I believe there is an epidemic of misunderstanding when it comes to what a science fiction film is. Fantasy films like Star Wars are often incorrectly categorized as sci-fi just because they involve spaceships and lasers. To me, a sci-fi film involves advanced and experimental technologies and societies that don't necessarily exist yet, but are at least potentially plausible given what we know about the universe. To that end, I've compiled a list of what I think are the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies around today. Whether they serve as inspiration for the future of technology or as a warning for what society may become, these films all make an effort to maintain a connection with the real world.
This slightly-funny, slightly-scary romance film is one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies partially because it doesn't venture too terribly far into the future. 2013's Her takes place in southern California in the near future, by which time humans are even more dependent on technology than they are today. To start, the central plot of the film, a man dating an operating system with artificial intelligence, is hardly far-fetched. While the AI featured in the film is more advanced and widespread than we have today, the idea of someone turning to their computer for affection is already a reality.
The rest of the in-movie universe feels like it's just beyond where we are now: every person has a mobile device, a personal computer, and a "smart home" device that are unified via a cloud-based operating system. The system has a voice and a name and you can talk to it or ask it to perform tasks for you. Sound familiar? The only difference in Her compared to today's reality is essentially a (slightly) expanded functionality and an adaptive artificial intelligence.
Famously one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies ever made, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is also one of the greatest films ever made. 2001 depicts a positively corporate attitude toward space travel, with one scene featuring a man departing a Pan Am "spaceplane" for a humdrum layover on his business trip to the moon. Having been released in 1968, a year before Neil Armstrong even first set foot on the moon, it was quite far-fetched at the time to think of casual space travel ever becoming a reality and yet today, a full fifty years after the film's release, we are closer than ever to that dream becoming a reality.
The rest of 2001 is rife with details that other sci-fi films frequently miss, like the vacuum of space, which inhibits the traveling of sound waves. In other words, outer space is completely silent. Unlike the hundreds of inaccurate sci-fi films, which frequently depict spectacular explosions and epic battles in space, 2001 treats it with impressive restraint and realism, leading to a very quiet film overall. There is an extended spacewalk scene where all you can hear is the astronaut breathing in his spacesuit. 2001: A Space Odyssey features deeply philosophical themes, but the setting of the film is dealt with painstaking accuracy, from the portrayal of space travel to a horrifyingly realistic prediction about the future of artificial intelligence.
One of the scariest scientifically accurate sci-fi movies in my eyes, Gattaca provides an unfavorable glimpse into the not-so-distant future. This 1997 science fiction film was a commercial flop but critical success, and maintains a cult following. Inspired by libertarian eugenics, Gattaca depicts a society in which parents can choose to apply genetic technologies to optimize their child's capabilities. Genetically enhanced "valids" and naturally conceived "in-valids" coexist in this society, with the latter heavily discriminated against due to their increased susceptibility for genetic diseases.
Against this backdrop, the film follows the life of naturally conceived Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke. Freeman dreams of space travel as a young boy, despite knowing that his in-valid status bars him from ever fulfilling that dream. Using doctored DNA samples, however, Freeman is able to gain employment at a space exploration organization and fulfill his dream, but with some complications. Gattaca is an underrated gem featuring realistic depictions of discrimination in a bleak but potentially unavoidable future.
Somewhere between Her and 2001: A Space Odyssey in scope, The Martian depicts Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut mistakenly left behind on Mars and forced to survive for years within what was intended to be a temporary research base on the surface of the planet. This modern sci-fi film classic is based on Andy Weir's thoroughly-researched novel of the same name.
While the film version makes a few changes from the source material to incorporate your typical Hollywood drama, The Martian is still one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies in recent memory. NASA is routinely consulted for any film involving space, but that on its own doesn't mean much. After all, the Bruce Willis flick Armageddon consulted with NASA too, but is considered one of the most scientifically inaccurate films ever made. In the case of The Martian, however, the film's producers and NASA made a concerted effort to create a film as accurate as possible with the hope of inspiring a new generation of scientists.
