science and movies
July 11, 2012
This has been coming up a lot lately, at least in my own mind, so I’ve decided to rant about it. Science in movies: when it goes right, when it goes wrong. First off, my own background: My own science aptitude is probably higher than the average non-scientist’s. I went through AP Chemistry and AP Calculus in high school and was two classes away from a minor in geology in college. After he stopped being a pilot, my father became a research chemist, an honest-to-god military scientist; and my grandfather was a biology professor at Idaho State for many years. I have very fond memories as a kid of catching and studying frogs and birdwatching with my grandfather, and watching 2001 with my dad while he explained all the spaceships to me. I’ve had a lot of science in my life.
So I will admit it, I’m probably pickier than most people when it comes to how science is handled in movies. But here’s the thing: it’s never the big plot McGuffin that bothers me. Star Trek can have as much red matter or as many tachyon streams as it wants. You have a thing you inject into chimps to make them smart? Fine, cool! The black goo in Prometheus that doesn’t seem to follow any sort of predictable pattern? I’ll give it to them because it’s the monster in the closet in a horror movie. Whatever. I love superhero movies and I don’t really care how the hero is flying — I just want a good story about her flying.
It’s always the little mistakes that throw me out of the story.
I’ve already talked about how the so-called scientists in Prometheus don’t behave in any way like any scientists I’ve ever met in real life. “I’m here for the paycheck!” the geologist growls at one point. Really? Really? (Seriously, we all thought he was the mechanic until he screamed, “I’m a geologist!”) Being the first geologist to map/survey an alien world in human history doesn’t interest you at all? There are real geologists who think about that opportunity and weep. Personally, I would have hired one of them for the mission. And a biologist who doesn’t collect a clearly aggressive specimen with very long forceps and a well sealed container? Just no. And then there’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. You’ve got this chimp that you’re using in a complex medical experiment — and you didn’t examine her well enough beforehand to tell she was pregnant? You bleeding moron. And if that’s what I’m thinking in the first fifteen minutes, the movie has done something horribly wrong.
Another example, in The Amazing Spider-Man was the “algorithm” Peter discovers among his things that will solve that trans-species genetics problem. And through the whole middle part of the movie I’m thinking, How is a calculus equation going to help with a genetics problem? Shouldn’t the solution be like, I dunno, a diagram of a benzene ring with various chemical formula pointing off it? Some kind of DNA diagram? Something, like, biological? It’s usually at this point people tell me I “just need to shut my brain off.” But my knowledge is hard won, and I’m not going to shut it off so I can supposedly enjoy a white hot mess of a movie that doesn’t deserve to be enjoyed.
So what does it look like when a movie does the science right? I’ll give you some examples.
Contact. There’s a brilliant moment when Ellie and her team have discovered the alien signal and are playing it over speakers. It sounds like a heartbeat. Then a pattern emerges. It’s a quietly dramatic moment, but what I love is that nobody explains what’s happening for a minute — they give the audience time to figure it out for themselves: prime numbers. They know the signal is artificial because it’s repeating prime numbers. Ellie explains it after a minute or so, but I just adore that they assume at least part of their audience will get it first. Plus, a movie starring a brilliant, dedicated woman scientist. Pure love.
Gattaca. I’ve spoken of my love for this movie before. This one isn’t really about the science, but it extrapolates the science beautifully and flawlessly into real life. It’s great science fiction that says, “Given this scenario, that you can tell everything about a person by their genetic code — what would happen? What would life be like? What are the implications?”
2001 and 2010. For the space travel, of course. The two movies that made a serious effort to imagine what space travel to the outer planets might actually look like. The fun little zero-g moments on the flight in 2001, the way the ship matches rotation to the station, the aerobraking in 2010, the bourbon in sippy cups… Bliss.
Like I said, it’s the little things. I’m not asking movies to give up the alien monoliths that drive their stories. I’m just asking that the astronauts act like astronauts, the scientists act like scientists, and that they not bork details that will piss off someone who took high school chemistry.
Any other movies that get the science right? I’m compiling a list…