Top Ten Science-Based Sci-Fi Movies (Revised)

 This is a revised version of a list I posted on my blog a couple of days ago that was also farked.  I was convinced that the Alien and Aliens movies had a number of shortcomings compared to some other films and have added on a couple of others in their place.  The tragedy is that with decades of science fiction films, it’s a real struggle to find even ten that have good science.  Here’s my take.

Every top ten list is biased, and so is this one. My particular biases are that the movies have to strive for, and achieve most of the time, scientific accuracy. At least nothing too grossly wrong, and some instances of, “yeah, that’s not intuitive but that’s how it would work!” I’ll limit my list to the physical sciences and space-oriented movies. There are many fine movies that won’t make the list simply because they skimp on the science in one way or another, or I’ve never seen them. Apollo 13 was very scientifically accurate, but that’s a historical movie, not science fiction.

Here’s the list in chronological order, with a few words of explanation.

Destination Moon (1950). This movie was made with the involvement of the space community of the day and Robert Heinlein who wrote the story it was based on. Special effort was made for scientific accuracy and they got a lot of things right. Probably the biggest mistake was proposing that only private industry, not the government, would make it to the moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A classic, and probably the film closest to error free in terms of the science. There wasn’t any sound in space, and gravity was supplied by rotation in a realistic fashion. Lots of good details that were right. Credit Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrik for listening and caring.

2010 (1984). Not as visually stunning or powerful (or slow) as 2001, but mostly good science throughout, particularly with respect to working in freefall and vacuum environments.

Predator (1987). There were two great things in this movie. No, not future governors! Two nice science things. The first is the idea of an alien that sees in a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and having that actually play a role in the plot. The second was the camo suit, which is a technology we’re likely to develop this century at close to that level of effectiveness.

The Abyss (1989). This fine movie takes place underwater rather than in outer space, but it’s an alien contact story. A lot of the details of this exotic environment are treated correctly and play roles in the plot. I first watched this in Greg Bear’s basement at a party and it was fascinating to hear him give his commentary on some scenes. Another great Cameron film (but be sure to see the director’s cut).

Contact (1997). Probably the second-best movie on the list in terms of scientific accuracy. There are a few minor errors in it, but it gets so many things right including some concepts tough to convey to an audience. Credit Carl Sagan for helping here.

Deep Impact (1998). OK, this movie I didn’t love. I mean, we’re supposed to find sympathetic an annoying reporter vying for the first question at a presidential press conference? Some minor scientific errors here, but they tried and succeeded in getting a lot of things right, too.

Red Planet (2000). I was kind of surprised to see this movie on my list. While this isn’t a bad movie, it just goes to show how few movies out there are really based in science and make it part of the story. In any event, they did a good job with gravity on the space craft, fire in freefall, Martian gravity, and more. I mean, counter-rotating rings for artificial gravity?!  Super.  Taking along a robot with a “military mode” is just kind of dumb, however, but not bad science.

Minority Report (2002).  Now, I don’t think there’s much merit in the future-seeing psychics, but a lot of the near-future tech is plausible and realistic.  Good, thoughtful movie that way.

Primer (2004).  A smart little movie about time travel.  I’m letting this one in because it feels realistic with the engineering and science and makes you think, a lot, about exactly what is going on.  A smart movie: that’s a rarity in Hollywood movies and to be commended.  Look for analogies in the time travel in Feynman diagrams.

The much longer list of science fiction movies with bad science includes almost every space-based movie I haven’t mentioned, and most others. Armageddon currently holds a special place in my heart for its mind-numbing scientific ignorance and I use it for instruction in my Launch Pad Workshop. I’d like to recommend Phil Plait’s great website Bad Astronomy for reviews of science in some of these movies and many others.

So, what others have I missed? And what sci-fi movies out there have good biology, geology, or sociology?

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    What about Gattica? I don’t know much about how accurate the science is, but you have to call it thought-provoking.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I seem to recall Primer is very far from being a “Hollywood movie.” Isn’t it a true-indie film made on a shoestring budget?

  3. 3. Mary Robinette Kowal

    What did you think of Solaris?

