Science fiction movies often depict the space journey as an epic tale battling for the fate of the galaxies. However, unlike the films’ protagonists, we do not have the convenience of plot armour to survive the lasers or the infestation of mysterious alien life forms roaming about the universe. But hey, that’s science fiction for you.
Nonetheless, amongst all the special effects, aliens and wormholes, there have been films that made extensive efforts to ground their story in scientific certainties whilst bringing the audience on a cinematic journey they will never forget.
The following are 10 Space Movies (in no specific order) that will not only bring you on an adventure of a lifetime but also teach you a thing or two about the cosmos. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
- The Martian (2015)
- Interstellar (2014)
- Contact (1997)
- Apollo 13 (1995)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Gravity (2013)
- Gattaca (1975)
- The Andromeda Strain (1971)
- Alien (1979)
- Deep Impact – 1998
The Top 10 Scientifically Accurate Movies You Need to Watch
1. The Martian – 2015
The Martian was a film adaptation of the novel by Andy Weir. Along with more than 160 swear words (including two F-words in the novel’s first three sentences), Weir worked hard to bring scientific accuracy into various aspects of his story.
Before filming began, production design manager Arthur Max travelled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to study the design and construction of spacesuits and analyze the different blueprints from NASA. A meeting was arranged between the cast and crew with American astronauts to understand what it’s really like to be in space.
According to NASA, nine fundamental technologies were utilized in the film. This included the habitat/living quarters of the crew, ion propulsion drive, and the farm where the potatoes were grown. We also have to take note the spacesuit astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) wore was a modified version of what is available to our astronauts today.
Many concepts within the film were altered at the creative liberty of the director and design manager for flexibility and comfort based on NASA’s original design.
2. Interstellar – 2014
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is known for emphasizing realism in his movies. So, it’s no surprise to see his 2014 blockbuster Interstellar presented with real science in the mix.
Interstellar‘s story revolves around humankind’s last chance to find a new habitable planet before Earth can no longer sustain human life. Former NASA pilot Joseph Cooper – starring Matthew McConaughey – was tasked with travelling through a wormhole to investigate the worlds explored by the previous Lazarus mission in hopes that one of these worlds can sustain life. The film also showed Cooper falling into a massive black hole named Gargantua, sacrificing himself to ensure the success of their mission.
To ensure the film’s scientific accuracy, Nolan worked with Professor Kip Thorne, a notable theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology. As a result, ‘Interstellar’ depicted special relativity, time dilation and wormholes very close to what we know of the concepts today. They were even able to create Gargantua based on an equation that described the trajectory of light from a distant star, around the black hole and finally into an observer’s eye (Cern Courier).
Additionally, the film exhibited the time dilation effect well when the crew arrived on the planets orbiting the black hole. For example, 1 hour spent on Miller’s water planet corresponded to 7 years on Earth! As the gravity of massive objects bends the spacetime around them, time can theoretically be “slowed” from the perspective of an observer at a distance away from the massive object.
This was only one of the many concepts that were accurately portrayed based on current scientific theories.
3. Contact – 1997
The 1997 film Contact was the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. It was the only science fiction novel Carl Sagan ever wrote and it is one of the most scientifically accurate science films of all time.
In the film, Ellie Arroway detected a repeating sequence of the first 261 prime numbers from a neighbouring star. Since this series of numbers was too complex to be random, she concluded that an intelligent civilization sent it.
Similar to what the SETI institute used in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence, radio waves were also used in the film to contact alien beings.
Moreover, scientists believe if aliens do exist somewhere in the universe, their mode of communication with humans will be through mathematics. For instance, geometry was used to construct mathematical relationships on the Pioneer Plaques placed on the 1972 and 1973 Pioneer 10 and 11. As the spacecrafts leave the solar system and drift further off into the unknown, it will bring our message to any intelligent extraterrestrial life form that receives the plaques.
The mathematical communication method was adopted in Contact, along with the protagonist’s final trip through a wormhole. Although no discoveries have been made, wormholes are a theoretical construct that many theoretical physicists and cosmologists have made predictions for.
4. Apollo 13 – 1995
As a movie that narrates the aborted Apollo 13 landing on the moon, one should hope it to be scientifically sound. This accuracy was something that Ron Howard was able to achieve in his 1995 blockbuster Apollo 13.
Regardless of its movie status, Apollo 13 presents itself similar to a documentary as Ron Howard attempted to portray events as true to life as he could.
During the filming of Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and others in the cast underwent extensive training to ensure they could play their roles accurately. Training included studying NASA’s records for the Apollo 13 mission, astronaut training, and physics 101.
Some scenes were even shot inside an aircraft with microgravity to replicate the weightless environment of space.
