National Geographic

The Search For the Great Science Fiction Movie (or, I Am Doooomed)

I was in New York yesterday to give a talk about evolution, which was simultaneously a Rockefeller University Science and Media Series Lecture, and a New York Skeptics Society Public Lecture. We had a great turn-out: as I told the crowd, there’s nothing a public speaker likes to see more than a serious fire hazard. The talk was recorded, and I’m hoping soon to be able to direct you to it.

One of the many reasons I enjoy giving these lectures is that I can meet people before and after my talk. Yesterday I met a number of interesting folks, including Alexis Gambis, who somehow manages, all at once, to pursue a Ph.D. by researching neurons, make science-themed movies, and even run a festival of science movies. We got to talking about movies and science–there is a lot of buzz these days about how scientists can get involved in the movie-making process. The National Academy of Sciences has even dispatched emissaries to Hollywood “to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.”

Scientists who get involved in these kinds of projects hope to do some good. They hope that they can get rid of misleading representations of science in movies, and help movies to convey what science really tells us, or what science really is. (This is my impression from speaking to these folks and reading some of their blogs, etc. If you’re one of those scientists, leave a comment to tell me if this is wrong.)

When I get on this subject, as I did with Gambis yesterday, I turn into a raging skeptic. It’s probably not a very helpful response, and I’m not sure why it gains so much momentum inside of me. But I started raving yesterday. My favorite science fiction movies generally deal in some really, really bad science. Laws of physics are regular flouted. Aliens make no physiological sense.

That’s because the directors are just using fragments of science to assemble fiction that reaches down deep inside us, not to our internal database of scientific facts, but to our addiction to beautiful images and human stories. Science fiction movies are not really about science. I just watched Wall-E and liked it very much, not because I learned about robotics (I didn’t), but because the movie’s creators paid close attention to how Buster Keaton made love stories. On the other hand, I watched GATTACA years ago and found the science side relatively clever and the plot as tedious as a tax form. You can’t just add good science to Hollywood like pixie dust and get good movies.

I do think it’s great for scientists to help steer Hollywood away from pernicious myths about science. But there are limits to how far this fact-checking can go. Another grad student who was talking with Gambis and me yesterday complained about how bogus forensics is on CSI. Results of DNA tests just pop up in minutes. He complained about all the people who would crowd around a machine waiting for the results–”All that hair!” he said in horror.

Fair enough. But let’s imagine CSI with all the tedium and dreariness that goes into good forensic work. Tonight on CSI: our heroes wait for results. And wait. And wait! Next week: the samples were lost, so our heroes have to run the test again! We watch movies and TV shows to escape reality, not to be enslaved by it.

I will also grant that Hollywood can find huge amounts of inspiration in science. I myself ended up writing about science because it was far weirder than things I could think of myself. But (yes, there’s always a but) I think a good Hollywood director can find inspiration in economics, politics, crime, and the lives of bored housewives. What matters most, however, is whether the director knows how to turn the raw ingredients into a good story.

Once I was done with this riff with Gambis, I wondered if I was making any sense. Perhaps there’s a kind of science-based movie that transcends my skeptical take. By eerie coincidence, I just got an email from Netflix saying that with my Mac I can now watch an unlimited number of free movies on my computer. I’m now scanning through their science fiction collection (everything from Contact to Plan 9 From Outer Space) to conduct a little “research.” In my heart of hearts, I know that what I’m really doing is setting up my own professional downfall, because I’m going to watch movies all day long. But if anyone thinks I’m totally off the mark, please suggest to me a movie that proves me wrong.

[Image of Buster Keaton: Silent Gents' Buster Keaton Gallery]

Add Yours.

  1. Adrian
    December 5, 2008

    I keep dreaming of the day when a movie-maker will start to exploit scientific realism to make the movie more exciting. We’ve stopped hearing bullets ricocheting everywhere (even off wood) like we used to 30 years ago, maybe we need to have someone lead the way and show us how reality can be better than fiction. Like watching a lightening storm when the thunder and lightning don’t happen at the same time. If you separate them by even a second or two that can help create a sense of realism and closeness that we just don’t see otherwise. 2001 did this at times where it used the silence and slowness of space walking to increase tension (in parts, just in parts!).

