Matt Damon cuts a lonely figure in The Martian. Photo: 20th Century Fox
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Oct 2015

Keeping it real: sci-fi grounded in reality

Film Pop culture
Garry Westmore

Garry Westmore

Senior Producer, School Programs at ACMI

Alongside intergalactic travel and galaxies far, far away, audiences are also enjoying sci-fi that stays down to earth. Garry Westmore looks at five of the best grounded sci-fi films. .

Science fiction isn’t for everyone, that’s a fact – and every sci-fi fan has that friend or relative who scoff at the notion of alien races, light speed travel and transportation devices. But the fiction in science-fiction is often misinterpreted as being fictitious to the point of being totally unbelievable.

But not all sci-fi is like that, in fact the best science fiction is often grounded; sci-fi that stays within our solar system and within arm's length of existing science and known physics. Back in 2015, Ridley Scott's The Martian was lauded for its credible science, as Matt Damon’s character endeavors to contact Earth and stay alive for four years on Mars. And though no manned flight has ever been to the Red Planet, we’d hardly consider the ‘fiction’ of that science outside the galaxy of possibility.

Still seldom do we see films set off of Earth that aren’t fantastical or completely make believe; but there are a handful of excellent ones in the cinematic stratosphere.


Danny Boyle's Sunshine.

Take Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2009) for example, set in a near future where our sun is dying, a crew of mixed nationals embark on a journey towards the centre of the solar system; their mission? To deliver a payload of Earth’s remaining radioactive material into the sun to reinvigorate it and save humanity.

Though scientists believe the sun won’t actually die for another five billion years, the premise of Sunshine is more a catalyst to explore our relationship as a race and individuals with the sun.

It also packs some pretty nifty science, benefitting from having physicist Professor Brian Cox as a consultant on the film. In fact, on the DVD you can not only listen to Boyle’s commentary, but Prof. Cox’s as well. In his commentary, Cox reels off space facts, even pointing out where the filmmakers have taken creative liberties - such as when the temperature of space is referred to as being -273° Celsius, which is absolute zero, and Prof. Cox informs you that it’s actually -270° Celsius in space with the 3° variation due to residual heat from the Big Bang.

The Icarus II, the spaceship carrying the crew towards the sun, is also grounded in existing science: the huge protective disc shield bearing resemblance to the gold layered Kapton film used by NASA, a film that can withstand +400° Celsius.


Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sunshine may not pass every scientific challenge thrown its way, but by engaging a physicist on the film it’s a far more believable and based film, and Boyle is one of few filmmakers to engage experts in their sci-fi cause, the other notable filmmaker being the late great Stanley Kubrick who consulted NASA designers for the ships of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even asked IBM for a ‘mad computer expert’ to help on set. In fact if it weren’t for the more grandiose themes of 2001, and the presence of an extra-terrestrial force, albeit one with a monolith in lieu of a face or voice, it might be a film we might consider ‘grounded’; but still a majority of its science and design is more than plausible, and would famously ‘predict’ the invention of items like electronic tablets and in-flight personal TVs.

If Sunshine took audiences to the heart of the solar system, then Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) would keep things a little closer to home. Nearing the end of a three-year stint running a moon base that harvests energy (called helium-3) from the moon’s surface, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) quite literally by accident, discovers some sinister is going on. It’s atmospheric, claustrophobic, and beautifully acted by Rockwell who acts alongside his own double with great humour and sensitivity. Helium-3 is a real isotope too, and is actually present on the Moon; and yes it has indeed been proposed that humans could harvest it from the Moon’s surface.


Duncan Jones' Moon.

Ultimately though, Moon is an exploration of identity; a popular area for science fiction films, but they need not be set in space or on a terrestrial body other than our own to investigate such a theme. In fact, long before The Martian Ridley Scott helped set a new benchmark for sci-fi with his neo-noir take on Phillip K. Dick’s novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" in Blade Runner (1982). Whilst the robotics and artificial intelligence present in Bladerunner don’t look like they’ll be as advanced as by 2019, the year in which the film is set, many predict it’s really only a matter of time until A.I develops the capacity to generate emotions.

But it’s not so much the technology in Blade Runner that’s grounded; it’s the social and cultural contexts that maintain links to the present. The cultural diversity of a future Los Angeles is apparent on street level, yet the pursuit of rogue replicants by the Bladerunners borders on xenophobic zealousness. What’s so great about Blade Runner is for all its mentions of ‘off-world colonies’ we remain grounded on the terra firma of Earth.

Though Blade Runner may not be necessarily allegorical, Andrew Niccol’s Earth-set Gattaca (1997) most certainly is; managing to hold a mirror up to class and caste systems that have existed throughout the ages by envisaging future forms of stratification. In Gattaca, Nichol presents a future wherein mankind’s mastering of the genome has led to eugenics, giving parents the choice to have genetic imperfections rid from their children before they’re born. Those who don’t get the benefit of this process are labeled ‘invalids’ and suffer discrimination based not on the colour of their skin, their family’s wealth or lineage; but on their genetics.


That’s ultimately what grounded science-fiction films do so well, they take plausible hypothetical science or technology (which may sound like a contradiction in terms) and use that science as catalysts to explore grander themes about identity, hierarchy, what it means to be human, and what it means to be part of the human race. Though The Martian may seem like a simple survival tale, it promises to touch on many of those themes as well.

With good science of course.

– Garry Westmore

Sci-fi and dystopias

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