Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

The Survivor in Sci-Fi: On GRAVITY and THE MARTIAN



Like last year’s equally commendable Gravity, Ridley Scott’s The Martian pits a lone protagonist against the vast abyss of space to examine the phenomenal capabilities—and crippling weaknesses—of a determined human mind as can often best be explored through the sci-fi genre. Though the two films are remarkably different in tone, both feature a single character forced to battle against both the unforgiving elements of outer space and the interior war within their mind. While Cuaron’s Gravity infuses the terror of this struggle through an atmosphere of dread, Ridley Scott’s The Martian relies much more heavily on humor to highlight its own themes of man’s survival through critical thinking and collective effort.



Opening with a title card that warns: “Life in space is impossible”, Gravity begins with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her veteran colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. In this brief scene, Cuaron allows the suffocating silence of space to be glimpsed in between their intercom dialogue, while also foreshadowing Stone’s careful—though visibly anxious—maneuverings to avert any fatal mistakes. Nonetheless, falling debris from a destroyed Russian satellite leaves the rest of their crew dead—stranding Stone and Kowalski alone in the void.

While this opening sequence serves both to imbue a sense of awe in its deliberately paced display of distant Earth and the limitless reaches of surrounding space, the light dialogue between Stone and Kowalski offers some impression into her horribly anxious disposition contrasted against Kowalski’s calm confidence. As the chaos of the debris steadily rises in tandem with the subtle score, Stone remains transfixed on her task—unable to free herself from her current, “safe” job. Even when Kowalski gives her a direct order, she struggles to separate herself from the comfort of the work in order to pivot for safety. Repeatedly, this theme will come to define Stone’s psyche—as a woman unable to overcome her current predicament and push her way forward.

Moreover, Cuaron frequently employs long shots to sustain the immediacy of the moment and situate the viewer within the characters’ POV. While the film’s technical achievements have already been discussed at length (and deservingly so), the emotional and thematic importance is never sacrificed in favor of these spectacular displays. The viewer experiences the terrifying experience of hurtling through blackness, reeling farther and farther back from Earth, while these incredible visuals only serve to enhance the experiencer rather than distract for the sake of spectacle.

In refusing to cut (or at least employ “invisible cuts” to maintain the illusion of seamlessness), Cuaron never allows a reprieve from the stultifying and worsening conditions of the hostile environment. The subtle, effective score further cues these emotions—providing an additional layer to the chaotic and disorienting dialogue. Most importantly, it illustrates both the urgency and dire consequences of the premise—making clear that the cruel landscape of space demands for the astronaut to either die or adapt—a theme soon to become the core challenge of Stone’s character.

As Stone tumbles through space completely adrift against the interminable blackness, Kowalski manages to save her using his MMU (manned-maneuvering unit) and the two return to find the rest of their shuttle crew dead. Left with no other option, the duo press forward for the International Space Station. In the interim, Stone moseys forward with Kowalski, who does his best to alleviate her anxiety through small talk. In this dialogue, Stone sheds light on the incident that has so defined her current disposition, when she explains that her daughter died in a random tragedy after hitting her head during a schoolyard game of tag. She details further that when receiving the news, she was driving and listening to the radio, then sadly mutters, “since then, that’s what I do”. This behavior—of being trapped by the past and unable to move forward—has turned Stone into something that resembles her namesake, an immovable block rather than a human being able to adapt and thrive.


Still, after arriving at the ISS, they find that only one of the two Soyuz modules remains. Worse, the other module’s parachute has already been deployed. Kowalski still figures that they may still be able to reach the Chinese Space Station—The Tiagong—to use one of their modules. However, the deployed parachute chords entangle the two astronauts—endangering both their lives. And in order to save her life, Kowalsi detaches the chord to sacrifice his own for Stone’s.

After another distressing sequence of POV shots when Stone must escape from a fire outbreak aboard the ISS, she finds herself within the Soyuz module—only to discover that the fuel has been depleted. With the relentless forward momentum of the plot so far—excepting Stone and Kowalski’s sojourn to the ISS for crucial character building moments—the pacing decelerates to allow the audience to absorb the magnitude of Stone’s utter hopelessness and producing perhaps its most poignant and emotional scene.

