Now, you know that I love me some science fiction movies, and I’m happy to say that scifi does a lot of things well. But there’s one thing that the genre does notably poorly, and that is make people cry — which is to say, to wring genuine tears of emotion of out of them. There are any number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that scifi flicks visually lend themselves to action and adventure, which are notably tear-free genres — no one will expect you to tear up at the upcoming Transformers flick, for example, unless they are tears of pain.
Tear-inducing science fiction is so rare, in fact, that I sat down to think of which ones have actually made me cry, and came up with damn few. Here are the movies that made me reach for my tissues.
1. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
I think this one is the obvious choice; I blubbered like a child watching it. Of course, the first time I saw it, I was a child, so I think I get a pass. But I’ve watched it since then and still get all misty-eyed. E.T. was the movie that gave us the adjective “Spielberg-esque” — that framing of wonder inside story, direction and cinematography that seemingly yanks tears straight out of one’s ducts.
Whatever the movie’s minor sins may be, it earned the emotions it wrenched out of the viewer: Melissa Mathison’s script took the time to develop the relationship between Elliot (lonely human boy) and E.T. (lost extraterrestrial), and Steven Spielberg knew how to show it on the screen. It’s less good that E.T.‘s massive success spawned a series of mawkishly lame ’80s followups, many produced by Spielberg, that reduced the “Spielberg-esque” technique to schtick. Watch Harry and the Hendersons or *batteries not included and you’ll see what I mean.
Spielberg himself later on tried a refined iteration of it in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, with Haley Joel Osment playing both Elliot and E.T. It didn’t work, but it was interesting because it failed to work in an entirely new direction. That’s part of what makes Spielberg a great director: He fails at a much higher level than other filmmakers.
2. WALL-E (2008)
Specifically, the scene in the garbage room when EVE tries to tell WALL-E he’s the most important thing to her, and WALL-E reminds her she has other priorities. It’s not a huge moment in the structure of the story — at that point the action climax is still several minutes away — but it’s a huge emotional payoff because it shows that WALL-E‘s filmmakers got what was fundamental about the lovesick ‘bot: That he cares about others, and that his own happiness would not be complete if someone he loved settled for less than their purpose, even for his sake.
This is a complex and difficult point to get across in any movie; that the Pixar people did it in a movie whose hero was a glorified trash compactor is one of the more amazing stunts in recent cinema. Heck, I get choked up just thinking about it now.
3. Creator (1985)
This little-known gem is science fictional mostly by courtesy: The main character, played by a gloriously slumming Peter O’Toole, is a Nobel-winning scientist trying to clone his dead wife, which is something we still can’t manage a quarter century later. And unlike the previous two flicks, this one’s tear-inducing moment is sort of shameless, since it involves a very young (and very cute) Virginia Madsen in a coma, and her boyfriend (Vincent Spano) trying to talk her out of her vegetative state.
Basically it’s melodrama stunt acting and screenwriting, and I feel like a schmoe falling for it — and yet every single time I watch it, bam. Tissue city. I think some of my susceptability to the movie is that I saw it when I was a teenager and there was a girl I had a huge crush on, so I imagined her as Virginia Madsen and me as Vincent Spano, you know, like one does. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that I’m just fundamentally easy to make cry.
And that’s it: Three movies in the entire genre guaranteed to tear me up, which seems disproportionately small compared to the thousands of flicks out there. So tell me: Are there any other scifi movies that have actually and genuinely made you cry?
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.Read More