Solaris 2002

Weekend Roundtable: Smart Sci-Fi

Most science fiction movies that Hollywood spits out are really just action movies with light sci-fi trappings, providing an excuse to watch spaceships dogfight like fighter jets or giant robots smash each other to bits. Every so often, however, a serious sci-fi movie with some ideas on its mind will still get produced. Here are a few of our favorites.

Note that I asked our staff to try to highlight some lesser-known films beyond the obvious gut-reaction titles like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Blade Runner’.

M. Enois Duarte

This is a tough question to answer, even after limiting the selection pool to off-the-beaten-path sci-fi films. There are many to choose from, so I’ll go with a fairly recent title that flew under almost everyone’s radar just a few years ago. Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, whose output is so incredibly sparse he’s only directed one movie per decade since 1968, gave science-fiction lovers one of the most unusual, thought-provoking films in a very long time. ‘Hard to Be a God‘ tells the tale of a group of scientists who travel to an Earth-like planet where the people are still technologically and culturally living in the Middle Ages. Much of this is due to a viciously oppressive ruling class and the disgustingly unjust laws of a tyrannical king. The scientists are there simply to observe and conduct minor experiments without interfering with the political turmoil or the lives of the people, but one scientist who calls himself Don Rumata can’t stand being witness to the cruelty and decides to help the people, who end up thinking of him as a god.

From there, the film explores deep, troubling questions about our innate desire for greed and power, the tools and methods we use for maintaining a hierarchical order, and the terrible ways we justify cruelty, injustice, and the shaming of intelligence and those deemed different from the status quo. It’s truly a remarkable film that should not only be watched but also studied and discussed because it will leave much to ponder and decipher.

My honorable mentions include ‘Primer’, ‘Upstream Color‘, ‘Another Earth‘, ‘Sleep Dealer’, ‘TiMER’, ‘The Man from Earth‘, ‘Timecrimes’, ‘Snowpiercer‘ and ‘Her‘.

Brian Hoss

While I certainly can’t claim that the 1981 film ‘Looker‘ is either a masterwork or especially heady on the level of a ‘2001’, it’s nevertheless a potent yarn that’s just waiting to be rediscovered. I’m a big fan of Michael Crichton’s work, and I love that his writing seems to be able to make just about any sci-fi concept both accessible and entertaining. ‘Looker’ is full of dated material wrapped up in a trashy plot about murdered supermodels, but it includes transforming TV commercial sets featuring reproduced actors (rather than, say, actual 3D rendering) and goons run amok with ‘Men in Black’ memory/light weapons. If ‘Westworld’ can be re-mined, then the corrupt players of ‘Looker’ ought to be right at home in the current (and future) media landscape.

Luke Hickman

This is a difficult week for me – not because I don’t like science fiction, but because I love both hardcore science fiction (‘Ex Machina’) and stories that take a loose sci-fi concept and explore the human side of it (‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘Gattaca’). For my pick, I’ve chosen a movie that’s a good blend of the two: ‘Contact‘.

I love both Carl Sagan’s novel and Robert Zemeckis’ film. The screenplay is a faithful representation that only tweaks those elements that might work on page but wouldn’t work on the screen.

My favorite theme commonly explored in the genre is God (or a “higher power”) versus science. ‘Contact’ takes that head-on with a central character who strictly believes only in what can be proven, but ultimately experiences something that she can’t explain and has to ask the world to have faith in her. Her character arc is strong and relatable. Jodie Foster portrays her wonderfully on-screen.

Another element of science fiction that I love is an open ending that allows you to make up your own mind on certain events or outcomes. It sparks conversation and extends the experience beyond the page or closing credits. Both the novel and film ‘Contact’ lend different ideas to support the question. If only every genre could keep you pondering and debating its contents as much as science fiction. For me, that’s one of the things that make it the most engaging and rewarding.

Josh Zyber

With George Clooney as its star, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, and James Cameron producing, the team’s 2002 sci-fi opus ‘Solaris‘ ought to have been a smash hit. It didn’t work out that way, unfortunately.

A remake of an almost impenetrably cerebral 1972 film from Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, Soderbergh’s version cuts the running time by nearly half and adds a glossier sheen of modern visual effects spectacle, but retains the core ideas and intellectual weight. Clooney plays a psychologist dispatched to a distant space station when its crew refuses to come home. Once he gets there, he discovers that the planet the station orbits somehow has the power to manifest copies of deceased loved ones from each person’s memories – including his own wife. This has driven many of the crew to madness and suicide. The longer he’s exposed to this phenomenon, Clooney’s character is forced to confront troubling questions about the difference between reality and memory, and what truly makes a person “real.”

