The 15 Best Hard Sci-Fi Movies That Define the Genre

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Science fiction author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury once said, “We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.” This is a remarkable piece of thought that explains why the genre of science fiction is limitless by essence. Everything is possible because, at the same time, we are the product of something impossible. It was a random blend of cells that started what we now call civilization. So, if something as beautiful as life was the product of something random, why shouldn’t our artistic expression expand onto random products of the imagination?

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The genre of science fiction has existed since the dawn of time. You only have to observe early art from past civilizations to understand that man has always had the capacity to think beyond what he’s supposed to. Literature became the entryway for these “forward thinkers,” who put on paper whatever their imagination spewed out in moments of pure illumination. Then it transcended into the medium of film, where suddenly we could evidence a beautiful translation of what only words could convey.

This was the birth of sci-fi cinema, an extremely successful format that allowed audiences to see their dreams (and nightmares) come true. At the same time, audiences saw the materialization of a natural offshoot of the genre. “Hard science fiction” called for themes of logic to be present in the discussion of the genre. More science than fiction. More possible instead of impossible.

We took a trip through decades of the genre and came up with a list of the most important and best hard science fiction movies of all time. They are the essence and the foundations of the book of sci-fi rules that’s still being written as we, the audience, become much more self-aware of our relationship with technology, the future, and whatever those two will bring.

15 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey

Release Date
April 2, 1968

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

Rating
G

Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of humankind in the future, when artificial intelligence has become an ideal aid for interstellar travel. Humans explore outer space and the signs of alien civilizations that suddenly show up on the moon. As space exploration gets more complex, humans get the opportunity to go to Jupiter, but the journey is interrupted by an improbable rebellion. Kubrick’s high-concept film is a wonderful and philosophical experience that’s much more relevant to our current times than we think.

The Basics of Hard Sci-Fi

While the film’s third act complies with its proposed supernatural subject, most of 2001: A Space Odyssey stems from an existential approach that’s very conservative and follows Kubrick’s idea of making a film that’s more about humankind and less about what’s out there. He doesn’t ever get close to a fantasy subject, and he even forces the film to be as real as possible. From a technical standpoint, it’s built upon a blueprint of what could be possible in the future, and it ends up depicting an ideal blend of technological marvels that are very real today. Considering the film was made more than 50 years ago, it seems like an ambitious glance into the future by a guy who was assessed by the right specialists who didn’t dare to speculate.

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14 Interstellar (2014)

interstellar
Interstellar

Release Date
November 5, 2014

Rating
PG-13

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

Interstellar, the ambitious sci-fi journey by Christopher Nolan, tells the story of Joseph Cooper, a former astronaut who’s approached by NASA in the middle of Earth’s desperate attempt to survive ecocide. Humans are trying to find a new home in outer space, and there seems to be a potential planet out there. The problem is that reaching means going through a wormhole, and Cooper is selected as one of the pilots who can lead the mission. This means Cooper abandons his own family in order to search for something that could save them in the future.

The Science Behind the Beautiful Fiction of Interstellar

The film didn’t have to be as realistic as it was. However, Nolan and his brother based their script on the findings and assessment by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Thorne provided the scientific backdrop that supports the entire film. In the end, Interstellar is a high-concept sci-fi movie with a dramatic element so strong that it overshadows the technical aspect, which confirms it’s one of the most scientifically accurate films ever made. A couple of years ago, when humankind took the first photograph ever taken of a black hole, most remembered Nolan’s film because of how similar it looked to what we saw Cooper go through in the film’s brilliant third act.

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13 Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca
Gattaca

Release Date
September 7, 1997

Rating
PG-13

In Andrew Niccol’s underrated sci-fi film Gattaca, the future of humankind is modeled after eugenics. The technology has been widely accepted, and now reproduction is led by the capacity to manipulate genes so that children bear the proper genetic traits and the improper ones are discarded early on. The film revolves around Vincent Freeman, a young man who dreams about going to space, but he was sadly conceived outside the program that would allow him to do it. Gattaca takes more of a thriller approach when Vincent becomes part of a murder conspiracy, through which he will discover the roots of a program that isn’t as ideal as it sounds.

