Are we witnessing a new scientific (and sci-fi) dawn in cinema?
Last year, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar made headlines for its spellbinding black hole visuals—while sparking debates about its scientific accuracy. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy scored big at the box office, raking in an impressive $94 million in its first weekend while sending Chris Pratt’s career into the stratosphere. And the smaller (but successful) Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s global-warming-fueled chilling dystopia, married action and allegory to deliver a poignant, satirical disaster movie.
Now in 2015, a number of hotly anticipated science-themed films have caught our eye. From thoughtful indie flicks tapping underreported science to whiz-bang, would-be blockbusters tearing through space, and innovative documentaries exploring environmental themes and alien encounters, there’s a whole host of new science-themed films on the horizon (and more Chris Pratt!). Here’s our preview.
The Chinese Mayor
Director: Hao Zhou
Featuring: Geng Yanbo
Premiere Date: January 2015
Taking on the topic of pollution in China—an issue that the country’s government has been slow to act upon or even acknowledge—director Hao Zhou spotlights Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong, an ancient city that has been experiencing something of a rebirth at his hands. As he struggles to rebuild it, the city’s coal-mining past looms large. The documentary promises to give an introspective peek at China’s role in our current climate struggle.
Trees That Walk / Alberi che Camminano
Director: Mattia Colombo
Release Date: January 7, 2015
This Italian documentary takes a playful look at the life and death of trees. Personifying them to heighten their importance, the movie artfully explores deforestation and its impact on our planet…and human spirit.
Director: Michael Madsen
Premiere Date: January 2015
Call it a conceptual documentary. Featuring interviews with folks from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and other space scientists, the documentary probes the different ways the world might react to an extraterrestrial encounter.
Director: Louie Psihoyos
Premiere Date: January 2015
The thrust of Racing Extinction is startling: With five major extinctions behind us on planet Earth, are humans on course to provoke the sixth, wiping out an estimated 50 percent of all species by 2100? Louie Psihoyos, who directed the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, has teamed up with artists and scientists to show us glimpses of life that most of us have never seen—and that future generations may never get the chance to witness.
How to Change the World
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Premiere Date: January 2015
Like many success stories, the founding of Greenpeace was a bumpy ride. Along the road to success some friends were brought together, others were driven apart. Putting the activist green movement under a cinematic microscope, the doc tells the story of Greenpeace through rare archival footage and previously untold accounts.
Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Featuring: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer
Premiere Date: January 23, 2015
Short on reviews as of this writing, this outdoor documentary focuses on the extreme sport of mountain climbing. At its center are three American climbers—Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk—who in 2008 faced one of the world’s most precarious edges: the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in the Himalayas. The film offers a look at both the sport of extreme climbing and the harsh ecology of some of the world’s highest peaks.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Starring: Billy Crudup, Olivia Thirlby, Ki Hong Lee, Ezra Miller
Premiere Date: January 26, 2015
Based on the infamous 1971 experiment referenced in its title, the movie dramatizes the role-playing exercise that split 24 Stanford University students into prisoners and guards—an experiment that began unraveling within mere days. (This is the latest movie on the subject. Others include this one. Warning: spoilers.) What started as a psychological exploration quickly morphed into a real-life horror show, and just six days in, what was supposed to have been a two-week study came to an abrupt halt.
Director/Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Seeming like a more sinister version of Her, Ex Machina replaces Spike Jonze’s whimsy with creepy, erotically undertoned horror. Now, you might think the idea of exploring the implications of AI through a robot seductress is a little tired by now, but the world Alex Garland creates harkens to a future that is so near it’s hard to look away.
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Hugh Laurie, Keegan-Michael Key
Screenwriters: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Taking its name from Disney’s futuristic theme park and bearing the tagline “The Tomorrow that Never Was,” Tomorrowland features a teenage girl “bursting with scientific curiosity” who sets out to explore a strange world. During her journey through a place unknown in space and time, she encounters prolific geniuses and scientists.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Jake Johnson
Screenwriters: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
Release Date: June 12, 2015
Paleontology nerds are already disgruntled by the inaccurate dinosaur designs, but maybe geneticists will be satisfied? As one scientist in the movie puts it, “We have learned more in the past decade from genetics than a century of digging up bones. A whole frontier has opened up.” And just what would that frontier be? The “first genetically modified hybrid” dinosaur—or, as Chris Pratt puts it, the first dino “cooked up in [the] lab.” The genetic tinkering—as you’ll know, if you’re familiar with novelist Michael Crichton’s ideas the movie is based on—is a disaster in the making. And it takes a brooding, bearded Pratt with a pith helmet and gun to save the day.
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring (Voices): Diane Lane, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Kyle MacLachlan, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black
Screenwriter: Michael Arndt
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Pixar strikes again with a quirky approach to human psychology: The audience gets to explore the mind—or “The Headquarters,” as it’s called here—of a spunky preteen protagonist named Riley; her emotions, like fear and disgust, actually come to life. Get the tissues ready.
Director: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Ryan Reynolds, Matthew Goode
Screenwriters: David Pastor and Àlex Pastor
Release Date: July 31, 2015
A thrilling approach to bioethics, this drama features the king of cinema Ben Kingsley as a wealthy man who’s dying of cancer. Attempting to achieve a level of immortality, he undergoes a medical procedure to transport his consciousness to the younger body of Ryan Reynolds’ character. Chaos ensues.
Beti and Amare
Director/Screenwriter: Andy Siege
Release Date: October 2014 (UK), US release TBD
A sci-fi offering set in 1936 Ethiopia—and shot on a reported shoe-string budget of $7,000 (!)—Beti and Amare tells the heart-wrenching story of a young girl who escapes Mussolini’s troops only to encounter the violent advances of the militia that guards the place where she sought refuge. All is upended when a visitor from another world arrives in a most unusual conveyance: a spaceship.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Based on the well-received debut novel by Andy Weir, The Martian revolves around an astronaut who is stranded on a Mars colony while NASA tries to orchestrate a rescue mission. In addition to the usual sci-fi tropes, the film delivers a political message by examining the inner workings of the space agency.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan
Release Date: December 18, 2015
Sci-fi purists may point out that the Star Wars franchise is more like space fantasy than hard science fiction. But given that even just the brief shot of a new lightsaber design sparked a flurry of lightsaber engineering analyses, we think the film will provide an excellent opportunity for applied science nerdery. We definitely have a new hope for this sequel—it’s not like Jar Jar Binks is returning or anything.