I guess Apollo 13 has something of an advantage among scientifically accurate sci-fi movies because of the source of its story. Rather than depict technology somewhere in the future, this star-studded sci-fi film takes place in the past during NASA's Apollo space program in 1970, and quite-accurately portrays how the real Apollo 13 avoided disaster in space. Unlike films set in the future, which have to make educated (or sometimes, un-educated) guesses about where technology will go, Apollo 13 had the real life equipment to model their set after. Apollo 13's painstakingly realistic depictions of everything from the Apollo's on-board tech to mission control itself have more than earned the film a spot on this list.
Okay, Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece Alien might seem like one of the more far-fetched choices for this list at first glance. It's true that the primary storyline of an unknown creature devouring the Nostromocrew one by one is pretty much pure blockbuster material: Jaws in space. But the setting and characters are what make Alien, for better or worse, actually one of the more scientifically accurate sci-fi movies. There are no shiny spaceships or gadgets that seem particularly sci-fi-esque. In fact, if it weren't for the titular alien bursting out and slaughtering (almost) everybody, there's practically nothing interesting about the Nostromo spaceship or its crew in their time.
In 2122 AD, when the movie takes place, this small crew on this massive but bland space freighter is the equivalent of the crew on a cargo ship or an oil rig today: blue collar workers eating mediocre meals in cramped, dank quarters. Interstellar space travel today is a far-away dream, but in the future (albeit probably later than 2122 AD), it will become just another industry. Except hopefully with fewer aliens.
If nothing else, Alien stands as a stark departure from some of the more bizarre sci-fi films of the 1970s—and its critical acclaim helped give the genre significant credibility.
Released alongside the similarly-themed Armageddon in 1998, Deep Impact fared worse at the box office but enjoys more respect today among scientifically accurate sci-fi movies. This disaster film follows a cast of characters as they prepare for the potential mass extinction caused by a massive comet on a collision course with Earth. Deep Impact's consultants worked with astronomers to apply contemporary asteroid physics in the production of the film. My favorite fun fact about Deep Impact is that NASA has already moved beyond the technology used in the film, with more advanced proposals regarding the detection and interception of asteroids. This goes to show that sometimes, real-world technology can sometimes surpass science fiction.
This little-known 2009 sci-fi film features Sam Rockwell as an isolated American astronaut on the far side of the Moon. Simply titled Moon, the film explores a potential future where corporations mine the Moon for its natural resources. The primary plot of the film is creative, original, and thought-provoking, all set against the backdrop of realistic depictions about the near future of space travel, making this one of the more scientifically accurate sci-fi movies I've ever seen. Moon is criminally under-known, so if you only see one movie on this list, it should be this one.
It should come as no surprise that 1997's Contact is one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies ever made. The entire story is the brainchild of famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who began working on the concept of communication with extraterrestrials in 1979. Known for his prominent work in researching extraterrestrial life, Sagan wrote a book and film treatment for Contact to explore how the people of Earth would react in the event of extraterrestrial contact.
To this point, science and religion both feature in the film as rival ideologies with different opinions on how to respond to the potential discovery of alien life. Contact features existing technology such as the VLA radio astronomy observatory and Kip Thorne's studies of wormhole space travel. In fact, really the only detail separating Contact from real life is that in the real world, we haven't received contact from alien life... yet.
The 1982 neo-noir classic Blade Runner is another film that walks the line between far-fetched and scientifically accurate sci-fi movies. The film takes place in Los Angeles in 2019, and while I have faith that LA will eventually become the dystopian cyberpunk nightmare of a city depicted in Blade Runner, I don't think it'll be quite that soon. However, the overall setting for the film—overpopulated, over-commercialized, and simply bleak—is a likely future for many crowded cities.
Blade Runner contains all the ingredients for a monumentally successful sci-fi film: Ridley Scott directing, Harrison Ford starring, and a script based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Not only is it among the more scientifically accurate sci-fi movies around, it's also one of my favorites, and well worth a watch.