  4. 4. Elf M. Sternberg

    While I agree with your distinction between Armageddon and Deep Impact on one level, I’d still much rather re-watch Armageddon, because the latter pushed all the right buttons. If Deep Impact were a book, it would have suffered a common fate about a third of the way through: put down, never to be opened again. It’s a movie about stupid people making stupid decisions; there’s only so much of that you can watch before you get fed up with them and start yelling at the characters. There is no story to Deep Impact: it’s a special effects stew of anecdotes about a bad year.

    On the other hand, if you want to teach a complete beginner how to write a story, you really can’t do much better than a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Take the Campebellian “cycle of the hero” and write each stage across the top of a sheet of paper. For every character (and I mean every) in a Bruckheimer film, write down his or her name and then check off which stage of the cycle he or she is in. In Armageddon, every single man on the shuttles goes through the Campbellian cycle like clockwork. It’s amazing, from a story point of view, to watch how deft Bruckheimer is at weaving them all together. He has the actoin/adventure formula down: eight to ten emotional highpoints per character, each one involving the reversal of one of the character’s major personal values, and if he kills off a character before the cycle is done he does it when the reversal is of the value introduced in cycle step 1, reinforced throughout, and on a note that delivers maximum emotional impact.

  5. 5. DanD

    Even a movie with a scientifically not-bad military robot should be banned for life when that robot does a kung fu pose! Kudos for including Predator though. :)

  6. 6. Basil Munroe Godevenos

    “Primer” was a solid low-budget film. It did time-travel without the use of special effects, and to wonderful results.

    Not eye-candy – but the story and the honesty of the characters wows you.

    For some reason, it reminds me of “Office Space”. Crazy plan that just might work ends up working too well.

    Great stuff.

  7. 7. Mike Brotherton

    Yes, Primer is a little indie film that won Sundance to make it big. I suppose I could have worded it more clearly to indicate that’s what I meant there.

    Gattaca is a good, smart science fiction movie, I agree, and I might make it number eleven if I had to extend the list. The good science is in the biology (although I do question some items) and in the social extrapolation. The astronaut training part seemed sort of ridiculous to me and there wasn’t much, if any, physical science in the movie.

  8. 8. Thomas

    A couple of movies that I’m surprised didn’t make it on the list were Aliens and Outland. (I’m a big fan of rugged sci-fi stories.)

    The idea of terraforming in Aliens and the military hardware in it was very impressive, especially the mounted camera (probably the first of it’s kind in a movie) and the distance tracking device.

    Outland’s science was pretty with the pressure suits and the entire idea of a mining colony. It was the story of a small town sheriff in a corrupt town in outer space, kind of like a sci-fi version of High Noon. All the high tech wizardry in their communications and the chemical analysis was impressive for it’s time as well.

  9. 9. Thomas

    I meant, “Outland’s science was pretty well thought out with the pressure suits…”

  10. 10. Mike Brotherton

    Aliens was one I bumped down from the original list. It would be there if I went to 15.

    Outland, if I recall correctly, ignores the lethal levels of radiation associated with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

  11. 11. Kate Elliott

    I know you’re talking only about the physical sciences, but boy the anthropology (not to mention cultural speculation) in 2001 is positively antediluvian — and seemed so even back in the day when I first saw it.

    I really liked both CONTACT and THE ABYSS, so I’m glad to see them make the list – and to know they are reasonably solid scientifically. And my kids will be totally thrilled to learn that Predator makes the grade.

  12. 12. Meaghan Douglas

    Wasn’t ‘Red Planet’ the film where the biologist lists A, G, T and P for DNA (should be A, G, T & C)?

    So glad the director’s cut of ‘The Abyss’ was released; would have to be my favourite on the list. The original theatre version just didn’t make sense.

  13. 13. Mike Brotherton

    Kate, you want to see me get super picky? While I like PREDATOR a lot, it would make a lot more sense for an alien that sees in the mid-infrared to evolve in, and prefer, cooler temperatures. But it is only supposed to show up in the hottest years. [And then of course in Aliens vs. Predator they show up in Antarctica in the snow with the ability to see in many different wavebands, so let's ignore cheap ripoff sequels.]

  14. 14. Kate Elliott

    Why would it make more sense? Just because you would get more contrast in cooler temperatures?

