‘2001’ and beyond: Neil deGrasse Tyson names his top 10 sci-fi films

June 06, 2014 | 2:52 p.m.
ca 1018 stanley kubrick 025 ‘2001’ and beyond: Neil deGrasse Tyson names his top 10 sci fi films

The astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) in the memory space of the computer Hal in "2001: A Space Odyessy." (Warner Bros.)

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In the original "Planet of the Apes, " indigenous characters discuss the arrival of three astronauts, including one played by Charlton Heston. (20th Century Fox)

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Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson try to make an escape in 2005's "The Island." (Merrick Morton/DreamWorks)

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in 2009's "Watchmen," directed by Zack Snyder. (Warner Bros.)

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Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) takes on one more assignment in 1982's "Blade Runner." (Warner Bros.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken television audiences on a tour through the universe with his series, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” which concludes its 13-episode run on Fox Sunday and on National Geographic Monday, before arriving on Blu-ray Tuesday. But when the acclaimed astrophysicist turns to the skies for entertainment, what does he like to watch? Hero Complex reached out to the man himself to find out.

Find his picks for his 10 favorite sci-fi films — and one distinguished runner-up, in his own words below.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson will host the new documentary series, "Cosmos." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

I like big-budget science fiction films. My list, with two exceptions, bears this out. I want science fiction films to stretch the talent and imagination of visual effects experts. And the film above all else should create a vision of the future we either know that we don’t want, or know that we do.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): The story was so strong and compelling that the film did not require heavy special effects or monsters or violence to be simultaneously hopeful and terrifying.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Perhaps the first film to be all about the discovery of alien intelligence yet not show what it looks like, knowing that our imagination could surely do a better job than Hollywood. In any case, it was a visual orgy of space travel and space exploration that we remain far from achieving, even 13 years after the 33 years-in-the-future it portrayed.

Planet of the Apes (1968): Saw this again recently and it held up over all these years in many important details. Had not appreciated when I first saw it. The hierarchy of apes that ran the planet, chimps were the academics, baboons were the soldiers, orangutans were the diplomats. An action-adventure movie that was an insightful mirror to our lives and our civilization.

The Terminator (1984): Deftly woven action, violence, sentient machines, a heroine and time travel. All stitched together in a tight and scarily plausible storyline. And, when you think about it, a perfect acting vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a mostly mute terminator, whom many would rather look at than listen to.

The Quiet Earth (1985): Low budget, low distribution. One of many films that imagine for you what life might be like if you were the last person alive on Earth. In this case, the premise, the story, the casual science literacy of the main character, keeps the viewer in suspense the entire time, wondering what the hell happened and why.

Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway in 1997's "Contact." (Warner Bros.)

Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway in 1997’s “Contact.” (Warner Bros.)

Contact (1997): The second film that I know of that is all about contact with alien intelligence and yet does not offer you a glimpse of what they look like. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Carl Sagan advised Arthur C. Clarke to not show aliens in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Contact” itself is Carl Sagan’s Story. A brilliant exploration of how our culturally and religiously pluralistic society might react to the knowledge that we have been contacted by a species more intelligent than we are.

Deep Impact (1998): There have been many asteroid/comet disaster films. But this one took the time to get most of the physics right, and made sure you cared about all the characters in the film so that their prospect of dying matters to the viewer. And Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of the president of the United States may be the best ever.

The Matrix (1999): My top film in any category. From the opening credits to final scenes, every moment of this film is so fully conceived and so well executed that in spite of the complete fantasy world portrayed, the viewer was there, experiencing it with the characters themselves.

The Island (2005): Apart from too many minutes of gratuitous chase scenes, I think this movie is profound in its message as well as visually stunning. A rare study of science in the service of vanity, mixed with an exploration of corporate profits, human identity and free will. I’ve always viewed “Gattaca” (1997) as a lower-budget cousin of this film.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias,  Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in 2009's "Watchmen," directed by Zack Snyder. (Warner Bros.)

