/Answers: Our Favorite Hard Science Fiction Movies

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.

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