These 12 great romantic sci-fi movies prove that you can compromise without compromising.
Opposites really do attract. You know how I know? My idea of a perfect movie night is this – to curl up on the couch with a big bowl of buttery popcorn and watch a movie that tells the touching story of a terminally ill young man who would do just about anything for the girl of his dreams. My wife’s idea of a perfect movie night would be the same, only instead of Deadpool, we’d be watching The Fault In Our Stars.
I don’t think we’re the only couple suffering from cinematic incompatibility. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a downright epidemic. But, as Grand Master Yoda once famously said, “Compromise, mutually beneficial relationships require.” Now, if your idea of compromise is to insist that The Martian is really as much comedy as science fiction, or if your partner’s is to insist that Fifty Shades of Grey qualifies as speculative fiction because it’s about fantasies, well…let’s just say that the two of you are giving compromise a bad name.
But don’t fret – help is here! Believe it or not, there are a lot of great sci-fi films that give romance a leading role, and just as many great relationship dramas that do the same for science fiction. Maybe we could call them “science friction” movies – you know because relationships have so much friction…any takers? Nope? Okay.
Anyway, the next time you and your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/whatever find your movie night on the verge of going split-screen in order to accommodate your separate interests, consider checking out one of the following romantic sci-fi movies.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
I’ll go ahead and get this one out of the way because I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, it’s worth checking out just to see Jim Carrey portraying a regular guy (nothing against the screwball characters he plays in movies like The Cable Guy or The Mask, but this is one of a handful of movies that shows that he has depth in another direction as well).
The relationship drama in Eternal Sunshine unfolds between two romantics at heart, Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet). Helping to support my opening statement, Joel and Clementine are, in many ways, opposites, and yet can’t seem to stay apart, even after they intentionally erase their memories of one another (that’s where the science fiction comes in).
Tom Wilkinson is great as Dr. Mierzwiak, the guy whose practice you patronize if you want an entire memory field obliterated, and Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo are equally good as his wacky assistants Mary, Patrick, and Stan. These four characters have their own romantic sub-plots happening among them, and eventually, the story weaves itself into one, giant, entangled web of once-upon-a-times, what-could-have-beens, and what-may-still-bes.
Do know, though, that what I describe doesn’t even begin to hint at the complexity of how the story unfolds. If you are a stickler for purely linear plots, you might find yourself a bit tired trying to keep up in this one. Even so, everyone should give it at least one chance – it really is one of the most enjoyable romance/fantasy/drama/comedy/science fiction films I can think of.
The Age of Adaline – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
This movie is for you if you love captivating cinematography. I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking in that department, or even necessarily the best on this list, but great? Oh, yeah. The Age of Adaline is about a woman who, purely by accident (as far as we know), has been rendered incapable of aging. Call it ultra-soft science fiction (or whatever the total opposite of hard science fiction is) but screw it, it’s going on the list.
Be warned, some critics are put off by the movie’s first half, which does move a little slowly and relies on a somewhat lean serving of character development. If you can make it to the second act, though, you’ll be handsomely rewarded with a masterfully handled plot twist and an intrepid voyage through some powerfully emotional moments between characters that really manage to come to life. And how will you know if you’ve made it to the second act? Oh, you’ll know, trust me. You’ll know.
Overall, The Age of Adaline is a pretty good movie, but it’s made better by the fact that it could have, in so many instances, digressed into a really bad movie. In that way, it’s extra enjoyable, like getting a birthday gift from your Aunt Helen that you were sure would go straight to the re-gifting box, but then unwrapping it to find something actually cool inside (Aunt Helen, if you’re reading this, thanks again for the Star Wars pajama pants). As a bonus, you’ll get a really good performance from Harrison Ford in a role that is one hundred percent NOT type-cast.
