Left to right: Matt Damon in 'The Martian,' Amy Adams in 'Arrival' and Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity.' Left to right: Matt Damon in 'The Martian,' Amy Adams in 'Arrival' and Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity.' Left to right: Matt Damon in 'The Martian,' Amy Adams in 'Arrival' and Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity.' (Photo: Courtesy 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures)

Harvard's alien expert picks his favorite alien films

Movies starring Matt Damon and Brad Pitt make the cut, but 'Star Trek' gets snubbed.

If you've been reading the headlines in the past few years, one name that keeps popping up is Avi Loeb. The Israeli physicist is a real-life alien hunter, scouring the skies above for signs of other life forms. He's had some luck along the way, which is not surprising. After all, as the chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department, he spends the majority of his waking hours pondering the most practical ways to find an actual E.T.

But what about a fictitious extra-terrestrial? When he wants to wind down after a hard day of looking up, what kind of entertainment does he turn to?

"In general, I cannot enjoy science fiction stories if they violate the laws of physics because I keep thinking this cannot really happen," he told From The Grapevine. "An unrealistic script resembles, in my mind, a Ponzi scheme where the illusion may be beautiful but misleading." He's not much of a fan of the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" franchises, instead preferring stories that are rooted in some sort of reality.

So what does he like? Hands-down, his favorite space movie of the past decade is "Arrival." It stars Amy Adams as a language expert enlisted by the U.S. Army to discover how to communicate with aliens who have arrived on Earth, before tensions lead to a potential war of the worlds.

"I loved this film because it addresses the most important challenge when encountering an alien civilization: communication. The difficulties in interpreting signals from an alien culture could be far greater than those faced by Alan Turing when cracking the Enigma code of the Germans during the second World War," Loeb explained. "Proper interpretation might also have far greater consequences in the alien case. My prediction is that there will be a new research field of 'astro-linguistics' in the future."

He cites the 2015 movie "The Martian" as another film that basically sticks to the facts. It stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who gets abandoned on the Red Planet and has to figure out creative – but fact-based – ways to survive. "It has an excellent depiction of the physical challenges for humans living on Mars," he explained. "The film is as close to being realistic as science fiction gets, notwithstanding details related to the very thin atmosphere on Mars."

The 2013 thriller "Gravity" is another Loeb best-of pick. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who are stranded in space after the mid-orbit destruction of their space shuttle, and their attempt to return to Earth. "It's another one of my favorite films, despite unrealistic details such as the inability to hop from one satellite to another owing to their high relative speeds."

Recently, a trailer dropped for a movie called "Ad Astra" starring Brad Pitt. The film follows Pitt's character, an astronaut, as he attempts to find his father who went missing while on a mission to discover alien life.

"It's a very interesting trailer," Loeb said. "I will definitely watch the movie when it comes out to the big screen. The thoughts about outer space are often a reflection on our inner space. We learn about ourselves from imagining what may be lurking out there. This is the beauty of science fiction."

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Harvard's alien expert picks his favorite alien films
Movies starring Matt Damon and Brad Pitt make the cut, but 'Star Trek' gets snubbed.