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The Five Worst (Hard) Science Fiction Movies Ever

Cautionary tales where realism went wrong.

Previously, we listed some of the books that inspired us to create TR:SF, Technology Review’s collection of original science fiction stories that’s coming out this fall.

The stories in TR:SF will be near-future tales intended to have that dash of technical realism or plausibility that often gives hard science fiction stories their “this could really be our future” punch. But there’s a dark side to that courting that plausibility, where in trying for realism you end up with the ridiculous instead.

Think of the audience reaction when the Star Wars franchise tried to introduce a biological explanation for the Force in The Phantom Menance, when two generations of viewers had been perfectly happy simply accepting the Force as some sort of mystical energy.

So these are the five movies (in increasing order of vexation) we feel best embody what happens when hard science fiction goes bad, and which serve as warnings for us in putting together TR:SF. We chose to present movies this time, rather than books, largely because bad movies are more likely to remembered than bad books; without the benefit of Hollywood’s publicity machine, bad books rarely emerge from obscurity.

But are we being unfair in our selection? Did we miss a movie that absolutely should have made the top five? Let us know in the comments below. (One contender that might be mentioned is 1998’s Armageddon, but I left it off because surely nobody was supposed to take that movie seriously, were they? And, just in case you’ve missed seeing one of these gems, be warned, spoilers are ahead!)

  • #5. 2012 (2009): As much as I enjoy John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, even their performances (and some admittedly impressive special effects) couldn’t save this movie from its basic premise, i.e. that neutrinos baking the Earth’s core would cause all of the continents to disappear under the waves, forcing world’s governments to build a secret fleet of literal arks. And then at the end, we’re told that Africa has been miraculously spared, presumably because the producers wanted to give their survivors a future better than turning up as extras on Waterworld. Most cringeworthy line: “It looks like the neutrinos coming from the sun have mutated into a new kind of nuclear particle. They’re heating up the Earth’s core and suddenly acting like microwaves.”
  • #4. Lawnmower Man (1992): Trying to capitalize on the then-current zeitgeist of virtual reality, this movie is basically Flowers For Algernon, except that the mentally disabled human guinea pig ends up getting angry rather than reverting to their original condition. Like many similar cyberspace movies, Lawnmower Man uses the eye-rolling idea that the virtual reality interface also doubles as a brain fryer under the right circumstances–which might have been forgivable (for example, The Matrix managed to come up with a good reason as to why the interface would be buried in the user’s brain), but the cheesy script and overly-ambitious computer graphics used to depict the virtual world just sunk this one, to the point that Stephen King sued to have to the studio stop using his name to promote the movie. Most cringeworthy line: “This technology is meant to expand human communication BUT YOU’RE NOT HUMAN ANYMORE!”
  • #3. The Day After Tomorrow (2004): Like Lawnmower Man, this film was trying to exploit a scientific zeitgeist, in this case, climate change. Although a box-office success, it infuriated scientists, who laughed at the idea of a) an overnight Ice Age and b) well, a whole lot of other stuff, including the idea that a group of people could survive a wave of supercold temperatures capable of instantly freezing the moisture in the air by huddling around a small fire. Most cringeworthy line: “I think we’ve hit a critical desalination point.”
  • #2. The Core (2003): As in 2012, there’s a problem with the Earth’s core. Though rather than being heated up as the result of space microwaves, this time the core is having a bit of a sulk and refusing to rotate properly. As this means the collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field, a crack team is assembled to restart the core’s rotation with the careful application of Hollywood’s favorite disaster mitigation devices, i.e. nuclear bombs. The bombs are to be delivered using a sort of tunneling train made of, well, magic, and which must be piloted by humans, ignoring the fact that world’s militaries have, in order to avoid the awkwardness involved in delivering a warhead in person, spent several decades developing all sorts of robotic mechanisms for the long-range transportation of nuclear weapons. Most cringeworthy line: “Static discharges in the atmosphere will create superstorms with hundreds of lightning strikes per square mile!”
  • #1. Mission to Mars (2000): This is the very definition of a movie that tried too hard, with the makers boasting of their attention to technical accuracy prior to its release and a visual style that echoes 2001:A Space Oddysey. Sadly, not even the laws of motion escape unmangled as the cast make their way to the red planet hoping to find out what happened to a missing expedition. The ultimate denouement is that the Martians fled the destruction of their biosphere due to an asteroid impact, leaving on spacecraft to colonize some distant star. But before departing the solar system, the Martians seeded the early Earth with their DNA. Which—literally—made me scratch my head in the theater because a) if they can build such great space ships, why didn’t they use one to do something about the asteroid and b) why not just settle on Earth? Most cringeworthy line: “My God that’s it! Hundreds of million of years ago there was a sudden explosion of life on Earth. The first multicelled plants and animals appeared. No one has ever understood why or how it happened!”
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