While there’s a host of sci-fi movies out, only a small portion of them feature science that is credible. Imagining the impossible is, of course, a tenet of science fiction but some fans enjoy taking a look at the scientific accuracies, and inaccuracies, of what’s happening and whether or not it is a possibility. So, what movies did get it right?
Take a look at the list below, which covers films on a variety of topics, ranging from space travel to AI.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
A sequel to the incredible Blade Runner (1982), this film features Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard and Ryan Gosling as the quiet, lone K, a Bladerunner sent to track down and kill replicants that have gone rogue. There are a lot of questions as the movie progresses, especially regarding the ethical implications of the Nexus-9s, which are nearly indistinguishable from humans.
The AI aside, which has churned up considerable debates about both its validity and its morality, one of the most interesting parts of this movie is the predictions that it has for the future.
The movie provides a bleak depiction of the future that remarks heavily on the impact that our continued course on climate change will have on the planet. Though most scientists and futurists that have remarked on the movie say that this isn’t necessarily the future we’ll see by the year 2049, on a longer timeline and without a shift in our focus on the ecosystem, it’s a strong possibility.
One of the more poignant predictions, besides the complete lack of plant and animal life, is the effect that global warming will have on sea levels. The movie features an enormous wall around the coast of L.A., intended to keep the growing sea levels from enveloping the city.
Interstellar’s release in 2014 was welcomed with open arms by both the film and scientific communities, in part because Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Inception (2010), was at the helm of the project. His scientific consultant? Kip Thorne, the brilliant theoretical physicist, who earned a Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO is the experiment behind the confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves which were predicted by Einstein in 1916 and served as a fundamental piece to the puzzle of his general theory of relativity. It wasn’t until 2016 that Einstein’s predictions were proven and publicly announced.
This is important to note in order to understand why Interstellar nailed the science: Kip Thorne knew what he was talking about when he was brought on to the project. Thorne set a few parameters before he was willing to help, requiring that nothing would deviate from what was already scientifically established in physics and that any scientific speculation would have an actual scientific grounding.
Although there have been some complaints by critics regarding the depiction of Earth in the movie, and while there is a possibility that Earth could reach a situation as dire as what’s shown in the movie, it’s unlikely that it would happen on the timeline proposed.
Her, directed by Spike Jonze, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely, introverted writer that falls in love with Samantha, a personalized AI programmed into a new OS. It’s a beautiful movie that explores the nature of love and relationships. It also takes a huge look at the potentials of future AI programs.
Currently, Siri isn’t quite ready to give us dating advice, and Cortana is a long way from being, well, Master Chief’s Cortana— meaning AI hasn’t reached the point of “artificial superintelligence”, a term coined by Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein. They have theorized that that would be the final rung on the advancement of AI, preceded by “artificial narrow intelligence”, where AI can only perform one task, and “artificial general intelligence”, where it can be applied to several tasks and eventually solve problems unrelated to those tasks.
In that final stage, it is believed that AI will be capable of tasks generally associated with humans: creativity, socialization, and general thought. Samantha is a hallmark of all of these traits.
While we are probably a long way from having an AI program that can serve as an assistant, researcher, lover, and friend, the current development in artificially-intelligent programs means that we are at least on the right track.
The Martian (2015)
Based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, everything about this movie, and its book predecessor, strove for scientific accuracy. Weir worked with his readers and received plenty of feedback to make sure that the science he proposed was logical, and when Ridley Scott picked up the project for a movie adaptation, he sought plenty of outside scientific advisement.
The result was a movie that was absolutely within the bounds of science, especially in a near-future. The only real flaw comes from the weather patterns on Mars, there probably wouldn’t be winds strong enough to do the damage shown in the film.
The technology, though, is pretty close. The process that Mark Watney, Matt Damon’s character, uses to make water is currently in-use on a future rover being developed by NASA.
All in all, it’s a strong film with a great scientific basis that doesn’t rely on the impossible or the unimaginable to be both engaging and entertaining. Plus, Matt Damon was the absolute perfect actor to take on the role of Watney, a brilliant botanist with a biting wit and a very realistic perspective.
Final Thoughts: What Other Movies?
There are plenty of other movies with strong scientific foundations, including Contact, which was initially written by Carl Sagan himself, Arrival, which realistically explores how communication would occur if, or when, we make contact with extraterrestrials, and The Andromeda Strain, the plot of which we’ve seen a taste of during the Coronavirus pandemic. And, of course, there are the movies that didn’t even come close: The Day After Tomorrow, a total massacre of actual science, The Matrix, despite being one of the most beloved sci-fi movies of all time, and 2012, which is laughably ludicrous. Scientifically accurate, or not, it’s exciting to get a glimpse of the possibilities of the future.