After attempting radio communication with Earth, she instead finds herself conversing with an Eskimo fisherman. Having finally found another human connection, the other side is not only not Mission Control, but a random fisherman incapable of communicating back with her, and there’s recognition that her favorite activity since the death of her daughter—just listening to the radio—has now become her last connection to humanity before surrendering to death. She resorts to imitating the howls of a dog heard in the Alaskan background; and then, only through these howls, can she communicate with her fellow man. With small, uncontrollable tears, she lets loose pitiful howls in finding someone else to speak to—shedding tears in communicating with a fellow man; no longer as an American with an Alaskan, or a woman with a man, or an astronaut with someone back on Earth—but as two animals sharing the experience of being alive through this howling of the soul.

Believing that this represented her best hope at returning home, Stone accepts her fate—begging to this listener that can’t understand her with a final testimonial that reveals the overwhelming fear consuming her spirit: “I know I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die today…but I’m still scared, I’m really scared…No one will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul…”


Bullock’s performance remains steadfast and subtle, never opting to turn this emotionally rendering moment “loud” or melodramatically alter what has been defined as her character’s timid behavior. Instead, she applies restraint and allows these powerful emotions to translate the existential desolation of the situation—making tangible the enormity of her suffering within this small island of safety and the looming certainty of death. Resigned to her fate, Stone deactivates the cabin’s oxygen supply to commit suicide—the lullaby of her Inuit friend Aningaaq drifting her toward unconsciousness—when the film suddenly departs from the stark reality that it has so far effectively hypnotized the viewer into believing and re-introduces the specter of Clooney’s Matt Kowalski.

Despite the obvious hallucinogenic/fantasy aspect of this device, his pep talk to Stone makes explicit the film’s major theme. While the fact that the dialogue so bluntly states its message would be irksome in most filmmakers’ hands, Cuaron has so successfully imbued the subtle nature of Stone’s incredibly timid and reserved character up to this point—a character quality often very difficult to translate to the screen with nuace—that allows these tender emotions to be so successfully evoked. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, Stone is a woman incapable of moving forward—a woman more willing to resign to emotional paralysis than risk the potential for pain.

Kowalski addresses this attitude in saying:

Do you wanna go back or do you wanna stay here? I get it, it’s nice here…just close your eyes and tune out everyone…it’s safe…there’s no one up here who can hurt you…what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living….your kid died, it doesn’t get any rougher than that…but it’s still a matter of what you do now…and if you decide to go, then you gotta get on with it…gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life…”

Kowalski speech motives a newfound fire within her, and she follows his instructions to rig the Soyuz’s jets to connect with the Tiangong and initiate her return journey home. Avoiding the subsequent obstacles that then arise, she enters the capsule and begins her deployment back to Earth. Though a fire within the capsule threatens her safety, she survives the harsh landing into a lake, where she now must swim against the drowning waters and ascend to the surface.


Having struggled so much in the upper echelons of space, Stone’s fight to swim back up to land now deserves special praise. Where so many filmmakers would be content with an easy victory upon her crashing landing to earth, Cuaron pushes the character further and deprives Stone of an easy ending—just as she has finally found her way back home. Yet, Stone does indeed manage to survive—and in a sequence that echoes with symbolism toward the evolution of life itself—Stone reemerges from the waters, rises from the dirt, and takes her first slow, shaky steps back upon planet Earth.

As the story of a single person’s survival within the hostile arena of space, Gravity can often be an unsettling, though ultimately, very triumphant experience. The story positions the darker aspects of a person’s ability to cope with trauma and rise above those shackling flaws of their past to the forefront, and the cinematic techniques on display further immerse the viewer in the terrifying dread of such a premise: specifically, POV shots hurtling through space, the unnerving quiet of the surrounding void, and the utter loneliness of the deathly atmosphere. Cuaron conveys all of these deeper existential questions of a character’s determination through a tone that conjures the dread of such a harrowing experience and being ability to surmount such fear through the exertion of courage and continuing to advance forward.

The Martian


Meanwhile, The Martian shares a very broad narrative overlap involving the survival of a lone protagonist in space. In this case, however, that hostile territory is Mars; and the protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney. Unlike Gravity, the filmmakers follow a wildly different route in portraying the experience of a human’s fight for survival on a planet hostile to human life—employing humor, a more light-hearted tone, and an ensemble of characters to emphasize its themes of survival through critical thinking, persistence, and collective effort toward a common goal.

