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Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists His Top 10 Science Fiction Movies - How Many Have You Seen?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
June 10, 2014 2:42 PM
10 Comments
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Neil deGrasse Tyson

I remember the venom he found himself on the receiving end of, when he took to Twitter last October to debunk the science in the award-winning sci-fi box office hit "Gravity." Unlike those folks, I actually appreciated his contribution, which didn't spoil my enjoyment of the movie. He's a scientist for chrissake! He won't be doing his job if he remained silent. I was able to separate the two (fact and fiction), and didn't quite understand what the raucous was all about.


And whenever Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks, I'm always interested in what he has to say. It's rare to have a black man in his position of influence (not that this is the only reason why I pay attention). So, naturally, when I stumbled upon his top 10 list of science fiction films, I had to take a look, and share here.

The list comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, published as Tyson's FOX series, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," comes to an end, after a 13-episode run (it's being released today on Blu-ray by the way).

So what kind of sci-fi movie fascinates Neil deGrasse Tyson, who claims to love big-budget science fiction films, and who requires that they stretch the imagination of visual effects pros, creating a vision of the future we either know that we don’t want, or know that we do?

Take a look at his list below, accompanied by his commentary on each. 

I've seen them all, except "The Quiet Earth," so it's a film that I'll be seeking out this week, most certainly.

The most surprising entry on his list is "The Island" - a movie directed by Michael Bay, which I was underwhelmed by, in part, because, it felt like 2 separate films squeezed into 1. At first, it tries to instruct, by exploring ethical concepts, but, in the 2nd half, becomes your standard Michael Bay loud, special-effects-heavy action movie.

I also don't share his enthusiasm for "Watchmen." There's a much better "Watchmen" movie to be made some time in the future, I think. But maybe the creator of the original source material, Alan Moore, was absolutely right when he said that "Watchmen" is inherently un-filmable. He even refused to see the film. 

Tyson's list and commentary follows below; if anything, it makes me want to revisit all these films, many of which I haven't watched in years. "The Quiet Earth" is of most interest, since it's the only one I haven't seen.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): The story was so strong and compelling that the film did not require heavy special effects or monsters or violence to be simultaneously hopeful and terrifying.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Perhaps the first film to be all about the discovery of alien intelligence yet not show what it looks like, knowing that our imagination could surely do a better job than Hollywood. In any case, it was a visual orgy of space travel and space exploration that we remain far from achieving, even 13 years after the 33 years-in-the-future it portrayed.

Planet of the Apes (1968): Saw this again recently and it held up over all these years in many important details. Had not appreciated when I first saw it. The hierarchy of apes that ran the planet, chimps were the academics, baboons were the soldiers, orangutans were the diplomats. An action-adventure movie that was an insightful mirror to our lives and our civilization.

The Terminator (1984): Deftly woven action, violence, sentient machines, a heroine and time travel. All stitched together in a tight and scarily plausible storyline. And, when you think about it, a perfect acting vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a mostly mute terminator, whom many would rather look at than listen to.

The Quiet Earth (1985): Low budget, low distribution. One of many films that imagine for you what life might be like if you were the last person alive on Earth. In this case, the premise, the story, the casual science literacy of the main character, keeps the viewer in suspense the entire time, wondering what the hell happened and why.

Contact (1997): The second film that I know of that is all about contact with alien intelligence and yet does not offer you a glimpse of what they look like. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Carl Sagan advised Arthur C. Clarke to not show aliens in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Contact” itself is Carl Sagan’s Story. A brilliant exploration of how our culturally and religiously pluralistic society might react to the knowledge that we have been contacted by a species more intelligent than we are.

Deep Impact (1998): There have been many asteroid/comet disaster films. But this one took the time to get most of the physics right, and made sure you cared about all the characters in the film so that their prospect of dying matters to the viewer. And Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of the president of the United States may be the best ever.

The Matrix (1999): My top film in any category. From the opening credits to final scenes, every moment of this film is so fully conceived and so well executed that in spite of the complete fantasy world portrayed, the viewer was there, experiencing it with the characters themselves.

The Island (2005): Apart from too many minutes of gratuitous chase scenes, I think this movie is profound in its message as well as visually stunning. A rare study of science in the service of vanity, mixed with an exploration of corporate profits, human identity and free will. I’ve always viewed “Gattaca” (1997) as a lower-budget cousin of this film.

Watchmen (2009): I don’t know if I am alone in thinking that “Watchmen” is the best-of-genre among all superhero films. I liked it because the characters had fully expressed, complex personality profiles.  They experience love, hate, revenge, megalomania, moral anguish and trepidation. Nothing polished about them. For this reason, they were all more real to me. If the world really did have superheroes in it, “Watchmen” is the world it would be.

Runner-up…

Blade Runner (1982): This story was simultaneously deep and scary. But I never warmed to it the way so many lovers of the genre have. Which makes this comment more of a confession than a review.

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10 Comments

  • JG | June 11, 2014 1:39 AMReply

    My list--wp.me/pwAWe-ZM

    Agree on Watchmen. T2 was a better film than Terminator. Aliens better than Alien. I did include Blade Runner.

    Not a fan of Contact or 2001.
    ...

    Uh-Dr. Strangelove isn't a sci-fi movie.

  • Miles Ellison | June 10, 2014 9:15 PMReply

    Blade Runner is runner up? Contact, Deep Impact, and The Island are bad movies.

  • Jamie | June 10, 2014 5:28 PMReply

    Wow... What about Alien? Dr strange love? The empire strikes Back? Gravity?

  • Justin D. | June 10, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    The Island is a bad film, but I can't help but like it. It's kind of a guilty pleasure of mine.

  • audiodramatist | June 10, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    The Quiet Earth is excellent. Great film.
    I would include the only film Saul Bass directed: Phase IV (1974).

  • Mtume | June 10, 2014 2:55 PMReply

    Someone needs to send Neil a copy of Tarkovsky's classic's "Solaris" and "Stalker". Better than all 10 films he mentioned

  • rui | June 26, 2014 1:40 AM

    I think he doesnt mention those films because they are not sci-fi films (said by Tarkovsky himself). They are more about psychological and metaphysical questions. Doesn't fit in the category of sci-fi films otherwise he had to write a book for review them :)

  • mtume smoking rocks | June 11, 2014 5:09 PM

    you're smoking rocks if you think Stalker's better than The Matrix or frankly, most of these movies. Some of you just like pseudo-intellectual artsy bores.

  • Tamara | June 11, 2014 10:36 AM

    I'm sure he has seen Tarkovsky's works. Tarkovsky IS my favorite director/filmmaker ever.

    I was surprised to see "The Island" on the list...

    "Blade Runner" is a hit or miss with most.

  • Carol | June 10, 2014 3:15 PM

    And you don't think he's seen them?

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