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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Counts Down His Top Ten Sci-Fi Movies

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Live Long & ProsperNeil deGrasse Tyson is the closest thing modern science has to a rock star. To call him this generation’s Carl Sagan isn’t too far off. The Harvard-trained astrophysicist has a unique ability to take complex theoretical concepts and make them accessible to a wide audience, and be totally engaging at the same time. Hell, he even helped reboot Sagan’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which wraps up its 13-episode run this Sunday on various Fox channels.

Over the years, Tyson has also taken it upon himself to chime in on various movies that may not be using science in the proper way, or that have blatantly ignored the laws of physics. He absolutely eviscerated that scene J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness where the Enterprise hides underwater. So you have to assume that, given his penchant for pointing out scientific flaws in movies, he must watch a fair amount of them. Hero Complex took it upon themselves to get in touch with him and inquire about his tastes in the genre. What follows are Neil deGrasse Tyson’s top ten favorite sci-fi movies, in chronological order, with one honorable mention. You may find some of them surprising.

I like big-budget science fiction films. My list, with two exceptions, bears this out. I want science fiction films to stretch the talent and imagination of visual effects experts. And the film above all else should create a vision of the future we either know that we don’t want, or know that we do.

the day the earth stood stillThe 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.

20012001: 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 ApesPlanet 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.

terminator tvThe 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 EarthThe 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.

contactContact (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 ImpactDeep 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.

MatrixThe 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 islandThe 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.

WatchmenWatchmen (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.

And the runner up is…

BladeRunnerBlade 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.

There are, admittedly, some unexpected titles on this list. 2001, Blade Runner, you’re likely to see those on most top sci-fi lists. You don’t, however, come across Zach Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen on too many, and Michael Bay’s The Island appears on even less.

Comments

  • stargazer3

    I can’t believe Neil picked The Day the Earth Stood Still. That was the very first Sci Fi movie I thought of.

    • Steve

      believe it.

    • Jeffrey Jones

      I loved that movie when I was a kid. I can’t believe that Neil had no comment that the visitor only travelled “98 million miles” to et here. Still, the remake would have been better if it were true to this film

      • stargazer3

        I still love that movie. I think it’s great because it really scared me as a kid and it wasn’t hoaky like most of the sci-fi movies of that time period. I never saw the remake and don’t want to because you can’t improve on a classic like that, you know?

    • mimi

      I’m glad to see that he choose The Day the Earth Stood Still. As a child of the 50’s this movie captured my imagination and opened my mind to the possibilities of an alien race more intelligent than ourselves. I still watch it every chance I get.

  • Laurie Neufeld

    I still own The Quiet Earth on VHS, having seen it for the first time when I lived in Australia in the late 80’s (it’s a New Zealand movie, which explains its lack of exposure). Subtle, funny, scary and, at the end, ultimately hopeful. LOVE it.

    • SmilingAtheist

      I own it and The dAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, both on DVD

  • Lukas Meza

    oh man, cool movies in this ilst, but i will have encounters of the third kind, ghost in the shell, akira and definitely blade runner on the list.

  • Samuel Pérez García

    Actually, Watchmen is a pretty good film, and definitely one of the best superhero films ever. Zack Snyder did back to back near perfect adaptations of graphic novels.

    I also like The Island, thought it was pretty well done, and might be Michael Bay’s best film overall (I know that’s not saying much).

    • Kathystefani

      I agree and am surprised that Neil expressed my exact sentiments about this film.People either love it or hate it. also thought Day The Earth Stood Still and Planet Of the Apes were good chices, and of course Contact,I would have to add Forbidden Planet,The Incredible Shrinking Man and Soylent Green. The Watchmen is my favorite superhero movie ever, and it has a great soundtrack.The songs fit well into the content of the scenes and the overall story. Excellent overlooked film.

      • Steve

        I am sure that he is pleased that you agree with him.

    • CancellingtheApocalypse

      The Island seemed like Logan’s Run to me with a different twist. I did like the different twist. I believe the Island was sued for copywrite infringement by something else

      • Lacey W

        And that suit was dismissed. The original movie was “Parts: The Clones Horror.” A 1970s TV movie with the same story line. Peter Graves, was the star.

    • Trey Reeves

      I wonder if he’s aware that the plot for The Island was stolen from another movie called Parts: The Clonus Horror, with Peter Graves and Dick Sargent.

      • Eric Willhelm

        you only know that due to MST3K :P

        • Trey Reeves

          No, I’m a big Paulette Breen fan.

  • Frank Target

    He left out Forbidden Planet. Major mega early Hard Sci fi.

    • Morbius

      It’s there – you missed it.

      • Lacey W

        We all seemed to have missed it because it is not there.

