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When it comes to science fiction, there are varying degrees of believability and reality that a viewer is willing to accept. On one side of the spectrum, we have movies that take the laws of nature and laugh in their face. Other films however seem much more grounded in facts and science. They depict worlds or technologies that are beyond our reach- for now. More than just the technological wonders featured in these films, the narrative storylines and stylistic choices create the feeling of realism that film art students love to dissect with questions like: What is reality anyways? Can realism in film ever be more than just a facsimile? So deep. With the eminent release of this year’s Europa Report right around the corner, let us take a look at some of film’s sci-fi features that have passed the test of realism.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Unsurprisingly, first on the list is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece that stars the now iconic HAL 9000, the evil computer to end all evil computers. The film of course has its poetic flights of fancy, such as with the opening scenes of the film that depict primates discovering the use of tools which is then masterfully transitioned into a floating space station. The long, quiet takes and the masterfully crafted sets and props create a chilling sense of realism. Nevermind that most of the technology at the time was mere wishful thinking, the direction and art design lent an air of deadly seriousness to this film that threatens any viewer away from questioning the validity of the on-screen proceedings. By the way, that creepy scene when HAL sings "Daisy Bell,"- isnpired directly by a corporate video of an IBM computer singing the same song in 1961.
Another equally stark and foreboding picture, Duncan Jones’s directorial debut tells the story of a sole man mining the moon to send energy resources back to Earth. Released in 2009, the film’s moon base has a gritty feel. The truly lived in feel that the set exudes aides in manifesting the psychosis of a man who has lived in close quarters for three years with nothing but a robot named GERTY. The film is an amazing sci-fi, mystery thriller and it works all around. The set and special effects all look amazingly real. Just as believable is the performance that Sam Rockwell turns in as the confused and ailing moon miner. Just like the previous film on this list, Moon succeeds not because it manages to create a world that looks real (although it does that too) but because it creates the perfect mood and ambience for the film.
Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi film about a utopian future turned dystopia starring Tom Cruise is grounded less in scientific fact and more in societal and human truths. The movie tells the story of what can happen when a society decides to charge and incarcerate people based solely on future predictions that have not taken place. In an era of increased surveillance, Minority Report now strikes a chilling resemblance to our society’s reach into our very homes, if not our mind’s worst intentions. Some of the action and technology might be complete fantasy, but the world and society that Spielberg crafts in Minority Report paint a startling look at society gone awry.
This independent sci-fi thriller also takes a turn into realism by asking what exactly would happen if aliens ever landed on Earth? Instead of taking the typical route of technologically superior beings intent on conquering our planet, the aliens in District 9 are insect-like organisms with a different language and customs that create a real barrier. It’s documentary-style narrative adds touches of pseudo-realism, but it is truly the alien species as a stand-in for our own society’s second class citizens that create the film’s harsh reality. The aliens are forced to live in slums outside of Johannesburg and are treated by the South African-government as a nuisance to be taken care of rather than living beings. It really helps that the effects are so masterfully integrated into the film. But even if the visuals had fallen short of spectacular, the story itself is realistic and compelling enough to hold the film up.
Up until this point, it would be no surprise if you had gotten the impression that a somber story and stunning visuals is a requisite of realistic science fiction film. That’s why I’ve gone with my last film on this list to a slightly less conventionally realistic movie. Decidedly in the field of camp and over-the-top action, this film may not be very realistic when it comes to its storytelling. But lets be fair- if the idea of a bionic man seems outlandish to you, think again. Pacemakers, prosthetics, artificial hearts and organs, hearing aids have long ensured that several of us are already bionic humans, albeit of a much less exciting variety. Much more than just an action film with lots of cool guns and robots, this is a story of a man who has to rediscover who he is and how he fits into a society that’s fallen apart. Rewatching this film, it’s amusing but scary to see how it almost seemed to have predicted the future. So what if it has a lot of outlandish fun along the way.