14 of the best science and math movies to watch with your students
Updated: Feb 17
I love movies! I often think that if I hadn't pursued Biology as a career, I would have gone into the film industry (probably special effects as I'm certainly no actor). Anyways, I've found that as a science teacher, I get to share my excitement and knowledge of films with my students on a fairly regular basis. Before I get into it though, I should clarify that I'm not talking about watching The Fast and the Furious the day before summer vacation. There's a place for that kind of viewing - albeit sparingly - but in this post, I will be sharing my list of science and math films that I think have the potential to result in deep, meaningful learning experiences for your students. I'm also going to provide a list of films that I think aren't worth your time, films I haven't seen that are supposed to be good, and films that are great but you probably shouldn't show in school (if you want to keep your job!).
Source - Midjourney
I'm of the opinion that a really good story can change your life, or at the very least, change the way you think about the world. This can be the reality for your students, and you can be the one to make it happen for them. However, as with great works of literature, your students are unlikely to encounter a lot of high-quality content unless you present it to them. This is especially true for older films (my students consider any movie that came out before 2020 'old').
The following list (in no particular order) is my go-to selection of STEM-related Hollywood movies that I think your students will love (or at least appreciate). Documentary films can be stirring and profound too, and I show plenty of those, but there's little question that students seem to be more engaged when they think what they're watching is not strictly 'educational' (even when it is).
For classroom purposes, I've made recommendations for which subject and grade level I think would benefit most from watching each film. I've also included suggested discussion topics and links for viewing options (Amazon), ratings (IMDB), and appropriateness (Common Sense Media).
14 of the best science and math movies for your classroom
1. Contagion (2011) - A novel virus leads to a global pandemic.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (6.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 15+)
Sound familiar? I've been showing this brilliant film to my students for more than a decade, and although the virus depicted in the movie is fictional and quite a bit more deadly than covid-19, it's absolutely realistic in terms of how everyone deals with it. The all-star cast portrays a wide variety of characters with differing perspectives, from a concerned father to a CDC case worker to a social media influencer.
Best for: Biology, high school
Topics to discuss: Vaccines, healthcare, the immune system, pandemics, science in the media, pseudoscience, ethics of experimentation
2. Contact (1997) - A researcher discovers an alien signal that leads her on a mission to make first contact.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (7.5 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 10+)
This is the film adaptation of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan's only work of science fiction. There's some excellent acting on display here, especially Jodie Foster as the main character. Although there's plenty of interesting science and philosophy to debate in this film, I found several aspects to be pretty unrealistic. Even so, this is still worth sharing with your students as one of the only films where humans encounter aliens that don't want to kill us.
Best for: Astronomy, physics, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Costs and benefits of space exploration, origins of life, extraterrestrial life, space travel, conflict and tension between science and religion
3. The Prestige (2006) - Rival magicians resort to escalating means in order to outdo one another.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (8.5 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 14+)
While this might not sound like it has much to do with science, there's more going on here than meets the eye. The conflict between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as magicians has clever parallels with the real-life rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (also portrayed in the film). The main theme throughout the film is doing whatever it takes to achieve a goal despite serious consequences, which should be a cautionary tale to any current or future scientist. In all the years I've been showing this movie, only one student has ever anticipated the twist ending.
Best for: general science, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Progress, ethical use of science and technology
4. Interstellar (2014) - A retired pilot travels through space and time on a mission to save humanity.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (8.6 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 12+)
Interstellar is an incredible movie to watch on a big screen if you can. Although it veers into sci-fi territory at times, it still manages to get a lot of the science right regarding time dilation and black holes. It also features some surprisingly emotional scenes that should give your kids plenty to think about. Upper-year students will get the most out of this film, but be warned - it's almost 3 hours long.
Best for: Astronomy, physics, high school
Topics to discuss: relativity, gravity, space travel, black holes, future of humanity, food security
5. The Martian (2015) - Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must find a way to survive and get himself rescued.