A Smart Thriller We Don’t Acknowledge Enough

Although viewers instantly view Gattaca as a dystopian film, the scientific element of its premise isn’t exactly dark or even painted out to be negative. The whole genetic manipulation concept has been played with for years, and few see it as potentially harmful. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t exploit that darker aspect of its technological backdrop. Instead, it’s based on an emotional spiral that speaks clearly about the influence of human thought in a matter as ethically ambiguous as eugenics. Chances are that if this were to happen one day, it would eerily resemble the events of Niccol’s sci-fi movie.

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Related: 10 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows Based on Books, Ranked

12 Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972)
Solaris (1972)

Release Date
September 26, 1972

Director
Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast
Natalya Bondarchuk , Donatas Banionis , Jüri Järvet , Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy

Rating
PG

Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi triumph Solaris is a 1972 film that feels like the Russian director’s reply to Hollywood’s reverence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film, Kris Kelvin is a psychologist who gets sent to Solaris Station to investigate strange events that have stopped humankind’s mission to explore the planet Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the station, and the scientists that are supposed to be living there are nowhere to be found. Instead, Kelvin has an encounter with his dead wife, who appears to be alive and well.

Solaris Provides Emotion and Changes the Genre’s Landscape

Solaris is one of Tarkovsky’s best films. The winner of the “Grand Prix Spécial du Jury” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972 is an impressive sci-fi journey that uses a compelling premise to make the audience observe themes of individualism and existentialism. It’s one of the first films that used the space setting and the dread that’s often associated with it to tell a very emotional story about one man’s journey to believe the unbelievable, if that provides comfort while representing the loss of reason. It’s hard science fiction, but only when it addresses the unfriendly environment of space. Do you like Event Horizon? Then you will dig Solaris.

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11 Ex Machina (2015)

Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina tells the story of Caleb Smith, a computer whiz and programmer, who wins a contest at the company he works for to spend a week at the mansion where CEO Nathan Bateman lives. Once there, Caleb realizes he’s been selected by Bateman himself to do a Turing test. Caleb meets Ava, a sentient android created by Bateman who the programmer connects with and ultimately can’t stop. Ava becomes conscious of her circumstances and ultimately decides to rebel against her creator and anyone who stands in her way. To call her a villain is… questionable.

Artificial Intelligence Shows its (True) Face

Ex Machina feels like a creepy rendering of something inevitable, considering how close we are to technological dependence nowadays. In the conversation about making AI smarter each day, films like Ex Machina are seen as more fiction than science. However, in Garland’s movie, there’s nothing far-fetched. The most unbelievable aspect of the film is how great Ava looks and how fast Caleb falls for her. Now think of how artificial intelligence has been able to fool humans with a twisted version of reality. From deepfakes to simple photographs, we could be in the hands of Ava without knowing it, and there are no signs of us stopping from experiencing a horrific outcome.

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10 Coherence (2013)

James Ward Byrkit’s sci-fi sleeper hit Coherence was released in 2013, and since then, critics and audience members haven’t stopped talking about it. Yes, it’s that good. But also, it’s because everyone is still trying to figure out what’s actually happening in the film. The story is fairly simple: a group of friends is gathered on the night a comet will pass over Earth. Once it does, strange events start taking place. What are those events exactly? We’ll leave that for you to find out.

Hard Sci-Fi That’s Anything But Fancy

A very underrated sci-fi film that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The events in Coherence unravel in pure mumblecore fashion as party attendees realize they may be experiencing something out of this world. What actually happens outside the door is unbelievable, but this doesn’t stop them from exploring out of sheer curiosity. This attitude toward something very important proves Byrkit’s argument when deconstructing the basics of the human will when facing the improbable. Even though it stays within the confines and visual style of indie cinema, it doesn’t mean it isn’t much more relevant than the other big studio films on this list.

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9 Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine
Sunshine

Release Date
April 5, 2007

Rating
R

Danny Boyle’s science fiction thriller Sunshine tells the story of a crew of astronauts on a space mission to restart the Sun. Apparently, it’s dying, and humans have found a way to reignite it using a bomb in space. The problem is that the crew of Icarus II find that Icarus had sent a distress call. They will find out what happened the hard way when their ship suffers damage, and they must dock with the other one.

