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…

36 Responses to “science and movies”

  1. Iain Says:

    Might be a short list!

  2. Carrie V. Says:

    Indeed…I had trouble coming up with more. I don’t know what to do with SF movies like “Children of Men,” that have no real science in them but extrapolate a given scenario very very well.

  3. AnneW Says:

    Agree with Gattaca, it was done very well.

    Have to add a science “wrong” one. It was an old TV episode, McGyver, and everything about the nuclear power plant they had was wrong. Not just wrong, but dumb. There was a button to push that would just spill liquid nuclear waste into a regular room with standard office doors. Huh? An emergency shut-off valve was located on top of the auxilliary building and required a long trek up a ladder, then it needed a special tool to operate…one that wasn’t available. And apparently there is no staff, let alone guards, at nuclear power plants, you can run around all day long, bring your car in, and never see anyone.

  4. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    For me, it’s not USUALLY the bad science… it’s internal inconsistencies. Prometheus was just full of those.

    But not always. There have been some movies and shows where the science was so STUPID that I couldn’t stand it. I’m fortunately not recalling any right now.

  5. Zack Gilpin Says:

    I feel like “Moon” did a pretty good job for what it was. Otherwise, I’m drawing a blank. This is actually rather distressing. <<

  6. WanabePBWriter Says:

    How about the original Andromeda Strain.

  7. amysisson Says:

    I was amused by what you said about Prometheus: “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.”

    The reason this amuses me is that I heard Elton John’s “Rocket Man” on the radio yesterday. I love the chorus, but some of the lyrics are just dumb. “And all this science I don’t understand….
    It’s just my job five days a week.” Really? That’s what he thought an astronaut would be like?

    (Unrelated to getting-astronauts-wrong, but also dumb: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids… In fact it’s cold as hell….
    And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.” If YOU raise YOUR kids there, how can there be no one there to raise them?)


  8. This is semi-related to your rant, but I keep thinking about something Roger Ebert once said: “As 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrates, there is no sound in outer space. As the Star Wars and Alien movies demonstrate, there should be.”

    More closely related to the rant: most audience members don’t necessarily know about the little details, so I tend to let minor inaccuracies slide; if it’s related to something I’m interested in, I’ll happily inform people of the facts (Ex: Jurassic Park is rife with all sorts of paleontological inaccuracies, even barring the ones proved inaccurate by the march of science), but I won’t damn the movie over it, unless it was already bad to begin with. If, however, the writers pull a critical research failure, then everyone’s going to notice.

    Slightly more annoying to me is when a work can’t follow the rules it has established for itself, but again, how bad this is depends on the overall quality of the work.


  9. Also, Re: Sean – exactly, the fact that Prometheus couldn’t keep its own facts straight within its own narrative, let alone compared with what we know from the other Alien movies, really drove me nuts.

  10. Carrie V. Says:

    Okay, I thought of a couple more: James Cameron movies are usually pretty good. They at least draw on actual science and make an effort. Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar are the ones I’m most thinking of. The scientists tend to act like scientists, the soldiers like soldiers, and nothing jumps out as egregiously stupid. They may not hold up to scrutiny, but they’re good while you’re watching.

    Amy, I always kind of liked Rocket Man because I imagine the narrator as a just a common dude in a Heinlein future history story, you know, working as a welder on some space station. Not an astronaut but the kind of guy who would work in space two hundreds years from now.

  11. Carrie V. Says:

    Esp. The Abyss: the oxygenated liquid is real. We’ve got that. Cool little detail.

  12. Aerik Says:

    Spoiler Warning for “Moon”! Read at your peril.

    Moon felt right to me, until I started to think about the cloning.

    The best way to think about cloning is a genetic twin born later. Moon makes the common mistake of thinking that clone means “adult duplicate copy with all memories intact, but no scars”.

    Why does everybody assume that clones come out as adults? Or that memories transfer magically?

  13. Carrie V. Says:

    For me, the cloning in “Moon” made no economic sense. It would actually be cheaper to just send up new people every year or so than it would to make and store and maintain clones. I mean, people do that kind of thing now with Antarctica tours and offshore oil rigs.

    The scenario with the clones was interesting, but I think there could have been a better reason for it than moon mining. Eccentric billionaire trying to find everlasting life, experiment gone wrong, etc.

  14. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    For me, the cloning didn’t really make sense because the AI seemed to be pretty intelligent.

    But I liked the movie so much I was able to mostly ignore that.

