20 Great Ontological Movies

The following ontological movies (ie. those concerned with the nature of existence and reality) were discussed in a podcast discussion with the consciousness theorist Anthony Peake. Click for Part One of the podcast, and see bottom of the page for Part Two. Or listen to both parts in YouTube, below.

SPOILER ALERT: The podcast contains spoilers, as do some of the descriptions that follow below.

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20012001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writers: Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Arthur C. Clarke (screenplay)

Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

A sci-fi classic which ruminates on evolution, technology and human destiny, across a grand time scale. Includes a climax with a prolonged psychedelic style sequence and plenty of room for interpretation. Against the film’s initial poor critical reaction, Kubrick retorted, “Perhaps there is a certain element of the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.”

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne

Writer: Bruce Joel Rubin

Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello

A disturbed Vietnam war veteran attempts to investigate his past while slipping between alternate lives, seeing demonic visions and flashing backwards to a traumatic war-time event that involved an experimental mind-bending drug. A chilling and disturbing ride, but a movie with a heart, too, and something of a spiritual message.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Director: Harold Ramis

Writers: Danny Rubin (screenplay), Harold Ramis (screenplay)

Stars: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott

A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again. Perhaps the ultimate eternal recurrence film, all in a light-hearted, comic vein. Clever though light-hearted entertainment, or profound spiritual text? You decide!


Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writers: Chris Marker (film La Jetée), David Peoples(screenplay)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

In a future devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to investigate the virus that wiped out most of mankind. With themes of madness and looping time, leaving you guessing about what’s real and what’s deslusion.

Open Your Eyes (1997) “Abre los Ojos” (original title)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Writers: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil

Stars: Eduardo Noriega, Penélope Cruz, Chete Lera

A good-looking guy finds the love of his life, but needs to have his face surgically rebuilt after an accident. With themes involving dreams and alternate realities. Later remade as Vanilla Sky, though the consensus is that this is the superior version.

The_truman_showThe Truman Show (1998)

Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Andrew Niccol

Stars: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

An insurance salesman discovers his entire life is actually a T.V. show, and he is the unwitting star. An interesting take on the theme of illusory reality.


The Matrix (1999)

Directors: Andy Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers) ,Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers)

Writers: Andy Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers) ,Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers)

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

A computer hacker discovers from a group of mysterious rebels the true nature of his reality and his own role in the struggle against its controllers. The ultimate false reality film which introduced into wider culture what would later become known as “the simulation hypothesis”, that we are living in a constructed virtual reality.

Vanilla_sky_postVanilla Sky (2001)

Director: Cameron Crowe

Writers: Alejandro Amenábar (film “Abre Los Ojos”),Mateo Gil (film “Abre Los Ojos”)

Stars: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz

A vain publishing magnate finds his privileged life upended after a car accident with a resentful lover. A remake of Open Your Eyes (see above).


Waking Life (2001)

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Trevor Jack Brooks, Lorelei Linklater

A man moves through a dream, all rendered in an animation style special effect, discussing the meanings and purposes of the universe. At times feeling like a documentary full of talking heads, the discussions on science, philosophy and the nature of reality are as good as you’ll find anywhere.

Donnie DarkoDonnie Darko (2001)

Director: Richard Kelly

Writer: Richard Kelly

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell

A troubled teenager is plagued by visions, including a strange human-sized rabbit, that enables him to dodge a bizarre accident, influences him to commit a series of destructive pranks and predicts the imminent end of the world. An intriguing mind-bender with themes of madness, time-loops and parallel realities, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Directors: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber

Writers: Mackye Gruber,Eric Bress

Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters

A young man discovers that he can literally return to repressed traumatic events in his past, but changing them creates new problems in his present.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Writer: Charlie Kaufman

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

A theatre director creates a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse as part of his new autobiographical play, while his life, and reality itself, slowly disintegrates. Regarded by the film critic Roger Ebert as the best film of the decade. Written and directed by the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Enter the Void (2009)

Director: Gaspar Noé

Writers: Gaspar Noé, Lucile Hadzihalilovic (with the help of)

Stars: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy

An American drug dealer living in Tokyo is killed during a drug deal, but his consciousness survives and leaves his body, travelling between past moments in his life and the present he’s all but lost. A trippy movie with themes of eternal return and transmigration of the soul, inspired by the director’s own psychedelic experiences. 

time traveler's wifeThe Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin (screenplay), Audrey Niffenegger (novel)

Stars: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston

A romantic drama about a Chicago librarian with a gene that causes him to involuntarily time travel, and the complications it creates for his marriage.

Triangle (2009)

Director: Christopher Smith

Writer: Christopher Smith

Stars: Melissa George, Joshua McIvor, Jack Taylor

The passengers of a yachting trip become shipwrecked and happen upon a seemingly deserted ocean liner, where violence and time loops abound. With themes of eternal return and the near death experience.


Mr. Nobody (2009)

Director: Jaco Van Dormael

Writer: Jaco Van Dormael

Stars: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger

A boy stands on a station platform as a train is about to leave. Should he go with his mother or stay with his father? From this point, timelines splinter, each life seemingly a valid reality, all being recollected by Nemo, the oldest man in the world. Many ontological themes pile up in this ingenious and ambitious movie.

Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Stars:Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

A thief who steals corporate secrets by entering the dreams of others is given a new task – this time to plant an idea in the mind of a CEO.

SourceCode11Source Code (2011)

Director: Duncan Jones

Writer: Ben Ripley

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga

A soldier awakes in someone else’s body to discover he’s being used by an experimental government program to find the bomber of a commuter train. An interesting spin on the themes of false realities, the simulation hypothesis and eternal return.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Director: Doug Liman

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay), Jez Butterworth

Stars:Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

A military officer fighting in a war against an extra-terrestrial enemy who can control time by resetting the day, thereby learning the future, finds himself with the same power when he is repeatedly killed and reset to the same spot. A highly entertaining and expertly crafted take on the theme of eternal return.

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain

A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival. With themes of time loops and trans-dimensional consciousness.

Mouse X (2014) (short film)

Director: Justin Tagg

Writer: Justin Tagg

Stars: Julian Lee

A man awakes in a huge building with no memory and discovers that each room houses a clone of himself, each one awaking into the same mysterious scenario. To escape he must outwit his awaking ‘selves’. A great short film on the theme of eternal recurrence.

APIVStream these movies NOW with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Or watch in iTunes … see top of page.

Part Two of an interview with Anthony Peake, What Must We Learn to Escape the Era of the Ontological Movie?

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