  15. 15. Chris Johnston

    I was very impressed with the details in “Red Planet”, especially when Bowman calls for firings of the thrusters in “milliliter bursts” (although the subtitles on the DVD wrongly say “millimeter bursts”).
    First SF movie I’d seen that knew about hypergolics!
    The original screenplay was even more scientifically accurate…
    http://sfy.ru/sfy.html?script=red_planet

  16. 16. Mike Brotherton

    More contrast is my primary reason. If you’ve ever used mid-infrared cameras in cool weather as opposed to hot weather, there’s a world of difference.

  17. 17. Kate Elliott

    I haven’t lived! I haven’t used mid-infrared cameras in cool weather as opposed to hot weather – or even at all!

  18. 18. Mike

    OK, here’s one of my secret credentials as a major science/engineering dork. I own my own thermal camera, my own gen 3 night vision goggles, and more high-tech sensor gadgets than your average high school. They’re not only fun toys, but I use them for classroom demos and public talks as appropriate.

  19. 19. Ric

    A classic movie that I thought had good science, and also really held to the somewhat kitschy feel of sci-fi in its heyday (50s-early 80s) was Blade Runner. Also just a great film that seems to have a timeless appeal. I showed it to my 14-year-old who is so into being ‘in’ and he really dug it.

    Great list, though.

  20. 20. C.E. Petit

    Two films that I’m surprised didn’t make the list:

    Silent Running

    A Clockwork Orange

  21. 21. Mike Brotherton

    Weird, a whole lot of comments just showed up at the same time last night…oh well. At least they showed up.

    Solaris has long been on my “to watch” list and I will get to it. Silent Running I saw once long ago, and need to rewatch, which I will (have it recorded on the DVR) right now. A Clockwork Orange doesn’t have any physical science in it really, although it’s a great movie and great book.

    Red Planet, despite a few missteps, has surprisingly good science, yes (and I can’t recall if they good on the DNA thing or not).

  22. 22. Blake

    Sunshine isn’t on this list? I’ve heard from some that the science is meticulously researched and by others that it’s somewhat unsound. What’s the consensus here?

  23. 23. Mike

    I haven’t seen Sunshine, although I read a lot about it (which is why I didn’t see it). They TRIED to get the science right, but it was a case of “we have this dumb idea that makes no sense…can you science consultants try really hard to make some justification of any kind to support it?” Because the premise is ridiculous from a science perspective.

  24. 24. tony

    i m surprised that SUNSHINE is not in the list.its one of the best sci-fi movie i have watched in a long time.its special effect and the finer details about science was used to great effect

  25. 25. Mike

    tony, I haven’t seen Sunshine. Probably will at some point. But frankly I didn’t go to see it in the first place because the basic premise was ridiculous. Stars don’t “go out” and even if they did, human-made bombs would’t restart them. So I’d have a hard time suspending my disbelief even if the rest of the movie was superb.

  26. 26. River Sol

    Just watched Sunshine. Some bad science for sure…but a good hard science at its core….so to speak.

    Aliens and Blade Runner also captured a edgy future without going too fantasy overboard IMHO.

    Children of Men and Gattaca get my thumbs up too!

  27. 27. will

    Probably the best ending to any sci-fi film I ‘ve seen is the ending to ‘The Quiet Earth’. I think a New Zealand film oddly enough. Unfortunately some versions have the title credits rolling over the top of it. Check it out

  28. 28. Bill

    What about 1971′s The Andromeda Strain?

  29. 29. Dave

    Hey, I enjoyed checking out the list, and am really glad to see Primer on it. Red Planet, while I initially liked the movie, I think has many science screw-ups. The whole medical thing at the end when Val Kilmer is resusitated is total BS, though so is every other medical instance in most movies. You’d think that with the budgets these films have they could get an expert to make sure things are believable. My other question would be, if you catch fire to all the alga and bugs and it sweeps across the planet as shown from the ship, I doubt you’d have enough O2 available to breath if the levels were so low to begin with. Also, what is the surface temperature on mars. Me-thinks it may be a little to chilly to be breathing the air and walking around with no helmet on. Correct me if I’m wrong!

  30. 30. Greg Miller

    I know it’s more in the super hero genre than SF but “Iron Man” deserves a mention. Science is making progress on such a suit, thought the power source for the suit may be a long way off. Also, I think it would take a large team several years to build it, as opposed to the one man who did it in the movie.

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Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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