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Best of Science (Fiction) 2009

It’s the end of an old year, and that means a lot of compilation “best of” or “worst of” lists. Discover Magazine is no exception. They compiled a Geek’s review of 2009, especially looking at how science is permeating more and more art and pop culture. Discover writers Tom Dworetzky, with reporting by Hugh Hart, Tracey John, Jeremy Labrecque, and Scott Thill chart the best sci/tech movies, books, gadgets, and cars of the year.

We’ll start with their list of movies, which I find especially interesting now that the Screen Actors Guild has doubled its list of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. I’d bet money that at least two “geek” films are making it onto the nominee list.


Director James “King of the World” Cameron may be the king of moviemaking technology this year with the release of his long-awaited science fiction epic, Avatar. To make the lavish movie he envisioned, Cameron helped invent a 3-D stereoscopic camera system called Fusion. Using two lenses placed close together to mimic the way the human eyes capture depth, the system created the stunning imagery of Avatar’s fictional moon, Pandora, where native humanoids called the Na’vi battle war-hungry Marines in the 22nd century. Cameron’s digital filmmaking process encompassed more than 1,600 live-action and photorealistic computer-generated images. Avatar also employed two other amazing bits of technology: Skullcaps worn by the actors had tiny cameras capturing their facial performances, which allowed for more detailed and realistic animation of their characters without the burden of dozens of miniature sensors placed on their faces. And the performance-capture stage was six times as big as those used before, which let Cameron direct scenes as he would on a real set.

District 9
This critically acclaimed drama from director Neill Blomkamp—which spun an alien action movie into a compelling analysis of species xenophobia—was based on his experience growing up in South Africa. Turning sci-fi conventions upside down, Blomkamp’s aliens arrive at Johannesburg and are forced to live in a slum called District 9. One highlight (spoiler alert) is when a splash of alien DNA that lands on a human’s face causes his body to morph, over time, into a human-alien hybrid. Of course there is no reason to think our DNA would be compatible with an alien’s, notes Michael Wach of Biotechnology Industry Organization, and genetic manipulation requires sophisticated lab procedures. That said, he still liked the movie.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Anyone addicted to logical thinking may have had trouble with this Michael Bay blockbuster—how do those giant robots reduce to the weight of a car when they fold up—but popcorn-film fans loved it. CGI buffs had much to savor too. The film’s digital master file is 160 terabytes, which is “160 billion things,” Bay joked to DISCOVER. “Effects of that high a resolution have never been done before.”

The plotting may be a bit awkward in this mashup of AI, sci-fi, and crime procedural (based on Robert Venditti’s comic of the same name), but the movie has an intriguing and timely premise. It extrapolates from today’s primitive virtual worlds, like Second Life, to look at a future society in which humans live vicariously through their robotic doppelgängers. How likely is that? We already know how to use brain signals to direct robots as they perform simple tasks, says University of California at Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni. But we are a long way from the movie’s version of comprehensive virtual living. (See Science Not Fiction’s interview with Venditti.)

The Road
Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 postapocalyptic, Pulitzer-winning tale stripped humanity of its technology and its morality. Director John Hillcoat’s film adaptation is equally bleak, downplaying the science and personalizing the human struggle. Viggo Mortensen, star of The Road, insists its dystopian possibility is closer than we think: “Fly over this country or any other in the world, and you can become quite alarmed and sad at the sight of so much deforestation, scarring of the land, and toxic contamination.”

Director Zack Snyder’s epic drew mixed reviews from fans of the graphic novel. We also had reservations about its attitude toward science. Doctor Manhattan uses his atomic insights to clean up the world but loses his humanity; Watchmen’s brilliant researcher, Ozymandias, performs a dark utilitarian exercise, plotting to kill millions in the service of an alleged greater good.

Continue on for their choices for best reboots (remakes), as well as TV and books.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.