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A Neil deGrasse Tyson-approved list of the best sci-fi movies

Published May 10th, 2024 4:07PM EDT
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Image: John Lamparski/Getty Images

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Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has never been shy about expressing his opinion about movies on X/Twitter — and, specifically, weighing in as to whether they got the scientific elements right or not. On a recent episode of his show StarTalk, meanwhile, he decided to actually share a detailed list of the sci-fi movies that he thinks are the best of the best, detailing what they got right, what they missed the mark on, and why some of them are so good that they deserve a “hall pass” for any errors.

His picks are conventional in some respects while also surprising in others. For example, he was surprisingly underwhelmed by Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 movie Arrival, in which mankind makes contact with aliens in a film of breathtaking scope and pathos. Tyson, though, carped that if aliens really did arrive on Earth, we’d be better served by greeting them with a cryptologist rather than the linguist played by Amy Adams in the film.

At any rate, the list below includes all the movies that Tyson ranks as the best sci-fi gems, and it adds some color from him here and there as to why he’s included these specific picks. And we’ll start with his single favorite movie of all time.

The Matrix (1999): “You gotta love The Matrix and how deeply thought through those plot lines are,” Tyson says. One plot point he does quibble with: The humans are used by the machines as a source of power, but the humans still need to be fed in order to be kept alive. Tyson mused that the machines could actually derive sufficient energy from what the humans were being fed with, cutting out the middleman entirely.

The Martian (2015): Tyson describes this one, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars, as “the most scientifically accurate movie I’ve ever witnessed.”

The Blob (1958): Reaching deep into the past for this one, Tyson gives this old-school creature feature high marks because of the way it imagines aliens looking amoeba-like — totally different, in other words, from almost every other movie in which you see an alien depicted as something like a little green man.

Contact (1997): This one gets Tyson’s stamp of approval for its creative look at how humanity might respond to making contact with aliens.

Interstellar (2014): Tyson has made no secret that he’s basically a Christopher Nolan fanboy. This one is many people’s favorite movie from the director (I’m one of the weirdos who loves Tenet the most, but that’s neither here nor there). Interstellar — in which a team of NASA scientists, engineers, and pilots traverses the universe to find a new home for humanity — earns a spot on Tyson’s list for having “the most authentic physics” compared to any other movie ever made.

Gravity (2013): I remember seeing this next one, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, on a giant theatre screen, and I agree with Tyson 100%. Gravity is a breathtaking “spectacle,” no doubt about it. Furthermore, while it does get some of the science wrong, Tyson concedes that it gets plenty right. Among the incorrect parts: Remember the end, when Bullock’s character is holding on to a tether and trying to reach Clooney? Because space is a vacuum, all she needed to do was gently tug on the tether, and Clooney would have started floating towards her and been saved.

Back to the Future (1985): Gee, I wonder why this all-time classic starring Michael J. Fox is on this list of the best sci-fi movies? Obviously, in Tyson’s words, it’s the best time-travel movie ever made, hands down.

Deep Impact (1998): “They got their physics right,” Tyson says about this next film, in which humans prepare for the impact of a comet that’s found to be on a collision course with Earth.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): “No, there’s no weird aliens,” Tyson points out here. No violence, and no blood. “It’s just a suspenseful drama of how we might react, learning that aliens have come to visit.” Watch it, he urges, for how much thought and care was put into the film and the story.

The Quiet Earth (1985): Another sci-fi deep cut, as it were, this one is simply a “well-made sci-fi drama,” and it tells a post-apocalyptic story in which a scientist wakes up to find himself literally all alone in the world.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Last but not least, we come to director Stanley Kubrick’s classic that’s adapted from a story by Arthur C. Clarke. Tyson puts this one all the way at the very top of his list of the best sci-fi movies. “Yes, it gets weird,” he acknowledges. “What matters is how much influence this film had on everything.”

Check out Tyson’s full remarks in the clip below, in which he not only explains his favorite sci-fi movies but the ones that he thinks are the worst — like Armageddon, which he blasts for “violating more laws of physics per minute” than almost any movie ever made, despite being another entertaining romp in which Bruce Willis gets to save the day.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.