Romance and Science Fiction: A Match Made in the Heavens

A love letter to the greatest mix of movie genres.
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on February 14th, 2017

My favorite science fiction movies affect my brain, while my favorite romance movies, obviously, affect my heart. So it’s logical and sweet that for a well-rounded experience, my favorite mix of genres is romantic science fiction. Not to be confused with “scientific romance,” which was the old term for science fiction, romantic sci-fi is of course any type of sci-fi with a very prominent love story. Its umbrella includes all varieties of the genre, from time-travel stories to space operas to dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic futures.

Time-travel movies almost always have an interesting romantic component, because there’s so much room for drama in the idea of temporally displaced lovers. Going back as far as H.G. Wells’s pioneering novel “The Time Machine,” which has been adapted a number of times, there is a bit of a love story between the Traveller and a female of the future, but while it’s implied he goes back to the future to be with her in the end, the romance isn’t the primary drive of the narrative leading up to that point. Unofficial sequels to the book, however, tend to focus on them being together.

Other movies are motivated more by the romance than the scientific or historical purposes of the time-travel conceit. Most notable is Somewhere in Time, in which Christopher Reeve plays a man who goes back in time specifically because he’s infatuated by a woman in a photograph. The Terminator also has a character travel to the past to be with a woman he loves via photograph, though the main plot has to do with saving the world. As a sort of inverse to that, La Jetee and the movie it inspired, 12 Monkeys, employ a save-the-world angle as a way to ultimately get to a love story.

Other significant time-travel movies with plots primarily concerned with romance include Kate & Leopold, The Time Traveller’s Wife, About Time, The Lake House, and Back to the Future, which isn’t a romantic movie but deals with a task of ensuring two people fall in love. Inversely, Peggy Sue Got Married deals with a character returning to the past and trying to avoid a relationship she’d been in her first time around. One of the most affecting parts of the Captain American movies is how the title hero has basically travelled to the future, and is trapped there, and what that means for his relationship with the now elderly Peggy Carter.

Superhero movies aren’t always classifiable as sci-fi, but many are and most feature a love interest. And often that romance influences the plot, if not also initially the premise, of the movie at hand. The 1978 Superman actually concludes with more time travel solely for the extraterrestrial hero to save the woman he loves. Occasionally the superhero’s being a superhero, whether or not of sci-fi origins, winds up being tragic for the character’s romantic relationships, as in the cases of RoboCop and Spider-Man. Their condition may be a physical obstacle, or they put a damsel in danger.

While physical difference can cause romantic rifts for superheroes, it can lead to romantic curiosities for aliens and those they visit. It certainly helps if the space travelers are humanoid, of course. Look at all the movies in which creatures from other worlds arrive on Earth primarily or prominently, at least in terms of the narrative, to fall in love or have sex: Starman, Earth Girls Are Easy, The Man Who Fell to Earth, What Planet Are You From?, Meet Dave, Species, and The Space Between Us, though that new film is about a human born on Mars, not an alien being. Then there are those where an Earthling romances aliens in outers space, including Avatar, Enemy Mine, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Romance in dystopia movies are, even more than the time-travel subgenre, compelling because they tend to be difficult – usually forbidden. Unfortunately, though, it’s a trope that has become a cliche, right down to the cold awkwardness of many of the romantic moments. There is a major distinction in the dystopia of THX-1138 outlawing sex and that of Equilibrium disallowing emotion, yet both lead to fundamentally the same kind of love story. That’s also true of Code 46, which at least involves a more unique reason for a sex ban: genetics, including cloning practices, have made it tough to find a mate that’s not incestuous.

In the future, movies warn us, you might also have difficulty finding someone who isn’t a robot, like the replicants in Blade Runner. That probably won’t be an issue, as a lot of stories promise mechanical men and women will in fact exist for sexual, if not romantic, purposes. But as we see in Ex Machina, the true test of artificial intelligence may not be whether they can pass intellectually as human but also emotionally and romantically. Her also deals with humans falling in love with AI, yet there the body is absent so it’s even arguably more romantic due to the lack of physical sexual attraction and interaction. Eventually, humans will just die out, and robots will fall in love with one another, like Wall-E and Eve in Pixar’s Wall-E.

Outside of all the subgenres and common sci-fi tropes, the best romantic sci-fi movies are those that use the sci-fi genre to explore and deconstruct love and romance. Shaun of the Dead is first and foremost a romantic comedy that breaks down a man’s real obstacles on the road to maturity and romantic relations, but all that is heightened (or should we say exacerbated?) and triggered through the addition of a zombie outbreak/invasion. The Lobster seems like another dystopia movie where part of the society forces courtship and another part forbids it, but above that is a satire of romantic compatibility.

And above all other romantic sci-fi movies is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which literally unravels, and dissects, a romantic story using an original sci-fi device permitting humans to delete memories like files on a computer. You could tell the tale of Joel and Clementine without sci-fi, without Lucana, Inc., without all of Michel Gondry’s clever practical effects putting us inside the mind of its main character. It wouldn’t be the same version of or perspective on the romance, but it’s possible, and that’s not true of most romantic sci-fi films.

Sci-fi elements make a romantic story more fascinating and creatively depicted, while romantic elements give a sci-fi story some character depth that is also unnecessary yet is so much more fulfilling. The original Star Wars trilogy could work without a single love story, yet the subplot of Han and Leia, peaking with their exchange at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful, moving layer for those movies. Nowadays love triangles and forbidden love tend to be jammed into sci-fi stories from YA dystopia movies to even the Star Wars prequels, and the romance is less potent.

There’s a reason romance and sci-fi go so well together, and that’s mainly to do with romance being necessary for the sake of humanity, and sci-fi is all about the speculation of what lies ahead for humanity. For many of us, love is science fiction in that it’s somewhere in the future, or it’s heartbreakingly in the past and only recalled through the time-travel that is memory. Also technology continues to advance in ways that assist in our search for romance, be it through the computer algorithms of dating sites or how the internet itself has made long-distance and virtual romance more possible.

And soon enough, Mars and Venus won’t just be gendered metaphors for romantic self-help. Even if not them specifically, we’ll hopefully have new worlds on which to meet people and populate through romantic means. Or maybe the end of the world will come, which is always a narrative excuse to fall in love quickly before time runs out or, after the apocalypse, to find romance with the last person of the sort you’re attracted to remaining on Earth. No matter what, romance and sci-fi will always go together.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.