Time travel, extraterrestrial life forms and highly advanced technology are just a few familiar concepts of the science-fiction genre, and with little to no boundaries, the genre has branched out through the years into several popular subgenres, specifically hard science-fiction. Unlike its core counterpart, hard science fiction requires scientific accuracy and a logical scenario that could be entirely plausible in the near or distant future of society.

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While many science-fiction films are partially rooted in the subgenre, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Fifth Element, there are some movies like Gattaca and Her that surpass others and meet the qualifications of solid hard science-fiction films. Out of countless titles, such as Ridley Scott‘s The Martian and 2001: A Space Odyssey, these are the 10 best hard science-fiction movies, ranked.

10 ‘Sunshine’ (2007)

Directed by Danny Boyle

Cillian Murphy as Capa in Sunshine (2007)
Image via Searchlight Pictures

In the year 2057, the Earth’s sun is beginning to die, leaving the planet’s and humanity’s fate in the balance. In a final attempt to save Earth and its population, a crew of astronauts is sent into space with a device that could potentially revive the Sun, but when they experience a series of events and receive a distress call from a long-lost spacecraft, the crew, and their dire mission are completely thrown off track.

Sunshine is a mind-twisting science-fiction thriller featuring an ensemble cast of stars including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, and Mark Strong. Despite some criticism of the film’s final act, Sunshine received fairly positive reviews and was described, per the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as 2001: A Space Odyssey for a new generation, noting its strength in stunning visual effects and dazzling action. Sunshine’s premise may seem sensationalized, but screenwriter Alex Garlandadhered to scientific realism with the help of physicist Brian Cox, who consulted on the film.

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Sunshine

A team of international astronauts is sent on a dangerous mission to reignite the dying Sun with a nuclear fission bomb in 2057.

Release Date
April 5, 2007

Director
Danny Boyle

Cast
Cliff Curtis, Chipo Chung, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne

Rating
R

Runtime
108

Genres
Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller

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9 ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)

Directed by Alex Garland

Alicia Vikander touching a robot's face in 'Ex Machina'
Image via A24

After winning a contest at work, programmer, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) gets to spend a week at the estate of the company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac). When Smith arrives, he discovers that he has been chosen to be the human subject to help determine the intelligence of a humanoid, Ava (Alicia Vikander) who is more in tune and self-aware of the world around her than anyone ever expected.

With a score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, the sci-fi thriller, Ex-Machina received generally favorable reviews from critics including The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who praised the film as “a spooky piece of speculative fiction that’s completely plausible.” Robots and cyborgs are classic themes of the science-fiction genre and while most are a bit embellished for entertainment purposes, Ex-Machina gives audiences a realistic view into a world where humanoids are close to walking among humankind.

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Ex Machina

A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I.

Release Date
January 16, 2015

Director
Alex Garland

Cast
Domhnall Gleeson, Corey Johnson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Claire Selby

Rating
R

Runtime
108

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8 ‘Primer’ (2004)

Directed by Shane Carruth

Primer - 2004
Image via THINKFilm

Engineers, Aaron (Shane Currath) and Abe (David Sullivan) develop advanced error-detecting technology, and one day, they accidentally invent what appears to be a time machine. When Abe builds another machine capable of transporting a human, the two friends become obsessed with the possibilities their new creation could achieve, but they never expected their discovery would lead to dark and detrimental consequences.

Time travel is typically a fantasy element of the science-fiction genre, but the low-budget film, Primer adds a more realistic tone to the concept, making it a more plausible scenario. While Primer examines the potential of time travel, it also demonstrates the pluses and minuses of accidental discoveries and the lack of ethics some individuals have once they come into a position of power. A majority of audiences and critics were impressed with the film and credited it as the freshest science-fiction film since Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, per The Village Voice.

primer

Release Date
October 8, 2004

Director
Shane Carruth

Cast
Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford, Jay Butler

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
78

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Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Scientist, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has spent her entire career searching for signs of extraterrestrial life through radio emissions and receives funding to continue her research at the Very Large Array observatory in New Mexico. When her superior, Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) plans to terminate the program; Arroway discovers a message containing a sequence of prime numbers from an unknown sender and decides to make contact.

Robert Zemeckis‘ sci-fi drama, Contact, is an adaption of Carl Sagan‘s 1985 novel and also stars Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Angela Bassett, and Rob Lowe. Film critic Roger Ebert gave Contact three and a half stars, calling it the “smartest and most absorbing story about extraterrestrial intelligence since Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Additionally, The New York Times likens Dr. Ellie’s efforts to the real-life SETI scientists, particularly in the film’s depictions of their “strategy and techniques.”

Contact Film Poster

Contact

Release Date
July 11, 1997

Director
Robert Zemeckis

Cast
Jena Malone, David Morse, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner

Rating
PG

Runtime
150 minutes

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6 ‘Gattaca’ (1997)

Directed by Andrew Niccol

In a dystopian society, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) dreams about traveling into outer space, but since he is considered to be an “in-valid” subject, he’s grounded indefinitely. In an effort to alter his fate, he assumes the identity of a genetically-engineered “valid” and joins the Gattaca space program. While his plan starts off accordingly, his newfound destiny is soon jeopardized by an investigation into the death of a Gattaca officer.

