Science fiction is often described as the Trojan horse of narrative genres, mostly because you can put whatever you want inside its very malleable basic structure. We’ve seen adrenaline infused sci-fi films to spare, but also wordy, metaphysical ones.
We’ve had speculative, seriously scientific sci-fi, but also completely absurd and not even apologetic about it sci-fi. And, more to the point of this list, we’ve also had science fiction stories used as platforms to talk about love.
Especially in independent cinema, sci-fi romantic films are somewhat of a trend right now. To track them down, here are 10 of the best:
10. About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013)
Time travel stories have always been complicated, and Richard Curtis’ About Time doesn’t get all the details right, but it sure makes for a beautiful examination of the effect of love through time, be it in extraordinary ways or not. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he’s able to travel through time and change his own life (but no one else’s), so he uses that power to win Mary’s (Rachel McAdams) heart and a plethora of other things.
Curtis is the guy behind Love Actually, so it’s not really a surprise that he’s a hopeless romantic, sometimes to a fault, but About Time is as charming as romantic movies come, with two talented leads and an engaging story to tell. From our list, it’s probably the most idealistic and clichéd of them, but it’s still worth your time if you get the chance.
9. Mr. Nobody (Jaco Van Dormael, 2009)
For all its musings about time, choices and destiny, Mr. Nobody is actually a very idealistic, romantic film. By giving Jared Leto’s Nemo three possible love stories with three possible endings, it not only gives the actor a lot to work with in one of his finest performances, but it also constructs a sobering and beautiful meditation about love as a choice, as a hope, as an aspiration.
Jaco Van Dormael’s deliciously weird movie is a romantic at heart, intertwining Nemo’s journey with three beautifully acted female parts (kudos to Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger and Linh Dan Pham), and making each of them instrumental to Nemo’s fate, independent of the path he chooses.
8. Safety not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)
Colin Trevorrow’s first feature, before he became an overnight mega-producer and filmmaker, is such an indie charm it’s hard to fathom that the same guy did such a cynical blockbuster right afterwards.
Safety Not Guaranteed has that polished Hollywood look, but it’s fundamentally a sci-fi indie story, examining the personality and life of a man that claims to be able to time-travel, and the reporter who goes after him with the express goal to mock him publicly.
What she eventually finds is a little more strange than she anticipated, of course, but what makes Safety Not Guaranteed work is how excited about its own possibilities the film is, and how charming the chemistry between Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass is. He’s a somewhat inapt manic pixie dream boy, and she’s not your most usual rom-com lead, and their offbeat energies work well together.
7. Spring (Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2014)
After their debut in Resolution, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took it one step further in the spectacular romantic sci-fi fable Spring, which tells of a man with a recently deceased father and mother taking a trip to Italy and falling in love with a mysterious woman, who is harboring a dark, primal secret. Spring is probably the most independently made film in our list, even though it has Lou Taylor Pucci (great as usual) in its cast.
It’s amazing, though, how well the practical effect work, even in the limited sense in which the script uses them, and how focused and moody the direction and script is, never deviating too far from its goal: to tell the story of a man learning how to deal with all the cruel realities of life, especially aging and dying, after seeing so much of it back home. It has one of the most beautiful endings in recent memory, a hauntingly beautiful shot that’s romantic, creepy, satisfying and even joyous.
6. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2009)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel lent itself to a brilliant adaptation when it fell in the right hands: those of writer Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek in Never Let Me Go. It tells of the childhood, youth and adulthood of three friends who grow up together in a seemingly idyllic English boarding school, only to find out they’re actually scientific experiments, created for donating organs to the people outside.
Through the love triangle between the three main characters, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go manages to find an easily relatable and human aspect of these characters, using it to structure the story as much as it molds their own identities as they grow up. It’s a beautifully mature romance that’s portrayed here.