We polled dozens of scientists and engineers on their favourite sci-fi movies who based their answers on both scientific plausibility and cinematic merit
Can a scientist watch a sci-fi movie and believe that it’s good, even if it bends the laws of Nature? The answer is yes – to a degree. “We can’t count on science fiction to always get the science right,” says Sidney Perkowitz, professor emeritus of physics at Emory University. “But we can count on it to generate excitement and interest in viewers.” Perkowitz is among dozens of scientists and engineers we polled on their favourite sci-fi movies. Their opinions differed, of course, but a consensus emerged: a sci-fi film can be counted among the best if it has both scientific plausibility and cinematic merit.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This film elevated sci-fi movies from rubber-suit monster flicks to credible portrayals of the unknowns of space exploration and existence. The plot of the movie and of the concurrently released novel follows a mission to Jupiter and its discovery of an ancient monolith that may hold the key to human evolution.
“2001 is painstakingly realistic, doing its best to actually depict a plausible lunar colony and manned expedition to Jupiter,” says Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. “When I first saw it, as a teenager, I already knew the outline, but I was more fascinated the longer I watched.” The impression lasted. “I always try to have a cosmic perspective: What would the Monolith do?” The movie’s depiction of the hardware and living conditions of space is regarded as the best representation of space-flight and how we might survive off the planet.
Director Stanley Kubrick “got so much right, it’s amazing”, says Leroy Chiao, who flew three Nasa shuttle flights and spent seven months on the International Space Station. But the trippy, mind-bending closing sequence – when mission commander Dave Bowman enters the Monolith – confused Chiao at first. “I was puzzled and intrigued because I had not read the book,” he says. “It made a lot more sense afterwards.”
The Matrix (1999)
Wouldn’t it be great if an action hero weren’t bound by the laws of physics? The protagonist of The Matrix, a wan hacker named Neo, discovers that his world is a virtual construct set up by hostile robots who feast on human electrical energy. “The Matrix brought virtual reality into the public eye,” says Jeremy Bailenson, cofounder of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “It made it easier for me to communicate research findings about avatars, agents and virtual reality with non-science folk.” Bailenson has a one-word answer as to whether humans will develop a virtual reality as seamless as the one in the movie: “Yes!”
Sam Lowry (below) is a civil servant in a bleak, dystopian world that treats individuals like mail in a post office. Sam’s fantasy life of rescuing imperilled women becomes a little too real when he meets a subversive female truck driver and runs foul of the automated, dehumanising system around him. The film strikes a chord with researchers not for its scientific fidelity – its tech is more absurd than accurate – but, rather, because it boldly imagines a trajectory of the future.
“I saw Brazil and was in shock,” says Mitchell Joachim, a New York University professor and co-founder of the urban design think tank, Terreform ONE. “It’s dreamy and filled with irony in a technological society gone south. But the message is about our shared human goal of wishing for a better place.” The film’s dramatic landscapes, which feature cities that seem designed to strip individuals of their identities, influenced him personally: “I became an architect who works on cities of the future.”
Sigourney Weaver (left) proved that a woman can be a bad-ass sci-fi action hero. But our experts saw the gooey, exoskeletal villain – which uses living humans as hosts for its nasty progeny – as a pioneer of fictional biology. “The Alien franchise bases its xenomorph life cycle on parasitic wasps on Earth,” says Terry Johnson, a bioengineering researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s a pleasure to see a film that acknowledges just how weird life can be.”
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
A miniature spacecraft and crew are injected into a comatose scientist to remove a life-threatening blood clot so that he can survive to share vital secrets. The movie’s lavishly depicted workings of the human body garnered two Academy Awards and three additional nominations – and got James Giordano thinking about medicine at the tiniest scale.
Now a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University, Giordano examines the mechanics of the brain’s response to pain.