Impressive Genre Film Beyond the Start

Sunshine makes a great point of being hard sci-fi without limiting itself to following the rules and being a good-looking film. Not at all. Sunshine is anything but nice. It’s a harrowing psychological thriller that simply takes place in the void of space, where no one can hear you scream. And these astronauts have a lot to scream about. Boyle isn’t careless about providing a scientific background that can support his film, but the horror of what ultimately happens is much too heavy to make Sunshine a pleasant experience. It’s not, but we don’t mean this the wrong way. It’s an essential piece of cinema and one of the most underrated sci-fi films ever made.

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8 Primer (2004)

primer
primer

Release Date
October 8, 2004
Cast
Shane Carruth , David Sullivan , Casey Gooden , Anand Upadhyaya , Carrie Crawford , Jay Butler

Rating
PG-13

Shane Carruth’s beautiful creation of a film, Primer, tells the story of Aaron and Abe, two engineers who aren’t very happy with their day jobs. They spend most of the day in Aaron’s garage, working on machines. What they both end up finding is that, through a series of combinations on their latest device, they can achieve time travel.

The Importance of Simplicity

Carruth’s feature debut is an outstanding take on time travel and the consequences of it. The film’s extremely complex to follow, but it’s mostly because Carruth insisted on the technical aspect being an essential factor in the film. This results in a realistic experience of science fiction, as paradoxical as that may sound. Primer is proof of Carruth’s natural talent to approach the genre with enough confidence and material to make the audience certain they are watching an authentic story. Unfortunately, Carruth’s career was cut short in 2022 after years of unrealized projects when he was accused of abuse by his partner.

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7 Stalker (1979)

1979’s Stalker is based on the novel by the Strugatsky Brothers, Roadside Picnic. In the film, a “stalker” is someone who smuggles objects out of an area called the Zone. One of them is hired by two men who wish to enter the wasteland, where access is restricted. The Zone is a place where extraterrestrial beings have supposedly resided at some point, and humans have discovered there’s a room inside that grants people wishes. No matter what they are. Stalker has been named the greatest sci-fi film of all time.

The Most Important Sci-Fi Film Ever Made

Tarkovsky’s one of two directors with two films on the list. And it’s not a coincidence. He terribly suffered to see his vision come true, and to accomplish this, he had to fight everyone who questioned his idea. The thing is that Stalker has nothing that can make viewers associate it with the genre. Apart from a few bizarre sequences, the mind-bending concept is only seen through the eyes of the disturbed men who enter the Zone, and experience a horrific journey. The episode of Cursed Films about Stalker is essential viewing. Once you understand what Tarkovsky went through, the film simply becomes much more interesting.

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6 Gravity (2013)

gravity
Gravity

Release Date
October 3, 2013

Rating
PG-13

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a sci-fi masterpiece that puts us in outer space when Dr. Ryan Stone is trying to fix a failure in the Hubble Space Telescope. The problem is that space debris destroys the crew’s space shuttle, and Stone is left stranded in the void of space without any help. The film then becomes her ordeal to find a way to return to Earth. It features a terrifying space sequence that completely changed the genre and its rules when it came to how space walks are depicted in cinema.

A Riveting Dramatic Experience

The film’s known for its dramatic strength and is led by Sandra Bullock in a single-character performance. But Gravity is also a technical marvel that features state-of-the-art special effects and really bends the rules about the use of technology for realistic cinematography. Cuaron’s excellent direction elevates the film above the standards of a survival story set in space and delivers an emotionally jarring experience that’s more about rebirth than about staring death in the face.

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5 THX 1138 (1971)

THX 1138
THX 1138

Release Date
March 11, 1971

Rating
R

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

George Lucas’ THX 1138 was the film that confirmed his natural talent for science fiction before he made Star Wars. This hard science fiction movie tells the story of a future dystopian society where humans aren’t supposed to have sexual intercourse and human reproduction is extremely controlled. THX 1138 and LUH 3417 are a man and a woman who rebel against the android police and ultimately against the authorities that control each of their movements.

