Movies That Realistically Present Physics

The deployment of scientific experiments by Astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr. is photographed by Astronaut Neil Armstrong.

NASA/Getty Images

Most movies use science poorly, but some get it right. Here is a handful of films that deal very well with the topic of physics. By and large, these films are fictional or dramatizations of real events that take few liberties with what is physically possible, although in some cases (such as science fiction) they may extrapolate a bit beyond what is currently known. Watch these with your kids so they can learn a thing or two.

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The Martian

 This film, based on the debut novel by Andy Weir, is a cross of Apollo 13 (also on this list) and Robinson Crusoe (or Castaway, another Tom Hanks film), tells the story of an astronaut injured and accidentally stranded alone on the planet Mars. In order to survive long enough to be rescued, he must leverage every resource with scientific precision.

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Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut whose spaceship is damaged by meteorites, leaving her in a desperate race adrift in space as she attempts to reach safety and find a way home. Though the credibility of some of the action sequences is a bit strained, the way they handle her movement in space and the planning she has to make to get from location to location is well worth it from a science standpoint. The film the visually stunning, as well.

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Apollo 13

In 1970, astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is commanding a "routine" mission to the moon, Apollo 13. With the famous words "Houston, we have a problem," begins a terrifying true journey of survival, as the three astronauts attempt to survive in space while scientists and engineers on the groundwork to find a way to bring the damaged spacecraft back to Earth safely.

Apollo 13 has a phenomenal cast, including Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and others, and is directed by Ron Howard. Dramatic and moving, it retains scientific integrity in exploring this significant moment in the history of space travel.

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October Sky

This film is based on a true story and is about a teenager (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who becomes fascinated with rocketry. Against all odds, becomes an inspiration for his small mining town by going on to win a national science fair.

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The Theory of Everything

This film tells the story of the life and first marriage of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, based on his first wife's memoir. The film doesn't have a strong emphasis on physics, but does a decent job of portraying the difficulties that Dr. Hawking faced in developing his groundbreaking theories, and explaining in general terms what those theories entailed, such as Hawking radiation.

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The Abyss

The Abyss is a fantastic film, and though more science fiction than science fact, there's enough realism in the portrayal of the deep sea, and its exploration, to keep the physics fan quite interested.

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This fun romantic comedy features Albert Einstein (played by Walter Matthau) as he plays cupid between his niece (Meg Ryan) and a local auto mechanic (Tim Robbins).

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Infinity is the film telling the story of young Richard P. Feynman's marriage to Arlene Greenbaum, who suffered from tuberculosis and died while he worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. It is an enjoyable and heart-tugging tale, though Broderick doesn't do full justice to the depth of Feynman's dynamic character, in part because he misses out on some of the more enjoyable "Feynman stories" that have become classics to physicists, based on Feynman's autobiographical book. 

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2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 is the definitive classic space film, considered by many to have ushered in the era of space action special effects. Even after all these years, it holds up quite well. If you can deal with the pacing of this film, which is a far cry from the whiz-bang of modern science fiction films, it's a great film about space exploration.

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This is perhaps something of a controversial addition to the list. Physicist Kip Thorne helped on this film as a science advisor, and the black hole is basically handled well, in particular, the idea that time moves radically differently as you approach the black hole. However, there are also a lot of bizarre story elements within the climax which really make no scientific sense, so overall this one may be considered something of a break-even in terms of scientific validity.

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Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "Movies That Realistically Present Physics." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. (2021, September 1). Movies That Realistically Present Physics. Retrieved from Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "Movies That Realistically Present Physics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).