Science fiction has long been a genre that imitates life and inspires it. From flying cars that curb pollution to robots that make jobs easier, there is always some semblance of humanity to be found in sci-fi.
Great science fiction is meant to stoke the flames of our existential dreams and larger-than-life ambitions. After all, when you’re looking up at the stars, you’ll see a bit of yourself in them. We are all made of stardust. And Hollywood has long succeeded in utilizing the genre to bring humanity’s most important traits to the surface – like love, loss, emotions, and empathy.
‘Mr. Nobody ‘(2009)
What happens when humanity finally conquers the one thing that is feared most: mortality? Mr. Nobody tackles this issue as Jared Leto plays the last mortal man on Earth while the rest of the world watches him in awe.
In a series of heartbreaking recollections, a dying 118-year-old Nemo revisits important struggles and choices in his life. His memories follow different paths that could have happened, never happened, and more importantly, he wished had happened. The movie is a tumultuous maze of choice and string theory but hits you right in the heart as a story of all-consuming regret.
Interstellar is a canvas of time and space that Christopher Nolan painted with every tragic human emotion. The movie is about a man whose life is chosen by something “other” in the universe to help humanity. It follows his struggle to fix his mistakes and get back to his family.
Watching Interstellar is a spectacle. With a haunting soundtrack from Hans Zimmer and heart-wrenching performances, the themes of isolation and human connection bleed into your every pore. The lonely scenes of empty space envelop you, and the distressing scenes of docking The Endurance consume you. But the most painful parts of Interstellar remain those about family, like when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) watches 23 years’ worth of video messages from his children. He watches them grow up, lose family, and forget about him.
‘Never Let Me Go’ (2010)
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) grow up together at an idyllic boarding school for most of their lives. They laugh, love, and experience everything that makes life beautiful. This makes the twist in the movie that much more painful.
The group of friends learns from a teacher that they are clones, and their true, horrific purpose in life is to be organ donors. They will die in early adulthood for a greater cause – that of humanity. They are not seen as or referred to as real people, even though they look, act, and feel emotions just like them. They are even told that they do not have a soul and can only have their “purpose” deferred if they can prove that they can love. It is all a lie, of course, as no one ever comes to see them as human in the end.
Gigantic spaceships touch down on Earth in Arrivaland linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), is tasked with learning how to communicate with the extraterrestrial creatures before a global war breaks out. What she finds changes her life forever.
Louise learns that the aliens ‘weapon is their language, and it alters humans’ linear perception of time. Upon them teaching it to her, Louise then experiences “memories” from the future. She silently learns the heartbreaking knowledge that she will choose to have a daughter, even though she will die from an incurable disease. Arrival will change your perception of choice and the courage one must wield in the face of inevitable loss.
‘Ad Astra’ (2019)
Ad Astra presents space as an impenetrable void, lonely and cold, just like the relationships that many have with their parents or children. It is a stunning voyage through the cosmos and a relationship between father and son.
The movie is special in that it explores the humanity of space, even when space has none to give. This is seen in the relationship between Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) and his father (Tommy Lee Jones). Though he believes that his dad has been lost in space for years, Clifford McBride never wanted to be found. The harrowing realization of this changes Roy profoundly, and it shows all of the missing parts of ourselves – good and bad – that come from absence.
‘AI Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)
In this visionary sci-fi film, Haley Joel Osment plays a robotic boy who is the first of his kind to be programmed to love. A couple adopts him, but becoming their child proves difficult for him. Without their acceptance, David embarks on a journey to figure out where he truly belongs.
Along the way, he discovers that the line between robot and human is heavily blurred. Though he accidentally killed a boy, he feels remorse and hates the judgment that he feels from humans. The movie deals with empathy profoundly, and David’s obsession with Pinocchio’s story of becoming a real boy is heartbreaking. In the end, David’s internal power source is depleted while begging the “Blue Fairy” statue to turn him into a real boy, and you’ll be hit with the sadness of seeing a lost little boy “die” abandoned.
‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
There is no sadder or better indie movie of the aughts than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In a world where an experimental procedure exists to erase memories, a man named Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to erase those of his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) after a painful breakup. Unfortunately, he must re-experience those depressing memories during the process.
Joel makes his way through a life already lived, showing the heartbreak, fights, and indescribable love that he felt throughout his relationship. He realizes halfway through that he does not want to forget her after all. The movie is a melancholy ride through the ups and downs of love and shows no mercy on viewers while you’ll remember your low moments and regretful relationship endings.
‘The Road’ (2009)
The Road is a bleak story that follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in a grim America after a catastrophe obliterates it. The man and son wander through their new world, trying to keep the hope of a new civilization alive and surviving the best they can.
Cormac McCarthy‘s tale of savage humans and relentless nature is filled with cannibals, thieves, and hasty decisions. There is little hope to be gained from this dim and realistic picture of a post-apocalyptic land, and the portrayal of ruin, death, and the worst of humanity will leave you feeling hollow.
WALL-E is the last robot left on Earth, and he spends his days cleaning up the planet. He has been on Earth for a long time, though, 700 years to be exact, and in that time, he developed a personality of his own.
Fortunately, the tears you’ll cry during WALL-E will be happy ones. The little guy warms up the heart of any who sees him, and when he falls in love with a fellow robot, Eve, it turns into a lovely tale of endearment and exploration. In one of the best robot movies of all time, WALL-E captures the hearts of every Disney fan in this hopeful story of robot love.
‘I Am Legend’ (2007)
I Am Legend remains one of the most emotional zombie movies ever made, and it will even see a sequel in the future. The movie follows Robert Neville (Will Smith), the seemingly last person alive in New York after a virus infects 99% of the world. He has only his faithful dog as his companion and a lot of time on his hands to reflect on the choices he made throughout his life.
One of the saddest scenes happens after Robert is ensnared in a trap and attacked by infected dogs. He and his dog, Sam, fight them off, but not without Sam being bitten in the process. It is tragically heartbreaking during the scene when Robert must tearfully put his only friend to rest before she becomes infected. It is tough to watch because he had the dog since she was a puppy right before the outbreak.
KEEP READING: Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)