Let it not be said that romance and nerddom are incompatible. On the contrary, we nerds are tremendous lovers! Wait, that’s not a good opening; let me try again. People often think that being a nerd means you have no appreciation for romance. Nonsense I say! As a matter of fact, just last Valentine’s Day I took my wife to see Weird Al in concert. I had the time of my l–
Wait, no, let’s start that over one more time.
Here are the best science-fiction movies to enjoy this Valentine’s Day. Whether you and your significant other are both hardcore nerds, or if you’re looking for a gateway into the culture, these films are exactly what you need for a Movie Night on the most romantic day of the year.
Honorable Mention: Groundhog Day
I feel compelled to include this here and not in the actual list, because its placement there would certainly arouse controversy. Personally, I hold this movie up as a fantastic sci-fi story, but others refuse to consider it within the genre. But I’ve read my fair share of the titans of the genre and I think a story like this…
A smug and self-centered man is forced by cosmic forces beyond his control to relive the same day over and over until he learns the value of other people’s lives.
…would be right at home in a Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison collection. Tell me that’s not patented dime-store pulp. Sure you could say that it sounds like a twist on A Christmas Carol, but Dicken’s classic holiday tale was basically a time travel story anyway, so…the point stands.
Don’t dismiss the movie as “not real sci-fi” because sci-fi isn’t limited to laser beams and flying saucers. Sci-fi is about telling stories with impossible (in the present day) premises in order to moralize and teach. When Groundhog Day is over, viewers can have a ponderous discussion on the existential implications of reliving the same day over and over in order to achieve an arbitrarily-assigned state of contentment.
You can’t get that from While You Were Sleeping.
Now then, on to the list…
The Best Sci-Fi for All Lovers – Wall-E
On a personal level, this is my absolute favorite film in Pixar’s library.
Wall-E is a hard story to summarize. If you only had 30 seconds to explain it, what part would you focus on? There’s an ecological “message” story about global preservation. There’s a parable about slothfulness and the dangers of technological reliance. There’s a wonderful story about mankind being saved by the robot we created merely to clean up after our own self-destructive mess. In short, there’s a lot going on in this movie and all of it is great.
But at its heart…is a love story.
Imagine if you took the characters of Wall-E and Eve and turned them into people. Would the movie change on a fundamental level? No. It would still be about a quirky, eager-beaver low-level janitor and a stern, laser-focused, mission-minded scientist. The fact that the movie is actually about two robots who basically only have one line of dialogue throughout the whole picture is just icing on the cake.
The opening half-hour is a basically the most delightful Charlie Chaplin (ever the romantic in his Tramp movies) homage ever created. If Pixar had wanted to, they could have made the whole film based entirely around Wall-E and Eve and the dilapidated earth. It could have been a bizarre and charming dystopian romcom and it would have been great. Instead, they took things to space, and created one of the most purely enjoyable “science fiction” stories to hit cinemas in a generation, and one of the best romance movies for lovers of sci-fi.
The Best Sci-Fi For New Lovers – Edge of Tomorrow
Also known as LIVE DIE REPEAT, this little-seen gem of a Tom Cruise movie is, on the surface, pure “action sci-fi.” It’s also Groundhog Day with guns and aliens. So…basically anyone who refuses to allow the Bill Murray movie into the club ought to receive this one with open arms.
Here’s the premise: Tom Cruise is a smug and self-centered man forced by accidental contact with what I can only describe as “temporal alien goo” to relive the same day over and over until he learns to become the perfect soldier capable of winning a war against invading bug monsters from the planet B-Movie.
It’s a romp of a time, clever, charming, action-heavy while also being light-hearted, and features—at its core—a romance between Cruise and Emily Blunt. If you’re looking for a movie to curl up to next to that new sweetheart of yours, you could do a lot worse than a movie where Tom Cruise dies at least seventy-five times.
The Best Sci-Fi for Long Time Lovers – Arrival
As with several on this list, the chief sci-fi mechanic involves time, though not exactly “travel” in the traditional sense.
Arrival is ultimately a movie about communication. The premise is of an alien that comes to earth and the linguist sent to translate its speech into something humans can understand. That’s a very over-simplified version of events but it gets the point across. The real hook involves how the aliens in question speak non-linearly. That is, they have no concept of past, present, or future.
Throughout the story you’re led to believe (because you have no reason not to) that the death of the main character’s daughter takes place before the events of the film. That presumption is turned on its head as you discover, along with the main character, that the aliens communicate and think in a way totally different from how we perceive space/time. It’s not a perfect explanation but the simplest way of thinking of it is: They know the future, and by learning their language and the way they use it, Louise is able to learn the future too.
The story jumps back and forth between two threads: There is the “present” (as the story presents it) wherein linguist Lousie Banks studies the recently-arrived aliens’ language, attempting to decipher it so that the government can determine what they want. There is also the “past” (as the story presents it) wherein Banks reflects and reminisces on her daughter, from birth to tragic death (she dies in a mountain climbing accident at age 25).
The twist is the fact that the “reminiscing” of her daughter is actually Louise learning what the future holds for the child she has yet to conceive. And despite the fact that she knows her daughter’s life will end in tragedy, she still agrees to make the baby (with Dr. Donnelly, the scientist she studies the aliens alongside and eventually falls in love with), knowing that the time she will have with her will be worth the pain of losing her.
It’s a very hard story to describe because it is not written with any normal respect to time and chronology. It’s not that it’s out of chronological order, like Pulp Fiction; it’s that it views time itself in a totally different way, like it’s a language that does not follow the same rules as our own.
Nevertheless, having (and potentially losing) a child is the heavy emotional weight in the movie and a story about such things, while not necessarily “romantic” in the traditional sense, is still worth experiencing together between long-time lovers.
The Best Sci-Fi for Criers – About Time
One of my all time favorite movies was hamstrung by an ad campaign that had no idea how to market it. Most ads for the movie focused on the romance between the two main characters, presenting the movie as a traditional sort of rom-com. About Time, however, is not just another run of the mill shmaltzy romance movie. It certainly has romance and it packs lots and lots of schmaltz in its runtime, but it’s also a sci-fi movie…just not a fully-committed one.
And like all good sci-fi stories, the gimmick or the hook is merely a tool used to compliment a story about the human condition. Bad sci-fi builds the movie entirely around the gimmick, without any meat on the bones. The best sci-fi starts with a core, human story, and then adds the sci-fi window dressing to mask the moral being told.
As with Groundhog Day, the chief sci-fi mechanic (once again, time travel) is not done through a traditional, mechanical, way. In fact, how the character moves through time is not explained at all. The story merely presents the fact of the matter, shows it to be true, and then goes about telling the story that arises as a result.
In this case, the main character uses his talent to find and marry the perfect woman. This is where About Time soars. Other—lesser—films would have gone for the cliche-filled rom-com plot, with “boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl” tropes left and right. Instead About Time tells its romance story almost entirely drama-free. The reason why is because this really isn’t a movie about two lovers.
It’s about a father and son.
It’s remarkable how much a movie that, on the surface, is so drama free and so trouble-free can, nonetheless, bring out such a raw, visceral, emotional reaction. The first time I saw the movie, knowing next to nothing about it, I wept like a baby. My first response was to see it again; a week later I did, this time with my wife. We both cried like babies. It’s now a movie I’ve seen multiple times and it’s never failed to move me. If you’re looking for a Valentine’s movie that will get the tears flowing, look no more.
Whatever you do this Valentine’s Day, I hope you do it with someone special in your life. If you can’t, I hope you find something to do with yourself that brings you happiness, joy, fun, or maybe just a good, healthy cry.