Science-fiction films offer us a voyeuristic glance beyond the veil of time, into a future where anything is possible. The very best of these movies postulate about the technological, medical, and societal advancements that man will make decades before those feats are possible; it should come as no surprise that they are, oftentimes, unsettlingly accurate. The worst of these films, well, they tend to feature more fiction than science, driving us to painstakingly detail all the ways $140 million could have been better spent. (Here’s looking at you, Armageddon.)
Thankfully, Bruce Willis can only die on an asteroid once, and some Hollywood producers still aim to release movies with scientific credibility. They may be few and far between, but they do exist.
Here are our picks for Hollywood’s most accurate sci-fi films, in order of appearance.
11. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)
If there’s one thing that Rocket Doctors (or scientists, same thing) know, it’s how to identify and publicize glaring holes in Hollywood’s portrayal of science-y science things. Kubrick’s 1969 classic dropped jaws in the scientific community; every detail in the film was carefully crafted with accuracy in mind, and Kubrick did his damnedest to make sure his film would live on for years to come.
From the blanketing, oppressive silence of deep space to the positioning of Earth’s satellites in orbit, Odyssey was, for lack of a better way to put it, an oddity in its own right. Kubrick consulted countless scientific authorities when he started his project, and it shows. The depiction of centrifugal force used aboard the Discovery One, the proportionate sizing of the spacecraft (and the length of time required for a journey to Jupiter), the astronaut snacks, hell, even the crew’s calculated approach to their space duties; everything was thoroughly researched and rooted in fact.
Best of all — and you’re not going to like this one bit — HAL 9000’s transition from ‘Helpful, Friendly Space Computer’ to ‘Ruthless, Psychotic Space Computer’ is entirely plausible. HAL’s decision to kill the crew of the Discovery stems from a sense of self-preservation and a desire to comply with conflicting mission directives.
It’s chilling accuracy was a major factor is our staff naming Odyssey the greatest sci-fi film in cinematic history.
10. Andromeda Strain (1971)
Undoubtedly the one movie that most readers will pray not to find here, Andromeda Strain is scarily spot-on. The fact that its premise is considered even remotely plausible is a bad sign for mankind (and a really bad sign for New Mexico). The plot is simple enough: United States government elects to use a satellite to capture what they believe to be an alien virus; aforementioned satellite crashes into a small New Mexico town; all residents of said town die horrible, horrible deaths.
So why does 1971’s fear-mongering film qualify for this list? Well, it’s here because almost everything we know (and theorize) about bacteria and mutations and the origins of life indicates that this could actually happen. Scientists have proven that bacteria actually is capable of surviving in the deadly vacuum of space. We know that space flight actually does alter the structure of bacteria, sometimes turning it into a more infectious and lethal pathogen.
9. Blade Runner (1982)
Fear not, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner isn’t praised for its scientifically-accurate portrayal of synthetic humans. There is no reason to believe that we will be manufacturing (or hunting) Replicants in the near future. There is also no science to support the idea that memories can be genetically engineered or implanted into the human brain. Which is unfortunate when you stop and think about it, because that would be pretty sweet. Almost as sweet as a Blade Runner sequel. Almost.
This 1982 neo-noir sci-fi cult classic is actually considered eerily accurate from a different standpoint altogether — the dystopian world of Blade Runner, the bleak future that Deckard (Harrison Ford) exists in, might have predicted the fate of our atmosphere. At least, that’s what the scientist nerds say. Those stormy, perpetually-blackened skies seem to hint at an atmosphere suffering from carbon excess (sound familiar?), and some of the technology in the film either exists today or is being developed. Remember those nifty Spinner transport crafts? Yeah, we’ve got those. And they’re about the get a whole lot cooler, too.
Best of all, flying cars may not be (too) far off, either. The European tech company Aeromobil claims that their car/plane hybrid vehicle will be available to the public very, very soon. Toyota has been trying to introduce a car that’s closer to a hovercraft, but that’s not nearly as exciting.
