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The quarantine movie queue: 10 films about the power of science

Science is guiding us in the fight against COVID-19 — and it makes these movies great.

By Glenn McDonald

In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a powerful ally and protector: science. Even now, it’s guiding decisions on every scale — it’s why we’re washing our hands for 20 seconds minimum, social distancing at six feet apart, and staying home to “flatten the curve.”

Those protocols are informed by hundreds of years of accumulated scientific knowledge. Since many of us are stuck at home — and since we could really use some hopeful feelings right about now — why not take in some good movies on the topic?  Appropriately enough, scientific research has shown that this kind of cinema therapy can be good for mental health, in an eat-your-vegetables kind of way.

Below is a curated playlist of ten films about science, scientists, and cerebral science fiction (to keep things fizzy and forward-facing). The movies listed here are available for purchase or rental online, or via subscription services. (Decider.com is one of several sites that list viewing options for any given film.)

The Theory of Everything (2014)
Stephen Hawking was the undisputed rock star scientist of his day, and this biographical drama is a worthy tribute to the man and his work. The film doesn’t dig too deep into Hawking’s theories — appreciating those requires a Ph.D. or two —but it does shine a light on the great man and the principles of his work. Like Hawking himself, the film is an effective science communicator, transposing complex ideas into language that can be understood and appreciated by us civilians.

Moon (2009)
Indie sci-fi movies are the hidden gems of modern moviemaking. Limited funding means no big-budget effects, so the filmmakers must rely on old-school science fiction virtues like clever conjecture and sturdy ideas. Moon stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut technician mining helium from the far side of the moon. In the final days of his lonesome three-year mission, he makes a startling discovery. Avoid spoilers at all costs with this one, then pencil in a few hours to read up on the science of the twist afterward.

Bonus Trivia: The film’s director, Duncan Jones, is David Bowie’s son.

Hidden Figures (2016)
A resounding critical and commercial success, Hidden Figures is based on the true story of black female mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race of the early 1960s. While a handful of other films have explored the cosmic beauty of mathematics (see A Beautiful Mind, below), none have done so while also addressing themes of race and gender in 1960s America. Even with all the heavy lifting, the movie is funny, inspiring, and a decidedly good time, powered by the ace ensemble of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Seeing Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic for the first time is an inspirational experience. But watching it again is rewarding on another level. Close Encounters tells a fictional tale of humankind’s first contact with an extraterrestrial species, and there is some delightfully weird science in the background. The film digs into the then-nascent field of “ufology,” which trades in Jungian concepts of the UFO as modern myth. Spielberg is ultimately interested in UFO sightings as cultural and psychological phenomena.

Bonus Trivia: The French scientist in the film was based on renowned ufologist Jacques Vallée.

The Imitation Game (2014)
British researcher Alan Turing — mathematician, cryptanalyst, proto-computer scientist — is credited with helping turn the tide of World War II for the Allies. Turing was part of the cryptography team that broke the Nazi’s Enigma code system, allowing Britain to listen in on German communications. The Imitation Game effectively conveys the relentless tension and pressure that scientists must endure when lives are on the line — month after month of hypothesis, experiment, trial, and error. It’s easy to imagine epidemiologists working on coronavirus in similar circumstances.

The Martian (2015)
From Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away, the survival film has a rich Hollywood history. There’s something inherently compelling about watching a lone individual navigate a hostile environment using improvised technology. Director Ridley Scott updates the survival story template with The Martian, in which a stranded astronaut (Matt Damon) must survive solo on the red planet. The filmmakers worked closely with NASA during production to ensure the details on everything from extraterrestrial crop growth to Martian dust storms were scientifically accurate and up-to-date. 

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Another cinema classic that rewards repeat viewings, Gorillas in the Mist stars Sigourney Weaver as famed primatology researcher Dian Fossey. Based on Fossey’s memoirs, the film dramatizes her 20-year journey from dilettante civilian to seasoned researcher at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. Weaver’s Oscar-nominated performance reveals the incredible dedication of those who commit to truly understanding the world around them.

Primer (2004)
Another gem from the realm of indie sci-fi, Primer is a marvel of microbudget movie making. According to DIY lore, writer-director Shane Carruth shot his independent film on a budget of $7,000. The resulting story, about young engineers who accidentally discover time travel, is both an effective thriller and a complex treatise on mathematics, morality, and theoretical physics. Carruth based his time-travel premise on concepts from physicist Richard Feynman and prompted obsessed fans to draw out labyrinthine timeline charts.

Bonus Trivia:
You can still find the charts online.

Contact (1997)
Like Close Encounters, director Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi drama speculates on humankind’s first meeting with aliens — they make for a perfect double feature. Jodie Foster stars as Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a researcher with the scientific initiative known as SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Adapted from the Carl Sagan novel, Contact was a worldwide box office hit, and it remains a top-shelf example of how Hollywood can amplify issues of popular science with old-fashioned cinema technique.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Maybe the best-pedigreed science biopic of all time, A Beautiful Mind is an Oscar-winning film based on a Pulitzer-nominated book profiling a Nobel Laureate scientist. Don’t let that scare you off. The film is a deeply compelling portrait of American mathematician John Nash, who, despite suffering from severe schizophrenia — or maybe because of it — cracked mathematical mysteries that had eluded scientists for generations. A Beautiful Mind summons the sense of cosmic awe at the heart of all scientific endeavor. It’s a feeling we can all use just now as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer and film critic based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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