Sci-Fi with a Heart

by Graham Edwards

InterstellarHow often does a science fiction film make you cry?

That’s the question that occurred to me after watching Interstellar this weekend. Why? Because Christopher Nolan’s space epic is the first sci-fi film for a very long time to put real tears on my face (to prove it, here’s my unashamedly subjective review).

Given what I knew about Interstellar (not much – I’ve been living under a self-imposed media blackout), I’d expected the spectacle. Knowing Nolan, I’d also expected a workout for my brain. What I hadn’t expected were the sucker punches of genuine emotion.

Sucker punches I was more than happy to take on the chin, because there are so few films like this that are able to deal them out.

Comparing notes with Cinefex founder Don Shay, I discovered he was thinking along similar lines. “How rare it is to see a science fiction film with a human emotional core,” Don commented.

So I started making a list, only to discover it was harder than I’d imagined. Don set me off with Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We debated The Abyss – remembering in particular the drowning-and-resuscitation sequence – and decided it just about qualified. But maybe that’s because we both just love the damn movie so much.

As for the rest … what science fiction films are there that have not just the right stuff, but the human touch as well?

Virgil and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) bring the human touch to science fiction in James Cameron's "The Abyss".

Virgil and Lindsey Brigman (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) bring the human touch to science fiction in James Cameron’s “The Abyss”.

One recent sci-fi film that really got under my emotional skin was Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. It didn’t set me to sobbing, but I was certainly stirred by Wikus van de Merwe’s transformation from petty bureaucrat to tragic hero, as well as by the pitiful nobility of the downtrodden aliens.

Duncan Jones’s Moon had a heart, too – the film was as dependent on Sam Rockwell’s extraordinary performance as it was on its lunar landscapes … just as District 9 was reliant on Sharlto Copley’s intense and sympathetic portrayal of Wikus. For all the hardware on show in these films, it’s the humanity inside that drives them both.

If it’s simple tears you want, all you have to do is turn to the 1980s, that era of Spielbergian wide-eyed wonder (and perhaps to the slightly more cynical decade of the 1990s that followed). But, while E.T. thoroughly deserves his place on our list, I’m not convinced by some of the other contenders from that era.

Gertie gives E.T. a goodbye kiss.

Admit it – your bottom lip was quivering long before Gertie (Drew Barrymore) gave E.T. his pot plant and a goodbye kiss.

You see, there’s a fine line between emotional truth and manipulative sentimentality, and for my taste, films like Starman, Cocoon and Bicentennial Man stray too far across it. Sure, they might bring a lump to your throat, but so does an undercooked casserole. And some films, like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, simply can’t decide when to blow hot, and when to blow cold.

Many other movies have their moments. Roy Batty’s dying speech at the end of Blade Runner is an emotional one, to be sure, but could Ridley Scott’s future fable be called “big-hearted”? Much as I love it, I have to say not.

On the other hand, Gravity is surely a no-brainer. My heart was full when that damn parachute opened – don’t tell me yours wasn’t, too. And, talking of redemptive parachute deployments, surely we’re allowed to include the fact-based Apollo 13, even though most would argue it doesn’t qualify as science fiction?

In foetal position, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the human pulse beating at the heart of Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity".

Curled up in foetal position, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the human pulse beating at the heart of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity”.

And therein lies the problem. As soon as you factor emotion into the equation, everything becomes subjective. Does this film qualify? Does that? This movie made me cry, but maybe I was just having a bad day.

Just how do you quantify the human heart?

That’s why I’m handing this over to you. I want you to tell me which science fiction films make you blubber like a baby? The comments box is waiting, so don’t be afraid. It’s the most natural thing in the world to open your heart and share your tears.

After all, you’re only human.


Interstellar photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures. The Abyss photograph copyright © 1989 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial photograph copyright © 1982 by Universal City Studios, Inc. Silent Running photograph copyright © 1972 by Universal Pictures. Gravity photograph copyright © by Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Sci-Fi with a Heart

  1. Graham, great little write-up! I’m not going to read your review yet because I have yet to write up mine.

    I agree with all your assessments of all the films, except one: Interstellar. For me, it simply didn’t hit home emotionally. It fell into the black hole of sentimentality without giving me enough humanity to care about characters. I’m still mulling over WHY it didn’t satisfy. So I don’t have a complete picture of why his other films worked and this one didn’t. Maybe part of it was a sudden shift from hard science to pseudoscience. I dunno. I’ll figure it out.

    • Thanks, Todd. It seems there are plenty of folk left cold by “Interstellar”. And plenty (like me) whom it hit with an emotional sledgehammer. Fascinating mix of reactions.

  2. I found Cronenberg’s version of The Fly quite moving, watching Jeff Goldblum struggle with the effects of his transformation on both his body and his mind, watching his humanity slip away. Especially a key moment when part of his body disintegrates and, instead of recoiling in horror, Geena Davies comforts him with a hug.

  3. I found Contact to be a quite emotional film. As Graham mentioned in the article Silent Running was very powerful for me when I saw it on TV as a kid. Especially the last lone robot in the remaining dome floating into space at the end – beautiful stuff, both visually and emotionally.

  4. I find GATTACA to be quite captivating. On its somewhat sterile surface there surely lurks a human heart. An ambitious movie with a big vision.

    DONNIE DARKO also always gets to me. It’s not about spaceships or anything but the movie crafts an alternate universe in which the human soul struggles to find its place. And that’s always something worth to explore in the frame of a cinematic experience.

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