Links: Amazon (5 stars) - IMDB (8.0 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 12+)
While not quite as good as the phenomenally accurate and detailed book by Andy Weir, the movie version, featuring Matt Damon, is still worth your time. While the science portrayed in the film is interesting, you might find as much or more to talk about regarding the power of ingenuity and positive thinking. If your students like the movie, encourage them to read the book!
Best for: general science, astronomy, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: space exploration, body systems, engineering, scientific method, problem-solving
6. Gattaca (1997) - An aspiring astronaut tries to succeed in a world dominated by genetically engineered humans.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (7.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 14+)
On the one hand, this movie is starting to look its age (the computers, in particular, are hilarious), but as an exploration of what a genetically engineered future might look like, it's catching up to reality. I've seen this movie at least twenty times and I'm always amazed by how cleverly it was written. It has a peculiar 1920s-era film noir thing going on that a lot of students don't understand, but if you can get past that you will almost certainly enjoy this incredible work of science fiction. It still drives me nuts that he goes to space in a suit, though...
Best for: Biology, high school
Topics to discuss: Genetic engineering, inheritance, CRISPR, designer babies, eugenics, genetic discrimination
7. Jurassic Park (1993) - A rich guy tries to create a dinosaur theme park featuring cloned dinosaurs, which goes about as well as you'd expect.
Links: Amazon (5 stars) - IMDB (8.2 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 12+)
It's hard to believe this movie is 30 years old (which makes me feel even older!), but it still looks great and remains thrilling to watch with your students. I don't really recommend any of the sequels, as the original (based on the book) is still the best. As with other films on my list, this one is getting closer to being a reality as it is probably only a matter of time before a mammoth is cloned. This raises some ethical concerns that you will likely want to discuss as well.
Best for: general science, biology, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Cloning, extinction, genetics, ethical use of science and technology
8. The Island (2005) - A group of people living in a futuristic facility dream of escaping to the 'island', but things are not as they've been led to believe.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (6.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 14+)
Okay, so it's a Michael Bay movie and I feel the need to defend it. While there are numerous explosions and car chases, the basic plot is solid (people cloned for their organs) and features good acting and mostly believable science. You could argue that this is a much lighter, funnier version of Never Let Me Go, and you'd be right, but it still raises essentially the same ethical questions without being overly depressing.
Best for: biology, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Cloning, organ donation, farming, human rights, lab-grown meat
9. The Imitation Game (2014) - Real-life story depicting mathematician and early computer scientist Alan Turing's role in cracking a secret code used by the Nazis in World War 2.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (8.0 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 13+)
Finally a math/computer science movie! I didn't love all aspects of this film, but it did a very good job of balancing the details of solving the Nazi code with those of Turing's own life. You could use this movie to discuss all kinds of things, including history, which opens it up to various cross-curricular learning opportunities. The Turing test for AI is somewhat unrelated to the content of the film, but still relevant enough to be discussed once you know more about the person behind it.
Best for: Math, computer science, history, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Coding, history of computing, Turing test, algorithms
10. Wall-E (2008) - A lonely robot finds the last plant specimen on Earth and must find a way to protect it.
Links: Amazon (5 stars) - IMDB (8.4 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 5+)
Wall-E is a charming computer-animated film that should appeal to all ages. It's also a smart and slightly disturbing commentary on our current climate (and health) trajectories. I'm pretty sure we'll all end up in floating recliners on supersized liquid diets eventually...
Best for: environmental science, general science, all ages
Topics to discuss: Climate change, artificial intelligence, extinction, endangered species, health and nutrition
11. Inception (2010) - In the not-so-distant future, people can enter each other's dreams and mess with their thoughts.
Links: Amazon (4.5 stars) - IMDB (8.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 14+)
The science of inception is pretty flimsy, but it's such an interesting and original concept that I've used it many times as part of a unit on neuroscience. Students have a lot of questions regarding dreams and consciousness after watching this film so I have them write a research essay on how realistic it is. The fact that we don't fully understand either of these topics makes for some interesting theories.
