The Intersection

i-9beebfd55e3a47b8fccf8dcffbf1739f-day_after-c.jpgI really enjoyed Sheril’s post last week about scientifically inaccurate movies. As I went to check out the list that she linked to, I found myself nodding constantly.

But of course, that’s hardly an exhaustive list. Let me tell you a bit more about the kinds of scientific inaccuracies I’ve noted in Hollywood films–this by way of leading up to an ultimate question.

Hurricanes vs Tornadoes. The two meteorological phenomena are pretty dang different. One occurs over ocean, after all, and the other over land. One could fit in the eye of the other. Nevertheless, they’re constantly, carelessly confused. Films that I’ve seen which do this include 16 Blocks (where the Mos Def character repeatedly gives an idiotic speech that confuses them) and Next (in which a TV newscaster refers to a hurricane’s strength by using the Fujita scale, which of course measures tornadoes).

Instantaneous Evolution of Magical Powers. I can’t tell you how many movies use evolution and mutation as a justification for all manner of absurdities, from X-Men to Spider Man to trash like The Cave–in which human beings transform into giant batlike monsters just by being trapped underground. Um, it doesn’t happen that way. Not ever.

Now, is this stuff a huge deal? Not really, no. It’s not something to get angry about. It’s just entertainment.

But on the other hand, given the massive budgets of some of these films, don’t you think somebody could have paid a consultant to check on a few facts? And for that matter, don’t you think somebody might have hired screenwriters with a bit more creativity, who could actually deliver a good story that’s consistent with scientific knowledge and still entertaining? (It’s hardly impossible to do.)

That this doesn’t happen at all suggests there’s something fundamental going on here. I suspect those on the entertainment side of the fence simply don’t care about the details–they care about the story, period. And I’m damn sure that those on the business side of the industry don’t care.

But still…I’m surprised by how prevalent this kind of dumbness is–and how unnecessary. So what do people think: Is there any deeper way of explaining it?


  1. #1 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 31, 2008

    I’m not aware of a study that has systematically reviewed the scientific accuracy of films. We are likely to remember the bad science in movies and forget the accurate portrayals that occur, so be careful. I recommend taking a look at David Kirby’s (Univ. of Manchester UK)articles on the use of scientists as advisers on Hollywood films.

  2. #2 joy
    July 31, 2008

    Granted, some mistakes are really stupid. Like using the Fujita scale for hurricanes. Stuff that anyone with access to a library, computer, or fifth/sixth grade science textbook could correct. So I think we can definitely call that laziness or apathy, and that is largely inexcusable (and annoying, to say the least).

    Stuff like the instantaneous evolution of magical powers, well, that just lends to the plot more than, say, a gradual mutation over hundreds of thousands of generations. (A magical POOF!!!–>superpowers sort of thing) To a large extent, the audience doesn’t care about scientific accuracy–they care about the plot and the drama and the action. And thus science gets left by the wayside.

    In addition, some superheroes are what they are because they defy all the laws of science. (Like in Iron Man, Spiderman, etc.) The sensational nature of these characters in some way lends them their appeal, that something extra that they can do that makes them the superhero, instead of Average Joe. Yes, it is unnecessary and inaccurate. But part of the nture of filmaking is to allow to happen what couldn’t ever happen (at least, today) in RL. And if it means ignoring science, then so be it.

    Anyroad, sorry for the long ramble that takes up an inane amount of space on the comment thread. Not sure if I made any sense there, so sorry.

  3. #3 Jessica
    July 31, 2008

    Absolutely! So, do you have any scientifically accurate yet entertaining movies to recommend?

  4. #4 Ryan Morehead
    July 31, 2008

    There’s a similar lack of realism involving anything and everything that has to do with the military or guns. It’s very common to see a guy firing 10-12 shots out of a revolver that holds five. This has gotten better in recent years with studios hiring military advisors and actually listening to them.

    I would compare Blackhawk Down with Commando as an example.