  • eriFnOliveD

    I only depend on my list. Never cared what anyone else thought of anything I liked or disliked. Love how people that are so against worship, and yet seem to worship this guy (just sayin). And Where the F is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You would think that it would have made the mini list with Neils background, then again some people just can not swallow Richard Dreyfuss as a actor… :o)

    • Deep Throat

      I don’t remember that scene. Was it in the porno version?

    • cinesimonj

      I respect him – therefore I worship him.
      Yeah – you’re just sayin’. You psychic realist, you.
      And I, too, always post my opinions when I don’t care what people think of my opinions. Especially when the post is to declare that I don’t care what people thin of my opinions! My posts are never anywhere near as excellent as your is though.

      • eriFnOliveD
  • sounder

    No Star Wars on his list?

    • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

      not sci-fi

      • sounder

        Use Google! SW is sci-fi.

        • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

          it’s space fantasy. it’s about wizards with shiny swords, battling the armored troops of the evil dark knight

          • Morbius

            It is SciFi. Just because it doesn’t fit your narrow definition, doesn’t make it a fact. You can argue that it is bad SciFi – that is defensible, although many would disagree.

          • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

            nah man, you’re wrong. it’s not sci-fi any more than star trek is a ww2 documentary

          • androphiles

            Science fiction takes real science as its starting point. Star Wars isn’t based on science; it’s pure fantasy.

          • CantTakeTheSky FromMe

            Star Wars is more of a sci-fi movie than Watchmen, and that’s on his list. Labels are a matter of opinion.

          • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

            watchmen had actual science in it (accurate or not), star wars is just mysticism in a space setting. no science involved

          • ace

            Sci-Fi IS fantasy!

          • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

            no dumbass, science fiction is not the same as fantasy unless you’re broadening the genres beyond applicability

    • Macroscopic debris

      Space opera, not hard sci-fi.

      • sounder

        It’s still sci-fi.

        • Macroscopic debris

          The thing about the space opera genre is that the story doesn’t require the sci-fi qualities. It could just as well be full flung magical fantasy. The sci-fi elements facilitate the plot much less and the fact that they’re sci-fi elements is unimportant to the plot.

          • CantTakeTheSky FromMe

            And where would you place Watchmen in your narrow labeling view of movie genres? Neil considers it sci-fi, as it’s on his list – and Star Wars is more sci-fi than Watchmen.

          • Macroscopic debris

            He liked it for its qualities that call forth interesting science, but it isn’t a sci-fi movie per se, and I think everyone in the room knows that. The problem with Star Wars being called sci-fi is that it just doesn’t need the science to justify itself anymore than magic. I’m not the one that makes this stuff up. Refer to the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.

      • Lacey W

        But you classify The Matrix as hard sci-fi?

        • Macroscopic debris

          No, it’s softer, but it is a classic and set new milestones of its own, and still well above Star Wars in sci-fi hardness. Tyson didn’t strictly say these were all hard sci-fi. A movie might be a sci-fi favorite for its standout ideas rather than the whole, while others will be favorites for believability and realism (hardness). Star Wars doesn’t go too far out in its ideas nor does it strive for realism.

    • Jon Zombiehunter Downing

      Which one?

  • Rich Flores

    I’m more surprised by no Star Trek, any single one of them….

    • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

      because they’re all shit

      • androphiles

        Tell us how you really feel.

        • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

          ok. i feel like all the star trek movies and all the episodes of all star trek tv shows, they’re all shit

          • androphiles

            So you’ve seen every one of them? How else would you know? And if you thought each and every one so bad, why did you keep on watching?

          • Macroscopic debris

            I watched Pacific Rim. It was shit, but I still found it entertaining. Guilty pleasures.

          • Macroscopic debris

            As an analogy, I think Pacific Rim is pretty shitty, but I still found it entertaining for reasons.

          • Lacey W

            Ignorance seems to be your biggest bliss.

          • Bjarne-Kjell Otervik

            getting personally offended at people not liking your silly space movies seems to be yours

    • Macroscopic debris

      Star Trek isn’t hard sci-fi.

    • http://www.myrtlebeachwebdesign.com/ Jan Chilton

      Me too. That will always be on the top of my list. If not the movies, the series…Next Gen and Voyager at least.

  • Phil

    A great list from a great guy.

  • Jason

    Great List!

  • xamm

    wow ! “The forbidden planet” didn’t ring his tamale?

  • http://www.BluTintphotography.com Lieutenant Norals IV

    Nice list

  • Ben Angotti

    Very surprised at The Island over Gattaca. My list likely looks childish in comparison to Neil’s. It’s based more on my reaction (and childhood nightmares) than plausibility of the events.

