Science fiction is a remarkably broad genre, embracing everything from hard-core physics theory to pure flights of fantasy. The release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is putting new focus on “hard” sci-fi: featuring serious scientific principles and realistic (or at least plausible) scenarios. There is a precedent for it in science fiction filmmaking, including a number of genre classics. Here are ten that we think rank among the best. As always, you probably have your own ideas. Make sure you let us know what they are in the comments below!
The fascinating thing about this Andy Serkis-led reboot is that it takes just one tiny leap: the development of a drug that can make apes intelligent. Once you have that, the rest of the scenario slams hard on our Frankenstein reality. Also, anyone who’s ever been to Muir Woods can tell you that an indigent population could hold out a long time there. And as the sequel promises to show us, humanity here will soon have a lot more on its hands than just a few hundred territorial chimps.
Most time-travel movies embrace the multiple universe notion, in which causality is fluid and everything can change. Not so Timecrimes, an ingeniously simple yet infinitely complex masterpiece from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo. 2004’s Primer sticks closer to the parallel universe notion, but with a few sexy/scary twists thrown in. Both are serious meditations one what this kind of technology might look like, and how our capacity to screw everything up can affect it.
Not the Matthew Broderick movie, but a chilling British pseudo-documentary depicting the effects of a fictitious nuclear war. It spares no detail, no matter how gruesome, and at times you forget that you’re actually looking at something that never happened. It’s as close as we like to think we’ll ever come to global Armageddon, though I suspect that in reality, we got a lot closer to it than our worst nightmares could have imagined.
Gravity isn’t Alfonso Cuaron’s first venture into sci-fi, the first being a dystopic masterpiece about what happens when we stop having babies. Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it takes one small notion, then examines how the world changes (and doesn’t change) as a result. The end of the species creeps in of little cat’s feet, but we still play petty games, smoke weed and grouse about how those clowns in the government are ruining everything. We even slip a little booze into our coffee to better handle the looming reality of our own unreal extinction.
Carl Sagan’s uber-brainy novel becomes a rather stodgy movie that once again focuses on us rather than the aliens. Indeed, there might not even be any aliens, or at least many presume when first contact first looms its head. But the religious and political implications of such an event here on Earth get a close look, including cobbled-together footage of then-President Clinton talking about it to the cameras.
What would first contact with an alien race look like? Steven Spielberg may have given us the definitive answer in one of his very best films, and yet curiously one that often gets overlooked when counting down his greatest hits. Like a lot of movies on this list, it succeeds by focusing on the human factor. We see how ordinary people are touched by our intergalactic “guests” and how the aliens may have some very different ideas about who they want to talk to than the people in charge. Sounds about right to us.
Duncan Jones’s amazing effort covers a lot of ground despite starring exactly one person. Sam Rockwell’s lunar employee matches the same blue-collar workaday Joes that we saw in the original Alien. Space here isn’t some vast and fascinating frontier, but just another place for 9-to-5ers to clock in. That makes it all the more delicious when Rockwell encounters something utterly unexplainable, yet something that real science moves closer towards every day.
We’re talking about the 1972 Soviet version, but Steve Soderbergh’s English-language remake applies too. It ranks this high mostly in its depiction of a truly alien being, a sort of living ocean that occupies an entire planet. Most movies think of aliens as stranger-looking versions of humans, or at least offering a physiology we can understand. Solaris presents us with a being about which we have no real comprehension: staring into its face in vain hopes of something recognizable staring back. It doesn’t happen. What does, as surreal as it appears, may be closer to an actual first contact scenario than anything yet put on film… mostly because it’s the last thing we’d expect.
Gattaca steps into a brilliantly simple concept – what if we could create genetically perfect babies? – then extends it to include the silent prejudice and casual dismissal that we humans eventually apply to everything. It finds a way to comment on racism, prejudice and the individual ability to overcome it, all without a single laser blast or robot. Its universe is timeless and yet could be here tomorrow, a fact not lost on the filmmakers at any time.
The go-to film on this list has endured well past the date that comprises its title, much like Orwell’s 1984 and for many of the same reasons. Stanley Kubrick stuck close to hard science, from the rotating vessel providing gravity to the fact that outer space is utterly soundless. It endures because we believe every frame of it, and like a few earlier entries on this list, its case of alien contact resonates because it’s so truly alien. When and if real contact with an alien race arrives, it will likely be nothing like we expect. 2001 has prepared us for that eventuality in perfect – and perfectly plausible – terms.