    Not as a movie, but I’ve enjoyed the tv show “ReGenesis” (not on NetFlix unfortunately and its last show aired earlier this year). It was CSI-like but tried to emphasize the difficulties and time required for analysis. No doubt there were liberties but overall I thought they tried to keep the science plausible. It’s the closest I’ve seen a show try to make science exciting without making it magical.

  2. Jason Heldenbrand
    December 5, 2008

    One of my favorite science fiction movies is Serenity and it caught my attention for being one of the few ‘futurist’ movies that did not feature FTL. It also theorized for how western and eastern cultures mixed, which I found pretty fun to imagine.

    Beyond that however, I tend to think that scientific realism is anti-thesis to a good movie. Generally this is because science is, well, boring. Not in the sense of what is learned from it, but the processes. They don’t fit into the hour and a half to two hour scheme that Hollywood goes by. It is very difficult to rationalize on that, or to make regular everyday science ‘sexy’ enough to promote a movie on it. I mean, how much money would Armageddon have made if it involved them dramatically releasing gravity tractors which very slowly adjust the direction of an asteroid? Science tends to be a slow, methodical process. That just doesn’t work for fast paced movies.

  3. Joshua
    December 5, 2008

    On the subject of CSI, the great counter-argument would be The French Connection. Yes, the chase scene was pretty epic, and yes it had a shoot-out at the end, but at its heart the film was a hardcore procedural. The tension came from the hours of waiting on stakeout to grab the one tiny sliver of evidence that they needed to make the case airtight, or the possibility that their cover might be blown while tailing the bad guys, ruining the whole case. So, you can make very engaging cinema out of a boring, by-the-books following of procedure, if you do it right.

    That said, the slow burn probably isn’t compatible with the episodic done-in-one format that shows like CSI use, but I’m not the guy who greenlit a show about people whose job it is to spend all day waiting for lab results. And even still, one would thing you could make something out of the real process. “A week before the results are back? We don’t have a week, dammit!

    I’m willing to give a lot of scientific license to a well-told story, but what bugs me is that so much of the scientific inaccuracy we see on TV and at the movies is just careless ignorance rather than a considered trade-off. (Even Eureka, to my great disappointment, pulled out the “we only use 10% of our brains” canard in one episode…)

  4. Jennifer Ouellette
    December 5, 2008

    Apollo 13. One of my all-time favorite science movies… is the science 100% perfect? of course not. They’re telling a story, first and foremost, and you can’t get TOO bogged down in the details. But it captures what science is like. And let’s face it: how often are engineers with bad combovers recognized for saving astronauts’ lives?

  5. Tim
    December 5, 2008

    There are very few science fiction stories in movies or TV. Most are just dramas/adventure in a space setting. The few parts of Apollo 13 that I saw were re-creations of a documentary that I saw about Apollo 13. There was no reason for the movie. The documentary had actual footage, and was riveting. Even most SF books are political or cultural dramas.

  6. Eliza Strickland
    December 5, 2008

    I enjoyed Sunshine, although it obviously veered away from scientific fact — especially during the action sequence near the surface of the sun. Bat at least the movie makers were open about their process! The DVD has a commentary track by the physicist who advised them throughout, and he points out every instance where they sacrificed fact for dramatic effect.

  7. Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)
    December 5, 2008

    I agree with you, Carl. This is a critical bit: “What matters most, however, is whether the director knows how to turn the raw ingredients into a good story.” The thing is that most films (successful and otherwise) are “stories” in largely the same way that stories have been since the birth of the modern novel. And yes, when working in that format, accurate science is never as important as the things that you need in novel-type stories: character development, conflict, narrative arc, resolution, romance, etc. — it’s inherent to the format.

    Tim, above, is disappointed that sci-fi movies are really political or cultural [or personal, I'd add] dramas — not what he sees as science fiction. That’s just the point: Soft science-fiction, where the science entirely bows down to the story, is tremendously popular; hard science-fiction — like the stuff Verne was writing when he created the genre — is the domain of hard-core fans and cable-TV shows, where it’s no longer even a movie.

    That said, I don’t see anything wrong with scientists trying to keep the ridiculousness to a minimum, like Joshua says.