    Event Horizon – In more capable hands this really could have been great. Lose the Hell and insert a horrific parallel universe where physics/space/time are the enemy. Could have been great. The beginning was great though.

    Terminator – Nightmares galore, and it still holds up today as an awesome piece of fiction.

    Alien – Simply terrifying. Throw in HR Gigers best film work and I’m sold (I wish they made The Tourist)

    Aliens – More action than sci-fi, yet thrilling from start to finish. Cameron is great at fleshing out characters. +Bill Paxtons Hudson was hilarious.

    Akira – Had to throw it in there for the animation, and, admittedly the fact that I don’t quite get it but loved it.

    Existenz – Creative and twisted. Sort of reminds me of Inception but with the Cronenburg touch

    District 9 – Terrific pacing and interesting political commentary. Sticks with you. I actually really liked Elysium, but this is superior.

    Inception – Just a cool concept, despite the plotholes. And the direction and special effects are nearly perfect.

    Gattaca – Really struck a chord with me. Displayed a depth to the characters that Bay completely avoided in the Island. Who doesn’t dream of going to space.

    The Thing(1982) – One of my favorite movies of all time. Carpenters best in my opinion. Grotesque as it is chilling. Top notch effects for its time. My #1 if I had to pick from this list.

    Geez there’s more: Sunshine, Dark City, Matrix, 12 Monkeys +so many more I’m blanking on…One I know would be in my top five and just can’t come up with at the moment

    Not so honorable mention: Proteus – B-movie at best. Completely nuts, but hit the sci-horror mark well in some places. For some reason the nurse on the ship freaked me out as a teenager(she’s in it for 5 minutes). That one part stuck with me for some reason. You can watch it on netflix, but skip it if you don’t dig cheesy effects. I really don’t know why I like it, sorta like the smell of gasoline.

    • Senoritarma

      I too looked for GATTACA, & was thoroughly disappointed. It is one of my favorites, perhaps it is because I am biology educator. However, I do agree with most of the other films.

      • Senoritarma

        Besides it is not a “low budget” film. It is truly an intellectual interpretation of future prospects for genetic engineering/manipulation. Besides the music/soundtrack that accompanied this film, was superb.
        Just saying!

        • Ben Angotti

          Totally agree with you about Gattaca!
          I was truly disappointed by The Island. Awesome visuals due to a massive budget? Yes. But Bay completely dropped the ball on what was essentially a very good concept.
          Gattaca brilliantly handled one mans ordeal to overcome his predetermined fate and achieve his dream. And the music fit PERFECTLY.
          Bay squandered an excellent story, and actors. Who needs plot development when we have chase scenes, fight scenes, corny dialog, explosions(!), Johansson looking sexy etc?
          I honestly didn’t consider the story because of these elements. Now i have to watch it again! Dammit Neil!(joking of course)
          Also I haven’t seen a few on Neils list. I have no adequate excuse for that!

      • Rosa Amalia

        GATTACA is one of my all-time favorite movies and it is a WAY better movie than The Island! I can’t believe he called it the “low budget cousin”!

  • Marianna Arvay

    I’m thrilled to realize that I would
    put together a quite similar listing, although I would probably substitute Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Watchmen, not only because I love Close Encounters, but because I’m not much of a superhero genre fan.

  • http://florinfecioru.wordpress.com/ Florin

    I’m surprised Watchmen is in there. But Watchmen ,as the comic or the movie, is close to a rendition of how a world of fear and god-like “people” would look like. We’re too stupid to handle too much power – look at what we did with the ability to split atoms.

  • Arthur C. Hurwitz

    He got it wrong: In “Planet of the Apes,” the Gorillas were the warriors. The apes would have regarded being thought of as Baboons or Monkeys as derogatory.
    One movie I would have expected on his list which was not present, and also has an environmental message was “Silent Running.” Where is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”

  • ArcturianTraveller

    I guess Neil was rattling these off the top of his head. Yea, I agree with many here who say he left out Forbidden Planet, the first of the intelligent sci-fi genre. Certainly Inception and Existenz belong here, so many others. Add to this list, Cloud Atlas, Sci fi channel remake of Dune and Children of Dune ( Herbert), Zardoz, The Man Who Fell to Earth (unlikely alien), A Boy and His Dog (Harlan Ellison), Nightfall (Asimov),Man From Earth (Bixby), The Lathe of Heaven ( earlier PBS version – LeGuin), a host of other Philip K. Dick inspired movies, like Through a Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau, and Minority Report ( glade he mentioned Blade Runner ), Open Your Eyes ( not the Vanilla Sky version of it), and of course the quirky Liquid Sky. Of course there is Wrath of Khan, and the equally entertaining Nemesis, as well as about a dozen Star Trek episodes, mostly Next Generation, and about a half dozen Farscape and Babylon Five episodes. I am glad someone mentioned Dark City, and I don’t see Donnie Darko on anyone’s list…both really fine cult classic sci-fiers. There is more for sure, these are just off the top of my head.