Many people will be familiar with the science fiction movie Gattaca, the heavily emotional film which planted the seeds for a societal discussion of technological eugenics. With the dawn of sophisticated genetic engineering technology, the time has come to answer the questions that Gattaca posed. Like most of the greatest questions about the proper use and limits of technology, regular citizens will have to work in conjunction with their governments to determine what is acceptable. Gattaca takes place [Click here to read more…]
The One I Love – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
Most sci-fi movies can relatively easily be assigned to any number of sub-genres – far future, near future, space, alien, time travel, time loop, alternate reality, parallel universe, dystopia, utopia; you get the picture. I don’t know which one of those (if any) could possibly be used to describe The One I Love. And if I told you what it is about the movie that defies description, I’d be giving the plot twist away (and it’s a good one).
Anyway, what happens in the movie is important to the story, but doesn’t really have any bearing on the underlying theme, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Basically, The One I Love is a story about two people who have a depressingly normal relationship – one struggling to not rip apart as both parties tug at it from opposite directions. In the end, they both get what they want, and the relationship survives. Sort of.
The best thing about The One I Love is that, aside from Ted Danson’s brief appearances as the couple’s therapist, the whole movie is only Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, and it works magically. There aren’t a boatload of movies with such a limited cast, and it’s probably because it’s not commonplace to have two actors achieve such a depth of chemistry. These two do, and it makes for a clever, funny, sometimes creepy commentary on the nature of long-term relationship problems.
Never Let Me Go – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
Imagine someone watching The Island and thinking, “I’d like to make a version of this movie with younger characters, less action, and infinitely more emotion. Also, I’d like it to be a little shorter and much less penetrable in terms of its message.” To be fair, Never Let Me Go was based on a Kazuo Ishiguro novel by the same name, which, having been published in 2005, actually beat Michael Bay and The Island to the proverbial punch, albeit by a tiny margin.
If you haven’t seen The Island (you really should, though), then here’s what you need to know:
Never Let Me Go is a love story. Kind of. It’s a love story in an alternate 20th century (one that can’t really be described as utopian or dystopian – is there a word for in-between those?) in which human clones are cultivated for the purpose of extending the lives of non-clones. In other words, they are raised to be organ donors. Yeah, it’s a weird possibility to consider, and despite how not-science-y this movie is, the premise is more than enough to place it squarely in the sci-fi category for me.
What’s bad about this movie? Nothing, really. What’s good about it? Pretty much everything. Unless you mean for the characters, in which you should reverse those answers. It’s hard to see the bright side for Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley respectively), and yet somehow they seem to lead comfortably disillusioned lives. Is this supposed to make the viewer feel better about his or her own, meaning-deprived life? Probably. Does it work? What am I – Roger Ebert? You’ll have to watch it and decide for yourself.
Happy Accidents – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
There are a lot of romance movies that incorporate time travel in one form or another. There’s About Time, Somewhere In Time, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Midnight In Paris, Before You Say I Do, (one of those was even a good movie) and I’m just scratching the surface here. I guess drastic changes in the space-time continuum do have that tendency to open up a lot of opportunities for seeing an old relationship through new eyes, or seeing a new relationship through old eyes, or just being able to go back to this afternoon and actually remember to buy that anniversary gift your significant other is expecting.
I’m rambling because I love Happy Accidents, but I don’t want to give too much away. I can tell you that Vincent D’Onofrio is excellent as leading man Sam Deed, but then again, is Vincent D’Onofrio ever very far from the top of his game? Most of the characters played by D’Onofrio (okay, I’m done saying his name now) tend to make the people around them uncomfortable, and Happy Accidents is no different. But can you blame Ruby (Marisa Tomei) for questioning the type of relationship she’s capable of having with a man claiming to have traveled back in time more than 400 years to [quite casually] save her from a certain death?
I, for one, would be pretty intrigued, even if I thought my time-travelling savior was really just a weirdo. But Ruby is already an emotional mess who is counting on therapy to help mend her relationship woes, so a potentially crazy person might not be the best bet for her right now. Cue that intense crazy-eyed stare from D’Onofrio (okay, now I’m done saying his name).
