The 26 greatest romances in science fiction's last two decades

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Nov 18, 2017, 3:07 PM EST

Science fiction is grounded in the human experience, but explores realities that have not yet and/or never will come to pass. Unbounded by the limitations of realism, sci-fi deals with ideas and possibility. This technology-heightened reality gives filmmakers and viewers just enough space from their world to step back and meaningfully explore things like the dangers of social hierarchy (Snowpiercer, Mad Max: Fury Road), the sanctity of privacy (Inception), and the consequences of scientific hubris (Jurassic Park).

Sci-fi movies and television shows often take place in unfamiliar visual landscapes like neo-Earths or across multiple or infinite dimensions, but they explore very familiar themes like the vicissitudes of love, hate, faith, and paranoia. These emotional landscapes are also the playground of another genre, romance. It is no surprise then that some of the most satisfying romances of modern entertainment history have resulted from cross-pollination with the science fiction genre. Here are some of the best examples of these sci-fi romances on the big and small screens.


Clementine Kruczynski and Joel Barish, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind

After a breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) decides to have a medical procedure that wipes away her memories of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey). When he discovers what she’s done he decides to do the same thing. The movie follows Joel’s procedure as it takes effect which entails reliving the very memories—happy and sad—that he is erasing. This narrative device transforms a movie about their breakup into a movie about their love and Joel’s journey to rediscover what they meant to each other.


Simon Bellamy and Alisha Daniels, Misfits

Simon (Iwan Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas) don’t hit it off when they first meet as juvenile delinquents sentenced to community service at their local community center. But after she meets a future version of Simon, more warm and self-assured than present-day Simon, Alisha learns that in the future they end up briefly becoming a couple before her tragic early death. Future Simon explains that her death convinced him to seek out a way to time travel so that he could live the rest of his life in an endless time loop where he and Alisha can relive their entire romance from start to finish forever.


Kris and Jeff, Upstream Color

After meeting by chance on a train, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) start to feel an inexplicable pull toward each other but they soon realize there is something unnatural about their coupling.They’ve both been the victims of the same brainwashing by a man who infected them with a parasite and linked their bodies to a pair of pigs. Due to this neurological link they lose all sense of perception and can’t distinguish between each other’s thoughts and memories. This shared trauma binds them together in a connection unlike anyone else’s. 


Kelly and Yorkie, Black Mirror, “San Junipero”

San Junipero's plot focuses on technology as a conduit for a love that would be impossible without it. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet after their consciousnesses have been uploaded to a simulation as part of a high-tech hospice care program for the elderly. After they fall in love with each other, or more accurately, with each other’s youthful avatars, they attempt to reconnect outside of their simulation which is set in San Junipero, a coastal town in California during the 1980s. When Kelly learns that the real world Yorkie is dying and she’ll be transferred into San Junipero permanently, she makes the decision to join her and keep their love alive in virtual reality. 


Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, The X-Files

On September 10, 1993, Scully (Gillian Anderson), a promising FBI agent, was sent to the basement of the bureau to partner with fellow agent Fox “Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny) as he looked into a series of weird occurrences known as the X-Files. Over eleven seasons and counting, they would parlay that partnership into a friendship and that friendship into a romance. Despite often butting heads about being on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to believing in the paranormal, Mulder (the believer) slowly comes to acknowledge Scully’s rationality and science-forward thinking have repeatedly saved his life while investigating alien abductions and unraveling government conspiracies. They are each other’s one in five billion.


Barry Allen and Iris West, The Flash

After his mother was murdered and his father was wrongfully imprisoned for her death Barry (Grant Gustin) went to live with Iris (Candice Patton), his classmate and childhood crush. They end up growing up together and after he gets struck by lightning during a particle accelerator explosion and becomes a super speedster, she joins a team of scientists who are helping him use his gift to fight crime in their city. On the show as in the comics, Iris is Barry’s lightning rod, the bright spot in his life that keeps his spirits up when fighting a host of evil villains, and his human lighthouse when he is lost in the multiverse and needs to find his way home. In a recent meta moment on the show Barry reassures Iris that they are “the gold standard” of relationships.


Amelia Pond and Rory Williams, Doctor Who

The Ponds are two of The Doctor’s most beloved companions. Amy (Karen Gillan) is best remembered for her eagerness to see every inch of every universe but her most compelling story arcs always foregrounded her relationship with Rory (Arthur Darvill). For example, when a trickster time lord traps the three time travellers in two potential realities and asks them to determine which is real lest they die, it’s up to Amy to sort them out. But she doesn’t rely on logic to guide them, she uses her heart; when Rory dies in one timeline Amy decides that it must be the fake one because for her no world without Rory could be real. 


