/Answers: Our Favorite Hard Science Fiction Movies

Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, we celebrate the release of Annihilation by asking "What is your favorite hard science fiction movie?" For our purposes here, we're defining "hard science fiction" as sci-fi that bases its concepts in actual science or builds it's narrative around far-reaching concepts and ideas.

Jacob Hall: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey infamously baffled audiences at its original premiere and it's been sending moviegoers into intense conversations about what it all means ever since. This is one of the best and most thrilling science fiction films of all time...but why? What's up with the apes? What's up with that weird, episodic structure? What's up with that finale, which is equal parts terrifying and beautiful? That the film adheres to such realism while dipping its toes into the unknown makes it all the more gripping.

The truth is that I have my reading about what 2001 is trying to say. But you probably have your own take. Like the best open-ended storytelling, it displays the pieces, but lets us assemble the puzzle, to discern how the elements fit together. Every one of those moments is stunning, captivating and transcendent to watch (especially on the big screen). The larger message is murky by design, a mystery box built on an unknowable, cosmic scale. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Hoai-Tran Bui: Arrival

I've been talking people's ears off about Arrival ever since it left me gaping in a nearly empty movie theater almost two years ago. I went to see it late, not impressed by its marketing, but egged on by my friend who said it would change my life. And it did.

The thing I always talk about when gushing about Arrival is something called the Kuleshov Effect. It's a simple, but very cool film editing trick that speaks to how we perceive things. Alfred Hitchcock explains it best when he shows two successions of images — the same, except for the image in the middle. It's Hitchcock's blank face followed by an image of woman and baby, then an image of Hitchcock smiling. But in the second succession, the woman and baby are replaced by a bikini-clad woman. "What is he now? He's a dirty old man," Hitchcock explains.

Arrival is like a feature film version of the Kuleshov Effect. I know, I know, this is a very nerdy reason to like the movie. But that's what I love about cerebral, emotionally complex sci-fi like this: It can completely transform how you see things. Arrival is the cinematic realization of how our perceptions can cloud our view, responding that we can change the world if only we change our minds. It's an astonishingly emotional answer to a high-concept sci-fi premise: of aliens coming to Earth, and we don't know why. I love how in Arrival, thought-provoking doesn't mean a reliance on cold logic, but on the warmth of human connection. It sounds cheesy when you boil it down to "love saved the day," but Arrival made it work. It believes in the best of humanity, which is the best thing that sci-fi can offer us

Ethan Anderton: Minority Report

Though the idea of a pre-crime organization preventing murders before they happen doesn't sound like a hard sci-fi concept, it's the world in which Minority Report exists that qualifies it for inclusion in this discussion. Director Steven Spielberg had his production design team consult real scientists and tech experts in order to predict what our society's technology might be like in the year 2054, and it's the plausible and realistic touches of personalized, digital banner advertisements, automated transportation (including self-driving cars) retinal scanning devices, realistic virtual reality interfaces and more that make it feel like hard sci-fi.

Minority Report is groundbreaking sci-fi even if it doesn't immediately seem like it. The film is just so good at immersing you in this future and making you believe it's real that you likely don't even register it. That's exactly what Spielberg wanted to accomplish with this film as he told Roger Ebert back in 2002:

"I wanted all the toys to come true someday. I want there to be a transportation system that doesn't emit toxins into the atmosphere. And the newspaper that updates itself... he Internet is watching us now. If they want to. they can see what sites you visit. In the future, television will be watching us, and customizing itself to what it knows about us. The thrilling thing is, that will make us feel we're part of the medium. The scary thing us, we'll lose our right to privacy."

That sounds eerily familiar.

Chris Evangelista: Primer

You might need to watch Shane Carruth's indie time travel pic Primer more than five or six times before you finally "get it." And even then, don't be surprised if you're still unsure about what the heck is going on. This isn't a flaw of Primer – it's part of the design. Carruth's ultra-low-budget thriller focuses on two geniuses (Carruth and David Sullivan) who put their brains together and build a time machine.

Don't expect some sort of rollicking time travel adventure a la Back to the Future here. Primer is a moody, mysterious enigma, that grows more and more disturbing as it unfolds. One of the most remarkable elements of Carruth's film is that it never even considers explaining its sci-fi elements to the audience. There's no dumbed-down exposition; no moment where the characters stop and explain how this is all working. That might turn some people off, but for me, it makes Primer all the more appealing. It's a hypnotic, engrossing, enigmatic film, and one of its joys is rewatching it and catching entirely new layers that make the film all the more enticing.

Ben Pearson: The Matrix

I'd never actually researched the meaning of the term "hard sci-fi" before tackling this prompt, so for those of you who, like me, thought it simply means "sci-fi that doesn't really have any other genres in it," let me lay out the true meaning real quick. In its most basic sense, hard sci-fi is science fiction that relies heavily on the concept of scientific accuracy. But while some take that to mean that films in this category must be as realistic as possible, there's a school of thought (via Wikipedia) that says the realism isn't necessarily as important as the "rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out."