“The film has been a lifelong inspiration for me to work on developing neurotechnology,” he says. David Carroll, director of the Centre for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University, says that the movie’s minuscule technology, although physically impossible, is echoed in his current work. “It’s exactly what we are working on: injecting nanobots that find a cancerous tumour, tell us when they have found it, and destroy it,” he says. Now that’s fantastic.
Meet WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class), a robot left on Earth to clean up after bloated humans who have relocated to space stations.
When WALL-E shows a living plant to his love interest, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), the pair trigger events that lead to the repopulation of the planet. Steven Schlozman, Harvard Medical School’s co-director of medical student education in psychiatry, lauds the movie for being ahead of its time.
“These films hold mirrors up to our conceptualisation of self, and then distort what we see,” he says. “In WALL-E, do you feel closer to the robot or to the humans? The capacity to tolerate a version of yourself that you might not like is central to recent neurobiological ideas, such as theory of mind and mirror neurons.”
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park floated an idea – that dinosaur DNA could be drawn from insects trapped in amber – that was first accepted as reality. But discerning scientific minds pointed out that the prehistoric monsters’ genetic strands would have degraded long before the movie showed their retrieval. “Jurassic Park depicts science we wish could be true,” says Jack Horner, the palaeontologist model for the movie’s lead. David Penney, University of Manchester palaeobiologist, says he watches the movie to this day and likes that it makes his research look “sexy”.
Blade Runner (1982)
Humanlike robots can be a good thing (see “Battle of the Lifesaving Robots”, January issue). But in this sci-fi classic, androids called replicants get too lifelike for comfort and are banished to space colonies.
If they escape and return to Earth, special cops, or blade runners, who can tell humans from replicants, hunt them down and “neutralise” them. Our experts give the film high marks, in part, for its humanisation of advanced robots. “Blade Runner has probably done more to ready the world for artificial life than (any other film),” says Daniel Novy, a scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. “Inspiration is important, even at the expense of some accuracy.”
Star Wars (1977)
It’s futuristic fantasy with a hammy space-opera plot borrowed from spaghetti westerns and samurai films. But scientists love Star Wars just as much as everyone else. “Nothing so fantastical yet inspiring had been on the big screen before,” says Aaron Blaisdell, a UCLA professor of behavioural neuroscience, who first saw the movie at age 9. Siddhartha Srinivasa, of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, also saw Star Wars as a boy. Now he’s building a servant robot partially inspired by C-3PO. “Fiction stimulates science as it points to a future we should strive for,” he says.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
This cinematic update of the 1898 HG Wells novel about a violent Martian invasion was particularly jarring because of the timing of its debut – namely, when World War II weaponeering prowess and the threat of nuclear attack were very much part of the national consciousness.
The idea that humans could be vastly overmatched in battle by aliens terrified viewers and set their imaginations spinning. “I was sick all night long,” Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, says of his first viewing of the film. “That’s the mark of a film that makes a difference.”
Five worst Sci-Fi films
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
A sub dives in the Arctic Ocean to flee an Earth scorching fire. “The ice cap melts, and ice chunks sink and hit the sub,” says Stanford University palaeontologist Kevin Boyce. Sinking ice? Weird.
A doomsday asteroid is diverted, but science gets crushed. “Rain hitting the windshield of a spaceship on an asteroid wins the award for most unrealistic moment in sci-fi history,” says Pepperdine University psychologist Jessica Cail.
The Phantom Menace (1999)
The Star Wars prequel didn’t just rile diehard fans. MIT’s Daniel Novy identifies the main culprits as midi-chlorians, intelligent micro-organisms that mediate the Force. With that mystery solved, interest in Star Wars withers.
The Core (2003)
To save humanity, scientists drill to inner Earth in a vessel protected by “unobtainium”. “The Core gets more science wrong than almost any other film I know,“ says Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz. Blunder: the scene where a character survives hellishly high temperatures inside Earth.
The Sun’s neutrinos “mutate”, alter the Earth’s core, and the Mayan apocalypse looms. Error: neutrinos don’t mutate. “The science is implausible, the movie boring,“ says University of Manchester’s David Kirby.