  15. amysisson Says:

    Carrie, fair enough re: Rocket Man. Maybe he’s like the dock workers on Babylon 5 — which I always liked *because* it showed that not all people in space in the future will be astronauts. I should have thought of that angle. 🙂

  16. Doruk Says:

    28 Days Later: The scientist is drinking coffee in the same room they have live animals present. How did he pass his biosafety qualifications? Also, that cage is way, way, waaaaaaaay too small for a chimp!!! As you say, it is the little things that bug the most. Completely bio-compatible internal parasitic alien that grows 100-fold in a few hours with acid for blood? Sure!!!

  17. Jacqie Says:

    Yep, yep, yep. Just watched “The Thing” prequel last night- that’s a movie that didn’t need to be made. No mystery to the Thing, no suspense, it was just boring.

    And I kept thinking- why are all you scientists so stupid? No one’s worried about any specimen contamination or quarantine procedures at the start? Having read Peter Watts’s Starfish, I am now aware that even 10,000 year old bacteria from Earth, not to mention outer space, could kill us all.

    Maybe your average person wouldn’t think about it, but a biologist certainly should, and I wish the script-writers would have. But then again, without stupidity there would have been no movie. Another way in which the prequel did an injustice to the John Carpenter version.

    So the John Carpenter version! That was pretty good horror/sf and I didn’t feel there was gratuitous scientific stupidity.

  18. Daphne S. Says:

    Love that you mentioned Contact, which remains one of my all time favorite SF movies, even if the book was better ;o) Of course how much of that had to do with the fact that Carl Sagan was himself a scientist? Perhaps that is part of what is lacking in so many “bad science” movies/TV shows? Maybe they don’t have enough technical support, or the know how to incorporate the technical into the story. Or perhaps it is a failing of the technical advisers. Are they advisers because they can’t actually perform that which they are advising on? As a chemist I’ve had the unfortunate experiences of working with/for such individuals. For some folks, no amount of education will make them able to put the pieces together in a workable fashion.


  19. Unfortunately I don’t really have a memory for the good ones. I think I remember Red Planet with Gary Sinese as being good until a typo made it through the final draft of the script and he said that DNA was made up of A, T, C and P nucleotides. Sigh. I have never seen a movie or tv show containing death by liquid nitrogen accurately…ever… That is too long of a rant to get into but it is my favorite science mistake rant.

  20. Re WIlliams Says:

    Another person here who loves Contact – the book most. It was my first Carl Sagan book and after that I was hooked!

    It’s a relief to know how many other people out there are de-railed from a movie when science goes so bad.

  21. Aerik Says:

    Something always bothered me about “The Thing”, so maybe I can ask the audience here to tell me whether I’ve got things straight.

    They’re in Antarctica, so why is there a totally regular day/night cycle? The way I understand it, they should either have long periods of light with little to no darkness (summer in the Southern Hemisphere), long periods of darkness with little to no light (winter), or a twilight balance where it never gets truly dark or truly light.

    Right?

  22. Doruk Says:

    Aerik: sounds about right.


  23. In, of all things, the James Bond movie View to a Kill, at one point Bond sees through a polarized window by dint of wearing polarized sunglasses with a lens that could be rotated. I always thought that was a really clever idea–one of the only James Bond gadgets that actually would work (at least theoretically) in real life.


  24. One I hated was Outbreak (Dustin Hoffman / Rene Russo). They found a anti-virus and brewed enough for however many people in just a few hours. You don’t get yields like that in a safe to administer form that fast without factories that have processes that take YEARS to develop and build (one of the real reasons medicines cost so damn much…after you the right chemical you have to figure out how to mass produce it safely and cheaply.)

    Don’t even get me started on Jeff Goldblum injectecting a ‘computer virus’ into an alien OS/language the shuts down the shields…

    Good Will Hinting made me sad with the super hard problem looking like a simple matrix transformation.

    You know who does science right? Big Bang Theory. The equations and scientific facts are real, accurate and surprisingly well done.

  25. Aerik Says:

    Science montage!

    http://xkcd.com/683/

  26. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    Regarding Antarctic daylight: it’s the same as anywhere else on the planet: days get longer in the summer, shorter in the winter. It’s just that the extremes are more, uh, extreme. But it’s pretty close to 12/12 on the equinoces, just as it is elsewhere.

    While I got bored watching the prequel pretty early on, a lot of it struck me as being pretty hampered by the original. And I like the original a lot, for all its problems.