From left, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in 2009’s “Watchmen,” directed by Zack Snyder. (Warner Bros.)

Watchmen (2009): I don’t know if I am alone in thinking that “Watchmen” is the best-of-genre among all superhero films. I liked it because the characters had fully expressed, complex personality profiles.  They experience love, hate, revenge, megalomania, moral anguish and trepidation. Nothing polished about them. For this reason, they were all more real to me. If the world really did have superheroes in it, “Watchmen” is the world it would be.


Blade Runner (1982): This story was simultaneously deep and scary. But I never warmed to it the way so many lovers of the genre have. Which makes this comment more of a confession than a review.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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37 Responses to ‘2001’ and beyond: Neil deGrasse Tyson names his top 10 sci-fi films

  1. Karl Smith says:

    A great list, but substitute Blade Runner for Quiet Earth. Blade Runner is a better picture ( yes, I've seen them both).

  2. Ben Lagrange says:

    Hey, Neil,wait until you see the big screen adaptions of CHASERS & CHASERS II RESOLUTION. Both books are sold on AMAZON But in book form ~ Not digital. This way you can actually feel the story.

  3. @RickRamey says:

    "The hierarchy of apes that ran the planet, chimps were the academics, baboons were the soldiers, orangutans were the diplomats." BZZZT, wrong! Gorillas were the soldiers. But thanks for playing!

  4. John says:

    Though it was the gorillas who were the soldiers in the original Planet of the Apes, not baboons, this guy is so smart and so entertaining; he makes science fact comprehensible and science history fascinating. Love this guy!

  5. Dougie says:

    I love all these movies but I am happy to see Mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson mentioned "The Quiet Earth" This is a cool movie that has a great mood to it. Fine acting and a wonderful score by John Charles make it an enjoyable experience.

  6. @Lawdog1521 says:

    Leave it to one of the guys who murdered Pluto to name The Island as a top sci-fi film.

  7. John Bellucci says:

    Neil … in Planet of the Apes, the soldiers were Gorillas … not Baboons. Sorry to correct you. ;)

  8. dee says:

    "The Island" and "Deep Impact" in the top ten is ludicrous. They aren't even top 50. Then "Blade Runner" as a runner-up… Yikes.

    • Kenneth says:

      It's his personal favourite movies. This is by no means an attempt of making a "best sci-fi movies ever"-list

  9. Sabstein says:

    'Apes'? No Sunshine??

  10. @silberpfeil says:

    Very nice Top – Ten list of SciFi – Movies. I have some old time movies i liked in the 80`s … Zardoz, Barbarella, … Omega Man and Soylent Green and Solaris ( original from A.Tarkowsky) greets P.

  11. He should have Alien and Aliens replacing The Island and Deep Impact. He is right about Blade Runner though, that movie is beautifully shot, great production design, but damn near empty on character and story, the most important elements in a film. Its a great little visual poem that tries to give itself more depth than it has via 'his he a replicant' puzzles.

  12. Dave says:

    Not much of a Spielberg fan at all, I see…

  13. casualtyfilms says:

    Well done. Most of those are on my list as well…

  14. al holman says:

    Maybe I go back to far, but "Forbidden Planet' was a classic that got me interested
    in space/science and the wonders of the universe circa 1956.

  15. JohnSoeder says:

    What about that obscure art house film that came out in '77 (I think)? The one with Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford?

    • Thanatos7176 says:

      Don't get Neil started on Star Wars, he has stated multiple times that he does NOT like that series at all, mainly because the physics used in it is so completely inaccurate, that almost all of it, especially the dog fights, are simply not possible. I love the series personally, but even I have to agree that it is simply a space drama that relies more on "magic" (ie, the Force) than on actual science.

  16. Laurie Mann says:

    Of the movies I've seen, I'd dump The Matrix and include Blade Runner. I'd probably include a small movie like Moon and a recent big movie like Gravity.

