After much deliberation and consideration, we present our final ranking of the top ten forensic science films of all time. We’ve kept our descriptions spoiler-free, so feel free to read each snippet without fear of learning too much about the film. We’ve also provided links to the cheapest copies we could find. Just click the movie title and it will take you to the Amazon page.
#10. Unforgettable (1996)
Like the movie Minority Report, Unforgettable uses a layer of futuristic, high-tech gimmicks to overlay a very strong forensic science flick. Ray Liotta plays a cop acquitted in the murder of is wife. With the help of a scientist researching memory, Liotta is able to recover his deceased wife’s memories piece-meal, but at great cost. As the memories of his wife’s final moments become clearer, Liotta’s own sanity begins to unravel, and with it the trust of his colleagues who begin to doubt his acquittal. From a purely cinematic standpoint, the movie is the weakest in our ten, but the forensic science angle is worth a view (if not an outright purchase) by fans of criminal investigations.
#9. Murder by Numbers (2002)
Unlike most of the movies on our list, this film makes no effort to conceal the identities of the perpetrators of the crime. Two smarty-pants high school students, intent to prove they’re superior to their low-brow peers, set out to commit the perfect murder. The forensic know-how and crime scene skills on display here shine because of the checkered history and personal travails of the lead character, played by Sandra Bullock, who gives what many regard as the best performance of her career. The movie deftly handles the nuanced forensics and slip-ups of even the “perfect murder.” This is the movie for the countless crime scene technicians and forensic lab rats who’ve been asked jokingly by their friends, “so, could you get away with murder?” This movie will have them reconsidering that answer, if that answer was ever “yes.”
#8. The 39 Steps (1935)
First of all, make sure you get the right version of this film. The 1935 version here is the one directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and is the eighth on our list of the 10 best forensic science movies of all time. Some of the remakes are fine movies, but this one, released in 1935, is often considered Hitchcock’s best, and is on many lists of the best movies (certainly British movies) of all time. The cross-country adventure thriller follows Richard Hannay, as he travels across the United Kingdom, mysterious map in hand, to follow up on the claims of Annabella Smith, recently stabbed in his company. The film draws heavily on many elements of forensic science and detective work, and is engaging the subtle, low-tech ways of the early days of film. The slower pace of the film does, in many ways, magnify the forensic sleuthing aspects of the flick, allowing the viewer more time to absorb nuance and detail, as any good practicing forensic scientist would.
#7. The Bone Collector (1999)
Next up on our list is the 1999 thriller The Bone Collector, a Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie flick widely regarded among forensic science folk. Denzel plays a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound forensic expert called in to help solve a string of serial killings. The murders all have one thing in common: the perp collects a shard of bone from each of his victims. Denzel selects a rookie cop as his assistant, and spends much of the film working together with him to solve the crimes, passing along decades of forensic insight and crime-scene know-how to his young protege. Any forensic science buff with even a passing interest in Denzel Washington’s performance style, particularly in convincing police and crime-related roles (see Training Day) should get this one.
#6. The Day of the Jackal (1973)
This 1973 film is an adaptation of a book by the same name, released two years earlier, about an assassin known only as the “Jackal,” a hired assassin. From a forensic science and investigation standpoint, this movie has a lot of high points: a failed assassination attempt, bullet-riddled car, custom-made rifles to avoid detection, counterfeit identity documents plus blackmail, and an ensuing investigation hampered by secrecy and an impending attack just days away. The protagonist uses multiple identites and multiple vehicles throughout the film, with the police charged with tracking each one down. After watching this movie, check out Bruce Willis’ 1997 remake of the film, The Jackal. Many of the plot elements and themes are the same, and the entertainment value to a forensic scientist or investigator is just as high, if not the obvious forensics itself.