Bonus Points: Philip K. Dick, the man responsible for the 1968 novel that inspired Blade Runner, made some chillingly-accurate predictions: he wrote of nuclear meltdown in Soviet Russia by 1985 (Chernobyl blew up in 1986), and cloned genetic material by 1993 (Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997). If you haven’t read it, do it now. It’s called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
8. Gattaca (1997)
The futuristic Neo-Nazi society of Gattaca hasn’t come to pass…yet. However, the science that drives the movie’s plot already exists. No, geneticists aren’t inspecting human embryos, discarding those with undesirable traits, but they are making genetic modifications to living tissue. Doctors and geneticists have already manipulated the gene sequences of worms and mice, imbuing them with super strength.
The logical next step is jail-breaking our kids just like an iPhone, right?
Here’s where Gattaca really impresses: most of the genetic alterations seen in the 1997 sci-fi thriller are either already possible or expected to be possible in the very near future. Designer babies are supposedly right around the corner, and it’s now possible to have our entire genome mapped and sequenced in order to screen for debilitating diseases.
You heard it here first — the Rise of the Planet of the Super Babies starts now. It’s inevitable.
7. Contact (1997)
It’s been nearly two decades since Contact made its big screen debut, and it still ranks among the most scientifically accurate films ever released. That fact shouldn’t surprise anyone — the book that inspired the 1997 film was penned by the one and only Carl Sagan, one of the world’s greatest scientific minds in the field of extraterrestrial research.
Robert Zemeckis, the director of Contact, invested a ton of time and energy into making sure that the film held up to scientific scrutiny. Jodie Foster’s attempts to find extraterrestrial life via radio signals and the translation of an alien language using mathematical equations are both rooted in very firm science. SETI is a massive scientific collaboration that uses (surprise, surprise) radio frequencies in its search for Marvin the Martian and his buddies. The Arecibo Message set parameters for the (hypothetical) translation and decryption of alien language, as math is essentially considered a universal language.
6. Deep Impact (1998)
“[Deep Impact is] almost a lesson,” said NASA astronaut Tom Jones. “To find a movie that was accurate to asteroid physics was a nice surprise.”
Hey, if a real-life Rocket Jockey says it’s solid, it’s getting a spot on this list. Deep Impact earns its stripes for a few other reasons, too; for starters, the whole ‘amateur astronomer discovers the doomsday comet’ thing is (somewhat) believable, as non-pros are known to contribute an abundance of great data to the astronomical community.
Next, the government’s ingenious plan to stop the giant space rock (FIRE ZE MISSILES!) is probably exactly what we would have come up with back in 1998. Or 2016. Whatever. Double next, the terrifying mega-tsunami (triggered by fragments of the comet splashing down in the Atlantic) is considered highly accurate by one particularly well-known authority on science and space and stuff.
5. Minority Report (2002)
Beta versions of the pre-crime system seen in Minority Report are already being tested out in the US, believe it or not — a frightening thought that Captain America himself wouldn’t be too comfortable with.
Spielberg’s 2002 futuristic crime thriller put some pretty advanced technology on display, and it had to, as it was based in the year 2054. Spielberg spent hours consulting a variety of industry experts (think: computer engineers, tech gurus) while producing the Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster, creating what many critics consider to be one of the most realistic and accurate environments in science-fiction history.
Many more pieces of tech featured in Minority Report have already come to fruition, like the motion tracking computer interfaces, retinal scanners, and projected HUDS. Others are still in the early stages of development, like the facial recognition software used by advertisers in the mall and on the streets.
Fun Fact Round 2: Philip K. Dick wrote the book behind this movie, too! The man was truly a master of his craft.
4. Wall-E (2008)
If you think Wall-E is a cute movie for kids and not an accurate prediction of the United States in 400 years, you’re dead wrong. Maybe not dead wrong, but think about it: the human race relies more and more heavily on technology every single day. Hi-tech robots replace living, breathing workers, eliminating human error and streamlining the manufacturing process. The Millennial generation is GLUED to their iPhones, uScreens, xStations, and whatever other latest gadgets are available. Fast food portion sizes are bigger than ever, obesity levels are at an all time high, and people are literally just dumping trash into the ocean for funsies.