After an unexpected storm causes the crew of Ares III to abandon Mars, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself isolated upon the planet due to the damage done to his biometer that designated him as a dead man. When awakening to find himself alive, however, Mark trudges back to the Hab—the habitable human settlement established upon the planet—and, after a restless night of internal questioning, declares that this is not the planet where he will die.

Applying both his knowledge as a botanist and his unwavering willpower, Mark uses the marriage of his science and intellectual prowess to overcome the multitude of seemingly impossible obstacles that appear determined to destroy him. He creates water, food, heat (albeit with a potentially fatal radioactive plutonium) and—even in being responsible for numerous mistakes in the process—still presses forward until he finds success. Throughout these trials, Watney maintains a video blog both for prosperity’s sake and to sustain his moral in the midst of such isolation.

While Gravity’s sense of urgency continually keeps the forward momentum compelling and imbued with a feeling of immediate danger, The Martian must contend with a drastically different narrative timeline that creates an unusual storytelling challenge: building a sense of urgency while also allowing the audience inside Mark’s head. As the monotony of his day-to-day activities would grow tiresome or confusing without any explanation, the device of the video blogs helps alleviate these narrative problems.


Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has realized that Watney is actually still alive and begin their own quest in figuring out how to bring their man back home. Because Watney’s activities transpire over such an extended period of time, the story wisely intercuts between those on Earth attempting to bring him back and Watney’s own problems on Mars in order to intensify the struggle and give a glimpse toward the literally cosmic scope of this problem.

As NASA determines the various financial, moral, and practical difficulties in solving that problem, Watney must contend with those battles and victories in the short-term that will allow his long-term survival. The filmmakers construct these sequences as mini-movies of their own right—allowing a constant sense of triumphs and defeats that disguise the longevity of the story’s timeline. Whether it’s finding food, creating water—all seemingly impossible tasks—each problem is constructed around sequences of beginnings, middles, and ends that allow for Watney’s creative solutions to achieve a short victory before returning to yet another seemingly impossible choice to be encountered by NASA.

After Mark manages to reboot the original Pathfinder probe and establish communication with NASA, however, a new dynamic between Earth and the Martian begins to form. More interestingly, the arrival of communication—through the use of the hexadecimal alphabet—demonstrates how important language stands for human survival. Whereas Gravity focused more on this single woman’s psychological journey traversing through space, The Martian distinguishes itself by relying more on a network of people to ensure his successful survival back home—highlighting how important collective effort toward this goal can be and how communication may be the ultimate tool for accomplishing this task.

Most importantly, with the idea of communicating being such an essential feature of this film, comedy and humor become a much more prominent tonal element woven into the fabric of the story. While compelling and vital for the examination of Stone’s character, Gravity maintains a grim, dour tone throughout—appropriate for its specific story—in order to diffuse the sense of hopelessness permeated within Stone’s psyche upon the viewer.

The Martian that is Mark Watney is a very different astronaut. Determined to overcome his dismal situation, Mark maintains a relentlessly optimistic personality and tackles each individual problem in careful, measured steps while narrating his decisions through video blogs that sustain his positivity despite the utter lack of human connection around him over the prolonged time period. Though Cuaron routinely employs unbroken takes or extended sequences that further transport the viewer within the suspense and danger of Gravity’s premise, The Martian opts for a more relaxed, light-beat tone to keep the audience engaged. From rapid time cuts of Mark growing his new potatoes, to montages set to disco music, to comic cuts of Mark complaining about said disco music, this humorous tone endures throughout—replicating the tone of Mark’s indomitable spirit upon the audience to experience this harrowing journey with a feeling that his quality of life need not be completely destroyed.


Still, the fun does not last for long: as both Mark and NASA each encounter significant setbacks. On Mars, Mark’s HAB malfunctions due to a human fault of his own that renders his crops unusable and sunders the entryway—forcing him to protect himself from the elements with a noisy, insecure swath of tarp. Simultaneously, NASA initiates a space probe launch designed to aid him with supplies until the arrival of the Ares IV—only for the probe to disintegrate due to the director’s decision to forego safety inspects in favor of helping out Mark as soon as possible.