  17. JMC says:

    The Man from Earth is a great Sci Fi movie.

  18. Kathy Nelson says:

    That's funny about planet of the apes! He is a gifted astrophysicist not a zoologist after all! There is hope for the "rest" of us… :)

  19. Valerie Coskrey says:

    I could never name just 10.

  20. guest says:

    i agree with the matrix, terminator and planet of the apes but blade runner should be there, too plus dune (the director's cut) and give soylent green an honorable mention. oh, watchmen was crap.

  21. Dan Schor says:

    Two words, Dark City.

  22. glblank says:

    Being a fan of the campy 1950's Harry Harryhausen effects, I have to go with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

  23. Dimitri Goryenko says:

    NEIL DEGRASSE. I'm not sure you'll read this, but all three movies in the Matrix is a complete story. Please read these two essays and I hope it'll shed some light on the sequels. It's far far grander than a story about technology. Buddha's middle path, reincarnation, jesus christ, esoteric philosophy etc. Then rewatch the trilogy and prepare to have your mind blown.

  24. ses says:

    Soylent Green and Silent Running. I imagine they can become truth at some point.

  25. ken says:

    Hey peeps, this is HIS favorite list, not everyones' ffs!

  26. Bill Mungen says:

    Actually, while I hate to disagree, gorillas were the warrior caste in Planet of the Apes.

  27. Neat Gifts says:

    Interesting how all these types seem to think or want to see religion so shallow that people that believe in whatever god they have chosen would freak out any more than anyone else would. After all, whatever your belief system is, is your god.

    Christians probably more than any others would not freak out because they are taught that the mind of God is more than he has put in His book (the Bible). We know that there is more to the universe than we could possibly imagine. This doesn't mean to us that their are other people out there but if there happens to be, then that is still God's creation.

    It is insulting and ridiculous to suggest that "religion" in itself would brake down in any way shape or form. Science is Neal's religion. How would he react if extra terrestrials were to land on the Earth or we were to discover them on another planet? I would suggest excitement. The same excitement what he calls a religious person would have.

  28. Edward Hall says:

    The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is the best sci-fi movie ever!

  29. Sky says:

    Isn't it ironic that we have this NASA shrill promoting movies like the Matrix. NASA has been repeatedly shown to be fraudulent. Neil Degrasse Tyson is such a farce.

    Also as to one movie I just saw recently I have to comment on how blaringly th liberal marxist "diversity" and "multicultural agenda pretty much screamed through the whole movie, that movie being Quiet Earth…

    This movie is a great example of the anti-white genocidal micegenation push coming out of jewish controlled movie industry. As usual in today's world, everything bad, weak and guilty is associated with the white man. Everything good, strong and noble with the dark man. The white female is the whore who is nevertheless comandeered by the dark man, which is a subliminal to all white and fair women that it is better to micegenate than to stay loyal to your race. The white man is expected to be the brains of the group, explain everything to them, organize things for them, take care of their safety selflessly, but oh isn't he boring… Doesn't want to sing or have fun… The truck scene is obvious… After Zac's truck becomes pathetic by comparison to Api's semi. And Api performs a maneuver with the truck as Zac is portrayed cowering and afraid… More messages that white men are weak. White men are also expected to sacrifice themselves, not fight for themselves and be suicidal (i.e. not fight for their race) So instead of Zac fighting for his woman he is given to script of just not caring, shrugging, walking away in tears, crying, and killing himself. Zac as representative of the white race is also portrayed as to be blamed for the destruction of the entire world, while Api, representing the dark races is forgiven for violence and murder, because we "find out" he murdered a women "nobly" (i.e. it was his nobility of character that caused her death.) Also how clear is the message that white women shouldn't be loyal to white men if they were the last men on Earth. This movie is sick.

    This movie is also a matrix movie (explaining a piece if the black sun-saturn system) but this anti-white agenda must be exposed too.

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