Nothing warms a scientist’s heart like a science-fiction film that bothers to “get the science right.” There are plenty of B-grade bad sci-fi movies out there, but every so often a golden nugget stands out. Great science-fiction movies can be educational, stir our imagination, and even inspire younger viewers to pursue careers in science. And while even the gems on this list all contain a scientific error or two, as a rule they do not break the science-fiction mantra of disregarding more than one physical law of nature per film.
10. Blade Runner (1982)
This Ridley Scott film was one of the first (along with Logan’s Run and the Road Warrior series) to depict a gritty “dystopian future” and also foreshadowed much of modern technology. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner depicts a world where a bounty hunter (played by Harrison Ford) tracks down android “replicants” posing as infiltrators among human society. And the Spinner transport craft are pretty good parallels to modern vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
9. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
A comedy drawn from the original novel/radio series, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy tackles some of the biggest cosmological questions using his wry British wit. The sequences where he explains the immensity of space and time are simply outstanding. First adapted as a Doctor Who-like BBC series in 1981, Hitchhikers Guide finally found its way to the big screen in 2005, just four years after Adams’ untimely death.
8. Avatar (2009)
A spectacular achievement by director James Cameron, Avatar depicts the human exploitation of an alien world in the Alpha Centauri star system. A fair amount of scientific research actually went into building the alien world of Pandora, assuring a believable biosphere and incorporating some of our understandings from recent exoplanet discoveries. The results speak for themselves in some of the most stunning alien vistas ever to hit the big screen.
7. Deep Impact (1998)
In a long history of disaster-film doozies, Deep Impact stands alone as one of the better comet/asteroid disaster flicks. It gets things right in terms of depicting amateur astronomers discovering comets (a frequent occurrence) and the problems we’d face in trying to deflect a “doomsday comet.” We can even forgive the movie for the singular goof of depicting a huge government coverup led by the president (Morgan Freeman). It would be impossible to silence discussion in the astronomical community of such a huge comet.
6. Moon (2009)
An independent flick that is probably the most “unknown” on this list, Moon follows the saga of a solitary human occupant of a lunar base coming to grips with his isolation. But beyond the tale itself, Moon tackles the real idea of mining helium-3 on the surface of our nearest natural neighbor for use in nuclear fusion energy production. This debut by director Duncan Jones is definitely worth digging up.
5. Star Wars (1977)
More of a fantasy, George Lucas nevertheless did a great job of depicting futuristic spacecraft and convincing alien worlds. The original film was the “Avatar of the 70s” as the alien vistas were simply unprecedented for the time. Our favorite “scientifically accurate” moment is when the Death Star had to orbit the gas-giant Yavin in order to destroy the rebel base on its moon, a nice touch.
4. Sunshine (2007)
Yes, Sunshine depicts a mission to “re-ignite fusion” within the Sun, which is a bit of a stretch, but this British film does a decent job covering solar physics and space travel. It even depicts generation of artificial gravity in space by centrifugal force, a very real possibility. In fact, director Danny Boyle cites inspiration from two other well-known classic science-fiction films on this list, namely Aliens and 2001. And space geeks should watch for a rare transit of Mercury passing in front of the Sun, the only depiction of such a real phenomena in film.
3. Alien (1979)
A landmark science-fiction horror film, the original 1979 release starring Sigourney Weaver featured an extraterrestrial that was truly “alien.” Far from merely appearing and acting human with such cosmetic touches as pointed ears or ridged noses, the terrifying parasitic aliens are a completely believable species. Some of the sets constructed by director Ridley Scott were the largest and most elaborate built up until that time. And the movie spawned several sequels, most notably the action-packed Aliens.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Released in 1968, this Stanley Kubrick classic still tops most lists of both critical and scientifically accurate sci-fi favorites. Adapted from British science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, 2001 covers a broad sweep in the next phase of previous and future evolution. Spaceships move soundlessly, satellites hang in low-Earth orbit, and lunar and planetary terrains are depicted with high accuracy in this drama of human exploration. Perhaps what is most fascinating now that the year 2001 has come and gone is to see how technologies such as HAL 9000, video conferencing and space stations hold up to modern reality.
1. Contact (1997)
The only science-fiction novel written by planetary scientist Carl Sagan, Contact follows the tale of the first message received from an alien civilization. Actress Jodi Foster plays scientist Ellie Arroway, who is actually a composite personality of several real SETI researchers. While one can question just how this saga might really unfold, many of the techniques shown are actually used in the real-life Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The film was also shot on location at several real radio observatories, notably Arecibo in Puerto Rico and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico. I personally like the way they depict the collaboration (it’s more action-packed than it sounds!) between teams of international scientists to verify the initial signal, again, a very real contingency protocol. Sagan mentioned that the farthest the plot journeys into “fictional physics” is the method of inter-galactic travel via an Einstein-Rosen bridge. For help with that plot element, Sagan asked theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to help determine what would be a possible method for instantaneous travel over interstellar distances. An uplifting sci-fi drama, Contact is packed with realism.