This is pretty heady stuff for a space movie, with nary a laser pistol or explosion to be found anywhere. The studio had no idea how to market it, and tried to sell it as a love story (which isn’t quite accurate). Creepily unsettling posters displayed a tight close-up of Clooney frenching Natascha McElhone. The romance crowd didn’t buy into this ploy at all, and the sci-fi fans who showed up for the spaceships loathed the movie’s slow pacing and lack of action. The film was a terrible box office dud, and even critics were mixed on it. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking movie ripe for rediscovery. Sadly, it has yet to be released on Blu-ray. Although you can find it in high-definition on some streaming platforms, they’re inexplicably limited to basic stereo sound, when even the DVD had 5.1. The movie deserves better treatment than it has received.

Your Turn

Tell us about your favorite smart sci-fi movies in the Comments.


  1. Elizabeth

    I would second Solaris. Clooney’s simple line, “Maybe I remembered her wrong,” is pretty haunting when you think back on events on your life. Was that person really as great as I remember? Was that event really so terrible? How much has been reshaped by the passage of time. The theme is kind of echoed in Inception in the character of Mal who is only ever seen as a remembered version. But I would have to correct Josh thag Solaris isn’t a remake of a movie, it’s a new adaptation of the original novel. I was actually inspired enough by the film to read the novel.

    I know Millenium is a fairly cheesy sci-fi movie, but I still there’s something fascinating about the idea of time travelers coming back to take disaster victims to the future in an attempt to save the human species.

      • Opinionhaver

        Pertinent to your comment Josh, here is an excerpt of a review I wrote in 2008:

        “(The novel)’Solaris’ is a real mind-bender (which I strongly suggest to anyone with a couple extra bucks and an Amazon account), asking the reader to re-evaluate the true nature of life, consciousness, intelligence, knowledge, love, God, and existence itself, beyond the limitations that man’s definitions provide for them.  Tarkovsky’s film, while excellent at moments, was more of a platform for his own artistic self-indulgence.  To a degree, I suppose that’s true of all directors.  In the end, Solaris works best if considered a companion piece to the book.  On its own, Solaris is very technically sound, and the emotional subject matter is an interesting contrast to the cold, dark atmosphere of space.  It’s just missing that special ingredient.”

        • Opinionhaver

          I also think Clooney’s performance in Solaris is the best he’s ever done. Next to Return of the Killer Tomatoes of course.

  2. Erik Walsh

    Retroactive is a good slice of time travel with an ending I didn’t see coming or expect, although it’s so simple it makes sense.
    Zardoz is a guilty pleasure, but you can’t go wrong with Sean Connery vs. immortals.

    • Daryl D

      Loved it! Definitely requires someone to pay very close attention, but I loved it all the more for being a very intelligent sci-fi flick.

    • Daryl D

      I loved Sunshine until it took a turn in the final act (don’t want to have any spoilers). Seemed like they were making a great movie until some studio bean counter said that it required something more cliche to be successful at the box office and we ended up with a very different third act.

  3. NJScorpio

    I’m glad to see ‘Primer’ and ‘The Man From Earth’ mentioned!

    I’m surprised one of my favorites wasn’t mentioned, ‘Europa Report’. I’m no astronaut, but the science felt pretty solid all throughout (and it was an exciting movie).

  4. Bolo

    ‘Her’ is one of the best films of the last twenty years and one of the few sci-fi films that I feel really gets where we are heading, or at least where we are.

    But as for stuff that wasn’t already mentioned…

    I thought ‘Shin Godzilla’ was a pretty clever take on a genre that usually stives for epic stupidity. I don’t have a problem with how kaiju movies are usually pretty stupid, but it was cool to see one with this amount of thought put into it.

    I remember enjoying ‘The One I Love’ as a pretty neat little film. Maybe more fantasy than sci-fi, but still, good exploration of romantic relationships.

    On tv, ‘Rick & Morty’ just finished a stellar third season, and I am looking forward to seeing where they go with ‘Westworld’.

    • Bolo

      Also, nobody mentioned John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’. A pretty brilliant film about the lack of potential that lies within most men. You rarely see a movie that really confronts the audience about their likely mediocrity.

  5. William Henley

    This is a tough topic, because some of the best sci-fi movies are also good action movies (Terminator, Aliens, Demolition Man, etc).

    I will second Contact, however, it is a difficult movie to understand the climax if you haven’t read the novel – you are stuck with “the alien is her dad? WTF?” I honestly feel that the movie would have been significantly better if it was about 5-10 minutes longer and they did a bit more with the aliens – it was a good portion of the book.

    I have got to watch how I word this one. I am going to have to add Dune. The reason I am being careful, though, is my reasoning behind it. The novel was fantastic sci-fi. The SciFi (before they became SyFy) miniseries followed the book very closely, but was plagued by very low production costs (if you watch the Blu-Ray of it, which is interesting, because some, but not all,of the special effects, were rendered in SD, but in the Blu-Ray, you can actually see seams in the background where they were fit together on the stage). However, I would call this smart sci-fi. The movie has significantly higher production costs, but is plagued by horrible acting, and some changes to the story that are just laughable, but may be the more enjoyable of the two. So, I will go with the Dune Mini-series being smart sci-fi, even though the movie is more enjoyable.

