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12 Films That Put The Science Back In Science Fiction

Article by: Anthony Florez

 

Right now the world over is drunk with Star Wars fever and that’s a fun thing. JJ Abrams has successfully resuscitated the franchise with Episode 7, it’s breezy and fun, nostalgic and refreshing at the same time and as an avid Star Trek fan, I’d like to tip my hat out of respect to what is often referred to as a rival IP. I do this for two reasons: one, I always want to be a good sport. Two, I always want to be a good sport when I’ve gotten my ass thoroughly kicked. This is not to say The Force Awakens is a transendental experience, it is not perfect as much as well made and a ton of fun, as well as thoroughly in love with the source material. It’s because of what happened last Monday that forces me to cede the floor and bow my head in defeat over which is the superior franchise.

Last weekend was great. It’s hard to explain how other than to say everything came up Milhouse in a bunch of small ways that left me in an unusually positive mood going into Monday. And when I noticed that the trailer for Star Trek Beyond had leaked early I thought, Oh joy. The hits keep on coming. I can’t wait. Two minutes later I thought, Well, there goes that good mood. Four hours later I tried again at my local and when it was over I closed my laptop, ordered a shot of Maker’s Mark, and gently put my head down on the bar while I waited for it to arrive.

The Internet, unsurprisingly, lost its collective mind and it was everything I could do to keep from breaking out my own pitchfork and torch. Because I felt betrayed and marginalized and insulted. When the casual audiences came to the trailer’s defense with things like, “Well, the Original Series was campy and full of shlocky fight scenes,” I wanted to shout, “Sure it did, but what made Star Trek unique and not, let’s say, Lost in Space, is that it also had episodes that were allegories for racism, class division, and the Cold War, and explored complex ideas, like time travel, first contact encounters and AI.” Each successive reboot has strayed further and further away from ideas or any of the identity in the source material and when I tried again to watch and understand the trailer I felt my anger drift away into a warm golden glow followed by a lovely caramel aftertaste. It was the bourbon.

So I thought I’d compile a list that describes what us unwashed, basement dwelling geeks are frothing at the mouth over. Because it is true, we overreact more often than not over to some pretty silly things but in reality the imagination and passion of nerds changes the world all the time. Nerds invented the atomic bomb and went to the moon and created the internet. And nerds are going to invent Artificial Intelligence even though we’ve seen Terminator 2 a dozen times. Film is a powerful medium for entertainment but it can also be the birthplace of great ideas. It allows us the explore the universe beyond the limits of our current technology as well as the workings of the human mind. I present this list, humbled and wary of the popular attention span but also optimistic. You’ll notice that Star Wars is nowhere to be found, that’s not spite as much as a qualification that each entry has some grounding in Newtonian physics or accepted practical science. As opposed to telekinetic space wizards who are awesome but not, sadly, real.

Ex Machina

This is, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly executed film. It’s efficient and hypnotic and it ends at a place that leaves its audience thinking, which is the purpose of science fiction at its best. What does it mean to be alive? Is self awareness existence or vice versa? And how soon after we create Artificial Intelligence will we try and have sex with it? The answer, per Ex Machina, is “not very long at all.” But there’s a lot more going on here than that and it’s a promising start for first time director Alex Garland.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I’ll be upfront on this one, this film is about an hour too long. It borrowed heavily from a later entry (2001) for marketing reasons and tediously explores a brilliant premise that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say it failed commercially because it swung too far in the other direction. There isn’t really any action to speak of and the metaphors are less than subtle but the ideas are there, eloquent and worthy of exploring as opposed to dirt bikes and Kung Fu, which are cool but don’t belong in a universe like Star Trek. Neck pinching, sure, but no Kung Fu.