  8. Franklin Evans
    December 5, 2008

    I suggest a close examination of the Carl Sagan novel and movie adaptation titled “Contact”. It can provide insight to the basic components of storytelling and why an author will (and must!) make different choices compared to a director/screenwriter.

    I also have a personal take on science in fiction of any kind: the first task of the reader/audience is suspension of disbelief. If science aids the task, it promotes the story. If it makes the task more difficult, it becomes a handy reason for the failure of the story telling.

    Finally, a personal recommendation: “Quatermass and the Pit”, US release title “Five Million Years to Earth”, uses science as the primary driver of the plot. You may or may not find the storyline interesting or even plausible, but it was one of the better releases from Hammer Films in my never humble opinion.

  9. Jeremy Henty
    December 5, 2008

    There’s a beautiful “science moment” in “42″ (New Doctor Who,
    series 3, episode 7). Martha is stuck in an escape capsule about
    to be jettisoned from the spaceship. The Doctor is on the ship and
    there’s an airlock between them. The Doctor is screaming “I’ll save
    you”, and as the airlock evacuates the Doctor’s voice fades away,
    because there’s no air to carry the sound. It’s as though the writers
    said “We don’t have to do science in this scene, but let’s do it
    anyway”. Maybe here is hope!

  10. Michael Felkins
    December 6, 2008

    Both in Serenity and the TV series, Firefly a point was made that there is no sound in space. Big explosions, yes. Big booms, no. This was a major departure. And I wonder if it hurt the TV show and the movie. Were average people expecting BIG, LOUD booms, and disappointed when they didn’t get them?

  11. Grumpy
    December 7, 2008

    But let’s imagine CSI with all the tedium and dreariness that goes into good forensic work.

    Let’s. CSI meets The Office. Or, if you want to steer clear of absurdist comedy, simply extend each CSI mystery into serial episodes, where each episode includes different phases of different cases. You might have evidence collection for case A, analysis for case B, and results for case C, all in one episode. Next week, analysis of A, results for B, case C goes to trial, and new crime scene D.

    The only thing holding back such a format is not any inherent lack of drama; rather, the weekly grind of writing a drama for American TV doesn’t allow for that much pre-planning. But a cable series could get away with it.

  12. Tim Byron
    December 7, 2008

    I think Carl has a fundamental misunderstanding of what science fiction is – it’s not fiction about science per se, or necessarily fiction with accurate science (what about Jurassic Park?It taught me as an 11 year old about raptors) but fiction about the way advances in technology and knowledge might influence our lives (well, it’s more complicated than that, but anyway). In my mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect science fiction movie. It’s vaguely plausible that neuroscience will advance to a state where the memory deletion in that movie is possible, and the ramifications of the technology are central to the story and well thought out.

  13. Christophe Thill
    December 8, 2008

    I’m a fan of old Japanese SF. I just saw a movie that was still missing in my culture: “Battle in Outer Space” (Ichiro Honda, 1965). Great acting, drama, and state of the art (for the time) special effects. But the scientific side… It begins with a metallic bridge being lifted into the air by an unknown force. The same thing happens to a boat and different other big things. At an international conference, a (Japanese, of course) scientist gives the following explanation. We know that gravity comes from the rotation of the Earth. Without mmovement, there is no gravity. But the witnesses were found to be frost bitten. This proves that extremely low temperatures were used. And near the absolute zero, molecules don’t move. So it’s normal that things start flying up. Yep, that’s pretty weird…

  14. Matt S
    December 8, 2008

    As a scientist and a movie buff, I agree whole-heartedly. But I would also say – so what (in the most reverent possible tone)? I don’t think sci-fi or any fiction needs to showcase 100% accurate science to be good, and I doubt many scientists would say that.

    The thing that drives my crank is when the movies/tv etc. get some well established bit of science completely wrong. Like if a movie butchers evolutionary theory, or portrays a link between autism and vaccines when there has clearly been shown to be none. Otherwise, it’s fiction so it can go where it wants. Sci-fi gets a particularly extravagant amount of leeway because those movies are entirely speculative, and who are we to say that warp drives will never exist. Even if something betrays physics as we understand it, we may find a way around it someday. So I say imagine away hollywood, and give me a call if you want a fact-checker.