So using that interpretation of the genre, I'm choosing The Wachowskis' remarkable 1999 masterwork The Matrix. The movie creates not one, but two fully-formed worlds: the horrifyingly dystopian "real" world in which humans serve as batteries for an army of machines, and the wool-over-your-eyes fantasy of the Matrix. Bizarre and unfamiliar as they may be, both of those worlds still feel viable – maybe even moreso now than when the film premiered nearly 20 years ago.

The Wachowskis crafted a distinctive aesthetic (you'll never see that green tint anywhere else), mixed in heady notions of philosophy, and created an action-packed stunner of a story that resonated in a monumental way. For me, the best science fiction always tells us something about ourselves, and The Matrix gave us plenty to chew on. (The sequels have some good ideas in them, but they get more and more unwieldy as they go. The first movie works so well on its own that I tend to try to think about it as a single film instead of as the starting point of a trilogy.)

Vanessa Bogart: The Martian

I read Andy Weir's The Martian cover to cover on a flight across the pond. I am a big 'ol nerd for anything space related, and what struck me so strongly about The Martian is that it felt like I was reading a non-fiction account of a real event. The movie was no different. With only a few astronomy and physics college classes under my belt, my basic knowledge for all that a Mars mission would entail is a hobby at best. However, the science fiction of The Martian is so well articulated, that it just feels like science.

"I'm going to have to science the shit out of this." Having a botanist stranded in space opens a whole new avenue to an old sci-fi concept. Too often in science fiction, every character that knows some science knows all science. The Martian, through fantastic and diverse casting, illustrates the plethora of cogs in the space travel machine. Every character contributes something different, and every other character doesn't always understand what the other is saying, and that is just brilliant. NASA is not Hogwarts. These are real people with an immense amount of dedication and training, and The Martian honors the institution while delivering a gripping, and often times hilarious, story.

Matt Donato: Europa Report

Since you'll undoubtedly read about classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters in other writers' contributions, I'll gladly go to bat for Sebastián Cordero's Europa Report. Call it the proverbial "little man" in this case, but this 2013 hard sci-fi indie begs to be discovered. With a cast including Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Wu, Cordero's intergalactic exploration represents painstaking human follies rich with meaning and visual splendor. Seriously, sci-fi fans – please tell me you've seen this one?

Don't be afraid of the "found footage" delivery. This isn't some cheap Apollo 18 scam. Philip Gelatt's screenplay blends a fake post-mortem program with footage from the private mission itself (and beforehand testimonials), counterbalancing mounted ship or suit cameras that feed POV views. Revelations and horrors are captured through the eyes of each character, albeit in the name of scientific hubris. Brave astronauts set course for Jupiter's fourth largest moon fully cognizant of every possible outcome – answers to be provided by any means necessary.

All this may sound quite generic, but Europa Report bucks an overused trend of leaning into panic when things start going catastrophically wrong. Travelers die in horrible, unspeakable ways (drifting into space, plunging into water), but always with a sigh of understanding and acknowledgment that their sacrifice may alter life for future generations. Curiosity kills more than a cat, as we're reminded over and over again that man cannot prepare for "the unknown." It's both a cold lesson and powerful message given how the film wraps up, each researcher fully committed to an uplifting idea of scientific advancement and greater goods.

Should I mention that Cordero's planetary mapping of celestial backdrops is downright out-of-this-galaxy? Maybe it's a tiny shuttle capsule scaled against an approaching moon's surface or the pristinely sculpted ice fixtures displayed during underwater dives, but cinematography rivals any of the heavy hitters this genre applauds. Such an underrated watch rich with exploratory wonder, teeming with philosophical quandaries and set to a backdrop of bedazzled infinite blackness. Anything *but* another solar system survival story that relies on isolated bleakness – for a change.

Lindsey Romain: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters isn't hard sci-fi in the way that it's full of neon cityscapes flanked by hovering vehicles or fancy high gadgetry. No, the film takes place in the quaint, quiet Indiana countryside in an unspecified year that's more of an alternate reality late-70s than an unspecified future year. But it's still unequivocally sci-fi in that it's all about the possibility of what lies beyond our mortal understanding. And also, you know, aliens.

Spielberg is the master of his craft always, but Close Encounters feels like his most personal and effectual film. Richard Dreyfuss is perfect as everyman Roy Neary, lured to the stars after an extraterrestrial confrontation, but François Truffaut as French researcher Claude Lacombe anchors the plot in its believable science. (It remains a true stroke of brilliance that Spielberg tapped the French New Wave director to star as a UFO specialist.) The best sci-fi is about the human drama in its center, and Close Encounters absolutely nails the moral dilemma of a man's quest for galactic importance vs. his duties as a family man, set against the backdrop of scientific investigations. It's a feat of self-discovery that culminates in one of the finest – and most quietly heartbreaking – finales in all of cinema. The kind of ending you leave the theater still puzzling over, parsing out – then spending the rest of your life thinking about.