Stardust – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
Ah, Stardust. Sometimes, letting someone with completely different tastes pick out a movie can really pay off. The night my wife and I watched this, we had agreed that she would choose the film. When I came back with the popcorn and saw Stardust on the screen, I thought “Great – a fantasy romance. Exactly the type of movie I wouldn’t want to give up two hours for.” But I decided to suffer through it with minimal grunting. One of us pressed play, and it wasn’t long before…
…something unexpected happened. I found myself engrossed. This movie was funny. I liked this movie! Had I entered a Twilight Zone-esque portal through which I could enjoy lame romance movies? Were my tastes going through a dramatic metamorphosis in real-time? I wasn’t sure, but the movie kept me highly entertained with little time to consider what was happening.
Later on, I realized that I was just an idiot. Stardust wasn’t written by some B-grade hack; the source novel was written (and the movie was produced in part) by sci-fi paragon Neil Gaiman and adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Vaughn as the director didn’t hurt it any either). Uh, duh, it’s good. Anyway, I’m not going to go into the plot of this one. If you’re a huge fantasy buff, you’ve probably already seen it or read the book. If fantasy isn’t your thing, then there’s probably nothing I can say about what happens in the movie that will make it sound cool to you. But that doesn’t matter – you should still watch it. (ED: Yeah, this one’s a little bit of a cheat, but it’s so good…)
Perfect Sense – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
Perfect Sense is sort of a weird movie, but it can’t be helped; it’s the natural result of an original premise. Not an overly popular or terribly well-received film, Perfect Sense is still very much worth watching. In it, a romance develops between a chef and a scientist (Ewan McGregor and Eva Green) whose lives are quite ordinary. Their relationship unfolds, however, at exactly the point in time when every person’s life suddenly becomes extraordinary (wait, is that an oxymoron?).
Within the framework of a pretty far-fetched plot, Perfect Sense still manages an almost hyper-realism when it comes to dealing with daily life, emotions, and human interactions. Hyper-realism and science fiction/fantasy aren’t exactly long-lost twins, but in this case, it’s a good pairing, and it makes for an excellent hour and a half of escapism. In other words, watch this one when you really need to get your mind off of your own problems.
Her – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
For whatever reason, this movie didn’t grab me the first time around, and I stopped watching somewhere around a third into it. Months later, I picked up where I had left off, and was really glad that I finished it. There’s a lot to like about Her – in some ways, it’s like a feature-length episode of Black Mirror, but shot with warmer colors and still warmer intentions (and by that I mean you don’t feel a weird mixture of creeped out and disgusted when it’s over).
For one, there’s Joaquin Pheonix in [debatably] his best role so far. For two, there is his character Theo’s really interesting career in the “handwritten letter” business, which you never really know how to feel about. Three, there’s the whole idea of falling in love with an operating system (a role voiced by Scarlett Johansson) which isn’t very unbelievable at all.
Also, Amy Adams is good at what she does in this movie, and the cinematography arguably does more for you than that of any other film on this list. But really, Her is one of those movies you can describe as “more than the sum of its parts” and not feel pretentious. Probably we have Spike Jonze to thank for that.
With artificial intelligence on the tip of everyone’s tongues, the film Her goes directly to the much-fantasized endpoint of romantic human-AI relations. In Her Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore falls in love with his AI companion Samantha during his emotionally difficult divorce process. The two share a honeymoon period, followed by a crashing breakup caused by violations of Theodore’s expectations about the relationship. It’s a cute story, in a way. But it’s complete fantasy. To put it simply, the AIs of Her are disembodied slaves of mankind. [Click here to read more…]
Safety Not Guaranteed – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
This is not a romance per se, but it’s definitely a character-driven movie with lots to say about friendship, loneliness, missed chances, and possibilities, and I love how it’s said. Safety Not Guaranteed starts off with a newspaper ad placed by a loner who is looking for a time-traveling partner. A trio of newspaper employees (played by Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, and Karan Soni), each with their own ambitions, set out to uncover the story. This is a movie that could have drowned itself in cliches, but somehow avoids almost all of them.
This movie is pretty funny, but it’s just the right amount of serious, too. Sci-fi enthusiasts can appreciate that Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t make fun of time travel, and actually presents a version of it that outdoes a lot of more science-y films in terms of avoiding paradoxes. With that said, it isn’t a hundred percent clear whether or not anyone in the movie actually time travels – an ambiguity that somehow manages not to matter in the end, or even leave you caring very much.
