“Hard science fiction” distinguishes itself from its “soft science fiction” counterpart in a simlar way that the “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences differ. Where soft science fiction takes scientific and futuristic concepts but bends it to its own narrative purposes (Star Wars being the most famous example of “soft science fiction”) hard science fiction instead bends toward realism with an emphasis towards scientific accuracy. Broadly speaking then soft science fiction tends toward being more entertaining while hard science fiction, which seeks to examine carefully the implications of scientific and technological advancements on human society, tends to be much more interested in being imaginative and expansively so.
Of course many sci-fi movies tend to fall somewhere in between these black-and-white distinctions and sci-fi fans like nothing better than to apply purity tests to potential hard sci-fi works. I however would like to take a broader tent approach to what movies qualify as a “hard sci-fi” movie. So to qualify for this list a potential candidate has to first of all, be able to be classified as science-fiction in the first place. But it also must meet either one of the following criteria (the best will obviously meet both):
- The movie must show a high commitment to scientific accuracy. This does not mean there cannot be speculative elements to the storytelling, but whatever speculative elements there are should at least be reasonable projections of our current understanding of science and technology. For instance while the idea of a human on Mars is currently not feasible, The Martian is a masterclass of adherence to the scientific method and using science and technology to problem-solve – while providing a reasonable hypothesis of how we could end up going to Mars. It is obviously classifiable as a “hard sci-fi” movie. Star Wars, with its infinite inhabitable planets and the existence of lightspeed, the Force, lighsabers, and lasers meanwhile does not.
- The movie must be at its core interested in the question of how science and technology impact us as a species, prompting philosophical and existential questions about our place in the universe. A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Blade Runner clearly pass on this criteria for while they do employ some fantastical elements in their storytelling, both are primarily concerned with the question of what makes us human in the context of science and technological advancements.
And with that, we shall dive in:
20. GRAVITY (2015) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Although the movie has the trappings of being an honest-to-goodness scientifically accurate story, it has one damning strike against it: it fails the much-feared Neil deGrasse Tyson test. Of course, most movies fail to meet the scientific rigor of the famed astrophysicist, and he did admit to liking the movie despite its inaccuracies. And the movie does get one aspect compellingly right: the idea that space debris in our could cascade to a terrifying level and wipe out the entire satellite communication network which is, by any reasonable modern measure, a truly terrifying reality. The movie lands at the bottom of this list however because it is also a movie that is entirely dependent on the immersive quality of the theatrical experience to get most of its narrative power.
19. SUNSHINE (2007) dir. Danny Boyle
Admittedly the science of the film – namely that any human intervention could help refuel a dying sun – is highly suspect, while the final act of the film definitely veers into a more fantastical realm. But the movie’s hard sci-fi credentials are cemented in the central dilemma posed by the movie: the ability of science to solve the seemingly insurmountable problem of reviving a dying sun and the effect that responsibility can have on the people tasked with saving humanity. The movie may not have the ability to stick the landing after sending up its heady ideas, but it remains thought-provokingly compelling up to that point nonetheless.
18. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006) dir. Richard Linklater
It should come as no surprise to anyone that when it comes to hard sci-fi movies, the works of Philip K. Dick immediately comes to the fore as exceptional examples and that consequently multiple Dick adaptations will work their way into the reckoning for this list. The first movie to enter is also the least likely successful Dick adaptation as indie-auteur Richard Linklater trains his eye on the sci-fi realm by telling the story of a dystopic future where the war on drugs have been lost and the response from the government has been to institute an invasive surveillance state to curb the problem. Of course it could be hard to concentrate on the details of the plot as Linklater’s use of rotoscope creates a highly hallucinatory feel to this movie, making the whole movie feel like a drug-induced fever-dream.
17. GATTACA (1997) dir. Andrew Niccol
Like many older movies on this list, the science of the film has become much less “fictional” in the intervening years. In this case, the idea of genetically engineering humans by taking the best hereditary traits of the parents is something that is startlingly close to reality and as with all great science-fiction, Gattaca anticipates this future and also provides a compelling exploration of the implications of such a technology from a social and moral standpoint. In this case Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is an “invalid” – a human born naturally without genetic enhancement and thus belonging to a lower rank of humans in society. Naturally, the outlook of such a society is decidedly grim.
16. CONTAGION (2011) dir. Steven Soderbergh
There is a strong argument to be made that Contagion shouldn’t be considered a “hard sci-fi” movie because there is hardly any fiction in the storytelling. Steven Soderbergh terrifyingly, and apparently accurately, depicts what could happen if a virus suddenly evolved to become lethal to humans both in terms of the effect on the general population and in the scientific fight to stem its advancement in a way that is more or less consistent with how most health government officials see it happening. A whole slew of A-list stars meeting gruesome fates simply adds to the terror of an indiscriminate killer and while the movie ends on a hopeful note about science’s ability to keep up from utter annihilation, it is a cold comfort.