After beginning afresh with his new crops, the first hint of darker psychological anxiety creeps its way into the previously positive tone. While Mark rations out his food supply, intently listening for any possible damage to his tarp acting as his shield against the brutal Martian weather, he repeatedly tries to hide the anxiety threatening to paralyze him. Though only a brief moment, the scene shows Mark flinching every time the tarp flaps against the severe winds just outside and demonstrates how perilous the slightest tear could endanger his life. As he calculates his potato rations, this glimpse into Mark’s anxieties just beneath the surface provides an interesting change in tone that reminds the viewer just how truly dangerous and subjected to the mercy of elements outside his control Mark’s life currently remains.

Faced with few options at this point, NASA receives a boon from the CNSA in the form of a classified booster that they are willing to lend to the Americans. At the same time, Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell figures an alternative method for rescue—by using the booster to resupply the Ares III and allow the astronauts to return to Mars, recover Mark, then return back to Earth.


Set to Bowie’s “Starman”, another montage helps disguise the extended period of months that these machinations will necessitate, as Mark also needs to begin his own long journey across Mars to reach the site of the future ARES IV launch. By the conclusion of this stretch before the climax, the stakes have been significantly raised and the passage of time shows some deterioration in Mark’s previously unwavering mental state. Mark now sports a grizzled beard, various sores across his skin, has lost a significant amount of weight, and his teeth have begun to rot. Nonetheless, he retains his sense of humor throughout the endeavor—now calling himself a space pirate—though his humor appears to cause NASA more trepidation this time around than at the start.

As the crew initiates their rescue, Scott allows for a touching moment that exposes these cracks in Mark’s previously unbreakable composition. When the crew begins the countdown, and Mark knows that he’s finally about to engage in the most important few minutes of his life to either die or finally leave behind the isolating land of Mars, he breaks down and sheds tears that both release his repressed anguish and celebrate the triumph of having survived this long upon the hostile planet.


Finally, the rescue begins. At each step of the turn, some unforeseen variable seems to destined to doom the endeavor—whether it’s the weight of the launch vehicle, the distance between Commander Lewis and Mark that prompts him to poke a hole in his suit to fly through space (not unlike Stone’s use of the fire extinguisher), to the dozens of other unforeseen factors that threatened to endanger all of their actions. Thankfully, Mark reunites with his crew and the climax swells with complete triumph and relief. The film wisely wastes no time following their rescue and cuts to the eponymous Martian now back on Earth—teaching potential astronaut candidates about the power of facing your fears and solving each problem in order to survive.

Watney proved him capable of conquering every danger wrought both by the Martian planet and his own mental anxieties. While his physical survival necessitated his application of science and indomitable fortitude to overcome these obstacles, The Martian also emphasizes the importance of collective effort toward the goal of bringing him back home. But most intriguingly, the film’s command of tone—balancing unexpected humor in the midst of such a dire situation—helps instill a similar sense of communal experience for the audience that remains such a fundamental component of the film’s story and theme.

Though very broadly similar films in their sharing of a single protagonist in space struggling to survive and return to Earth, both Gravity and the Martian use the sci-fi genre to address a comparable message about man’s resiliency in the face of a seemingly insurmountable situation. In Cuaron’s Gravity, the story focuses on the fight of its main protagonist and her psychological battle to defeat the depression within her that has arrested those capabilities that will allow for her survival. Moreover, Cuaron employs point-of-view shots, subtle atmospheric score, and an often-dire tone that situates the viewer into both the urgency and terror of the premise—framing the individual as the central story to evoke its themes of progress, triumph, and human ingenuity.

The Martian, however, while also focusing on a sole individual confronting the vast difficulties of both outer space and his inner potential for achieving this feat, also broadens its exploration of this theme to incorporate ideas of cooperation and collective effort in spite of such an impossible outcome. In both cases, the filmmakers have crafted an exceptional, distinguished story that celebrates the remarkable triumphs of the human mind: whether through a tone of dread that then illuminates the capabilities of the human spirit, or how the persistence and positivity of a single man stuck on Mars can inspire those on Earth—both films examine the enduring elements of human nature as best explored through the powerful potential of the sci-fi genre.


TV Review: Black Mirror, Season 1


As a very dark descendent to shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the arrival of Black Mirror—an hour-long television series anthology hailing from Britain—delivers three of the most compelling and disturbing episodes to address similar issues of human nature through the prism of the sci-fi genre. While other shows have admirably attempted to replicate the memorable twists and horrors of the most famous Rod Serling episodes, Black Mirror distinguishes itself from such imitators by creating incredibly thought-provoking scenarios that demand the viewer engage with morally ambiguous questions, where no resolution lies without serious consequences, and exceptional writing that further separates the material from its sci-fi siblings.


