The release of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s sprawling study of the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” has propelled the world-shifting work of a scientist to cinema’s front stage.
Tracking the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer through his time as director of the Manhattan Project and beyond, the film explores the complexities of its protagonist’s character and conscience alongside the thorny union of science and morality.
5 Movies About Scientists
If that tangled, three-hour drama left you with an urge to curl up on the couch for a few more science-centric movie nights, here’s a list of the best biopics on other intellectual giants.
1. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Based on the life of acclaimed British physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne), The Theory of Everything follows his efforts to revolutionize our understanding of nature despite debilitating illness.
As a young student at the University of Cambridge, just beginning to formulate a theory of how the cosmos may have formed from a black hole, he is diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and given two years to live. The film primarily centers on his relationship with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a poetry student who vows to support him through his inevitable decline.
Though he beats the odds (Hawking would live another 55 years, until his death in 2018), as his condition deteriorates, their marriage is strained. And, even as he starts using a wheelchair and loses the ability to speak, he continues to search — as he would all his life — for the namesake theory of everything: a single, still elusive equation capable of unifying all physical forces.
2. The Imitation Game (2014)
More likely than not, you’re reading these words on a device made possible by British mathematician Alan Turing, the subject of this 2014 release. Commonly credited as the “father of computer science,” Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was integral to the Allied push to crack the Nazi “Enigma code” during World War II.
The film depicts Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, the English country house where he and his team of cryptographers devised an innovative machine (a precursor to modern computers) for deciphering enemy communications. Some experts believe their effort shortened the war by up to two years and saved millions of lives.
However, at the film’s emotional core is Turing’s struggle with his homosexuality — then a crime in the U.K. (“gross indecency,” according to the Criminal Law Amendment Act) for which he was convicted in 1952. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously pardoned Turing, who died by suicide in 1954.
3. Hidden Figures (2016)
Movies in this genre often revolve around a single (and typically male) ego. Hidden Figures, in contrast, stars a trio of women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe), three Black mathematicians employed by NASA as “computers” in the early 1960s, as American scientists and politicians rushed to launch the country’s first astronauts.
It was at once the Space Age and the tail end of segregation — an era of rapid technological progress and sluggish social change. The heroines confront acts of discrimination, great and small, but their brilliance eventually shines through.
In particular, their contributions to Project Mercury (which placed astronaut John Glenn in orbit) raised them to positions of prominence and influence in an organization that once deemed them inferior.
4. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Another tale of genius tinged with malady, A Beautiful Mind is loosely based on Nobel laureate John Nash’s struggle with mental illness.
His promising career as a young mathematics professor at MIT is jeopardized by prolonged schizophrenic episodes, during which Nash (played by Russell Crowe) suffers from frightening delusions and spends his days cracking imagined Soviet codes in newspapers.
With the help of his wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash learns to manage the hallucinations and resumes his studies, establishing himself as a successful and respected mathematician at Princeton University. His groundbreaking work on game theory earned him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1994.
5. Tesla (2020)
The Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was by all accounts an eccentric man, and Tesla is an aptly eccentric account of his life.
Much of this fanciful film harks back to the “war of the currents,” a notorious rivalry between Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke), who advocated alternating current (AC), and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), his one-time employer, who championed direct current (DC). In one scene — just to give some idea of the degree of artistic license at play here — the two resolve an argument by smearing ice cream cones on each other’s faces.
As Tesla fights for his revolutionary system of energy transmission, the movie also explores his (often troubled) relationships with other notable contemporaries, including entrepreneur George Westinghouse, investment banker J.P. Morgan and Morgan's daughter Anne, who narrates.
Read More: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time