  5. #5 Edward Furey
    July 31, 2008

    Another chronic inaccuracy is the night sky. Producers are content to just throw up a jumble of points of light randomly against a dark background. It’s really sad when pictures with astronomy themes, like “Contact,” don’t bother to get the sky right.

    One of the very few films to get the stars right — and show it can be done — was “Cold Mountain,” in which a couple of characters are looking out at the sky and there are Orion, Canis Major and their neighbors essentially as they appear in mid-winter. Not only was the sky right, but the producers of the film even got the right stars for the season.

    Clearly whatever CGI magic is used to “paste” stars on the screen can get it right about as easily as getting it wrong. One wonders why so few bother.

  6. #6 justawriter
    July 31, 2008

    Well, you obviously haven’t studied the esoteric field of “wantum mechanics” first elucidated by researchers working on Star Trek TOS in the 1960s. The first law of wantum mechanics is stated as: If the director wantum, it happens.

  7. #7 Jason Failes
    July 31, 2008

    In the x-mens’ defense, they were originally conceived in the early 1960’s, when all mutants were supermonsters and all radioactivity made things gigantic, glowing, and irritable.

    Indeed, in the comics there have been some attempts to reconcile genetic science with the absurdity of superpowers, specifically the “intelligent redesign” of the human race by several ancient alien species.

  8. #8 Nalgas
    July 31, 2008

    Learn to live with it. This is the collision of two distinct magisteria, the art of making stuff up versus the craft of finding stuff out.

    If you have a plumbing problem, consult the second crowd. Present a real problem to the first crowd and they will answer “Wouldn’t it be neat if ….?” and soon your plumbing problem will be worse.

  9. #9 Rodrigo Neely
    July 31, 2008

    I went to a horror movie convention in the Dallas area this year and gave the director of the film “Doomsday” hell over this issue.

    He based his whole movie on a super virus, and I asked him if he took the time to do some epidemiology research.

    He said “What am I making a documentary?!”

    I told him that when the plot is plausible it makes the movie more interesting.

    It brings to mind the first Jurassic Park, Star Trek, the writings of Isaac Asimov, The Planet of the Apes, these are just better pieces of art.

  10. #10 John K.
    July 31, 2008

    I would echo Nisbet’s suggestion to read David Kirby’s articles on the use of scientists as advidors in films.

    Just as it’s important not to speak down to school board members when trying to convince them of the importance of defending evolution in the classroom, scientists need apply those same lessons when establishing cordial relations with filmmakers. If the goal is to get more science advisors on Hollywood film sets, then we need to be conscious of the way we’re speaking to the entertainment community and avoid focusing the discussion on how immensely “dumb” they are. Don’t forget about framing the issue to them as well…

  11. #11 James
    July 31, 2008

    In the case of Spiderman and the X-Men (and the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, and…), it’s mainly a matter of Stan Lee having been keen on SCIENCE! without having had any real education in science — he just used the buzz-words that were saturating the news (radiation, mutation, gamma rays, cosmic rays, etc) as explanations for how his superheroes happened. IIRC, he was especially pleased with the X-Men, because from then on he could just use “mutant” as his explanation, and he could stop having to come up with more and more even more implausible notions.

  12. #12 Unbeliever
    July 31, 2008

    On the one hand, I mourn the dumbing down of our culture as much as anybody. People SHOULD have a basic understanding of what IS science, and what ISN’T.

    On the other hand, though… what are you arguing for? More plausible-sounding nonsense in the movies? Or no nonsense at all?

    If we restrict ourselves to real science, then all science fiction and fantasy go out the window. Star Trek? Mass can’t go faster than light! Harry Potter? Don’t make me laugh…

    And I don’t see that making nonsense sound more plausible is going to help. If anything, it sounds like the problem is that the nonsense is TOO plausible-sounding to most folks as it is.