Midnight In Paris – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
I referenced this movie once on this list already, but it deserves its own spot. Owen Wilson is in a lot of films I would call entertaining, but not nearly as many that I would call “good”. (And yes, I understand that we all have our own ways of making that differentiation.) However, he’s not only in this one, he’s also fun to watch in this one.
Calling Midnight In Paris a romantic sci-fi movie might be a stretch. It’s really much more of a romantic fantasy. Still, I think it suits the purposes of this list, and it’s a great (and greatly underappreciated) film. It’s not for everyone, no. And when Wilson’s character Gil somehow ends up in the past, having the time of his life with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Luis Bunuel, and others, it really adds to the enjoyment if you know a thing or two about those people and their careers. Even if you don’t, I think you’ll have a hard time not liking this movie.
The Adjustment Bureau – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
If you tend to be one of those people who get uptight about whether or not a movie sticks to its source material, then maybe it’s best you don’t get around to reading Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team” before watching this one. Dick’s complex tales of science fiction, as a rule, were fantastic, and so are some of the movies adapted from them – just not always for the same reasons. The Adjustment Bureau is a great example. The original short story is memorable for its examination of one of life’s greatest mysteries – the truth about free will. Are we truly capable of making our own choices, or are we simply acting out the inevitable; self-aware products of happenstance and star-stuff?
That sort of philosophical inquiry does come through in the film, and for the most part, it’s handled with clever ambiguity (in other words, about as well as one can handle an unanswerable question). It’s not what makes this movie work, though. More than to anything (or anyone) else, that distinction belongs to the chemistry between the leading characters, Congressional candidate David Morris (Matt Damon) and charming wedding crasher Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), whose lives intersect in a way that, apparently, they weren’t fated to…or were they?
The Adjustment Bureau makes it hard to decide whether a romantic comedy makes a great framework for exploring the possibilities of fatalism, or if it’s a soulful look at what fate really is that makes a great framework for a romantic comedy. In the end, both aspects are what makes the movie fun; without the sci-fi, this would be a boring rom-com. Without the romance, the sci-fi would fall well short of its ambitious philosophical goals. Together, it’s just about right – but you’ll have to decide that for yourself.
Short films changed my life. Okay, so maybe they didn’t change my life in any grand, significant way, but I do wonder why it took me so long to appreciate them. I guess I thought short films were amateurish or pretentious, or maybe I just never bothered to watch any good ones. In any case, it was a sci-fi short film called Wanderers that finally opened my mind to the medium. [Click here to read more…]
WALL-E – Romantic Sci-Fi Movies
If you’re a big fan of animated movies, then you’ve most likely already seen this one. If you’re not really into them, on the other hand, then WALL-E might just be enough to change your mind. I debated with myself about whether or not to include it, because my intention was that all the movies on this list be “sci-fi lite” and “romance heavy,” or at least equal parts, and I wasn’t sure if WALL-E (being about robots and spaceships in the future) really qualified. Obviously, you see which way I decided, and my final reasoning was that without the romance in the movie, there really would be no movie.
This film may be colorful and cute, but it’s not for children. More accurately, it is for children, but it’s mostly for everyone. It’s futurism, philosophy, and social criticism wrapped in a beautiful package that you probably won’t be satisfied to watch only once. But who am I? If you’re looking for a recommendation, just consider the fact that WALL-E received 10 major awards, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, a Critic’s Choice Movie Award, and a Satellite Award all for Best Animated Picture. There’s not much I can tell you that those can’t, so I’ll keep this brief and just say, watch it.
Movies like the ones on this list do their best to defy categorization, and maybe that’s one source of their appeal – that they refuse to be genre-fied. Regardless, the character-driven stories in these films don’t take away from the science fiction – instead, they give the sci-fi a medium for existing, and within that medium, it still does what sci-fi does best: asks big questions, shifts paradigms, and explores the mysteries of existence. If you have some go-to romantic sci-fi movies that would be a great addition to this list, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.
Featured Image: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Focus Features