R & Julie, Warm Bodies

Julie (Teresa Palmer) is one of the remaining humans after a zombie apocalypse. R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who has been dead so long he can’t remember his own name. They meet while Julie is on a scavenging mission with her team that suddenly gets interrupted by R and his zombie pack who are looking for food. For R it was love at first sight. He takes her captive to protect her from his less-discriminate zombie friends and over a period of days his feelings for her begin to intensify—especially after he eats her boyfriend’s brains. Julie comes to see through R’s rotten exterior and into his undead heart and their unconventional relationship brings hope to other zombies and humans who are both tired of fighting each other. 


Leopold Fitz and Jemma Simmons, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

These resident techies on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D became friends at the academy but after they are selected to join a special team under Agent Coulson, their relationship slowly inches its way out of the friend zone. Although Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) once said they were cursed—Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) does get sucked into a wormhole that sends her to another planet just after they agree to start dating—their relationship survives because they never give up on each other. Whether they are fighting Hydra or trapped in a capsule at the bottom of the ocean or stuck in a virtual world run by an evil Life Model Decoy, Fitzsimmons always comes through intact.


Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly, Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s alien encounter movie is first and foremost about a mother’s relationship with her daughter. But embedded within that story is another love story, the one that explains how she meets her daughter’s father. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist hired by the military to engage a group of extraterrestrial visitors and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is a theoretical physicist recruited as part of her team. Over time they work together to build a vocabulary to communicate with the aliens and at the end of the film it becomes clear that theirs was a love story in reverse; in the film’s final act we learn Ian is the father of the daughter we met in its first. 


Darius and Kenneth, Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a reporter for a local Seattle magazine, answers an ad made by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an offbeat inventor seeking someone to travel through time with him in his time machine. Though she begins the relationship looking to gain a story out of him, after spending time with Kenneth and realizing how sincere he is Darius changes heart and is shown how to believe in the impossible. 


Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham, Fringe

FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) asks Peter (Joshua Jackson) for help securing an asset, his father, whose help she needs to solve unusual cases for the bureau under a fringe science department. Peter accepts and, his interest peaked, decides he’ll join the team too. Throughout the course of their investigations of doppelgangers and dimensional rifts, Peter and Olivia fall for each other and turn their makeshift work family into a real one.


Zoë Washburne and Hoban Washburne, Firefly

On Joss Whedon’s cancelled-too-soon space western about a group of smugglers, first mate Zoë (Gina Torres) and her pilot husband Hoban (Alan Tudyk) were always running from danger which means their lives were in a constant state of flux. However, their relationship was always the most stable thing aboard the spaceship Serenity. 


Kathy and Tommy, Never Let Me Go

In Mark Romanek’s film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian love story, three friends, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley), grow up together at a boarding school that is raising them as vessels from which to harvest organs to sustain a scientific process that helped the world achieve longer life expectancy. In the film’s landscape feeling is muted to the point of nonexistence with a few exceptions like Kathy’s crush on Tommy. The trio is aware of a system of deferral where potential organ donors can be spared the procedure if they prove they are truly in love. The allure of salvation pushes Ruth to come between Kathy and Tommy, creating a love triangle whose resolution bears the weight of a life or death decision. When Kathy and Tommy do eventually get to be together it is tragically short but beautiful. 


Rick Grimes and Michonne, The Walking Dead

In post-zombie apocalypse Atlanta Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of outsiders have to decide quickly whether someone they meet is a friend or foe. When he first meets Michonne (Danai Gurira) in season three, she’s nonverbal and covered in walker blood which makes it hard to tell which category she should fall into but for some reason Rick’s first instinct is to bring her into his world. Michonne endears herself to Rick through her skill as a swordswoman and through her loyalty to the community he’s built. Although Michonne was previously a lone wolf, she warms to Rick’s notion of found family after spending time with him and the other survivors. Four seasons later she has become his girlfriend and his trusted right hand.


Philip J. Fry & Turanga Leela, Futurama

Fry and Leela are employees at a delivery company in the 31st century that services different sections of the universe. He is a dopey human who landed there by accident after getting cryogenically frozen and living past his own time period and she is a one-eyed alien who captains their delivery ship. Together with the rest of the team (Bender the robot and Farnsworth the senile genius) they zoom through spacetime on this futuristic workplace comedy and eventually fall into a relationship. This relationship is tested by things like lethal space bees, and extinction-level events but the love between this unlikely twosome carries through to the very last episode of the series.


Bernard Nadler and Rose Nadler, Lost

Life dealt Bernard (Sam Anderson) and Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) some very bad hands. Bernard was single for over half his life before meeting and falling for Rose and Rose was sick with cancer and had roughly one year to live when she fell for him. While the other plane crash survivors lamented their misfortune at being marooned on the island, Bernard and Rose didn’t let it crush their spirits. In fact, shortly into their stay when Rose is convinced the island is curing her cancer, Bernard is so thankful to get more time with her that he agrees never to leave. 