  15. Andrew Miranker
    December 9, 2008

    Jim and Spock beam down to a new planet. Jim encounters a gorgeous alien species and winds up with a deadly and wholly novel STD. Within 24 hours, ship time, Dr McCoy has identified the pathogen and developed a cure. Very far away from reality? Perhaps, but oh so inspiring. McCoy’s challenge, in part, is one of having to make/design from scratch a small protein/peptide that can bind to a novel biological target.
    1960: impossible.
    1970: impossible.
    1985: possible: Science (1985) 228:1315-1317
    2008: Commercially available, inexpensive tool.

    Fantasy inspires. AND by the way, the Enterprise really does make a whoosh sound as it flies through space. We just don’t understand how.

  16. Gnomon
    December 11, 2008

    regarding noise in space: The eerie silence of an explosion, especially if the simulation has accurate micro-G symmetry, can be more terrifying than a fake boom.
    I have never really understood why people suffer from falls, etc. on the SS Enterprise; do they really need a full 1-G?
    Unfortunately, most attempts to do a simulation of micro-G are crude and vaguely comical; the exception being 2001, where it was accurate but overdone. (Magnetic boots, indeed!)
    Most SF movies are really “space opera,” an analog to “horse opera,” in which the human responses to an unusual environment are more important than the environment; they’re about people, not space.
    There is room in movies for “no science,” for “good science,” maybe even for “impossible science,” but not for “wrong science.” For that, there is no excuse. It doesn’t further the plot, and only labels the makers as being incompetent.
    While we’re at it, let’s push for some good SF to be made into cinema. I suggest starting with “Ringworld.” There are thousands of similar novels which are not scientifically inaccurate, and could make good movies. (Phillip K. Dick’s novels, for example, have been sometimes well done in film.) I’m waiting for “The Man In The High Castle.” Probably not enough car chases or sex, and too much demand on the attention span, to be interesting to producers.

  17. penny
    December 20, 2008

    Science fiction can be all about science–this is more common in classic stories such as “Mission of Gravity” by Hal Clement, and “Marooned on Vesta” by Issac Asimov. Personally, everything else, IMHO is NOT science fiction.
    Most movies fall short because movies are made for a mass audience assumed to be scientificially illiterate and not very bright.

    One Tv show that was better was “Men into Space” from the early 1960′s, which was mostly accurate with science advisor Willy Ley. The movie “2001″ was already mentioned, and I would add the movie
    “2010″.

    “Star Trek” is garbage. The science in this garbage is also garbage. When “Star Trek” came out, it was widely panned by the professional science fiction writers as a return to the pulp fiction tropes of the 1930′s. Science Fiction had moved on, decades earlier. If you want to see how bad “Star Trek” is–at least “STTNG” read
    Will Weaton’s reviews online. He played Wesley Crusher in the show.

    I had hopes that Science Fiction in movies would follow the lead of “2001″ , but that was squashed by the widely popular “Star Wars”–which was not only full of trash science, but absolute drivel as literature. It was also a return to 1930′;s movie tropes–such as “Flash Gordon”. I realize that this comment might upset people who grew up on ” Star Wars” as their pablum–but to someone who had read extensively in science fiction before I saw it, I was appalled by its sheer stupidity.

    “Forbidden Planet” was also decent, and mostly accurate scientifically–it mentioned such things as
    ” logical alphabet”, and was full of in-jokes about quantum gravity, general relativity etc. It was written assuming an intelligent and reasonably scientifically literate audience. I also enjoyed the Claude Raines vehicle
    “Battle of the Worlds” –low budget, but about a mathematician–” You may have your instruments, but I have the
    Calculus”. It forshadowed optical computing etc.

    Science fiction was Not invented by Jules Verne. Try ” The Brick Moon” by Edward E. Hale ( about a manned space station), for example. The Science Fiction Novel was invented by Mary Shelley. Personally, I prefer
    ” The Brick Moon”.

