Top ten science-base sci-fi movies

Mike Brotherton – Every top ten list is biased, and so is this one. My particular biases are that the movies have to strive for, and achieve most of the time, scientific accuracy. At least nothing too grossly wrong, and some instances of, “yeah, that’s not intuitive but that’s how it would work!” I’ll limit my list to the physical sciences and space-oriented movies. There are many fine movies that won’t make the list simply because they skimp on the science in one way or another, or I’ve never seen them. Apollo 13 was very scientifically accurate, but that’s a historical movie, not science fiction.Here’s the list in chronological order, with a few words of explanation.

Destination Moon (1950). This movie was made with the involvement of the space community of the day and Robert Heinlein who wrote the story it was based on. Special effort was made for scientific accuracy and they got a lot of things right. Probably the biggest mistake was proposing that only private industry, not the government, would make it to the moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A classic, and probably the film closest to error free in terms of the science. There wasn’t any sound in space, and gravity was supplied by rotation in a realistic fashion. Lots of good details that were right. Credit Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrik for listening and caring.

Alien (1979). Let’s give this one credit for also knowing that “In space no one can hear you scream.” This film isn’t heavy on the science, but we have slower than light vehicles that take many years to travel between the stars requiring humans to use hibernation. A planet with an unbreathable atmosphere requires air masks, as used, and not full space suits.

2010 (1984). Not as visually stunning or powerful (or slow) as 2001, but good science throughout, particularly with respect to working in freefall and vacuum environments.

Aliens (1986). This movie gets a lot of the same things right that the original did, along with having a smart plot and appropriate use of technology. One of my favorite films to boot.

Predator (1987). There were two great things in this movie. No, not future governors! Two nice science things. The first is the idea of an alien that sees in a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and having that actually play a role in the plot. The second was the camo suit, which is a technology we’re likely to develop this century at close to that level of effectiveness.

The Abyss (1989). This fine movie takes place underwater rather than in outer space, but it’s an alien contact story. A lot of the details of this exotic environment are treated correctly and play roles in the plot. I first watched this in Greg Bear’s basement at a party and it was fascinating to hear him give his commentary on some scenes. Another great Cameron film (but be sure to see the director’s cut).

Contact (1997). Probably the second-best movie on the list in terms of scientific accuracy. There are a few minor errors in it, but it gets so many things right including some concepts tough to convey to an audience. Credit Carl Sagan for helping here.

Deep Impact (1998). OK, this movie I didn’t love. I mean, we’re supposed to find sympathetic an annoying reporter vying for the first question at a presidential press conference? Some minor scientific errors here, but they tried and succeeded in getting a lot of things right, too.

Red Planet (2000). I was kind of surprised to see this movie on my list. While this isn’t a bad movie, it just goes to show how few movies out there are really based in science and make it part of the story. In any event, they did a good job with gravity on the space craft, fire in freefall, Martian gravity, and more. Taking along a robot with a “military mode” is just kind of dumb, but not bad science.

The much longer list of science fiction movies with bad science includes almost every space-based movie I haven’t mentioned, and most others. Armageddon currently holds a special place in my heart for its mind-numbing scientific ignorance and I use it for instruction in my Launch Pad Workshop. I’d like to recommend Phil Plait’s great website Bad Astronomy for reviews of science in some of these movies and many others.


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