Oh, for the Love of Science!

There are a few rules of thumb about making a good fictional movie. “Introduce character, introduce conflict, show resolution” is common when it comes to structure. Avoid excessive exposition (using dialogue as a shortcut for explaining background) is another.

Now a physics professor has a proposal for another rule: only break the laws of physics once per movie.

Sidney Perkowitz made the comments as part of a panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual convention. It followed on from the 2008 launch of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program designed to help writers make their work more scientifically accurate.

The panel members mentioned several particularly prominent blunders, but by far the most criticized movie was 2003’s The Core in which the Earth stops spinning and scientists travel to the center (without breaking a sweat) to detonate a nuclear bomb which somehow restarts its motion. Perkowitz almost believes “it’s almost deliberately wrong just to irritate the scientists in the audience” and adds “Ignorance is excusable. Contempt is not excusable.”

Another film which is the subject of regular criticism is Starship Troopers in which bugs are scaled up to 10 feet tall. Perkowitz notes the creatures would then weigh more than 100,000 pounds, almost certainly meaning their legs would collapse.

Perkowitz has even written a book on the subject: Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, though for attention-grabbing titles, it can’t compete with Tom Rogers’ Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics: Hollywood’s Best Mistakes, Goofs and Flat-Out Destructions of the Basic Laws of the Universe.

The San Diego Union-Tribune makes an important point about the power of Hollywood: while An Inconvenient Truth grossed $49 million, The Day After Tomorrow took in $544 million. Whatever your view on the climate change debate, it’s probably fair to say the latter, seen by far more people, took more dramatic license.

Incidentally, the story has been a wonderful example of the different approaches taken by varying media sources. While the New York Times went for the bland-but-functional “Make Science-Fiction Movies More Scientific, Says Scientist”, I09.com opted for “Scientist To Hollywood: Stop Making Shit Up”

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10 Responses to Oh, for the Love of Science!

  1. I’ve been complaining about this for years, and how annoying it is to have to ignore the most basic laws of physics with complete absurdity in order to “appreciate” the drama aspect. Then of course every time I point this out I’m usually told that it I want real science I should stick to watching Discovery Channel, or the Science Channel.
    With most all science fiction movies disregarding so much I’m forced to because apparently us science fiction fans are too stupid to be entertained by better plausible science fiction. Then of course writers get angry, and sometimes insult fans who suggest that there could be more interesting ways to utilize real science. Yes the writers, get testy because they spend years in school learning proper grammar instead of accurate physics. Apparently it’s our fault they aren’t educated enough to provide real plausibility with fiction.

    • It is probably also our fault that they lack the creative ability to apply better accurate science with fiction. Some would say we’re being picky, as if we’re complaining that the McDonalds menu doesn’t have enough higher quality gourmet healthy creations.
      They would say, we’re too ignorant to appreciate better, and they might be right.

      Until then Will watch more Journey To The Center of The Earths with Brendan Frasier falling down a hole,
      More Percy Jackson’s with magical sparks flying out of people’s hands, and of course more super hero movies like Transformers, and Ironman where tiny metal parts run on infinite amounts of power lifting buses into the air with no problems.

  2. I've been complaining about this for years, and how annoying it is to have to ignore the most basic laws of physics with complete absurdity in order to "appreciate" the drama aspect. Then of course every time I point this out I'm usually told that it I want real science I should stick to watching Discovery Channel, or the Science Channel.

    With most all science fiction movies disregarding so much I'm forced to because apparently us science fiction fans are too stupid to be entertained by better plausible science fiction. Then of course writers get angry, and sometimes insult fans who suggest that there could be more interesting ways to utilize real science. Yes the writers, get testy because they spend years in school learning proper grammar instead of accurate physics. Apparently it's our fault they aren't educated enough to provide real plausibility with fiction.

    • It is probably also our fault that they lack the creative ability to apply better accurate science with fiction. Some would say we're being picky, as if we're complaining that the McDonalds menu doesn't have enough higher quality gourmet healthy creations.

      They would say, we're too ignorant to appreciate better, and they might be right.

