The 10 Most Realistic Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

Thursday, 01 October 2015 - 5:39PM
Artificial Intelligence
Space
Dystopias
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Thursday, 01 October 2015 - 5:39PM
The 10 Most Realistic Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
The Martian comes out this weekend, and thanks to the acclaimed source material and some help from NASA, it is poised to become one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies of all time. Astronomer Chris Hadfield was asked to rate the best and worst space operas in terms of accuracy, and although he hasn't seen the movie yet, he had plenty of praise to spare for the book:

Opening quote
"[The book is] tremendous. It is as realistic as you can make the idea of one of the first outposts on Mars, [and] it looks like they've tried to make the movie as close to the book as possible."
Closing quote


So in honor of this extremely accurate film, here are the ten most scientifically plausible sci-fi films of all time:

10. The first 2/3 of Interstellar



As we all know, Interstellar pretty much lost its damn mind in its simultaneously dumb and confounding final act. But before the magic bookcases made out of interdimensional love came into play, it was a visually spectacular film that featured highly realistic speculative science, particularly the depiction of black holes, wormholes, and time travel. The Interstellar VFX team published a paper detailing the process of creating a scientifically accurate black hole, and a team of researchers published another paper insisting that physics teachers should show the film to their students to teach them about general relativity. If you forget about the ending, it's one of the most scientifically accurate-and groundbreaking- films of all time.

9. Her




Her is an interesting case, because there isn't very much hard science to speak of; rather, Spike Jonze's acclaimed film took the premise of a romantic relationship with a sentient AI and placed it in a near-future world very much like our own, but the science that did appear was quite plausible. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil gave the film a glowing review, both as a piece of fiction and a work of speculative science:

Opening quote
"[Her] compellingly presents the core idea that a software program (an AI) can - will - be believably human and lovable. This is a breakthrough concept in cinematic futurism in the way that The Matrix presented a realistic vision that virtual reality will ultimately be as real as, well, real reality."
Closing quote

He had a few caveats: he estimates that most of the surrounding technology will be realistic in approximately 2020, while contending that an operating system like Samantha won't exist until about 2029 (that seems fast!), and she will likely have a body. But still, for a film that's mostly concerned with the realistic depiction of the characters' psychologies and relationships, that's extremely impressive.

8. Blade Runner



It's still unknown whether we will ever be able to create human-like synthetic androids, and there will likely never be a genetic engineering technique that allows us to implant memories. But Blade Runner creates a realistic futuristic dystopia around that premise, from the blotted skies that are presumably the result of carbon excess to the tangled ethical issues surrounding whether to afford machines personhood. And several of the technologies presented in the film are either currently in the works or likely to happen in the future; Toyota has revealed plans for flying cars, while European Tech company Aeromobil currently has a prototype that is almost ready to be sold to the public. And while there are not yet human colonies in space (that we know of), we are getting closer and closer to that goal, and due to lack of government funding, many scientists believe that extraterrestrial human colonies will, in fact, be run by the private sector.

7. Minority Report



Another groundbreaking film with a large caveat, Minority Report centers around a premise that is closer to fantasy than sci-fi, as the precogs who drive the PreCrime department use brain waves to predict all murders before they happen. While we may be able to come up with a pale imitation of this phenomenon, there's no reason to believe that the ability to receive visions of specific crimes will ever be possible. But the devil is in the details, and the world surrounding the main action of Minority Report is one of the most realistic in sci-fi history. Director Steven Spielberg consulted many scientists and tech experts in order to make sure the technology was plausible, and told Roger Ebert prior to the film's release:

Opening quote
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... The 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 is, we'll lose our right to privacy. An ad will appear in the air around us, talking directly to us.
Closing quote

Some of the predicted 2054 technologies have already come to fruition, such as gesture-based computer interfaces and retinal scanners, while many others are in development. There are no jetpacks, unfortunately, as Spielberg admitted that those were mostly just for show.

Primer


Most Accurate Sci-Fi Movies

This ultra-low-budget Sundance indie is an unlikely candidate for this list, but it's often hailed as the most realistic time travel movie of all time. Most time travel movies don't even try to be consistent or plausible, but just use the premise to drive a fun and often convoluted plot (I'm looking at you, Looper). Primer, on the other hand, is meticulously consistent, and actually presents a plausible scenario in which time travel could exist. But most of all, it presents scientific innovation in a very humble, much more realistic light, which was director and star Shane Carruth's intention when he made the film:

Opening quote
"Whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out to me. First is that the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second is that prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story play out that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place than I had seen on film before."
Closing quote

Primer has gained a cult following, and there are about a thousand charts and infographics that try to explain the complex rules of time travel, but honestly, it's on Netflix streaming, and it's only 77 minutes. Just go watch it. 

