishing contact with extraterrestrials using radio waves, Arroway leads an experiment to create a machine according to the instructions of said extraterrestrial communicators.
While Contact is mostly interesting for its thought experiment of a premise than its characters, the result is still one of the most intriguing movies about a scientific experiment. If you're in search of a realistic take on sci-fi concepts, you can't miss this one.
4. Annihilation (2018)
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Adventure, Drama, Horror (1h 55m)
When writer-director Alex Garland is at the helm of a film, you know you're in for an experience unlike any other. He's had his ups and downs, but when he's hot, the results are unforgettable.
Annihilation follows a group of women scientists of varying fields who are tasked with investigating the origins of a supernatural entity that has arrived on Earth. The thing is, previous explorers either haven't returned or have come back changed in some way...
Starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, they venture into the enigmatic quarantined zone called "The Shimmer" to collect data and uncover what's causing the mutation of plants and animals.
With Annihilation, Alex Garland successfully crafted another worthy entry into his filmography and the cosmic horror canon.
3. The Imitation Game (2014)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Biography, Drama, Thriller (1h 54m)
Cryptanalyst Alan Turing is well-known today as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, he was ostracized while he was alive for being gay.
In this superb film directed by Morten Tyldum, we get to see the fantastic legacy he left behind, as well as his role in ending one of the most gruesome conflicts in history: World War II.
During WW2, the Nazis communicated using messages that were encrypted by their Enigma machine. Alan Turing was approached by British intelligence officers in 1939 and hired to break the Enigma codes, as he was the only one with enough expertise to do it.
Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as the man who almost single-handedly decided the fate of World War II with his brilliant brain is both insightful and gut-wrenching.
2. Awakenings (1990)
Directed by Penny Marshall
Starring Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner
Biography, Drama (2h 1m)
Penny Marshall's drama Awakenings isn't just well-written, well-acted, and emotionally affecting—it's based on a true story.
Dr. Malcolm Sayer (played by Robin Williams) is a neurologist studying catatonia. When he begins implementing a new treatment of L-DOPA in coma patients, he's initially disappointed by the results. However, there's eventually a breakthrough when one patient suddenly wakes up.
For the first time in years, Leonard Lowe (played by Robert De Niro) is able to see the world through his own eyes again.
As Dr. Sayer uncovers the reason behind Leonard's sudden awakening, the two of them fear that this experiment may not last. In fact, it may very well be a race against the clock. In the end, Awakenings is an underrated gem that will absolutely have you in tears.
1. Oppenheimer (2023)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon
Biography, Drama, History (3h)
Why is Oppenheimer at the top of this list? Maybe it's recency bias. Or maybe it's the massive cult-like following the film had pre-release. Or maybe it's the glowing reviews that came after its release.
All combined, Oppenheimer still sticks out in my mind as the best film about a scientist and his experiments.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) is a brilliant theoretical physicist who's headhunted to lead a team of scientists tasked with creating the world's first atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer is tense and suspenseful as director Christopher Nolan employs his trademark nonlinear narrative style to create total immersion in Oppenheimer's race against time and persecution.
The film is doubly effective as a cautionary tale, which is why I'm ranking it at number one. Oppenheimer is cinema's best depiction of a scientist haunted by his greatest achievement and tormented by his own legacy.
Oppenheimer's most impressive experiment came at massive cost: the fate of the entire world. Few films have managed to establish stakes so monumental and deliver a climax worthy of said stakes.