The first episode “The National Anthem” announces very loudly exactly how this show will differentiate itself from its predecessors (and most of the current television landscape) with a premise that involves the Prime Minister receiving a call from terrorists demanding that in order for the princess to be released, he need answer only one demand…

A demand that involves him and a pig—intimately—on live television.

While most shows would immediately crumble upon such an ostensibly crude premise, by either winking at the audience or failing to adequately construct a wall of realistic approach around such an absurdity, this is where Black Mirror delivers in spades. As the series successfully steers in exactly the opposite direction: by maintaining a tone as deadly serious as possible. Every conceivable question, short-cut, or excuse as to how the Prime Minister may wiggle his way out of the horrific situation is addressed and then dismantled—and not through plodding, expository scenes—but rapid-fire dialogue amidst the myriad sociological levels detailed in the story: newsrooms, the government, the bars of everyday citizens…

As a result, the episode intensifies with an unyielding sense of urgency and anxiety. Where so many shows would narratively deflate, or undermine such attempts maintaining a serious tone, Black Mirror refuses to let the viewer off the hook until the end of the hour run-time. And even then, the episode is not finished. In true Twilight Zone fashion, the consequences of the Prime Minister’s choice deliver an ambiguous resolution: one that appears to have succeeded on the surface but has irreparably damaged his interior psychology—and most especially, his wife’s. While some have argued that this episode is not indicative of the show’s overall agenda, this episode actually better exemplifies the extreme nature of the plotting created by the writers and remains an episode that—for better or worse—evokes discussion and cannot be forgotten. Moreover, “The National Anthem” addresses our modern attitudes toward certain omnipresent technology (specifically social media/texting) through a very extreme, though altogether believable, depiction of current technological consequences.


            “Fifteen Million Merits”—episode two of the trio—establishes a more allegorical, futuristic setting than any of the other episodes to discuss a multitude of similar modern-day issues: fame, social media, human connection, and how modern technology has disrupted the most human elements in each. The episode opens with Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakening within a small, prison-like cell of four walls that are also video monitors. Day-to-day life in this futuristic setting is presented in similar, suffocating technological parameters: every single decision is made by tapping a wall-sized monitor, exercising on a bike before another monitor which earns one “merits” to purchase whatever they made need, and constant sexual advertisements that intrude through these omnipresent monitors from which citizens cannot escape without being penalized (even placing your hands over your eyes causes the video to freeze until the eyes are freed).

Although the weakest of the three episodes, the production values are incredible. Every single detail of this world of literally inescapable electronics is specifically realized and believably presented. While the writing remains much, much, much smarter than most television would ever have the ambitions to approach, it also addresses its themes and larger ideals more on-the-nose and less subtly than the others (with Bing’s histrionic speech yelling/spelling out these themes above in an apoplectic monologue serving as perhaps the most indicative example).

Moreover, the episode discusses such a multitude of issues: from skewering the hollowness of fame, of the virtual competition of social media, of society’s shaming the obsese, of the unavoidable presence of contemporary technology, of the loss of human connection from technology—not to mention the various echoes of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and similar bleak, dystopian settings—that the more successful aspects of the episode are marred by these less successful executions. Nonetheless, the episode still delivers some very thought-provoking ideas and remains compelling in its continual unfolding of consequences and futuristic setting that undeniably mirrors our modern-day era.


Finally, the last episode—“The Entire History of You”—offers the best episode of the season and similarly works as a stand-alone scenario that presents a very disturbing portrait of delving into specific scientific advancements. The episode revolves around a future where a technological device allows users to record and replay their memories; and more specifically, the premise revolves a husband who begins to suspect his wife is having an affair after replaying his memories of a dinner party over and over.

The episode succeeds so well in its execution by conjuring a futuristic setting that is not altogether too removed from our own—despite the existence of such a revolutionary technology. Additionally, the plot is not weighed down by tedious explanation and constant overanalyzing over how such a device would filter into the lives of ordinary citizens; but instead, the story plunges into a premise that would not be out of place in a contemporary soap drama centered on themes of mistrust in marriage, while the technology merrily serves as the catalyst of the plot.

