The term “science fiction” gives writers an outlet to break the rules a bit and tell stories that revolve around scientific theories and concerns without necessarily having to worry about accuracy. Indeed, there have been many sci-fi movies that totally ignore how science works (we’ve even compiled a list of the worst offenders), which is fine if you want to tell a fun story about people travelling to the center of the Earth like in The Core, but not so great if you want your movie to actually be taken seriously by …well, anyone.
Fortunately, not every movie sets out to completely set aside accepted science in favor of spectacle. When filmmakers enlist the help of actual authorities in the scientific field, we get films that actually hold up in the realism department (a crazy concept, we know). While we’d still recommend reading an actual science textbook if you truly want to learn something new, the following movies could actually teach you a thing or two about the natural world, which is more than can be said for most sci-fi fare out there.
12. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Released in 1982, the original Blade Runner depicted a vision of Los Angeles in 2019 that included black skies choked with carbon emissions, human-like androids, and flying cars. While we can look back now and say that the film didn’t quite hit the mark in its predictions (though we are getting closer and closer to getting those flying cars), its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, has earned praise from futurists who point to the film’s depictions of climate-ravaged Los Angeles and the surrounding California countryside as an extreme, but realistic vision of the effects of unchecked climate change.
“It just feels so present,” futurist Melissa Sterry tells Syfy Wire. “Blade Runner 2049 is almost sending up the worst, most cliched concepts of 2017 technology and saying ‘This is a nightmare.’ It’s a fantastic backscape to narratives and new conversations for examining the present as well as the future.”
There is reason to be hopeful that things won’t be so bad in 2049 as Blade Runner makes out, as Sterry notes that the film’s complete lack of natural plant life and animal life is unrealistic, as these would depreciate but almost certainly not be at near-extinction levels in the next three decades.
11. Minority Report (2002)
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s 2002 future crime thriller looked like yet another action vehicle for star Tom Cruise prior to release, but has since attained a following thanks in large part to its inclusion of many advanced technologies. Set in the year 2054 (which seemed even more remote in the year 2002), Minority Report benefited from Spielberg consulting many different experts to help form the film’s sci-fi future, in which law enforcement are armed with the ability to predict crimes before they happen. While beta versions of the pre-crime system are already being tested out in the US (which is mildly terrifying, we must admit), many of the film’s other technologies have already come to pass, such as retinal scanners, motion tracking computer interfaces and projected heads-up displays.
10. Interstellar (2014)
As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan always finds a way to rely on practical effects when possible to tell his stories, so it makes sense that his drive for realism would also extend to the science depicted in his films. Interstellar is a sci-fi epic in the traditional sense, in that it is heavily concerned with space travel but rather than invent some sort of contrivance for how his characters are able to get from point A to B faster than our own current spacefaring technology would allow, Nolan worked closely with Kip Thorne, a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology, to make sure the film’s depictions of things such as wormholes and time travel/relativity adhered as closely as possible to accepted theories. There have been numerous published papers written about Interstellar’s science and the film is already being used as a teaching tool in physics classrooms, even if the last third of the movie dives deep into speculative fiction territory.
9. Deep Impact (1998)
While Deep Impact doesn’t get off on the best foot in terms of plausibility (call us crazy, but we highly doubt some star-gazing teenager would notice a killer comet hurtling towards Earth before NASA), much of the rest is quite believable. Blowing up a comet with nukes made sense as the most viable option back in 1998 and the same pretty much holds true today, while the mega-tsunami that wipes out the Eastern seaboard and the western coasts of Europe and Africa was highlighted by none other than “King of Actually” Neil deGrasse Tyson as being realistic, so you know Deep Impact got at least a few things right in the science department.
8. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same name, The Andromeda Strain follows a team of scientists investigating a deadly alien organism that is unwittingly unleashed upon a New Mexico town. While the film’s events have been written off as being unlikely, under the right circumstances alien bacteria could make it to Earth and cause disease in the human body. If this were to happen, our bodies would be completely ill-equipped to fight the foreign bacteria off, resulting in an event similar to what’s depicted in the movie. The Andromeda Strain was considered fear-mongering by some back in 1971 but since that time, scientists have proven that bacteria is capable of surviving in the deadly vacuum of space, making the film much more prescient than initially thought.
7. Gattaca (1997)
Presenting a futuristic society in which genetic modification has been fully embraced and every embryo is screened for desirable traits, thus creating a “master race” society not unlike a modern Nazi Germany, Gattaca has only become more disturbing since its 1997 release as the technology it depicts has come closer to reality. In fact, most of the film’s genetic screening technologies are either already possible or could become so in the near future. The “designer babies” process, in which parents are able to control the sex of their child and implant genetic sequences that screen out debilitating genetic diseases, is becoming increasingly popular among the wealthy, though the process itself is becoming increasingly affordable. There could soon come a day when Gattaca ceases to be science fiction and instead accurately reflects the world we live in.