A Master Storyteller at His Best

Without question, this is an essential film by the guy who created the Star Wars universe. THX 1138 is a brilliant arthouse film that’s so impressive from a visual standpoint that it’s widely considered to be a high-concept sci-fi feature with a weak story. However, it’s a great dystopian film that often steps into horror territory and doesn’t sacrifice its story for a more optimistic outcome. The Orwellian aspect of THX 1138 is haunting and is the main reason why it’s heavily attached to the rules of hard sci-fi.

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Related: Best Sci-Fi Movies with a Low-Budget, Ranked

4 Ad Astra (2019)

ad astra
Ad Astra

Release Date
September 17, 2019

Rating
PG-13

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

Ad Astra is a very underrated film by James Gray that tells the story of astronaut Roy McBride as he heads into space to find some clues about his missing father. As it turns out, Commander Clifford McBride was on a mission to discover alien intelligence and has gone rogue. The problem is that his actions are threatening life on Earth. Roy ultimately finds his father, but it won’t be an easy feat to convince him to stop.

Beautifully Acted and Executed

Even though he wanted to achieve a great space travel film with realistic elements, Gray was met with a divisive reaction by critics who didn’t seem to understand it was only a movie. It’s not that it’s 100% innovative (it resembles Interstellar and Solaris), but Ad Astra is an original standalone film that once again uses the depths of space to tell a story about the beautiful spectrum of emotions one may experience when facing the improbable. Brad Pitt’s performance is exceptional as well (a notorious Oscar snub that year). But what’s more notable about the film is that it never looks fake and doesn’t sacrifice its aesthetics to create a friendlier viewer experience.

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Contact
Contact

Release Date
July 11, 1997

Rating
PG

Contact, by Robert Zemeckis, tells the story of human civilization receiving the most important message of all time that arrives from outer space. Dr. Ellie Arroway is the one who manages to translate the message that contains schematics for building a machine for interstellar travel. Arroway is ultimately selected as the one who will use the spaceship, and what’s on the other side is humankind’s journey to discover we’re not the only ones out there.

Inspired by the Roots of Sci-Fi

The film is based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, and while it’s not entirely faithful to the book, the film stays true to its very important message of exploration beyond what our minds can build. Like many others on the list, the special effects are impressive, and it’s one of the best sci-fi films of the ’90s.

Contact is hard sci-fi by association because it’s not a very realistic film. But in the center of its very emotional story, there’s an optimism factor that makes it a great selection, regardless of the consideration by audiences who saw it as more about religion than science.

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2 The Martian (2015)

The Martian
The Martian

Release Date
September 30, 2015

Rating
PG-13

Main Genre
Sci-Fi

Ridley Scott’s The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s part of a crew exploring Mars. The mission ends in a disaster, and the survivors barely escape while leaving Mark behind because they believe he’s dead. When he contacts Earth, and they realize the mistake, the real mission starts, as they must keep Mark alive while they plan a rescue mission that can extract him before it’s too late.

Supposedly Accurate, But All the More Exciting

For hard science fiction fans, it’s exciting when NASA specialists participate in the making of a film. Whether it’s realistic or not, you know you will experience something at least close to the reality of space travel. The Martian was no exception, given how involved they were in the adaptation of Watney’s story of resilience. Even if the events aren’t exactly accurate and logical, the film is visually outstanding, and it’s by far among the most notable sci-fi experiences in recent decades.

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1 Blade Runner (1982)

Once again, Ridley Scott. Only this time he makes the list with his ’80s sci-fi noir, Blade Runner. The futuristic film tells the story of a dystopian society in which humans live beside engineered beings known as “replicants.” The replicants are actually slaves designed to work on space colonies, but they’re sentient. A group of them escapes, and it’s up to Rick Deckard, a “blade runner,” to hunt them down and restore peace in 2019 Los Angeles.

A Relevant Blend of Hard Sci-Fi and Noir

Scott’s Blade Runner is a great adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It has the cyberpunk elements that were prominent in literary works depicting dystopian societies, and while it plays with action and thriller, it’s purely science fiction because of the theme it tackles and the bittersweet take on technology that the film has. Many have discussed whether Deckard is a replicant or not, but this part of the story feels secondary to the film’s poignant subject of our treatment of “inferior” species. An instant classic

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To stay in the mood of great science fiction, here’s a video about the greatest sci-fi films ever made:

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