What I liked about Tomorrowland: Its pro-science message, which is an oddly infrequent thing to find in a genre powered by the collective force of geekiness. It’s all “Why must we play God?” and “Some doors mankind wasn’t meant to open!” What I didn’t like about Tomorrowland: Just about everything else, including that weird romantic-ish vibe between George Clooney’s character and a little kid. But that’s none of my business.
But, happily, there are some unabashedly science-loving genre movies—ones that present exploration and ingenuity and technological advancements as good things instead of inevitable precursors to a worldwide dystopian hellscape—that are actually worth your time to watch.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Aliens visit Earth and they don’t want to kill us? There’s potential for friendship out among the stars? Everything is Spielberg face and nothing hurts.
Jodie Foster plays an atheist scientist and Matthew McCouaughey an avowed spiritualist in a movie that manages not to shit on science or religion, hallelujah! Robert Zemeckis’ slow-burn mystery about what happens when aliens send a mysterious message to Earth is based on the only sci-fi novel by the legendary Carl Sagan, who died while the film was in production. It is notable, among other reasons, for containing one of the most brilliant shots ever put to film:
Pacific Rim (2013)
“Shit, there are giant monsters from an alternate dimension attacking us. What do we do?”
“Build giant robots to fight them?”
“BRILLIANT!… But wait. Won’t that prove to be an act of supreme arrogance over nature? Will the giant robots we, in our hubris, created not turn on us, resulting in an even greater catastrophe than what the interdimensional monsters would have yielded?”
“Fuck no. They’ll punch things.”
Europa Report (2013)
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, when the explorers of Europa Report head out to a moon of Jupiter to search for intelligent life, shit… doesn’t go perfectly for them. Remarkably, the film still remains remarkably positive about the importance of space exploration in spite of its dangers. Also surprising: A found footage movie made within the last two years that is actually good and doesn’t feel like a stupid gimmick! There are so few of those. This one’s on Netflix Instant. Praise the red god.
The Machine (2013)
Also available on Netflix, Caradog James’ The Machine is a movie about the quest to create artificial intelligence that doesn’t go the kneejerk “robots are evil and will kill us all!” route. (Even though Caity Lotz’ blood-streaked face… isn’t exactly reassuring. The trailer makes what’s actually a quite inventive sci-fi movie look more generic than it is.) Don’t get me wrong, I love a good evil robot, but sometimes it’s nice to see the other side. Robots are people too, yanno?
Matthew McConaughey: Patron saint of science-positive space exploration movies and really bitchin’ hair. Some people love Interstellar, some people hate it. That’s the Nolan effect. I don’t think it’s the greatest thing I ever saw in my life, but God dammit, I still really liked it. Interstellar moved me. Space, dammit. SPAAAAAAAACE.
The Martian (2015)
No, this movie isn’t out yet, and no, I haven’t build a time machine. But the book on which this upcoming Ridley Scott movie is based, by Andy Weir, is pro-science out the wazzoo. In it, a astronaut (played in the movie by Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after a mission gone wrong, and he has to use every drop of his know-how to stay alive until he can (hopefully) be rescued. It’s an amazing book and an amazing cast (Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover… Kristen Wiig? Yeah, OK.), so I’m cautiously hopeful, even if Scott’s track recordhasn’t exactly been greatlately.