The Andromeda Strain




According to our current knowledge about bacteria and pandemics, the vast majority of the events of The Andromeda Strain could actually happen (although it's not particularly likely). Bacteria live in the most extreme environments, so could likely survive in space and eventually hitch a ride on an asteroid or a manmade spacecraft. Many scientists believe that life may have been seeded on Earth by an asteroid carrying bacteria, in a theory called panspermia, and we know that microscopic organisms have stowed away on the outside of the ISS.

While it's unlikely that an extraterrestrial bacteria would have the specific adaptations necessary to thrive in the human body and cause disease, it is possible, and if they did, our bodies would be completely ill-equipped to fight them off. So it likely would cause a pandemic that threatened to wipe out the species, similar to the pilgrims bringing exotic diseases to the Native Americans in early American history. 
 

Deep Impact




Terrifyingly enough, Deep Impact is almost entirely plausible, especially since it came out more than 15 years ago. While it's unlikely that a plucky teenager would notice a killer asteroid before NASA astronauts caught a glimpse of it, there is a very small chance that an asteroid could kill everything on Earth in one fell swoop. And since the chance is so small, we would be utterly unprepared for it, just as the scientists are in the movie. We think nuclear bombs are the solution to everything, so when the movie came out in 1998, we probably would have just tried to nuke the damn thing. And if we had done that, the asteroid would have broken into two, making all of our problems twice as terrible. Comforting, right?

Opening quote
"[Deep Impact is] almost a lesson," said NASA astronaut Tom Jones. "To find a movie that was accurate to asteroid physics was a nice surprise."
Closing quote


Gattaca




The neo-fascist society of Gattaca, in which every human embryo is screened for "undesirable" traits and altered into a member of a "master race," has not happened yet, but our society could very easily go down that road. Most of the alterations made to the humans of Gattaca are either possible now or are projected to be possible in the near future; some parents are already using a controversial "designer baby" process in which they can control the sex of their child, for example. And now that genetic sequencing is relatively easy (it now costs approximately $1,000 while the first complete sequencing cost $3 billion), geneticists can view the entire genetic sequence of all of the potential embryos and implant the ones that do not have debilitating genetic diseases, such as Huntington's or Tay-Sachs.

We haven't started routinely editing embryos' genomes yet, but it's technically possible, and it could become commonplace in the near future. Several genetics companies, including Cambrian Genomics, are attempting to make it possible to alter any and all human traits at the embryo stage.

Opening quote
"I can't imagine after 10 or 20 years that people would not design their children digitally," Cambrian Genomics CEO Austen Heinz said last year. "It would be thought of as insane or barbaric. There's just too many mistakes [in our DNA]... Schizophrenia, addiction disorders, ADHD..."
Closing quote

Contact




Contact is one of the most scientifically accurate movies ever made, and we would expect nothing less, considering that it is the sole science fiction novel written by everyone's favorite popular astronomer, Carl Sagan. From Jodie Foster's usage of radio signals to find aliens (which is SETI's actual method for finding extraterrestrial intelligence), to the usage of math to convert an alien language (because math is essentially a universal language, as was demonstrated in the Arecibo message), every part of this film is painstakingly plausible. The section in which Foster's character travels through a wormhole is, of course, more speculative, but there's enough theoretical physics presented in the film that it never goes off the rails.

2001: A Space Odyssey




Scientists overwhelmingly name Stanley Kubrick's classic as the most scientifically accurate sci-fi film of all time, and with good reason. Every detail is correct, from space being silent, to the crew eating food that astronauts would actually eat in space, to the centrifugal force that prevents the deleterious effects of long-term weightlessness. And rather than depicting a superintelligent alien life form, the aliens' existence was merely suggested, which made it feel much more realistic and less trite. 

2001 is also the most accurate and consistent portrayal of a super-advanced AI, as HAL 9000, unlike other cinematic robots, always sticks to his programming, and it is left ambiguous whether he is actually sentient or not. This choice is both more realistic and philosophically weighty, as human beings don't really understand the nature of consciousness, so it's unlikely we'll be able to sort out whether super-advanced robots have it or not.
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