/Answers: Our Favorite Hard Science Fiction Movies

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.

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