Luckily, if you’re an atheist, Hollywood is replete with atheists, and so too atheistic films. It’s the one arena where religion really is shunned.
So knowing that, you can appreciate how hard it was for me to think of the top ten atheistic films (and by top ten I mean my favorite ten).
So what are my criteria for atheistic films? Simple. They have to either star an atheist, be written by an atheist, or directed by one. If the film has religious themes, they cannot be about God saving humanity. In other words, proselytizing messages of redemption are shunned (unless it’s secular redemption). Meanwhile, if the film treats the gods and supernatural elements as sheer mythology, and nothing more, then that is perfectly acceptable. If, however, the film has an atheistic or humanist message–then that is preferable.
This film is my number one atheistic must watch movie. It’s basically about scientists trying to save the world by re-igniting Earth’s sun, which is mysteriously going extinguished (British physicist Brian Cox, was the science advisory on the film, and he explains in the extra features what might cause a star to prematurely go out–thank goodness, because I was skeptical of such a thing based on the premise alone). Once the scientists get close to their objective, while making a pass of Mercury, the crew of the Icarus II picks up a distress signal from the failed mission of Icarus I. Deciding to investigate, things take a turn for the worse.
Suddenly the film turns into a survival horror in space in the same vein as Alien. Without spoiling anything, there are certain religious undertones, and the hints of religious insanity, which the scientists must overcome in order to simply do their jobs. That’s what makes this film so interesting.
It also helps that it was written and directed by Danny Boyle, an outspoken atheist. Boyle hired his pal Alex Garland to write, who is an even more outspoken atheist. The film’s lead character Robert Capa, played by the brilliant Cillian Murphy, is modeled off of real life partical physicist Brian Cox, an atheist. It also helps that Cillian Murphy is an atheist.
In an interview with Total Film, TF asks Murphy:
You said that your experiences on Sunshine, and particularly the time you spent with the scientists turned you from an agnostic to an atheist – what changed your perception?
I did a lot of reading, I spoke to those guys a lot, and I was always an agnostic, which I think is a very safe place to be in terms of your faith or lack of, it’s one foot in each camp kind of, and the stories or the themes we were investigating, the books I was reading, and just thinking about it personally, it just seemed to me that we’re here for a very brief period of time and then we die and something else happens and the burden with proof lies with people who belief, not with people that don’t.
It just seems to me to be irrational that there’s an omnipotent, omnipresent being who was there at the beginning, and will be there forever, it’s not logical, it doesn’t help me as a person and I can understand why faith can be very important for people, but for me at this point in my life, it’s not what I need.
Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi was destined to be epic. However, it is not without controversy. Many people claimed the plot was confusing, or it lacked one, and that’s to be expected from unintelligent movie goers. In fact, the reason I think so many people were baffled by the plot, or rather story, was because it wasn’t a character driven plot but a concept driven one.
This is a bold move for any film maker, but Ridley Scott’s genius was able to pull it off.
The concept this film wraps itself around is simply this: What are the origins of life on Earth? Where do we come from? Was it god? Or perhaps, aliens? There is a great line, edited out of the film but found on the special features, in which the lead scientist Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green, is asked what his scientific purpose is. He simply replies, “To find the origins of life and smash all man-made religions proving them wrong.”
That alone provides a nice atheistic image of what this film is really about–namely investigating the philosophical implications of a scientific theory as opposed to a metaphysical one.
Needless to say, this is the focus of the plot, and the search for this answers is what drives the mission, the characters, and the plot. The crew of the Prometheus find more than what they were looking for, and that makes the rest of this movie pleasantly surprising.
3. Life Aquatic: With Steve Zissou
Initially I was put off by this film. I simply did not understand it. It was quirky. Weird. And not at all funny–at least that’s how I initially felt. That feeling was so strong that it actually bothered me. It irked me that there was a movie that had a really great cast and story, but that I simply didn’t understand. What was throwing me off, I wondered. So I watched it again. Then four more times.
Fourth time is a charm. I laughed so hard I cried. Something in my brain just clicked… and I was like… now I get it!
I still think it’s one of the most brilliant movies ever made. Wes Anderson (an atheist) tells the story of a celebrity status marine biologist, played by Bill Murray (who may or may not be an atheist), who has become a washed up, dried up, has been. In a sudden shark attack, his best friend and colleague is gruesomely murdered. Seeking revenge on the shark that killed his friend, Steve Zissou gathers a team of scientists and college intern lackies to hunt down the shark and kill it in cold blood–in what amounts to revenge masquerading as a rare aquatic life documentary.
But Steve Z is thrown a curve ball when a mysterious man who claims to be his bastard son (played by Owen Wilson, who recently tried to kill himself–in an attempt to what can only be presumed to prove to himself that there is no god) shows up and agrees to help fund the mission. At the same time, a reporter joins the crew to catalog Steve’s new documentary–with a secret agenda to reveal him as a fraud.