  18. penny
    December 20, 2008

    Other examples of scientifically literate science fiction movies:
    “On the Beach”
    ” Brave New World”- BBC version, based on Huxley’s story
    “Gattica”
    “Destination Moon”

    On the edge ( probably ok)
    “Charly” ( if you replace the surgery with an experimental drug)
    The 1950′s George Pal “War of the Worlds”
    ( This beam dissolves mesons–the glue that holds matter together….)
    “Things to Come”
    ( It contains an electromagnetic mass driver as a spaceship launcher–not bad for the 1930′s–would need the
    crew to be immersed in a liquid–missed by the author–who was H.G. Wells!)

    I also enjoyed “Quest for Love” which contains the line:
    ” I can’t duplicate your quantum teleporter, but perhaps we can build an Einstein-Rosen Bridge”
    ( If you accept a parallel worlds interpetation of QM).

    TV Show: Genesis Two
    ( because we now know that hydrogen sulfide can be used as a suspended animation drug–vastly slowing
    metabolism–in this show, something similar is a NASA experiment).

    Even further on the edge, but worth mentioning–”Crack in the World”
    ” The Monolith Monsters”

    So, it can be done!!

  19. penny
    December 20, 2008

    Sulu is training a new navigator.
    ” Mr Sulu, set course 106 mark 9 for Starbase 11″–Captain Jerk
    ” What is he talking about?”–trainee
    ” He thinks he is on a sailing ship–use the usual 11 dimensional maximizing geodesic to Starbase 11.”–Sulu,
    in sutto voice.

    Away team:
    “What does your tricorder say this is?”–Captain Jerk
    ” What’s a Tricorder?”–ensign
    ” Use your portable proton stimulated nuclear decay spectromenter to analyse it.”–Mr Spock

  20. penny
    December 20, 2008

    Oops
    ” Use the usual maximizing geodesic –on the usual 11 dimensional Lorentz submanifold–to Starbase 11″–Sulu

    Sometimes, I type too fast.

  21. penny
    December 20, 2008

    //
    I’m a fan of old Japanese SF. I just saw a movie that was still missing in my culture: “Battle in Outer Space” (Ichiro Honda, 1965). Great acting, drama, and state of the art (for the time) special effects.

    Released as ” The Mysterions” in America. The theme is that advanced aliens want to save us from our destruction of the Earth’s environment” Just like K. Reeves Klatu.

    It was just about as silly as the new version of ” The Day The Earth Stood Still”. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose.

  22. penny
    December 20, 2008

    My beef with “Apollo 13″ is that the mathematical physicist John Pierce–who created the low fuel consumption orbit that aaved the lives of the crew–whom I knew—, is NEVER mentioned. Instead, they just draw a
    figure eight on a blackboard.

    Engineers, who jury-rigged the gadgets get credit, but not the mathematician.

  23. penny
    December 20, 2008

    It was John Pierce that I knew, not the crew of the Apollo 13. He deserved more credit.

  24. Mike Keesey
    December 26, 2009

    “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the shining example of a sci-fi movie being true to science, thereby distancing itself from “normal humanity”, but still succeeding. But that’s already been mentioned, so instead I offer “Quest for Fire”. Perhaps it’s more prehistoric fiction than genuine science fiction, but it is by far the best caveman movie ever made. Sure, there are a few anachronisms, and the Neandertals are too ape-like in some ways and too human-like in other, but it captures a genuine *feel*. And it portrays facts about prehistoric periods that other films (even 2001) seem ignorant of, such as the simultaneous coexistence of multiple hominin species.

Continuing the Discussion

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    [...] Friday I wrote about how good science fiction (at least to my tastes) often relies on bad science. I was glad to [...]

    December 8, 200811:57 pm
  2. Plausibility « Grand Moff Texan’s MOMENT OF TRIUMPH

    [...] Odessey, firefly, science fiction writing, serenity |   I think what everyone is reaching for here is the problem of plausibility, which is a consideration in storytelling of any kind.  I know [...]

    December 12, 200814:45 pm
  3. Attention All Aspiring Science Filmmakers | The Loom | Discover Magazine

    [...] they’re at it again. Alexis asked me to be on the jury, and while I warned him that I think bad science makes for good science fiction, I signed on. They’re now eager for submissions–visit their web site for more details. [...]

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