The spacecraft held five engines in the movie, with the status of each shown as an indicator light in a panel. In the film, only four engines were functional as the center engine had shut down, which was an event that had followed its real-life account. To compensate for the loss of one engine, NASA commented that the remaining four had to burn for 34 seconds longer.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968
While most space movies disregarded the need for scientific accuracy in their plots, A Space Odyssey stood firm in the accuracy for all its particulars.
The film revolves around a space mission headed for Jupiter along with HAL 9000, a sentient computer. After discovering an alien monolith that had once accelerated the evolution of humans, David Bowman, played by Keir Dullea along with his crew, was sent on a mission to investigate the radio signal the monolith sent after being struck by sunlight.
After a battle for his life against HAL, Bowman arrives at Jupiter to discover a larger monolith orbiting the planet. He leaves the spacecraft in an EVA pod to investigate but was unfortunately pulled into a vortex of light and flown across vast distances of space. Eventually, after experiencing and becoming different versions of himself, he transforms into a fetus enclosed in a transparent orb of light.
True enough, the ending of the film may sound a little far-fetched. But that gives us no reason to discount the entire movie as being scientifically inaccurate.
Take HAL 9000, for example. The film was released 52 years before AI had become sufficiently advanced. Despite this, HAL was still used to tell one of the most plausible relationships between AI and humans for its time.
In addition, the film’s writer Stanley Kubrick strived to write a story that’s grounded in science. Such is why the spacecraft Discovery was presented to glide silently through the vacuum of space and why explosions did not generate any sound, as sound is essentially the vibration of air, and there is no air in space.
6. Gravity – 2013
Alfonso Cuarón not only directed the 2013 sci-fi thriller Gravity but also co-wrote, co-edited and produced the film.
Gravity revolves around Lieutenant Matt Kowalski and Dr. Ryan Stone, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, respectively, who were stranded in space following a mid-orbit collision with a high-speed debris field.
This film perfectly captured the essence and experience of being stranded in the midst of the darkness and the unknown. Even how Bullock and Clooney performed their spacewalk was executed perfectly, especially when flying out of control through space. In reality, starting a movement while one floats about is easy, but the difficulty comes in trying to stop.
What is even more impressive was how much Gravity got right in terms of set design. For example, Bullock turned the same two valves to shut the oxygen supply in the Soyuz as they would do so on the actual Russian spacecraft. Although some modules were in the wrong places, the International Space Station interior and the Soyuz were designed with accuracy in mind to its original.
The film also captured the correct visual impact of what Earth looks like from within a spacesuit when the protagonists were gazing at Earth from afar.
7. Gattaca – 1975
Gattaca was a science fiction film directed by Andrew Niccol released in 1975, whose story revolved around the concept of eugenics and the aerospace firm Gattaca Corp.
In this futuristic film, society determined an individual’s job and status in life by analyzing their DNA at birth. The protagonist Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke, unfortunately, was diagnosed with congenital heart disease. As a result, he had no chance of completing his dream of travelling in space.
To be more suitable for travelling to the stars, he took the identity of Jerome Morrow, a former swimming star that became paralyzed after a car accident. Then, with the help of Jerome’s DNA samples, Vincent gained employment and Gattaca and became the perfect genetic specimen for an upcoming space mission.
What makes Gattaca a fantastic scientifically accurate film is that most of the genetic testing and genome editing techniques are available in the 21st century. Take the procedure called “designer babies,” for instance. Parents will have the ability to choose their child’s gender and manipulate their genetic code, which is now becoming popular among the rich.
8. The Andromeda Strain – 1971
When a U.S government satellite crashed back to Earth near the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, all of its residents suddenly died. This incident caused the US Air Force to declare an emergency. The team led by Dr. Jeremy Stone, portrayed by Arthur hill, was summoned to a top-secret underground laboratory named “Wildfire” after retrieving the satellite. Together with his team, Stone studies a fatal alien parasite.
This movie adapts Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. And although Crichton wrote the novel as being largely improbable, scientists say that extraterrestrial microorganisms could reach Earth and endanger humankind under particular instances.
If this were to happen, humans would not have the ability to resist as our immune systems have no developed to fight against a new organism. As a result, the catastrophic danger posed in ‘The Andromeda Strain’ could occur.
9. Alien – 1979
In the year 2122, the crew of the Nostromo woke up from stasis when the ship detected a distressed signal coming from a narby moon. The team decides to embark on a mission to find the source of the signal. However, what they found was not a signal of distress but a warning from an abandoned alien spacecraft.
Yes, the possibility of facing a face sucker on our next interstellar trip might not seem very improbable, but what grounds this movie in science is that it depicts a future wherein space is a part of the industrial fabric.
