/Answers: Our Favorite Hard Science Fiction Movies

annihilation early buzz

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.

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