6. Contact (1997)
When your movie’s story outline was co-written by the great Carl Sagan, it should really come as no surprise that the science is all above board. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who to that point was probably best known for the Back to the Future movies (which definitely do not qualify as scientifically accurate), Contact still holds up to scientific scrutiny more than two decades after release.
Following a SETI (Search for Extraterristrial Intelligence) scientist (Jodie Foster) who finds strong evidence of alien life and attempts to make first contact, Contact scored big with the scientific community for its realistic depiction of how the search for alien life would actually play out. The film’s use of radio signals and translation of an alien language using mathematical equations are firmly rooted in science, as math is essentially a universal language. While there are parts of Contact that lean more towards speculative fiction, such as when Foster’s character travels through a wormhole, as a whole it’s one of the most authentic sci-fi movies ever made.
5. Her (2013)
Spike Jonze’s 2013 indie romance/sci-fi film Her follows a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with his an intelligent operating system personified through a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). While the concept of a self-aware AI is nothing new in the sci-fi space, Jonze’s film is based on some well-researched speculative science that could very well come to reflect reality sometime in the next decade. Renowned computer scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil praised the film’s science, claiming that the concept of a software program that is “human and lovable” is totally believable and not far off, though we probably won’t see a program like Samantha until around 2029. However, other elements in Her such as the trash-talking video game character and super small face cameras could be here any year now.
4. Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones’ criminally underrated 2009 sci-fi flick follows an astronaut named Sam (Sam Rockwell) who undergoes a personal crisis while nearing completion on a three year mining mission on the Moon. Sam’s job sees him mining a valuable resource called helium-3, which in the film’s universe supplies 70% of the Earth’s energy. Scientists have long held that the Moon contains vast quantities of helium-3, which if harnessed properly could become a major energy source in the future, so Moon’s premise understandably turned some heads in the scientific community.
According to an article published in Scientific American around the time of the film’s release, Moon’s depiction of lunar mining and harvesting of helium-3 falls in line with accepted theories on the subject. That being said, scientists are still trying to figure out how to make the fusion reactions required to actually make use of helium-3 viable, so it will likely still be a long time before we start seeing fusion power plants operating on helium-3 being built.
3. Apollo 13 (1995)
It should go without saying that a film dramatizing the real-life aborted Apollo 13 lunar landing would be scientifically accurate, but Ron Howard’s 1995 film deserves praise for making an effort to highlight the science behind the mission. The effect of this is that even though you’re watching a movie starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, Apollo 13 almost feels like a documentary thanks to the authenticity on display.
Speaking of the actors, an important part of the reason why the film is so accurate is because the cast was put through an extensive amount of training, taking astronaut training, learning NASA transcripts and even taking a crash course in physics. Heck, Howard even attained permission to film some scenes aboard a reduced gravity aircraft in order to simulate the weightlessness of space.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork is championed by many as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made and for good reason, as it’s also one of the most scientifically accurate. Kubrick and especially co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke (who also wrote the short story “The Sentinal” on which 2001 is based) meticulously researched the science of space travel and it shows in the final film, as the scientific community was absolutely taken aback by the accuracy of 2001 upon initial release.
2001 nails details that many films set in space continue to ignore, including actual space being silent, the food astronauts would eat, and the depiction of centrifugal force on the Discovery One, just to name a few. And even though the study of artificial intelligence has come away in the 50 years since the film’s release, 2001 still features one of the most accurate depictions of AI in HAL 9000, whose transition from friendly caregiver to murderous computer is still regarded as entirely plausible and a cautionary tale of human-AI interaction.
1. The Martian (2015)
The Martian just may be the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movie ever made. A faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, which itself was praised for its authenticity, The Martian takes a realistic look at how a lone astronaut would survive being stranded on Mars. This is a film all about the finer details, as Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) various survival strategies are all backed up by science, even if humanity still hasn’t made the trip to the red planet to test them all out. The inflatable HAB that Damon’s character retrofits and lives in is already in the works, while his ingenious plan to grow potatoes using a soil made from human excrement would not just be achievable but sustainable under the right conditions.
Even the Rich Purnell Maneuver, which sees Watney’s team plotting a trajectory back to Mars, is rooted in the ‘gravity-assist trajectory’ theory conceived back in the 1960s by Michael Minovitch and later put into effect by NASA for the 1977 Voyager launches. The Martian now stands as the gold standard of authentic space travel movies and offers an accurate snapshot of what life on Mars would actually be like for humans.