You know what I miss – smart science fiction. It’s so rare, these days. With all the movies that treat science like a bitch that you can bend over a table and (insert horrifically dirty idea that your perverse mind can come up with), it’s genuinely comforting when I find films that actually get the concept right. Or at the very least you can see there was some attempt to have science get a day in the sun instead of being treated like a beat dog. So I decided to make a list of the films that were not only good films, but also did science right. Maybe they didn’t get everything right, but they at least did their best to let science be a part that makes sense.
10. Ex Machina
The concept of a true artificial intelligence and people having to deal with it is older than me. By far, actually. But all of those films have a flaw that I just can’t look past – they don’t feel grounded in reality. Films like AI have it where it’s a story about humanity’s prejudice against those who are different, so machines that think and feel are hated by people. There was a game that came out last year with a similar tone that I liked. But this film has it where they are at the very beginning. We have a character who is brought in to be used as a kind of Turing Test for this new AI that a man has created. It’s a very twisted thriller where we see this machine manipulating him, along with a human element manipulating things. It’s very dark, and that’s part of why I like it.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey
You might be wondering – what’s a film that is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made doing so low on this list? Well, since this is all personal preference, while I do think this is a masterful movie, I don’t like it as smart science fiction as much as the others. For starters, anyone who watches and enjoys Stanley Kubrick films knows that you have to be prepared for LONG bits of slow pacing. It’s a meme, at this point. This film is no exception. HAL as the villain is pretty great, but there were times when I just couldn’t get past the slow burn pacing of this movie. And the ending went into the realms of pretentious. It is a great movie, from a film-making standpoint, but I just couldn’t get into it as much as other people.
8. Jurassic Park
This pick my have some of you scratching your head. Wasn’t this some big blockbuster? Well, yeah, but it is still grounded in the fact that it is a science fiction monster movie. I might be biased towards it because it is based on a book by my favorite author – Michael Crichton. While not close to the best adaptation of his work, it’s still got some of the science that the book was centered on in there. The smart angle comes from the fact that it’s grounded in what they did to bring the dinosaurs back to life. The film goes out of its way to tell us all about that. What’s more, they have it come back to that with how the dinosaurs end up reproducing. That’s pretty smart. While it may have ended up being a monster movie, the monsters were cool, and there was grounding to the science that made it work. I take that for what I will.
7. Apollo 13
More of you are probably wondering about this. I mean, isn’t this based on a real event? Yeah, it is. But I see this film more as a dramatized piece of historical fiction rather than a straight-up piece. After all, this was based on a book by Jim Lovell, who was one of the astronauts associated with this movie. Telling the story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, what really sets this film apart is that the scenes in the film where they are in zero-g are actually done in zero gravity. Part of why this film cost so much to make was due to how insane the effects were and what it took to create them. It’s a great film where you can actually see what being in space would be like, and fear for astronauts. Not to mention Tom Hanks is the lead. Can’t go wrong.
Made by the same guy who made Ex Machina, this movie is one of my favorite films about aliens coming to Earth ever. It also gets to add itself to the list of great movies that no one saw. Telling the story of a woman trying to find out what happened to her husband, getting involved in a plot about this strange area that develops after a meteor hits earth – the Shimmer. Inside, the laws of nature twist and turn. Reality warps in there, and the deeper her and her compatriots go, the scarier it gets. What I love most about this film is that even in the end, there is no explanation. Dude asks her what the aliens wanted. She doesn’t know. They ask her if she knows what they are. She doesn’t know. They constantly try and figure a rational reason behind what the Shimmer was or anything inside, but there are none to be found. It just was. That’s smart science fiction, to me. Because why would alien motives make sense to us? They are, quite literally, alien. The rhyme and reason we take for granted would be just as foreign to them as theirs is to us. Not to mention the body horror in that. This movie had one of the scariest scenes in years.
5. The Andromeda Strain
Another adaptation of my favorite author. Far and away the best of them. Telling the story of a satellite that lands back on Earth and is recovered by a small town, only for all of them to be dead. What follows is an investigation by some of the best scientists in the world to see if they can isolate and then cure the infection. This is a slow-burn film, but that works in this one’s favor, as you can fee the tension as they are getting closer and closer to understanding, and realizing that they are dealing with something that is unlike anything else they have ever seen. The scene where they finally get an eye-view of the microscopic alien life is still scary to this day. The effects have really held up over time. Old movie, based on a VERY old book.
I’m starting to think that there is nothing that Denis Villeneuve cannot do in terms of film-making. His movies have run the gamut in terms content. Suspense thrillers, crime thrillers, and then we see him do a foray into smart science fiction. What’s more, it’s fantastic. Telling the story of a series of alien ships that come to Earth. The military gets the help of a woman who is a linguistics expert to try and speak to the aliens. What follows is a fantastic movie and some great smart science fiction where they understand the language of the aliens, and see that it goes beyond just spoken words. This film was the one that convinced me that science fiction that was intelligent could still be made in the modern age. Also it was my favorite movie of 2016. So there’s that.
This is a movie that I grew up with. It grew on me from when I first saw it, and re-watching it a while back, it still sticks. Another film about first contact with aliens, this one takes a decidedly different angle. Ostensibly this film is about the battle between the need for scientific discovery, and humanity’s paranoia. We have Jodie Foster as an astronomer who is trying to find alien life. When she finally does, the young woman becomes embroiled in a struggle to get past the worst of our species, to be able to answer questions she has always had. This film got some flak for the Matthew McConaughey character and how that romance wasn’t necessary. But I think it was. Foster believed, genuinely, that spirituality and faith were bad. She’d seen nothing but the worst of it, growing up. But he was like the realization that maybe there could be a meeting in the middle of the ideas. Faith was a very big theme. Not a perfect movie. It has its flaws. But as smart science fiction goes, this is pretty fantastic.
2. The Martian
I recently have just fallen head over heels in love with this movie. Ridley Scott is a great filmmaker. He really is. This film is so utterly amazing. Telling the story of an astronaut who ends up stranded on Mars after his team believes he is dead and has to evacuate. From there is a great look at all the science involved in not only his survival, but also getting him home. This film has some fantastic performances by the entire cast. Matt Damon is at his best in the role as Mark Watney. Another film where he has to be rescued. Someone should put a bell around his neck. The effects in this movie are amazing. The CG is really good. There is a nice integration of practical effects. The sets are cool. All of the science is on point. I love this movie. It does the source material proud as well. Another film based off a book. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re doing a disservice to yourself by not doing so right now.
And my favorite smart science fiction film is…
1. Blade Runner
The film that created the term cyberpunk in the popular lexicon. A movie with a cyberpunk edge might not seem to be in the realm of smart science fiction, but I do believe this movie is. Sure, we have flying cars, and that is silly. But what makes this smart is the themes of the film. It’s a movie about power relationships. The replicants are beneath humans. Society seems them that way. They are forced to be in ugly places far from Earth. Coming to Earth is on pain of death. The test to find out if a person is a replicant or not is invasive and cold. Deckard is a man who goes between the lower and upper world, belong in neither. When he realizes that Rachel is a replicant, he treats her as poorly as the rest of people would. This film is all about subtle themes that play out in a culmination of the final moments before Roy Batty’s death, are are among the most talked about in all of cinema. The sequel was alright, but nothing can beat the original, in my eyes. If you haven’t seen this film too, you’re also missing out.
What about you? What are some of your favorite smart science fiction films? Please don’t comment stupid shit like Gravity. That film is visually amazing, but the science fiction in it is dumb as dirt.
Until next time, a quote,
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” – Roy Batty, Blade Runner