Reviewing Science-based Fiction in 2015…

We have a new year of science-based fiction to look forward to, so we wanted to take a look at some of the entertainment media released in 2015 that caught our interest and give our readers a few suggestions. We’d love to know what films, shows, and games you enjoyed last year and what you’re looking forward to in 2016 – let us know in the comments below…

David’s FILM OF THE YEAR 2015: The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015)

Well the story may be similar to Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) but Ridley Scott’s tale of a stranded astronaut was far more entertaining and scientifically authentic (although it contained far fewer woolly monkeys). For all its focus on scientific exposition the movie managed to be extremely entertaining without being boring. It also avoided all the extraneous bits that many filmmakers believe are essential to capturing a “mainstream” audience. There were no extraneous love interests, no hyperbolic bad guys, no annoying precocious child actors and no bantering sidekicks. In this way the film avoided some of the issues that accompanied Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) [both of which I enjoyed]. Just like Apollo 13 (1995) The Martian is a film about overcoming a disaster in space. Both these films do more to get me excited about the prospect of space travel than an overtly propagandistic film about the wonders of space and the need for NASA like Tomorrowland (2015). There was significant input from a number of scientific consultants including Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science program, who is considered NASA’s “Mars czar.” Matt Damon also visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to get advice about how to “act like a scientist.” Of course, I wish I had the chance to say “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this” when I was a practicing scientist. But maybe I can still get myself a t-shirt with that line anyway.

2015 recommendations: Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015) for its philosophical discussions about the nature of humanity, Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015) for its action packed feminist driven SF dystopian awesomeness, Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow, 2015) for its dinosaur mayhem, and Mr. Robot (USA network series, 2015-) for its obsession with privacy and technological paranoia.

Most looking forward to in 2016… The new Ghostbusters film with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig looks like a good SF comedy, the collaboration between the late Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter The Long Cosmos should include some good hard SF, and Firaxis Games’ alien invasion game XCOM2 is the sequel to one of my favorite computer games XCOM: Enemy Within.


Amy’s FILM OF THE YEAR 2015: Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015)

Inside Out personifies the emotions of a 12-year old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), and literally goes inside her head to play with her (and our) emotions. Specifically Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are shown to have direct influence over Riley’s moods, actions, and memories. Inside Out is a kids movie for adults: it has a fun story with excellent characters, but it is also a great response to mental health. In particular, the character Sadness led to some interesting conversations about depression and how it feels to consumed with a particular emotion. The Pixar perfectionists took the task of personifying emotions very seriously and made sure they translated complex psychological issues in a way that didn’t oversimplfy them for either child or adult viewers. Science consultants Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, who both specialise in the study of emotions, helped the filmmakers to create characters and a storyworld (inside Riley’s head) that visualised the way ’emotions shape how we relate to other people’ and how ‘they guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes’ (Keltner 2015). Of course it has to simplify the science for artistry – there are only 5 emotions instead of 15-20 (that would be chaotic), the ‘islands of personality’ only cover a few areas rather than delving into the complexities of genetically-based traits… but as with most science-based fictions accuracy is not what makes a film successful or not (take a look at this New York Times piece that the science consultants wrote). It is hugely entertaining and it makes some interesting comments on brain science, and opens up conversations concerning emotions and how we communicate.

2015 recommendations: Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015), Jessica Jones (Netflix series, 2015-), Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015), and the final series of Defiance (Syfy series, 2013-2015).

Most looking forward to in 2016… Childhood’s End – a Syfy miniseries adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel that is released in the UK in early-2016, Luke Cage – the third Marvel/Netflix series set in Hell’s Kitchen, X-Men: Apocalypse, and season 4 of Orphan Black (#CloneClub).


Ray’s FILM OF THE YEAR 2015: Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015)

The release of Ex Machina in January 2015 was like a refreshing pine scented mountain breeze that cut through the media smog of dire warnings proclaimed by scientists and technology entrepreneurs about the supposed dangers of artificial intelligence. Instead of attempting to repackage shopworn tropes of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots as lethal and disobedient offspring of the military-industrial complex that wreak havoc on their creators, Alex Garland’s directorial debut offers a more nuanced take on the interplay between humans, technology, and consciousness. Clearly adept at penning sharp and perceptive SF film screenplays, including 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), Garland’s script for Ex Machina incorporates well crafted dialogue, dilemmas, and insights regarding psychological aspects of human consciousness refracted through the prism of research on strong (self aware) AI and humanoid robots. Performances of the lead characters – reclusive billionaire tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac), software engineer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), and exquisitely lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) – are compelling and do justice to Garland’s script. One of the many outstanding elements of the film is the way in which Vikander uses not only spoken dialogue but also her remarkable skills as a classically trained ballet dancer to endow Ava with poise and sublimely graceful movements, whilst ensconced in Nathan’s idyllic Scandinavian mansion and research facility in which most scenes take place. Likewise, Sonoya Mizuno’s portrayal of Nathan’s personal assistant Kyoko is suffused with a ballet dancer’s deportment and she glides across the screen with confidence and uncanny lightness of being (again the result of being both a trained ballerina and an accomplished actor). Importantly, Ex Machina goes beyond facile attempts to establish the presence of artificial intelligence using the Turing test. Instead, the film employs the physicality of performances along with cinematic elements such as editing, set design, soundscore, and narrative not only to entertain audiences but also engage with contemporary theories of mind, philosophical debates about consciousness, and the ethics of scientific research on strong AI. Although Garland consulted cognitive roboticist Murray Shanahan and former geneticist now science writer broadcaster Adam Rutherford as scientific advisors, the film is not constrained by overarching attempts to work entirely within the confines of scientific theories and research on AI. The multi-faceted talents of Garland and his ensemble of actors are complemented by others who collaborated on Ex Machina, notably director of photography Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, and music created by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

2015 recommendations: Advantageous (dir. Jennifer Phang, 2015), Z For Zacharia (dir. Craig Zobel, 2015), The Falling (dir. Carol Morley, 2015), and Experimenter (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2015).

Most looking forward to in 2016: The eponymous screen adaptation of Ted Chiang‘s Nebula award winning novella Story of Your Life, tracing the efforts of linguist Dr. Louise Banks and her colleagues enlisted on a military project to communicate with enigmatic extraterrestrials. Hopefully, the forthcoming film directed by Denis Villeneuve will follow Chiang’s short story and use the medium of cinema to explore how written and spoken language determines or shapes our perception and comprehension of reality.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *