Determinism and free will are two conflicting philosophies, one deals with the assumption that everything is pre-determined and subjected to mostly unknown laws that dictate the outcome of everything. While free will gives the agency regarding our choices and decisions to us. Most people take a side ultimately and preach one or the other. Most people are likewise inconsistent when it comes to practicing their respective ideologies, depending on the situation at hand.
Like other philosophical concepts, determinism and free will influenced cinema as well. Many great works of art inspired us to consider the alternatives and question what we thought was the truth. Having said all that, we’ve prepared a neat list for you today, one dealing with the best movies about determinism and free will, so why don’t we take a look at it?
1. Mr. Nobody (2009)
Mr. Nobody is technically a science fiction movie, but then again several movies on this list will be. The movie deals with concepts such as “what ifs” and multiverses. It has an elaborate storyline that follows the last “mortal” man on earth.
Nemo (Jared Leto) is 118 years old, at this point, humanity managed to reach some form of immortality. They are curious to know what was life like before they were encumbered and constantly threatened by the fact that they will die. Nemo is being interviewed, hypnotized to be more exact to access his memories.
But the thing is, his story keeps changing depending on what possible choice he has “taken” during his life. He discusses three important decisions he made at 9 years old, 15, and 34. And he explains what would happen depending on the possible choice he’s made practically describing everything that COULD happen to him.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
The first time I watched Donnie Darko, I was an edgy teen and really had no idea what the movie was about. I liked the dark atmosphere and the soundtrack. After many many years, I’ve decided to revisit it, and this time It was even better.
Donnie Darko deals with a depressed teen (Jake Gyllenhaal) who seemingly avoids dying simply because he was sleepwalking one night. The fact that he narrowly escaped death sets in motion a much larger plan that he will have no choice but to follow or his universe is under threat of being destroyed. Donnie Darko deals excellently with the fact that some events might be “pre-determined” even though they seem the most random thing in the world.
3. Butterfly Effect (2004)
Butterfly Effect is a movie named after a famous concept that claims that even the tiniest of actions can have unforeseen and possibly catastrophic consequences later on. The movie revolves around this concept and the concept of time travel, which often go hand-in-hand. Evan Trebor (Ashton Kutcher) suffered unexplained migraines, blackouts, seizures, and memory loss throughout most of his childhood. Eventually, he figures out he can time travel to the exact time-frames during which those occurred.
He thinks of a brilliant plan that involves time-traveling to change some of the decisions he’s made and make life better for himself and everyone around him. This does not work out like it never does of course and he is left to deal with catastrophic consequences. The movie also follows the “multiple timelines” concept that shows us how things would turn out if a different decision has been made.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
One more movie dealing with a corrupted timeline is Groundhog Day. It’s easily one of the most iconic movies on this list. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is an embodiment of cynicism that mockingly accepts his next job to cover groundhog day at Punxsutawney in Western Pennsylvania. He loathes the job and cannot wait to leave, only to realize he is stuck in a time loop. Every single day when he wakes up, it’s February 2nd. At first, he abuses the possible choices that suddenly opened up for him until he realized there’s more to life than cheap thrills.
5. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix is easily one of the most philosophical movies ever made. It ended up on this list due to choices between the blue pill and red pill that in turn, inspired many other great philosophies. The Matrix deals with heavy themes related to freedom of choice as well as the consequences of that freedom. There’s really not much to say about the Matrix that you don’t already know, so it’s best if you simply rewatch it.
6. The Truman Show (1998)
What would happen if your free will and freedom of choice were only an illusion? This is what happened to Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) in the Truman Show. Truman lives a seemingly uneventful life on an island called Seahaven. What he doesn’t know is that he is an unwilling star in an extreme reality show that follows and manipulates almost every aspect of his life. Things start to change when Truman starts noticing small but important inconsistencies that threaten to ruin his carefully arranged world.
7. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
The Adjustment Bureau is a mandatory romance movie on this list that deals with similar themes to Truman’s show. David Norris (Matt Damon) is a candidate for the United States Senate, one day before delivering an important speech he runs into Elise Sellas.
It’s seemingly love at first sight and the two share a kiss. This leads us to the introduction of Harry Mitchell, who will be hired to orchestrate an elaborate event that should result in David never meeting up with Elise Sellas. This unusual turn of events introduces David to the existence of The Adjustment Bureau which tries to manipulate every aspect of his life.
8. The Terminator (1984)
If you’re wondering why Terminator ended up on this list, it’s simple, time travel. All time-travel movies can easily end up on the list of best movies about free will due to dealing with heavy and complex philosophies related to the consequences of one’s actions. Terminator likewise deals with the fact that the future can be changed, this is even repeated numerous times throughout the franchise. It’s also what separates machines from humans. Machines do not have free will of their own. Next time you decide to re-watch Terminator keep in mind determinism vs free philosophy.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that revolves around two people that desperately wanted to forget each other and change their past only to run into each other again as if it was “destined”. The movie follows Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski, both decided to undergo a procedure that effectively erases the memories of their ex-significant other from their mind.
Things get complicated as Jole Barish decides in the middle of the procedure that he doesn’t want to forget Clementine at all. The movie deals with the concept of fate and destiny and as such is the perfect addition to this list.
10. Gattaca (1997)
Gattaca first and foremost deals with the concept of eugenics, but it also deals with the idea of destiny. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is one of the few people that were conceived through natural means and this resulted in him being “imperfect”. The fact that he carries several genetic defects will lead to many hardships in his life.
While bio-engineering is one of the central themes in this movie, the movie also presents the conflict between “being what you were created to be”. In this case, Vicent was created to be “faulty” and overcame all hardships through incredible efforts aka free will.