    It is so tempting to want to throw in some big name movies, but I am trying to refrain from that.

    Flight of the Navigator is one of my favorite movies growing up, and may have been the movie that really gave me a taste for real science. You are dealing with the concept of time versus speed in space travel, which allows us to have a time travel movie that makes sense. We have a robotic spaceship because, as stated, time travel can be fatal to humanoid flesh (although other animals seem to be fine with it, but whatever).

    The Host may boarderline between what is a popular movie and what isn’t. Granted, the story may not be original, but I found this to be an enjoyable movie.

    Because this movie got a lot of hate, I am throwing it in there – Tomorrowland. I was fascinated with the time travel / alternative reality take they did – it was not something I was expecting. I also loved the idea that, when walking in a hologram, you are still moving in the real world, which can lead to issues. Interesting concept. The science was not well explained, but I am giving them kudos for it being both cerebral and original.

    While this movie was a big movie, I am throwing it out because I thought it was great but a lot of people HATED it with a passion, and that is The Matrix Revolutions. SPOILER ALERT: The big reveal at the end that Neo was actually programmed into the Matrix and that he wasn’t even the first Neo, and the Matrix would pretty much reset every time, was a total surprise. Then you had to ponder if characters such as the Oracle were really rebel programs or were there to make sure the cycle continued. It was a total mind-job, and very well written for a surprise ending.

    A movie that I thought was intellectual when it came out, but just aged very badly, was Lawnmower Man. The idea that you could use VR goggles and flashes of light to help unlock someone’s mind, was a new concept to me at the time (although I did find out later that similar ideas were done before). I think, though, what I was more impressed by, was the computer animation. People say it has aged horribly, but there is something I just love about this style of animation,

    I am going to go for a stretch on this movie – Galaxy Quest. The reason for this is the movie’s self-awareness over how corney it is. The concept that an advanced civilization received broadcasts from Earth of a corney science fiction show, and turned it into reality, just worked so well. There was even a line in the movie – “This wasn’t a well written episode” – that was brilliant. It basically allowed them to do whatever they wanted, and have it make perfect sense. It then brought about the ethical question about what harm our broadcasts could do to another civilization if they were to receive them, and who is responsible for the destruction of another species.

    • Barsoom Bob

      William, I’m with you on Contact and the dueling Dunes and the Host if you are talking about the Korean one, although that is more of a monster movie but a damn good one. The Matrix was a masterpiece, but could have stopped at the first movie.

      At the end of Contact, the aliens are certainly inside her brain and picked her most comforting memory, to manifest themselves as, to make her as at ease as possible as they laid a pretty heavy info dump on her.

      • William Henley

        Yes, but the point I was making about Contact is that in the movie, the ending isn’t really explained well – it is rushed and most of the audience completely misses it. It is much better explained in the book.

        As for The Host, I am referring to the Stephanie Meyers one. I didn’t really go into why. Rick and Morty had a similar theme in one of their episodes – it is the idea that, if you are doing something that benefits the people and the overall population, but the people don’t want it, are you really benefiting them?

        Yes, The Matrix didn’t need the four sequels (the story was told in multiple media, so I am counting Enter The Matrix and the Animatrix as well), but the fact that the sequels were nowhere as good as the originals does not mean they are not good sci-fi, and quite intellectual at that.

        • Barsoom Bob

          You gave a WTF as to why the father was there, I just explained it. Whether the book was better than the movie, it probably was, as they usually are.

          • William Henley

            Reread my original comment – it said that if you hadn’t read the book, you are left with a “WTF” moment

          • Barsoom Bob

            This is silly to argue over, but what I wrote is practically verbatim dialogue from the movie, I don’t think it is actually a WTF moment, strange, yes. The “father” tells us, the audience, why he looks like that. That is all, go back and watch it again, it is there.

  6. Jon

    While it was definitely more action oriented than a lot of movies on here I though Minority Report was great Sci-Fi. There are a lot of really heady questions in there about predestination vs. choice.

    Even though the ending is usually tossed away as tonally jarring Spielberg mush, I think the popular alternate explanation of Anderton’s fate fits in well and ends up turning this movie into one of Spielberg’s darkest,

    • Barsoom Bob

      Sorry to ruin it for you :-), but I think we are in a golden run of good, intelligent sci-fi right now. Despite being made for peanuts, Moon, Predestination and Looper were all very good. Big bucks, Interstellar, Arrival, Bladerunner 2049, Ex Machina and Annihilation. Not to mention TV Westworld, Man in the High Castle, Handmaid’s Tale and, although it was cheesy, Altered Carbon was kind of interesting, Black Mirror. That is quite a lot to be thankful for, I consider this a great sci-fi period.

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