  27. sef Says:

    (By “the original,” I of course mean John Carpenter’s version, not the one with the space carrot.)

  28. Aerik Says:

    Sean Eric Fagan:

    Ah. Good to know about the equinoxes. I’m going to tell myself that that’s when the movie is set, to make myself feel better.🙂

    I refer to them as “The Thing from Another World” and “The Thing from 1982”.😛 And yeah, I think of Carpenter’s as the original, as well. Great movie.

  29. Robert Says:

    The thing that bothered me most about the “geologist” in Prometheus. His primary motivation was for money but we were never shown how any of his actions netted him more cash. He just wandered off, got lost, and then eaten with no explanation on what he was trying to accomplish.

    I did love him for inventing a way to smoke while wearing a vacuum suit. That was funny, cleaver, and self destructive in ways I have never seen before.

  30. David Bowles Says:

    I will point out a related pet peeve: the story not reflecting the implications of available technology.

    Aliens was awesome. After the marines got their asses handed to them, plan A was to nuke the site from orbit with the Sulaco. That’s not what happened, but at least it was discussed.

    Babylon 5: when the going gets tough, what do the heroes do? Nuke the shit out of the ancients. First, the city on Zahadum, then more nukes to bait the Vorlons and Shadows into fighting each other.

    Space Above and Beyond: Good physics, good battles, good use of plausible technology.

    Now let’s look at some fails.

    I know it’s sacred, but let’s look at Star Wars. Nuclear weapons are never mentioned, but they must exist given their level of technology. Consider someone using a briefcase nuke on a Death Star. Prevents the need for an iffy attack. Or how about a couple of nuclear land mines on Hoth, since the Rebels *knew* a ground assault would be necessary?

    Or how about one of many “Earth vs ridiculously more advanced opponent” movies? Heroic, sure. But many of these movies feature a technology gap too wide to be remotely believable.

    I’m sure there are many more I can’t think of already. But a cardinal sign of this is when the story is set in the future, and the “futuristic” troops wouldn’t last 5 minutes against US marines. Star Wars, I’m looking at you again.

  31. carriev Says:

    I give Star Wars a pass on everything because it’s essentially fantasy, not SF. There’s no actually technology or science involved.

  32. David Bowles Says:

    I suppose that’s true. I guess in my old age I’ve just gotten a little…… banal. And the prequels made me look at the whole thing in a more negative light.

  33. Adam. Says:

    Counter question re: Star Wars.
    What’s a Proton Torpedo if it’s not some kind of Nuke?

  34. Jen Says:

    First off, I love your blog. I have yet to read a single book of yours, but will be heading out to B & N to grab one this week. We just love too many of the same things for me to not like your writing. Now, as for this particular post, I love Star Wars because of the science it has brought to life. Like “the Luke” hand invented by Dean Kamen who was inspired by the technology he saw as a kid. I, myself, have always looked at Star Wars as Fantasy over SF though. The little things always drive me mad & I find myself being completely distracted by them as well. I agree with you that Cameron does good science. Even in the Terminator series, I bought the science. He’s good at not trying to explain the science. Sometimes that’s for the best. Leave the science of how Terminators time travel alone. Don’t try to explain it. Let the audience figure it out or make a guess. The #1 thing that just irked me about Prometheus was when the head scientist lady said something like , “We don’t know that the aliens gave us a map. We BELIEVE they did.” What? Just believing in something makes it true & gets you funding? I was certain we were going to find out that in the future the word Scientist was used in place of Priest or Guru or Holy Person.

  35. Carrie V. Says:

    Hey Jen, I’m glad you like the blog, and hope you like my books!

    Yeah, in relation to my “Total Recall” post, the Terminator movies get time travel as their one gimmee because they use it to such good effect. Everything else has a pretty solid foundation, and the only thing it really waves its hands on is the time travel, so we end up buying it all.

  36. Chris Says:

    Just found this blog. (Carrie, love your Kitty books!)
    Bad science in movies doesn’t usually bother me because I don’t have the education to recognize it. When I do see it, it’s usually because they got something very basic wrong. Which brings me to the Disney movie, Eight Below. Happy movie about scientists being forced to leave a team of sled dogs behind on Antarctica. Most of them survive, yay! Go puppies! We see them break loose, we see them fight seals, we see them scamper about. In Antarctica. In July. In the bright sunshine.
    What is wrong with this picture?
    It seems to me that in a kids’ movie, there should be all the more effort to get the basic science right.


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