Best for: Biology, psychology, high school
Topics to discuss: Dreams, consciousness, mental health
12. October Sky (1999) - A coal miner's son dreams of becoming a rocket scientist.
Links: Amazon (5 stars) - IMDB (7.8 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 10+)
This is an inspiring true story about an average kid who attempts to break free of his small town's expectations. With help and encouragement from his mom and teacher, he defies the odds and succeeds. It's simply a great story about optimism, courage, and family. There's also plenty of science to examine across a range of disciplines. It's a book as well, if you're interested.
Best for: Physics, math, astronomy, general science, middle or high school
Topics to discuss: Rocket science, education, scientific method, history of the space race, engineering, taking risks
13. A Beautiful Mind (2002) - A brilliant mathematician is hired to do secret government work as his mental health deteriorates.
Links: Amazon (5 stars) - IMDB (8.2 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 14+)
Another true story, this time about Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash's battle with schizophrenia. Nash was a pioneer of game theory whose contributions to society continue to benefit us all. The fact that he accomplished this while dealing with serious mental health issues is a positive message for everyone.
Best for: Math, high school
Topics to discuss: Game theory, economics, mental health
14. Arrival (2016) - A language expert is recruited to determine the intentions of aliens that arrive on Earth.
Links: Amazon (2016) - IMDB (7.9 rating) - Common Sense Media (ages 11+)
Arrival is such a great theatrical experience, so crank up your speakers and your students will surely love it. It's very much a thinking person's sci-fi film without a lot of action or conflict. Still, the basic premise and twist ending are intriguing enough to keep your students talking about it long after the credits role.
Best for: Languages, physics, biology, high school
Topics to discuss: How language influences thinking and learning, communication, astrobiology, first contact, the nature of time
Films I don't recommend:
Here's a short list of movies I wouldn't share with my students, for a variety of reasons.
Blade Runner (1982) - While it's an interesting story, it's more about identity than it is about science, robotics, or artificial intelligence. It's also a bit too old for many students to get into. Read the novel instead.
Apollo 13 (1995) - I've shown this to a few classes and they struggle with it. The dialogue is very technical and hard to follow, although most experts agree it's a very accurate depiction of the actual mission. If you want to show this, be prepared to pause a lot in order to explain things.
The Theory of Everything (2014) - It's not a terrible film, but it's largely about Stephen Hawking's life and famous ailment rather than any of his scientific contributions.
First Man (2018) - This movie portrays the life of Neil Armstrong leading up to his famous moon landing. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this guy couldn't wait to get away from his family and didn't see much reason to idolize or be inspired by him.
Haven't Seen It:
I'd love to recommend the following films, but I haven't seen them yet and can't in good faith tell you to watch them with your classes.
Hidden Figures (2017) - Highly rated film about three women who used math to help put one of the first astronauts in space. Probably worth checking out!
The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016) - Another supposedly good film about an Indian mathematician and his mentor. I don't know much beyond that.
Radioactive (2020) - I was excited to see this Marie Curie biopic when it first came out but never got around to seeing it. She's a scientific badass and an inspiring figure for all women interested in STEM careers, so I hope it's good.
Excellent science and math films for adults:
Due to excessive language, nudity, or otherwise disturbing content, I wouldn't show these films in school, but you might still enjoy them yourself!
Don't Look Up (2021) - You could tell that they hired a science advisor for this movie, which hilariously examines how the public might react to the news of an impending global disaster. It perfectly captures the disparity between scientific consensus and public perception.
Her (2013) - There's a bit too much adult content for students in this film about a guy who falls in love with a piece of software, but it's a fascinating movie worth your time. It's also pretty realistic in many ways as the age of AI takes off.
Ex Machina (2014) - Fantastic (and fantastically weird) movie about a reclusive programmer and his android creations. Definitely too intense and graphic for school, but an excellent film nonetheless.
Did I miss any of your favourites? Please leave a comment and let me know what movies you enjoy watching with your students.