Contact

This film came out at the wrong time relative to the pop culture landscape. At the time films like Independence Day and The Arrival were fresh in people’s imaginations. The X-Files was tearing it up and people wanted to see dem aliems like crazy. And Contact was a different animal altogether. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, it was more of a conversation about the convergence of faith and science than a straight up alien encounter. The ending left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth and in all honesty it is a bit cloying. On the other hand, it also makes a lot more sense scientifically. The human mind is a fragile thing and if you don’t believe me watch some of those videos of people reacting to street magicians. Now tell me a little grey alien stepping off a spaceship during the Super Bowl wouldn’t fry a few billion people’s mind-grapes right out of their domes. Small steps, and all that. Anyway, brilliant film.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Okay. So this is kind of an obvious one but it’s worth another look, if only as a test of ones attention span. This is a film that is, on one level, a sci-fi thriller about a computer going coo coo for cocoa puffs and trying to kill the crew. In that way it’s a cautionary tale about relying on AI technology before we truly understand its implications. In another way, it’s about the next step in human evolution and if a primer is necessary to understand the ending I recommend bringing it along for the ride. Because it’s a fascinating concept from a time when a director was not required to explain everything to the audience, rather Kubrick composed the film as he and Arthur C. Clarke envisioned it. The downside to that approach: it did not perform as a blockbuster and was largely panned after its release. The upside? It’s now universally considered a masterpiece and a landmark in science fiction filmmaking.

Cube

And now for something completely different. Cube is a low budget thriller set inside of an enormous cube-shaped booby trapped prison of sorts. A group of strangers wake up inside without any memory of how they got there or explanation of how to escape. Commence existential human drama. Granted, there are some weaknesses here. You’ve never heard of any of these actors and you probably never will again. As a result the acting is a little hammy. But the tension and claustrophobic plot elevate this movie to its deserved cult status. There is a bigger and stranger puzzle revealed and as each player discovers their real identities and purpose a fascinating allegory for the nature of humanity takes place. Good luck finding this one, though. It’s not exactly well known except for a few sci-fi devotees but it’s well worth a night in and a bottle of wine. (Oh, it’s on Amazon for streaming. That’s nice. Technology!)

Edge of Tomorrow

The last best hope for mainstream science fiction is, oddly enough, Tom Cruise. This may be because his actual life is a sci-fi story and he just relates more than most (lol, stupid Scientology). But to his credit one of the most bankable actors in the world has gone out of his way to star in a bunch of films that belong in the genre. Vanilla Sky, War of the Worlds, Oblivion, Minority Report, Rock of Ages, and this example, Edge of Tomorrow. I was amused when this movie came out, the reactions were universally positive but so often surprised positive. The premise is very cool, if not borrowed from Groundhog Day, but mostly it’s just really well executed, fun, and intelligent. It’s unfortunate that when a movie like this comes out and has some success it’s treated as a fluke. Studios go right back to their reboots and watered down generic IPs and if Tom can’t change their minds, well. He was our last hope.
Yoda: “No. There is another.”

District 9

Oh, Neill Blomkamp. You were supposed to be the chosen one. And although you did not turn to the Dark Side and go mainstream, you may have bought too much into your own hype. That being said his debut feature, District 9 is an absolute revelation and a near-perfect exercise in emotional, thought-provoking filmmaking. Unfortunately, Blomkamp’s follow ups have been left wanting. Elysium was entertaining but deeply flawed and too hamfisted of a metaphor to overcome its weaknesses and Chappie also fell short of expectations. There’s a sense that the spectacle and brilliant CGI effects have taken precedent in his pictures over real human drama and although I’m not giving up on him yet, he’s going to need to get his groove back by visiting Jamaica or whatever it is that Stella did. Until then, District 9 makes the list.

Interstellar

I’m not going to lie, I unabashedly love this film, despite its expository bluntness and excessive sentimentality. I probably love it because of all that sentiment, in fact. To me, Nolan’s true genius isn’t just in his ability to make a complex multilayered film, it’s in the way he’s able to make that complexity accessible to the casual viewer. I could have also gone with something like Inception but in this film the science is well researched, entirely practical, and, unfortunately, possibly prophetic. Everyone remember laughing at ManBearPig? Not so funny now, and although it’s not yet time to abandon the Earth, it’s not so stupid to think we may need a back up plan that doesn’t involve the star of Failure to Launch. Do you see what I did there.