This is our future, people. Embrace it.
3. Her (2013)
This one will probably surprise quite a few readers; believe it or not, Spike Jonze’s 2013 rom com/sci-fi indie hit is rooted in some plausible and well-researched speculative science. While a self-aware, sentient AI is no new plot device in the science-fiction realm, Jonze’s love story and vision of the future features quite a bit of technology that will be available sooner than you think.
Based in galaxy that’s not so far, far away, Her doesn’t really pump awe-inspiring wonders into its story. Instead, Jonze opted for creating a film that is fascinating, intriguing, and very believable. The science that it does rely on has garnered praise from authorities like Ray Kurzweil, a renowned computer scientist, inventor, and futurist. (Side Note: Futurists are really smart people that try to systematically create and explore predictions and possibilities about the future. The more you know, right?)
Kurzweil had nothing but good things to say:
“[Her] compellingly presents the core idea that a software program (an AI) can – will – be believably human and lovable. This is a breakthrough concept in cinematic futurism in the way that The Matrix presented a realistic vision that virtual reality will ultimately be as real as, well, real reality.”
Being the mystical, magical future-predicting computer man that he is, Kurzweil suggested that certain tech from the film (like that trash-talking videogame character and the itty-bitty face cameras) would be fully realized as early as 2020. Lamentably, he doesn’t think we’ll see AI quite like Samantha until 2029.
2. Interstellar (2014)
It’s OK, you can say it. The final act of Interstellar was a little out there. Before that out-of-left-field ‘inter-dimensional bookcase’ thing, however, the 2014 mega-blockbuster was just dripping with stunning intergalactic visuals and a breathtaking soundtrack. More importantly, Interstellar featured some of the most accurate and realistic depictions of both speculative science and accepted physics theories in the history of cinema. Director Christopher Nolan did his research, all right.
The cast and crew worked tirelessly with Kip Thorne, a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology, to bring real science to the big screen. Nolan pushed his team to create a groundbreaking hard-sci-fi film, and boy, did they deliver. They deserve massive props for their passion and commitment to the sciences and for their remarkable portrayal of scientifically accurate black holes and wormholes. In classic fanboy fashion, they later published two papers cataloging the entire process in lots of science-y words that you’ll barely understand. Heck, even the film’s theories on time travel and relativity are firmly rooted in well-documented research.
One of those papers was published in The American Journal of Physics back in 2015. Dr. David Jackson, who printed the article, paid the Interstellar crew a huge compliment:
“Publishing this paper was a no-brainer…The physics has been very carefully reviewed by experts and found to be accurate. The publication will encourage physics teachers to show the film in their classes to get across ideas about general relativity.”
1. The Martian (2015)
At this point in time, no other film has been able to duplicate what The Martian accomplished in 2015. It’s being heralded as the most scientifically accurate movie in Hollywood history, thanks largely in part to the fantastic novel by Andy Weir. Astrophysicists, scientists, and regular old humans can’t stop raving about how well Weir’s fictional novel (and the subsequent film adaptation) captured the very real, very human elements of space travel. Every detail, from the crew’s duties and team-first attitude to Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) survival strategies were clever and, most importantly, correct.
You know the inflatable HAB that Damon retrofits? Already in the works. Those “poo-tatoes” he grows and harvests? Achievable and sustainable. Even the Rich Purnell Maneuver, which many considered to be a clever piece of Hollywood magic, has roots in real life science. The ‘gravity-assist trajectory’ theory was conceived back in the 1960’s by Michael Minovitch and put into effect by NASA for the 1977 launch of The Voyagers, a twin-craft designed to take a tour of our solar system’s furthest reaches.
Ladies and gentleman, MATT DAMON.
2016 has quite a few sci-fi adventures on the way. Will any of them surpass the films on our list? Did we leave off any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments section.
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