      Until then Will watch more Journey To The Center of The Earths with Brendan Frasier falling down a hole,

      More Percy Jackson's with magical sparks flying out of people's hands, and of course more super hero movies like Transformers, and Ironman where tiny metal parts run on infinite amounts of power lifting buses into the air with no problems.

  3. The new TV show “Human Target” seems determined to pointlessly break the laws of physics, and screw up everything else as well. The science adviser seems to be a 5-year-old with wildly improbable fantasies. The stuff they get wrong isn’t just fantasy, it’s ignorance. If they got it right, the story wouldn’t fall apart, it would get better.

  4. The new TV show "Human Target" seems determined to pointlessly break the laws of physics, and screw up everything else as well. The science adviser seems to be a 5-year-old with wildly improbable fantasies. The stuff they get wrong isn't just fantasy, it's ignorance. If they got it right, the story wouldn't fall apart, it would get better.

  5. You want real science? Okay. While I know this is specifically about space movies, the same could be said for most science/movie principles.

    * No human space exploration further than Mars. We don’t know the real science of taking humans further than this yet, so we can’t write it in. If we even tried this, it’s dramatic license. Yeah, have fun watching 10,000 space exploration movies about near space objects. If we CAN go further in space than this, how about scientists try a bit harder instead of ranting about movies?

    * Same for time-travel. This is a staple of the genre, but can’t be shown in movies until we know how it works, but when we do, to be even slightly accurate, it’ll be one of two things: It’s either impossible, or would cause no paradox or change anything, rendering the time-travel extremely boring. Have fun watching a film where nothing actually happens.

    * No explosions in space. Have fun seeing THAT action movie.

    Yes, I know it’s crappy having to suspend our sense of disbelief beyond a certain point, but scientists shouldn’t be the ones telling us this point, because to most, real science should be the only thing shown on film. Which as I’ve pointed out, would be ridiculously boring.

    Instead, just turn to the audiences – it’s OUR sense of disbelief, after-all.

    Yes, Armageddon might suck at science, but as a goofy, cheesy, 90s space action movie to watch with friends on a nostalgic night, nothing beats it.

  6. You want real science? Okay. While I know this is specifically about space movies, the same could be said for most science/movie principles.

    * No human space exploration further than Mars. We don't know the real science of taking humans further than this yet, so we can't write it in. If we even tried this, it's dramatic license. Yeah, have fun watching 10,000 space exploration movies about near space objects. If we CAN go further in space than this, how about scientists try a bit harder instead of ranting about movies?

    * Same for time-travel. This is a staple of the genre, but can't be shown in movies until we know how it works, but when we do, to be even slightly accurate, it'll be one of two things: It's either impossible, or would cause no paradox or change anything, rendering the time-travel extremely boring. Have fun watching a film where nothing actually happens.

    * No explosions in space. Have fun seeing THAT action movie.

    Yes, I know it's crappy having to suspend our sense of disbelief beyond a certain point, but scientists shouldn't be the ones telling us this point, because to most, real science should be the only thing shown on film. Which as I've pointed out, would be ridiculously boring.

    Instead, just turn to the audiences – it's OUR sense of disbelief, after-all.

    Yes, Armageddon might suck at science, but as a goofy, cheesy, 90s space action movie to watch with friends on a nostalgic night, nothing beats it.

  7. [begin comic book guy voice]

    OM actually, the CORE of the Earth was what stopped spinning in the movie, not the Earth itself. Clearly if the Earth stopped spinning the problems would be more of a night/day nature and not a….well actually it was never that clear WHY we needed the core to spin or anything…

    [end comic book guy voice]

    in all seriousness, though, the only redeeming quality of that movie was the hacker/nerd guy they hired to “control the INTERNET!!!” They did have a nice “Captain Crunch” reference though!

  8. [begin comic book guy voice]

    OM actually, the CORE of the Earth was what stopped spinning in the movie, not the Earth itself. Clearly if the Earth stopped spinning the problems would be more of a night/day nature and not a….well actually it was never that clear WHY we needed the core to spin or anything…

    [end comic book guy voice]

    in all seriousness, though, the only redeeming quality of that movie was the hacker/nerd guy they hired to "control the INTERNET!!!" They did have a nice "Captain Crunch" reference though!