Furthermore, as seen in the best of hard sci-fi, “The Entire History of You” uses the feasibility of the technology to illume profound issues of human nature. The episode delves into issues of trust, memory, and time, through a very well-plotted and deceitfully simple premise of a man who believes his wife might be in love with another man. Like the other episodes, the writing allows for a constant escalation of stakes and sense of urgency that—accompanied with the incredible acting between Toby Kebbel and Jodie Whittaker—generates a compelling vision of the ramifications produced by such a technological consequence. And also like the other two, the episode concludes on a very ambiguous note—one that satisfies the reality of such a scenario but also devastates the viewer with the emotional aftermath of abiding by such authentic storytelling—and should be applauded for doing so.

In all three episodes, Black Mirror develops a haunting and thought-provoking tapestry of the consequences that arise from our current forays into technology and ambitions beyond the horizon. As a result, the series stands up to its namesake—reflecting a genuine, creative depiction of how such viable futures may be realized by both the best and worst qualities of human nature. Similarly, such an anthology format allows for numerous issues to be explored: from fame, to an overwhelming technological presence, to the loss of human values in the face of each, and the redistribution of humanity’s connection spurred by such oversight. As a result, the first season concludes as an unforgettable collection of original sci-fi: one that shatters former boundaries found in the television medium and ascends to rank alongside one of the best offerings in the genre.

Interstellar and The Resurgence of Hard Sci-Fi


Under the wide umbrella of science fiction, the specific subgenre of “hard sci-fi” has remained a particularly difficult endeavor for most filmmakers to successfully translate to the silver screen. Coined in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller within Astounding Science Fiction magazine, the subgenre separates itself by exploring premises with scientific underpinnings that explore both the wonders and potential consequences of these fictional—yet plausible—scientific advancements. Hard sci-fi delves deep into a world not too different from our own—one in which the characters are often just as horrified or amazed by the scientific concepts that serve as the catalyst of the narrative’s conflicts. This definition distinguishes hard sci-fi from a recent film like Edge of Tomorrow, or even something like the Alien franchise, where the narrative resembles something closer to an action movie set within futuristic worlds (or otherwise), than one interested in examining characters faced with the ramifications of scientific achievements.

Though some of the best films in the genre fall under this specific definition—Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Duncan Jones’ recent Moon all standing as stellar examples of scientific scenarios filtered through fictional settings—but perhaps with Moon as a starting point, the genre seems to have suddenly flourished within cinema at large. As seen in Her, Gravity, and most recently Interstellar, and despite the vast differences of scope found in each, the recent surge in hard sci-fi has allowed an opportunity to investigate exactly how and why this specific genre has remained so relevant and powerful within the modern film landscape.


In Spike Jonze’s Her, the film examines the possibility of a man named Theodore falling in love with an AI operating system represented through a female voice. In the hands of most filmmakers, this simple premise could easily be doomed for the worst—portraying the bond between man and machine as anything other than cringeworthy, laughable, or silly. Jonze, however, uses the simplicity of the premise and the subtle hinting of scientific advancements in a near future to explore ambitious questions of human emotion and relationships that raise thought-provoking questions into the nature of what may be considered genuine emotion from both man and machine.

Though the surface scope of the film can be considered comparatively small against something like the vast space of Gravity and the epic cosmic exploration of Interstellar, Jonze uses the simple premise to profound effect. While Theodore (arguably) represents the everyday man—one struggling with issues of loneliness, guilt, and increasing isolation against a world of almost omnipresent socially connectivity—Samantha stands as the opposite: a paradoxical being of infinite knowledge and evolving emotions. In the era of Apple’s Siri and advancing AI across all digital platforms, Jonze depicts the dissolving barrier between human and AI interactions to both and beautiful and devastating conclusions. Familiar concepts of intimacy, compatibility, friendship, and love are all filtered through the prism of the genre to illumine these wide-ranging consequences—both wonderful and terrible—made possibly by such scientific foundations. Moreover, as seen through such an ostensibly small and digestible premise, the film allows a broader understanding into ideas of human behavior and the binding human connection in a world of infinitely expanding science.