Gattaca

I got extra credit in my high school biology class for seeing this when it came out, that’s approximately how old I am. A beautiful and underrated film, Gattaca is more than practical science fiction, it’s more likely than not practiced science at this point in some top secret parts of the world. The coming generation will be having the conversations explored in this story about genetic manipulation and customizable human beings, and the ethical implications are pretty scary to consider. The only thing I found implausible about the movie is the idea that Ethan Hawke is in any way genetically inferior, am I right ladies and also gentlemen of a certain preference? Ain’t nothing wrong with his alleles. I don’t know what that means.

Sunshine

Okay. I’m going to take some flak for this selection but I believe it belongs on this list, less for the accuracy of its science and more for its study of the human condition. It’s also the most stylistic entry on this list and that loses it Science Points somewhat. Regardless of what Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson might say, science is not so cool. Those guys are pretty cool. To nerds. But Sunshine takes some stylistic liberties for the sake of story, and is written by Ex Machina writer-director, Alex Garland. And the reason I include it here is the same reason this film is most maligned: the third act. A pretty neat and absolutely stunning visual film about the survival of the human race turns into something else entirely and a lot of people complained about this sudden shift in tone. But I’ll argue that this….let’s say “new dilemma” that appears is fundamental to a story about our species, and I use and emphasize that word on purpose. It’s a destructive and terrible aspect of the human psyche and bears representation, however jarring.

The Martian

First off, let me say that I have not seen this film. I was way behind the crowd on this one but I was able to read the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. All indications point to the movie being as good, if not better than the book which was honestly a little overly detailed at points about science and math that I went glassy eyed over. However, if Sunshine was too stylish and slightly inaccurate, The Martian is a course correction in the other direction. stripped down and entirely grounded. On Mars, that is. Ha!……..*clears throat*

Moon

This was a toss up between this film and Source Code. Duncan Jones, son of David Frickin’ Bowie directed both and they are each truly unappreciated gems of science fiction. I went with Moon, though, because of its haunting existentialism and the performance of Sam Rockwell, who is so talented and underused in Hollywood it’s criminal. I would watch this man fold laundry and pay for every second but here he’s given a much more interesting and challenging task as an actor. I won’t get into the details but this is one of those movies that slips by into obscurity except for a select few who really love the genre. Source Code is also very good but the science is less sound, if not completely made up, however creepy-cool it may be. Jones is directing the up and coming World of Warcraft movie, and if that thought seems incongruous it’s because it absolutely is. Here’s hoping he comes back to the genre he is clearly so skilled with.

So that’s my list. I may have missed a few things but I wanted to stay within a few light years of the Star Trek oeuvre, scientifically plausible but not necessarily slavish to the realities of space travel or overly and painfully complex (Primer, I like you but you’re getting side eye). I left off the fun stuff, like The Fifth Element and The Matrix and the Lost in Space reboot from a few years back (Universally reviled? Whaaat?). Maybe that will make a good start for the next list: 12 Sci Fi Films That Put The Fun In the Fiction. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have a place on that one, in spite of that space wizards crack. And so will Star Trek Beyond because it looks like that’s where the franchise is headed. Because The Beastie Boys. And The Fast and the Furious. Ugh. Okay, Florez, end on positive note.

Bourbon.

Anthony Florez
Currently residing in Austin, Texas, Anthony Florez enjoys unironically blogging about film, television, and food. An eight year veteran of the gaming industry, he intends to one day fulfill his dream of training his Black Lab to not only fetch a beer, but also to determine affordable labels without coming off like a hipster. He enjoys most genres of film with the exception of horror, can recall the best Jim and Pam episodes of The Office from memory, and isn’t bothered at all when Netflix suggests Bridget Jones’s Diary based on his viewing habits.
https://anthonyjflorez.wordpress.com/

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