PopSci's Summer Sci-Tech Movie Guide

This season's blockbusters prove that great science fiction and futuristic-tech-filled flicks don't need to rely solely on CG tricks—innovative props can still blow an audience's mind. Here are the best examples from this summer's lineup (we'll try not to spoil anything).

Iron Man 2

Spoilers? No The Plot: Brilliant inventor Tony Stark battles new exoskeleton-clad villains. Geek Candy: The sophisticated real-world Iron Man suits. The technical chops necessary to create a believable exoskeleton out of CG are nothing compared with what it takes to build one in real life. Star Robert Downey Jr.’s Mark VI suit is made of 10 different materials, including industrial urethanes and automotive paints that coat the dense, foam-rubber core, giving it a hardened, metallic look, according to suit designer Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects. Check the hands for the real mastery, though. The Mark VI gloves originated from a scan of Downey Jr.’s hand. Mahan’s team designed them digitally and then rapid-prototyped each component out of plastic and vinyl. The pieces were metal-plated, assembled with clips and magnets, and strung together with tendon-like cables attached to a tension spring hidden near the metacarpal bones. “You’re really looking at an articulated, interlocking finger joint,” Mahan says. The suits in the new film are much lighter, too, although he confesses that this time he left out the legs. From the thighs down, the actors were covered in digital markers, and the bottom part of the suits were later added with CGI. That’s right: Iron Man has no pants. In theaters May 7Francois Duhamel/Marvel

Predators

Spoilers? Maybe The Plot: The Predator series returns to its jungle roots. Geek Candy: An imaginary world made up of real props The Avatar method of creating an alien world with digital floating mountains and hovering jellyfish creatures isn't the only way to convince an audience. Predators instead relies on carefully conceived props to generate that alien mystique. a€œWe tried to avoid [CGI] as much as we could,a€ says director Nimrod Antal. At the start of the film, a small band of modern-day humans finds themselves mysteriously transported to a dense forest. They assume they're still on Earth. But then they come across pieces of spaceships, alien skulls, machinery from other planets, and tools and weapons from different civilizations. Even the predators are costumed actors. Adds Antal, a€œA hairy Wookiee is always going to look better than a CG Jar Jar.a€ In theaters July 7Rick Torres/Twentieth Century Fox Film

Inception

Spoilers? No The Plot: A corporation has the power to infiltrate people's dreams. Geek Candy: Surreal scenes built and filmed outside the computer The story is largely a mystery, but Inception's trailer promises some mind-bending science-fiction footage: a city rolling over on itself like a rug, a fight in a rotating hotel hallway, a dreamlike explosion with neither smoke nor fire. For the latter, special-effects coordinator Chris Corbould tested high-pressure nitrogen explosions in the production company's London studio first. Then he did it for real on a Paris street. With the actors sitting calmly at a table in the foreground, he set off 20 simultaneous explosions. In the scene, a flower shop in the background effectively erupts, throwing its contents high into the air. In theaters July 16Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Last Airbender

The Plot: A battle between warring tribes led by a€œbenders,a€ who can control the elementsa€”water, earth, air or firea€”and a hero named Aang who can manipulate all four elements. Geek Candy: Visually stunning slow-motion fight scenesZade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures

Despicable Me

The Plot: An animated comedy about the world's number 2 supervillain and his efforts to claim the top spot by stealing the moon. Geek Candy: Details on this lunar theft scheme will be pure, nonsensical, pseudoscientific gold. In theaters July 14Universal/Everett