Other stuff happens, including the funniest shoot out with sea pirates I’ve ever seen. A helicopter crashes. Whatever it was that I saw on that fourth viewing, the film left me in tears. The grande finale of the crew, all huddled together in Steve’s submersible, and the majestic discovery of a new species of shark–left me breathless. It was one of the most ‘spiritual’ experiences I have ever had–in a film which celebrated life–in all its colors.
4. I Heart Huckabees
So I am of the firm opinion that film director David O. Russell is an insane douche-bag/prick/asshole with some serious mental issues… but he made a brilliant film about–well–everything and nothing all at the same time.
I can’t even summarize the plot of this movie, except that it makes you stop and think. It’s damn funny. And it has the best cast ever assembled for a film of this mind bending genre–whatever that genre may be. Let’s just all it a cerebral dramady.
It’s about a guy who fights angels and demons, who has bought his one way ticket to hell. Oh, and it’s got freakin’ Peter Stormare as the Devil? Need I say more?
6. The Terminal
There are absolutely no religious themes at all in this film. This film celebrates human friendship, love, and has an awesome Star Trek reference. In this rare gem of a film by Steven Spielberg Tom Hanks plays a man down on his luck. How down on his luck? He gets stuck in an airport for a full year, having lost his citizenship to his homeland, which was overthrown in a coupe, and has to wait while U.S. immigrations figure out what to do with him.
This film has a bittersweet love story, as well as amazing characters with their own unique stories to tell, and the man who would bring them all together.
It’s my favorite Spielberg film by far, and probably his most underrated too.
If what William Wallace suffered in real life was even half as horrible as the film adaptation of his story, then this alone is proof there is no God–at least not a loving one (even if Mel Gibson is a fanatic Catholic).
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Before there was The Avengers, a romping good superhero film, there was Scott Pilgrim, a romping good superhero film. This film has nothing to do with anything relevant .. and probably never will… but that’s what makes it so relevant. Also, if you like comic books, movies, superheroes, and video games, then this film spoofs them all–and is a riot.
9. Superman Returns
In my opinion, this is the best Superman film ever. It is also probably the best shot film (cinematographically speaking) of any film ever (although my brother is of the firm opinion that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is somewhat better–although it’s a tough call).
People talk about the return of Jesus all the time. But will there ever be a time when people stop having faith in Jesus’ return? That’s basically the premise of this film. What happens when people give up hope. Superman Returns, directed by Brian Singer, opens with a world without Superman. He is but a fleeting memory. People have moved on with their lives. Even his main squeeze, Lois Lane, has given up hope. Except, one clear evening, a comet falls from the heavens–and Superman returns!
It’s how I imagine the Jesus Christ Second Coming being, you know, if Jesus was at all real. But being equally as fictitious as Superman, I totally like this film better–probably because it borrows as much from the Christian mythos as it does the Superman mythos–making a powerfully inspiring film about a modern mythological demigod called Kal El.
One of the reasons I suspect that Jesus is not real is because the Gospel version of Jesus doesn’t read like a man raised by humans. He reads like a radical spiritual leader written into a loose historical fiction. What stands out about Superman Returns, at least to me, is that Clark really does think of himself as the product of humanity–which is why he chooses to love and protect his adopted planet and all its inhabitants. There is a very human connection here–something the Christian Christ mythos abundantly lacks.
What can I say about this movie? It is hands down the most spiritually moving film I’ve ever seen. Although the spiritually moving part is a celebration of human life–regardless of the angels which make an appearance in this film. (They aren’t the angels of Christian tradition, that’s for sure.) James Woods has a scene in this film so powerful, so shaking, that I can never watch it without sobbing my eyes out. The story is interesting. It’s about the stubborn locals in a rural Montanan town (Montana is my home state) who refuse to evacuate the valley when a new damn is built–and the men sent in to try and negotiate their removal and relocation. Directed by the Polish brothers, there is something magical about this film, and it makes my list simply because it has such a human story–regardless of the idea of an afterlife permeating the background of the story.
Well, that’s my list of top ten atheistic films which all atheists and nonbelievers should watch at least once. Granted, the films here are an eclectic mix of sci-fi, mainstream, as well as independent–but those who love science, philosophy, and the strong message of humanism found in all of these films will appreciate the films as much for the art as for the message they provide. Understandably, not everyone will agree with me that these are good films. But they are my favorites.
As a bonus: my favorite animated films are the Hayao Miyazaki animated features, which have nothing to do with Western religion whatsoever. I highly recommend them all, but if you are looking to try some titles I suggest: Howel’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Porco Roso, and Nausicca, just to name a few.