From "Minority Report" to "The Fly," filmmakers have been using visual effects to delve into issues of economic inequality, environmental abuse and nuclear holocaust
"Elysium" has been called a "socialist" blockbuster, thanks to a plot that finds a group of impoverished earthlings rising up to take on a group of 1-percenters who luxuriate on a posh space station without a care in the world.
Star Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp insist the film has no political message, but with a plot that echoes the Occupy Wall Street movement, it's clear that "Elysium" has more on its mind than popcorn.
Nor is it alone in using the science-fiction genre to raise questions about social, environmental or political issues. Here's are 10 films that don't ask audiences to check their brains outside the multiplex.
1. THE MATRIX (1999)
What Was Brainy: Few action movies draw on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Buddhist teachings and the work of theorists like Jean Baudrillard to cook up a futuristic world where machines have created a simulated reality in order to control humanity. The film was such a hit with brainiacs that college courses sprung up to dissect its layers of meanings and philosopher Cornel West joined the cast of its two sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions."
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Somebody forgot to tell Keanu Reeves to drop the surfer voice. Also, both "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" weren't thought-provoking — just boring and pretentious.
2. MINORITY REPORT (2002)
What Was Brainy: Steven Spielberg's thriller focused on a police force that uses a trio of psychics to arrest criminals before they commit crimes. It's filled with gripping action sequences, but that's just frosting. At its heart, the film asks troubling questions about free will and seems to anticipate law-enforcement debates currently taking place in the country involving issues like stop-and-frisk and the widening expansion of government surveillance.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: The big "reveal" is a howler, and the ending suffers from Spielberg's addiction to syrup.
3. THE FLY (1986)
What Was Brainy: Man turns into bug is hardly the stuff of many academic essays — unless of course they're about Kafka. In the hands of an idiosyncratic auteur like David Cronenberg, "The Fly" became a meditation on the horrors of aging, with many critics drawing parallels between the slow dissolution of the mad scientist played by Jeff Goldblum and the AIDS epidemic that prematurely killed off scores of young men and women during the Reagan era.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: There are a few cheap shocks, but like "Matrix," the real sin was the moronic sequel the movie spawned, 1989's "The Fly II." That dud suffered from Cronenberg's decision not to participate. Not smart, Hollywood. Not smart at all.
4. BLADE RUNNER (1982)
What Was Brainy: Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is a visual feast that did more to establish the look and feel of contemporary science-fiction than perhaps any other film in history. The production design at times dwarfs its ideas, which is a shame because tucked inside this piece of futuristic noir is a penetrating fable that raises troubling questions about artificial intelligence, the environment and religion.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Scott apparently spent more time getting the lighting right than coaxing a compelling performance out of a somnolent Harrison Ford. Good thing the star woke up in time for "Return of the Jedi."
5. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
What Was Brainy: Before "Jurassic Park," most moviegoers were blissfully ignorant of DNA. After watching a group of hungry dinosaurs munch down on some hapless park visitors, those double-stranded helices were all the rage.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Yes, the film wrestled with issues involving cloning, but most of the screen time was spent following men, women and children as they desperately tried to avoid becoming raptor feed.
6. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
What Was Brainy: Don Siegel's low-budget Cold War film about alien pod people taking over the planet is often viewed both as an allegory for the dangers of communism and of McCarthyism. It's scary, but it hardly ever settles for lazy thrills, and it's most dazzling feat may have been sneaking this send-up of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit era into the mainstream.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: The ending strikes an optimistic note that seems out of place with the rest of this bleak little yarn. Was studio meddling at fault?
7. INCEPTION (2010)
What Was Brainy: Christopher Nolan investigates the architecture of dreams in this stunning thriller about a gang of thieves who raid their targets' subconscious for information. It's a bold examination of the thin line between imagination and reality and something of a comment on the craft of moviemaking itself. (Just don't ask us to explain what exactly it's saying.)
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Boy, it's confusing, but the need for CliffsNotes seems to have as much to do with gaping plot holes as it does with its dense storyline and any grand ambitions.
8. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
What Was Brainy: Yes the ape costumes look cheesy in light of the great leap forward that has taken place in CGI and visual effects, but push that aside. The original Charlton Heston film served as a warning to a world in the throes of nuclear brinksmanship. Wise up … or else.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Heston offers up a heaping plate of camp, and the film has been parodied so often in everything from "Spaceballs" to "The Simpsons" that it can be unintentionally funny at points. It's hard not to smirk when you hear Chuck intone, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
What Was Brainy: Stanley Kubrick's hallucinatory view of space travel is a journey into the mysteries of creation. Set to classical music, nearly devoid of dialogue and filled with balletic sequences in zero gravity, the film builds slowly, but its pacing is deliberate. It never spells out its themes and is one picture that truly rewards repeat viewings.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: Honestly, nothing. Some viewers may find it dull, but they would be hard-pressed to claim it was dumb.
10. DISTRICT 9 (2009)
What Was Brainy: Even before "Elysium," Blomkamp was interested in using the structure of a science fiction film to explore issues of inequality. In this dystopian future an alien race is interned in a Johannesburg slum. The film's documentary style, setting and plotting evoke everything from the apartheid era in South Africa to the United States' tortured relationship with migrant workers.
What Fell a Few IQ Points Short of Intelligent: The movie wants to be about ideas, but its finale is a fairly standard shoot-em-up. It may want to say big things about xenophobia, but most audience members probably left the theater thinking about the explosions and the gadgetry.