Hawke stars in this underrated science-fiction thriller alongside notable stars including Uma Thurman and Jude Law. The movie explores the controversial theory of eugenics, the practice of altering someone’s genetic makeup, and the impact it could potentially have on society. Despite being a flop at the box office – earning a little over $12 million on a budget of $36 millionGattaca received overall positive reviews from critics, who praised the thought-provoking plot and the film’s bold energy.

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5 ‘Moon’ (2009)

Directed by Duncan Jones

Astronaut, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is close to the end of his three-year shift on a lunar mine and has been counting down the days until he can finally see his family again. Two weeks before his return to Earth, Bell begins to experience intense headaches and hallucinations, and when he discovers what appears to be a younger version of himself, he must quickly figure out what’s going on before his company’s crew arrives.

Rockwell gives a stunning performance in the science-fiction thriller, Moon, which currently holds a fresh score of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Overall, Moon was praised by audiences and critics, including Roger Ebert who gave the film three and a half out of four stars, noting that the godfather of hard science-fiction, John W. Campbell Jr., would have approved of this superior example of the subgenre.

Moon

Release Date
June 12, 2009

Director
Duncan Jones

Cast
Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw, Adrienne Shaw, Kaya Scodelario

Rating
R

Runtime
97

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4 ‘The Martian’ (2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott

When a massive storm hits a group of astronauts on Mars, they must quickly evacuate and end up leaving behind one of their crew members, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who they presume died in the storm. Soon after their departure, they learn that Watney is still alive, and with only a few supplies and limited oxygen to survive on, the crew and NASA race against the clock to find a way to bring him home before it’s too late.

Ridley Scott‘s The Martian is an adaptation of Andy Weir‘s 2011 novel by the same name and currently holds a score of 8 out of 10 on IMDb, as well as numerous Academy Award nominations. The Martian depicts an in-depth scenario that is entirely plausible for anyone who ventures beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. But there is one element in particular that has scientists intrigued: potato farming. On Mars, Mark and his team learn to grow food using human waste and rocket fuel. According to a Business Insider interview, scientist and film consultant Jim Green revealed that Mars does, in fact, contain nutrients and water to naturally fertilize crops. For a sci-fi movie, science is not too far off.

The Martian Film Poster

The Martian

Release Date
October 2, 2015

Director
Ridley Scott

Cast
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
144 minutes

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3 ‘Interstellar’ (2014)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Matthew McCounaghey and Anne Hathaway as Cooper and Brandt in Interstellar.
Image via Paramount Pictures

As Earth is plagued by a second Dust Bowl, the planet slowly becomes uninhabitable and threatens to wipe out the entire population. A physicist, John Brand (Michael Caine) believes he can save mankind by transporting everyone to another planet through a wormhole, but before he can execute his plan, former NASA pilot, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of astronauts must travel through the galaxy to find their new home.

Interstellar is a visual spectacle co-written by the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, and his brother, Jonathan Nolan,who had originally developed the script back in 2007. With a star-studded cast featuring Jessica Chastin, Anne Hathaway, and Matt Damon, Interstellar was met with positive reviews by critics and earned several Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Visual Effects. While the movie did incorporate absurd theories, like what actually happens when you enter a Black Hole (it might not be as beautiful as the multidimensional space Cooper finds himself in). But with the help of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Kip Thorne’s consulting, scientific advancements were actually made because of the movie.

interstellar-movie-poster

Interstellar

When Earth becomes uninhabitable in the future, a farmer and ex-NASA pilot, Joseph Cooper, is tasked to pilot a spacecraft, along with a team of researchers, to find a new planet for humans.

Release Date
November 7, 2014

Director
Christopher Nolan

Cast
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
169 minutes

Watch on Paramount+

2 ‘Her’ (2013)

Directed by Spike Jonze

Oscar-winning actor, Joaquin Phoenix, stars in Her as the sensitive and shy, Theodore Twombly, who is struggling to pick up the pieces of his life after the collapse of his marriage. As he tries to move on with his life, he finds comfort in a new operating system, and the program’s host, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who begins to develop a personality of her own, turning their initial friendship into something more.

The science-fiction romance marked Jonze’s solo screenwriting debut and earned the director the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay on top of several additional nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Score. The film received overall positive reviews from critics, including TIME Magazine’s Richard Corlisswho praised Phoenix’s performance as “seductive and winning.” It’s simple science fiction, but one that is rooted in modern loneliness and our relationship with technology.

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1 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) (1)

Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and a group of astronauts and scientists embark on an epic journey through space to the planet, Jupiter, with supercomputer HAL, serving as their guide. As they sail through the cosmos to their destination, Bowman and the others start to notice HAL displaying unusual behavior, leading to an intense showdown between man and machine.

Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is inspired by the 1951 short story, The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Kubrick. The film’s lack of dialogue and classically composed soundtrack immerses audiences into the isolation of space that’s heightened by innovative special effects, which earned Kubrick the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. While the movie initially earned mixed reviews, it has since become a cult classic, and in 2008, it was named the greatest science-fiction movie of all time by the American Film Institute.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

After uncovering a mysterious artifact buried beneath the Lunar surface, a spacecraft is sent to Jupiter to find its origins: a spacecraft manned by two men and the supercomputer HAL 9000.

Release Date
April 2, 1968

Director
Stanley Kubrick

Cast
Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack

Rating
G

Runtime
141

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