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?
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.
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?
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.