Colter Stevens and Christina Warren, Source Code

Colter (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an Army captain who is on a mission to stop a bomber from bombing a train. His objective requires he enter a simulation of the train to look for clues on how to stop the terrorist. Christina (Michelle Monaghan) is a passenger on the train. Colter only has eight minutes for each round of the simulation after which time resets and he has to re-meet her and everyone on board. Though they only get to bond over a series of eight minute conversations, Colter ends up falling for Christina while trying to save her life.


Chow Mo-wan and the women of the Hotel Oriental, 2046

Often described as a sort of unofficial sequel to Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love, it’s no surprise this is one of the sexiest sci-fi movies ever made. In the movie Chow (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), a former journalist, is writing a novel about the future but is preoccupied with his past, specifically, the dissolution of a relationship with a woman he thought was the love of his life, Su Li-zhen from In The Mood for Love. While writing his story he stays in room 2046 of the Hotel Oriental where he embarks on a series of brief but meaningful love affairs with different women, one of whom is also named Su Li-zhen.


Tim and Mary, About Time

When unlucky-in-love twenty-something Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns that all the men in his family inherit the ability to time travel he uses it to fix the one thing he hasn’t gotten right, his love life. After he sets his sights on a woman named Mary (Rachel McAdams) he has to find a balance between his responsibly not to abuse his gift and his desire to make everything go right in his relationship. His attempts to alter the time-space continuum are clumsy so Tim is forced to meet and re-meet Mary a number of times but he finds a way to woo her in almost every timeline.


Edward and Kim, Edward Scissorhands

In Tim Burton’s 90s classic Edward (Johnny Depp), is a half-finished human created by a scientist who died before he could give him proper limbs so he has scissor blades for hands. Edward’s condition is a metaphor for the feeling of being a teen outcast that is reiterated both in the film’s color scheme—Edward’s in goth black and the town is a pastel utopia—and in his physical inability to be close to people. Despite initially fearing him, Kim (Winona Ryder), a popular teen girl, comes to see that Edward’s heart is pure i.e. his scissorhands aren’t for cutting people, they’re for making elaborate topiary gardens. Although he can’t touch her without hurting her, Edward eventually finds a way to show Kim how much he loves her. Every so often from atop his lonely tower above the town he constructs ice sculptures of her and the shavings make their way to the town where they appear as snow for her to dance in. 


Wall-E and EVE, Wall-E

In this Pixar favorite, the last “living” thing on Earth is a robot named Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-Class), who is built to mind waste so it spends its lonely existence cleaning up an unoccupied planet. One day Wall-E encounters a robotic probe named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) with which it becomes so enamored it follows EVE to its point of origin, the spaceship housing all the displaced humans. Wall-E and EVE have two things in common, they have both somehow gained sentience (which allows them to feel things for each other), and they both care about returning humanity to Earth. The story of how the two robots come together neatly inverts a trope of the sci-fi genre; in this story robots save the world instead of ending it.


Octavia Blake and Lincoln, The 100

Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) is part of a group of space dwellers sent to a post-apocalyptic Earth on an exploratory mission to see if the land is survivable. While exploring her new world she injures herself and Lincoln (Ricky Whittle), a native resident of the Earth known as a grounder, comes to her aid. They develop a relationship based on helping each other adapt to their new shared reality, specifically Lincoln teaches Octavia his people’s language and shows her how to fight for self-defense. Their relationship plants the seed early in the series that overcoming the hostile tendency toward tribalism is humankind’s only hope for survival.


Luke Cage and Claire Temple, Luke Cage

The MCU’s favorite all-star nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) meets Luke (Mike Colter) at the hospital where she attempts to treat him only to realize he’s impenetrable. Because Claire has committed herself to helping New York’s superheroes, she bonds with Luke immediately. The match works because Luke is geared toward helping other people, often sacrificing his own needs to do so and Claire, a compassionate nurse with a hero complex of her own, has the exact personality needed to take care of the man who takes care of everyone.


David and Short Sighted Woman, The Lobster

In this universe, single men and women are forced to pair off into couples or, if they fail to connect with someone, are turned into animals. David (Colin Farrell) meets Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) in a pack of loners who either failed to mate or didn’t want to. They spark a friendship initially based on survival, sharing their spoils from hunting in the woods and keeping each other company while evading capture. This alliance eventually develops a romantic component and the two embark on a very unusual relationship on the fringes of society.


Nyota Uhura and Spock, Star Trek

While it may seem like a doomed union—Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is an empathy-driven human and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is her half Vulcan former instructor known to privilege logic over emotion—but aboard the USS Enterprise they make a world of sense. This coupling is one of the biggest changes the film reboot of the beloved Star Trek franchise introduced but it was a welcome storyline to most who saw the beginnings of that spark in Star Trek: The Original Series though it wasn’t allowed to flourish (either because interracial dating was frowned upon at the time or because there just wasn’t room for the story, depending on who you ask). One thing is clear: learning to navigate a romantic relationship with Uhura turned Spock into a richer, more nuanced character.