15. INTERSTELLAR (2014) dir. Christopher Nolan
There is no doubt that Interstellar represents Nolan’s most visually ambitious movie as he follows the crew of the Endurance who are desperately looking for a new inhabitable planet for humanity. It is also, almost paradoxically, his most intimate film as it focuses on Captain “Coop” (Matthew McConaughey) and the relationship he has with his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) who he has to abandon on his quest to save humanity. This was obviously Nolan’s attempt to create his own 2001: A Space Odyssey and for the most part he succeeds, even if at times the final product fails to match up to his lofty ambitions.
14. NEVER LET ME GO (2010) dir. Mark Romanek
I think this criminally underrated drama remains barely watched mostly because of the pure bleakness of its storytelling. Adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel it tells the story of three young people Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who are fated for early deaths because they are clones bred for their organs which enables regular humans to expand their life-expectancy beyond a hundred years. Given the tragically short time their lives have, it naturally prompts an existential crisis in the trio as they struggle to figure out what place their humanity has when it is denied them by the larger populace and whether or not they can escape their inevitable utilitarian fate. In other words, the perfect popcorn movie.
13. ANNIHILATION (2018) dir. Alex Garland
As the newest film on this list, there is always the potential problem that it is too early to properly evaluate this movie’s place in the pantheon of great hard sci-fi; it’s position here may be too high or too low. But one thing is for certain, and that is that Alex Garland (Ex Machina) establishes himself with this movie is an emerging master of science-fiction. Annihilation also is a refreshing change in a largely male and white dominated sci-fi genre as here Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the ones sent out into the wilderness as competent scientists to investigate an anomaly called “The Shimmer” which seems to be changing the molecular structure of anything that comes near to it. It is a head trip, and one of the best movies of the year.
12. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) dir. Steven Spielberg
Admittedly, Spielberg’s movie about a fantastical alien encounter has very little to do with “science” which explains its lower position here. But the reason it qualifies for this list at all is because it ultimately is a serious examination of how the reality of an alien encounter might cause the ground to dramatically shift under a human witness’ legs. Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary – a blue collar worker who increasingly becomes obsessed by the power of his mysterious vision that he alienates his family and friends, forcing him into a pilgrimage that leads him to his iconic encounter, an extra-terrestrial road to Damascus encounter in which obviously everything is changed.
11. THE MARTIAN (2015) dir. Ridley Scott
If there ever was a “jock” in the hard sci-fi film canon, that place would belong to Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who, after finding himself stranded on Mars, has to, in his own words “science the shit out of it” in order to find a way to survive long enough to get rescued. In no other context has being a botanist ever been so cool and, as Damon’s dreamy eyes attest, been as sexy. But there has also never been a movie as committed to showing scientists do, for lack of a better term, science things as Watney is joined by a cadre of extremely intelligent people who do all of the hard math, scientific testing, and sound hypothesizing in order to bring him home. This is basically a love letter to STEM kids everywhere, and as compelling an argument for the thrilling promise of science as has ever been put to screen.
10. MINORITY REPORT (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, the captain of a “pre-crime” unit tasked with capturing people before they commit murder, and carries himself with the moral black-and-white certainty of law enforcement in this chilling adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name. When he suddenly becomes a suspect himself for a “precrime” he naturally has his faith in the moral certainty of his system and finds himself running for his life while struggling to prove his innocence even as that quest might put him directly in the path of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2002, this concept seemed outlandishly in the realm of fantasy sci-fi but with the advance of the surveillance state, the fierce public fightback for privacy on the internet, the argument of the validity of preemptive strikes, and the myriad ways – in spite of our best efforts – that our data is quantified, examined, and applied the idea of being arrested for preemptively for crimes one might theoretically commit no longer seems like such a crazy idea.
9. HER (2013) dir. Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s vision of a future in which our most intimate relationships may in fact be digital looks more and more prophetic with each passing year. While the idea of a man falling in love with an operating system may have seemed at least a little far-fetched in 2013, the intervening years have only shown that we have not even begun to scratch the surface of how technology and humans can be wedded together as our homes increasingly are taken over by smart-devices, algorithms are becoming increasingly better at anticipating our buying and living habits, and people from all sides of the political spectrum find themselves convinced by the arguments of bots. The idea that an operating system might know us so intimately as to make us fall in love with it seems less of a leap of imaginative speculation today than it did in 2013, it looks like a probable inevitability.
8. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
What if we faced our extermination as a species? And what if that extermination was not an instant threat, but rather a slow extermination based on our collective infertility? I doubt there could be a better examination of that hopeless dread than in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men where by his expert hands he places us firmly at ground zero in a dystopic society where hope is slowly leeching out of its pores and the humans that remain increasingly turn on each other. It is into this world that we meet Theo (Clive Owen), a cynical former activist turned bureaucrat who finds himself thrust into the path of danger when he is tasked with smuggling a pregnant woman out of an increasingly turbulent Britain.
7. EX MACHINA (2014) dir. Alex Garland
The Turing test – a test of a machines ability to mimic an indistinguishable level of intelligence to a human – remains a test that has not quite been beaten yet by the best A.I.. Alex Garland’s stunning debut Ex Machina asks the question: But what if it did? This frighteningly claustrophobic film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who is invited to the remote home of an enigmatic genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to perform the Turing test on Nathan’s latest project Ava (Alicia Vikander). When it becomes clear that despite both men’s doubts, Ava clears the basic threshold for passing the test, it prompts an existential crisis in the two humans as the philosophical and ethical dilemmas posed by Ava’s success prove to be sobering material to reflect on. Of course, being men they also severely underestimate the implications of giving Ava agency.
6. A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) dir. Steven Spielberg
What would our obligations as humans be, if we created beings capable of love? This is the central question of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, as David (Haley Joel Osmont) is created specifically to fill a void for a family that has had to put their son into suspended animation until a cure is found. He is programmed to love his human mother just like a child would – with all the same neediness of a child. But the recovery of their human child renders David redundant and thus disposable. Critics complained that the ending of this movie, which was developed from a Kubrick script, had been tainted by Spielberg’s propensity for sentimentality. They obviously did not look close enough at what is easily Spielberg’s bleakest and most thought provoking movie.
5. BLADE RUNNER (1982) dir. Ridley Scott
And just like that we arrive at the best Philip K. Dick adaptation that is in many ways a perfect companion piece to A.I. at number #6 above. Ridley Scott’s fever-dream of a Los Angeles of the future (2019 to be exact) is the perfect backdrop for this neo-noir where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to track down a group of rogue “replicants” – androids who are virtually identical to humans – who have snuck onto earth, their only crimes being that they dare consider themselves human. Of course given the long history of groups of people not granting other groups of people the status of humanity, it is an open question if the “replicants” crime is as reprehensible as Deckard’s superiors claim it to be. (Note: Generally I abhor “director’s cuts” but this is the exception that proves the rule – if you’re going to watch this movie go with the “Final Cut” version)
4. CONTACT (1997) dir. Robert Zemeckis
The great fiction of this movie to us in our day and age is that somehow two philosophically opposed individuals, one a staunch atheist and the other a true believer in God, could somehow find respect for one another and enough common ground to form a friendship and fruitful partnership. But besides that indictment of our times, Contact also stands as a rarity in Hollywood as a major blockbuster that dared to confront the pillars of science, religion, and politics with integrity and intelligence, all the while trusting that we the audience will be adults enough to let ourselves be challenged by the questions the movie raises. Perhaps that much trust in us is misplaced but that doesn’t negate this is one of the smartest blockbusters ever made.
3. ARRIVAL (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve
Perhaps this is too high on the list, given how new it is. But then again, this is an alien movie that is as interested in linguistic studies as it is with actual alien encounters. Amy Adams puts in her best performance (in a career of fantastic performances) as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is recruited by the government to make contact with one of a series of alien spacecraft that have shown up on earth. Of course, things turn out to be more complicated as she is forced to navigate governments that have little trust of one another let alone the alien creatures themselves while her innate abilities for empathy and emotional connection with the aliens makes her suspicious to her fellow humans. And like all the best movies on this list, it unravels its mysteries not with plot twists or dramatic reveals, but with an intelligence that allows its deeper themes to emerge piece-by-piece until it comes together in a satisfying crescendo.
2. SOLARIS (1971) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Really, at this point any decent film buff will know that there are no surprises left for this list and honestly the only thing separating Andrei Tarkovsky’s unquestionable masterpiece from the number one spot is that, unlike the number one film, I’ve not had the privilege of seeing it in a theatrical setting. Though the movie’s setting is surrounded by technology as it focuses on a space station that is studying the fictional planet Solaris, it is an altogether human drama, examining the limits of rationality, the power of the subconscious, and the nature of personhood. In other words, it is an emblematic example of science-fiction’s unique power to explore the mysteries of human nature.
1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
As I intimated earlier this week when catching this movie on IMAX, calling this movie “cerebral” does a great disservice to unnerving and often-times primal power of Kubrick’s bombastic storytelling. And perhaps there is no greater piece of evidence for this progenitor of hard sci-fi in film than in the fact that almost every movie on this list can count 2001: A Space Odyssey as an influence. 50 years later its special effects remain as effective as its central message remains elusive. But it has never ceased to be anything other than utterly compelling.