Nonetheless, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity travels to a terrain even more isolated than that lonely landscape occupied by Theodore: space. The film revolves around astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone—stranded in space after the destruction of her space shuttle—and her impossible endeavor to return to Earth. While the film’s scientific inaccuracies have been widely reported and nit-picked to death, Gravity still successfully manages to construct a setting both eerily realistic and unnerving for the common viewer. Cuaron utilizes the power of sound to its maximum potential—allowing sequences of stultifying silences to drown the viewer in the dread of the limitless abyss of space. And in those moments of chaotic confusion, both the mix and the soundtrack are amplified toward a similar, disorienting effect—positioning the viewer directly into Stone’s own anxious feelings as she fights a battle on all fronts of the human condition—physical, mental, and psychological—to overcome this hostile habitat and return home.

More to the point, Gravity remains firmly rooted in a narrative that satisfies criteria of belonging to the hard sci-fi pantheon. The basic premise of being lost in space, Stone’s application of scientific principles to help resolve her situation, and the consequences of these choices made through grounded science all work toward establishing a story that simultaneously displays the absolute horror and amazements allowed by such advancements into the uncharted frontier of deep space. And while Cuaron ensures that the casual viewer can understand the how and why of the principles in play, the director wisely never overburdens the viewer with unnecessary facts or wasted screen time merely for the point of proving their validity.

Instead, the technological reality demonstrated throughout only helps further transport the viewer into the cold blackness of outer space—conjured through an array of impressive special-effects and subtle acting that enhances the experience rather than distract for the sake of special attention. As a result, Cuaron’s able to use this story filled with scientific underpinnings as a vehicle for further enlightenment: to explore themes of isolation, fear of the unknown, and the power of human resistance against what appears to be an impossible conclusion.


Finally, Christopher Nolan’s recent foray into hard sci-fi through Interstellar proposes a voyage even more ambitious than either of its former sci-fi peers: offering an opportunity beyond the limitations of Earth, beyond the undiscovered domains of space—and into realms that challenge current conceptions of the observable dimensions. Set in the very near future, a multitude of human-induced blights now threaten the globe: ravaged crops, violent dust storms, and an attitude of defeat that has left the future of humanity in doubt. Led by Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a team of astronauts travel through a wormhole outside Saturn toward three potential planets that may allow for human colonization.

Like Gravity (and other Nolan films), a number of critics seem more concerned with finding potential plot holes than grasping the bigger point of the fiction encapsulated through the narrative. For all its faults in certain aspects of overall storytelling, Interstellar—perhaps even more so than the others—uses these characters to demonstrate the power of science in the face of insurmountable odds. Though repeatedly hammed over the head throughout the beginning, Interstellar portrays a future world that has given up on the idea of progress and taking chances. Within a world of scarce resources, the bureaucrats challenge Cooper’s indomitable spirit and reiterate their focus upon time-tested methods of stabilizing demands—only exacerbating any chance of defeating the problems in the process—and consequentially relegating his son to a life of farming, rather than the opportunities offered by education.

But when Cooper’s daughter soon begins receiving signs from “the ghosts”, and Cooper manages to find NASA now literally working underground, he is quickly recruited as captain to the team tasked with traveling through the loophole and determining which of the three planets beyond the wormhole may serve as humanity’s next home. Finding that two of the three inhabitable, and with too little fuel for both investigating the third planet and returning to Earth, Cooper journeys alone into a nearby black hole to gather data beyond the event horizon—allowing NASA to launch a massive space craft carrying the world’s population.


While, of course, much of this narrative is driven by speculative science-fiction—exemplified by Cooper’s ability to transcend time within the tesseract created by a future version of himself—the principles of powerful science-fiction remain in full force. The climax is determined by the hero utilizing principles of plausible (if speculative) scientific underpinnings that illumine aspects of human emotion through this fictional premise. Though certainly the most hypothetical of the three, Interstellar attempts to explore the consequences of these scientific propositions while (less successfully) engaging in thematic, emotional ideas of love, sacrifice, and exploration.

Nonetheless, throughout each of the three films, the filmmakers have ventured forth into a genre that embraces the intellectual and thematic capacities as best offered through the genre. Rather than merely using the disguise of sci-fi under the mask of an action movie or a futuristic setting, the narratives fully incorporate aspects of plausible science fiction filtered through narratives of cinematic allegory. Although Kubrick’s 2001 remains the genre’s apex, and a scattered few have successfully emerged over the years, the recent resurrection of hard sci-fi into the genre forefront signals the possibility of audience’s desire for material that matches the criteria found within hard sci-fi: smart, creative works that evoke possibilities of the future to explore the best and worst of immortal truths found within human nature.