MIND MELD POSTED: The Most Realistic (and the Most Ridiculous) Uses of Science in SciFi Film and TV

May 6th, 2009

This new Mind Meld post is over at sfsignal.com, of course.   Be encouraged to go read all the responses over there and leave comments.   Here was my response:

I haven’t watched a lot of recent TV shows, or seen every movie that’s come out. I’ll focus on some of the serious movies and TV shows that are especially good or bad with the science and consistency. For the most part I’ll ignore comedies and shows that are really unabashed fantasy.

First, the movies with realistic science. The king is 2001: A Space Odyssey, with every scientific detail meticulously rendered, from artificial gravity to human exposure to vacuum, to the silence of space. Other films with realistic science include Contact, Gattaca, Predator, and Minority Report (if we ignore the future-seeing psychics). Contact enjoyed the technical expertise of Carl Sagan in the way 2001 benefited from Arthur C. Clarke. I love Predator for its realistic portrayal of high-tech camo and alien vision in the thermal infrared, with the plot turning on these points.

There are more movies with bad science than good. Armageddon averages over an error per minute, and the opening minutes get so many things so badly wrong I couldn’t believe anything in the whole film. Utterly ridiculous. The Core is the geological version of Armageddon. I didn’t even watch Sunshine since the premise was so unbelievable: the sun has stopped burning (?!) yet humans can restart it with a manned mission (?!) to deliver nuclear weapons to restart it. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I understand they had a science consultant to handwave something plausible, and I read an article about this, and still thought it was totally dumb. I might watch the movie if it comes on TV and I’m drunk and bored. Reign of Fire looked so cool with its dragons — I love a serious dragon movie — but they’re supposed to eat ash? ASH? After all the chemical energy has been extracted by burning? And the entire species had a ridiculous evolutionary niche and reproductive cycle that was completely implausible. XXX had a set of binoculars that could look through walls, and when that scene happened a new low of stupid had been set. But rising to that challenge is John Woo’s Face Off, which features a face transplant that somehow renders perfect copies that make it impossible for people to tell the difference between John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. I don’t think anyone needs to see their faces to tell them apart. Oh, the James Bond movies, like XXX, have often slid into silliness with Q’s gadgets.

As for television, my first thought was that I couldn’t think of any tv shows with consistently good science. After some more thought, I still couldn’t. I’ll list some shows that often try and sometimes do a good job, although non consistently in my opinion. Battlestar Galactica has some intrinsic flaws, such as the way Vipers zip around solar systems in hours or less without very much fuel, but the ships also fly through space silently and vacuum is treated realistically. CSI has ridiculously sophisticated expensive tests available and occasionally makes some gaffes (e.g., giving the acceleration due to gravity as a velocity), but has plots revolving around science and logic. ER gets its medicine and procedures correct, everything very realistic for a hospital show. The Big Bang Theory is a comedy, but they do a good job avoiding science errors and do provide some clever jokes. Star Trek, for all its boner episodes (like when Spock’s brain was stolen, or the Enterprise was almost hit by a chunk of white dwarf star), does try and sometimes gets things right.

Almost everything on TV has worse science that knocks me out of my suspension of disbelief. For a while I enjoyed Heroes as a fantasy, but they kept pushing the science side so hard I finally had it. Almost everything on the show fails to make sense when any thought is applied. I found Northern Exposure similarly implausible as the science-oriented character, the doctor, failed to believe fantastic events week after week (as opposed to the X-files where Scully evolved into a believer, with good reason). The rogue moon of Space 1999, flying past a different alien world every week, made no sense whatsoever. The Six Million Dollar Man should have torn his body apart about six million times. And finally, a fan favorite, Firefly, had terraformed moons and some sort of planetary system that still makes no sense to me, and as an astronomer and science fiction writer I can’t even figure out how to make it all plausible.


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