Currently, scientists are putting in their best effort to make a future where humanity can thrive, on a new planet, for instance, possible. The film portrays that space will be a shared working environment rather than a vast unknown vacuum. Considering our current advancement in technology, this future might not be far off.
10. Deep Impact – 1998
A comet as giant as Mt. Everest is on course to collide with Earth.
Two things could happen. First, the comet will hit Earth and destroy all of humanity. Second, it will be deterred and not hit Earth, saving humanity from extinction.
When the U.S government was alerted of the danger, a US-Russian team was sent to detonate nuclear bombs in hopes of destroying the comet. However, on the chance that the mission fails, special measures were put into the work to ensure the continuation of the human species.
To find a film that opportune real asteroid physics was a surprise. And Deep Impact did not fail to impress as it showed a deep understanding of the dangers of an impact threat. Additionally, the megatsunami created by the comet’s impact on the Atlantic sea realistically destroyed much of the East Coast of the United States.
The amount of realism exhibited in the film was only possible due to an excellent team of technical advisers, including the late Eugene Shoemaker, who discovered the Comet Shoemaker-Levy that made its impact on Jupiter in July 1994.
A Scientific Accuracy Movie Checklist
Although films do not need to be “extreme” to draw the audience’s attention, movie scenes that go above and beyond are generally welcome in the space genere. Of course, as filmmakers take their creative liberties to create universes and worlds beyond our imagination, one might stray away from the bounds of human limitation. But hey, looking for realism in a sci-fi film kind of sounds counterintuitive to the whole idea of “fictional.”
Nonetheless, the human taste for media is largely subjective. As such, if you are someone that insists upon a film’s realistic nature or just curious for the truth, here are five basic things that you can examine in a space film to check for scientific accuracy:
- The Space Suits
- Atmospheric Drag
- Zero Gravity
- Explosions in Space
In the 21st Century, the concept of spacesuits to many may only bring to mind the bulky and heavy attire of astronauts. But, while they may not look much design-wise, spacesuits are one of the most common things sci-fi space films get wrong.
Have you ever seen a movie where astronauts help each other put on their suits? If not, that’s mistake number one, my fellow space lovers. You cannot, for a fact, wear a spacesuit without any help. It typically takes at least two people to put that thing on.
Additionally, you cannot engage in hand-to-hand combat while wearing it – spacesuits are uncomfortable to wear and even more difficult to maneuver. Even veteran astronauts find it tricky to move in their space attire.
The Effects of Microgravity
Living in a deep space environment with minimal gravity truly sounds like a remarkable experience.
However, while movies intrigue their audience with such a way of life, it is also quite improbable at our stage of technological development. Furthermore, we still have not found ways to completely counter the adverse effects microgravity can cause for the human body.
For example, the inability to maintain calcium homeostasis from a lack of gravity can cause astronauts to experience bone deterioration, kidney stones, and even problems with eyesight. While manageable, astronauts also deal with muscle atrophy (muscle wasting), which is why aboard the ISS, astronauts are required to allocate two to three hours every day for cardio and weight training.
An individual cannot simply hop aboard a spacecraft and leave the comfort of Earth. Not with our current technology anyways. A lack of preparation travelling through the Earth’s atmospheric layers will either result in death by freezing or death by explosion.
Such are the dangers of atmospheric drag, which is something that movies often don’t get right.
Pilots and mission control should consider many contingencies in any attempts to leave the Earth (or any other planet for that matter). This includes tilt and trajectory, options for gas, and orbital velocity.
Equipment wise, one cannot just fly into space without considering the air pressure along the way. Failure to account for such drag can devastatingly affect the spacecraft’s wings, interior cabin, and thrusters.
The Idea of Zero Gravity
Almost every space movie presents the notion of movement in the zero-gravity of space as slow-motion, which sometimes might seem like a laggy video game.
Well, the truth is, we are by no means “slow” while floating about in space. Without gravity, there would be less tension and attraction to hold us back. This means objects would always move at constant velocity unless an outward force acts upon them.
The only reason astronauts appear to move as fast as a turtle is a result of their heavy spacesuits, which weigh approximately 280 pounds on Earth!
Space Battles and Explosions
We have seen many battles in films where spacecrafts are destroyed and go up in raging flames. While epic, there is absolutely zero oxygen in space for combustion to occur.
This means no pyrotechnics and no sound.
So… if you were unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of a Death Star level battle, there will not be any ear-shattering explosions that vibrate your eardrums as you would experience in theatres; things might actually get a little too quiet for comfort.
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5. What Does A Real Astronaut Think Of ‘Gravity’?, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2013/10/17/what-does-a-real-astronaut-think-of-gravity/?sh=1df44dc01e40/ Accessed May 9, 2021.
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