    • rocketman

      The soldiers in POTA were Gorillas…not baboons.

    • Ben Angotti

      Thanks for listing those! I haven’t seen a lot of them. If you liked Zardoz check out The Holy Mountain. Might be more of a bad trip than sci-fi, but has that 70’s craziness to it.

  • Jungian

    No Moon? But very happy he had Watchmen on the list!

  • Drumhobo

    Where’s Star Wars, or Sunshine?

  • ackthbbft

    “..baboons were the soldiers…”

    Oh, Neil, this is the only time I feel disappointed in you. They were gorillas, and baboons are not apes.

  • Loren Mosley

    People may think I am crazy, but Charlie Sheen movie ‘The Arrival’ was a great sci-fi film.

    • Brent McKnight

      I got your back on “The Arrival,” that shit is gold. Also written and directed by the guy who did the Riddick movies.

    • Rich Flores

      Absolutely. I had the arrival on VHS when I was a teenager and used to watch it all the time!!!

  • Margaret Ann Larcomb

    I am in complete agreement with regard to The Matrix.

  • Mike

    What about Dune!?

    • Ronald Rees

      if not the movie…the book(s)

  • http://xsmarkthespot.squarespace.com/ Kerra4

    I am with you on The Watchmen and Matrix. Those two films, in the theater took me away from my every day and immersed me into their worlds. Even when I watch them today I still am gripped by the mix of art and science. Plus… Day the Earth Stood Still, the first scifi film I watched at 4 yrs old. Hooked me forever in the science and film world.

  • Steve

    my favorite sci-fi is, Cosmos.

    • Rags

      It’s not sci fi, its science.

  • Jeffrey Jones

    I don’t think many people give completely honest answers to questions like these, but Neil has repeatedly mentioned some of these on his podcast. Lists always include obligatory movies my generation has seen as children and the classics that don’t really stand up. I think there are many newer mind-bending and slickly-written stories like Source Code and The Host. These aren’t my favorite movies, but they are just different and provoke discussion. I’d like to hear his opinion on them.

  • sounder

    Alien?

  • Don Paul

    I guess “Plan 9 From Outer Space” didn’t make the cut. :) Seriously, I agree with another poster who feels “Forbidden Planet” should have been included. Except for an unacceptably dumb cook (Earl Holliman), that was a highly imaginative story with spectacular special effects.

  • Sputnick

    All great films. Own them all. Like them for all their different view on humanity and alien contact. Really thought provoking films.

  • M McCoy

    Love Neil, and I agree with almost all on this list (preferred Gattaca)

    But, IMHO modern science DOES have a rock star: Professor Brian Cox.

  • Jonathan

    nothing was Star Trek I love it the serious but it was always so religious

  • Joe_HTH

    No Star Wars? For shame Neil. Although many classify Star Wars as fantasy.

  • Liadan

    Very disappointed. First he gets the Vulcan sign wrong, then he gets the Planet of the Apes wrong. It was not baboons who were the soldiers, it was the gorillas. He’s better than that. His movie choices were pretty good though.

  • deep_crow

    He did make his preference for big-budget Hollywood movies known before sharing his list of favorites. Which is good, because I can’t think of any other reason that would cause the Watchmen, Jesus wept, to come out over Blade Runner. He also falls into the target demographic for the soundtrack, which was totally cliche Boomer catnip. (The worst part? I had to watch it several times, because Rorschach was dead-on, undiluted bad ass. :P )

  • Nick Evetts

    I thought in the Planet of the Apes the military were Gorillas and the leaders were Orangutans……..

  • Don Reid

    DAY EARTH 1951 begins as one of the most imaginative SciFi films ever–how DID that spaceman turn off all the world’s power for 30 minutes without harming anyone?–and ends with a sobering Cold War warning about the dangers of nuclear war. Not to forget those great noir scenes with Patricia Neal & Gort. Or that unbelievable quote by Hugh Marlowe, “You’ll feel different when you read about me in the morning papers.” I could write pages about this one.

  • Christopher Calliope

    Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064177/

    Wins

    Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Golden Scroll of Merit, Stanley Chase, for theatrical motion picture production; 1979.
    Nominations

    Hugo Awards: Hugo, Best Dramatic Presentation; 1971.

  • Fernando Maneca

    I watched The Matrix tonight … to commemorate the dawn of AI … I think?!?

  • Jon Zombiehunter Downing

    I can’t believe event horizon isn’t there