    I think the only real solution, as always, is better education. Train students to be able to distinguish faulty science from the real thing. And to understand that “suspension of disbelief” is fine for movies and TV, but a bad thing in day-to-day life…

  13. #13 Indecisive
    July 31, 2008

    Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick proved that actually portraying realistic movement in space can be so boring that you have to supplement it with hundred year old classical music (and a waltz at that). George Lucas probably has no idea that there is no air out in space, hence he creates space battles that more or less (mostly less) attempt to simulate at least some people’s conception of what air combat is like. The Star Wars fight scenes have much more energy and excitement to them, which draws people in even today. 2001, though vastly superior on aesthetic, intellectual, and scientific levels, had somewhat mixed reviews when it came out, and is now largely only watched among art house/cult film audiences. While obviously these two films aren’t representative, could it be that Hollywood types are afraid of presenting real science because they are worried about it being boring because it actually has been boring (at least to most audiences) in the past? After all, Hollywood (usually) tries to copy things that have worked financially in the past and avoids things that didn’t.

  14. #14 Ian
    July 31, 2008

    The big Hollywood production companies are looking to make money. They certainly aren’t interested in teaching science, even if they could be bothered to figure out a great plot involving real science. Nor should they. It’s entertainment and that’s all it is. They really have no more interest in researching good science than Randy Olson does in researching the smartest way to talk to scientists about talking to the public.

  15. #15 Jon Winsor
    July 31, 2008

    Things don’t make a noise when they blow up in space. But if you were true to life, sound effects guys would be out of a job.

    I suppose, though, you could just do away with them and keep recycling the Wilhelm Scream.

  16. #16 joy
    July 31, 2008

    Indecisive: Hey!!! György Ligeti’s music (Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem, all of which were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is really neat stuff. Brahms’ An der schönen blauen Donau and Also sprach Zarathustra are cool too. Yes, I’m a classical music nerd. I’ve never seen the movie (just heard the pieces used performed in concert), though, so I can’t attest for or against its scientific accuracy. In general, though, Hollywood is more interested in $$$ than science.

  17. #17 Mark Powell
    August 1, 2008

    Hey, do you suppose the bloggers on MovieBlogs complain about how dumb scientists are when scientists fail to be entertaining?

  18. #18 Jim Harrison
    August 1, 2008

    I’d be very interested to attend a movie that reflected the reality of the sciences, but I don’t know if I’d have much company in the theater. For most people, the real practice of science is about as exciting as financial accounting. Too anal. It’s just as well the public doesn’t know.

    Science fiction, as lots of people have pointed out, is akin to myth. If you ever read the Indian Puranas, narrative poems about the doings of the Gods, you’ll find ’em much like SF books and movies. Novels about the scientific life exist, but none of them are best sellers.

  19. #19 Peter Morgan
    August 1, 2008

    There are movies that aim to be emotionally realistic, others that aim to be scientifically realistic (not as many, I grant you), militaristically realistic, legally realistic (I can only imagine what lawyers might say about the legal liabilities Batman racks up), …, then there are movies that intend to be exercises in escapism. People want to escape from physical reality as much as they really want to get away with saying shit to their boss. They dream of jumping hundreds of feet, and so do screenwriters and directors of movies. The example of gun realism, getting the number of bullets right, can make for more suspense, but I’m pretty sure we still want there to be a suspension of reality. Now, how does not letting Spiderman jump hundreds of feet help make the movie be more fun? It could, but doing it is not easy and something else will likely have to be unreal. Of course, there’s always the high-brow emotionally and physically true to life and everything movie that the critics will love, which are made and which we should watch and be challenged by, but a century of movie-making proves that don’t make a pot of gold.

  20. #20 Jimbo
    August 1, 2008

    About Cold Mountain; might’ve had a good sky, but it was the wrong crow. (Apparently birdwatchers get upset about bad birds in movies as much as scientists get upset about bad science.)

    How did that bird get there

    “Cold Mountain: Filmed in Romania (not Appalachia), features Hooded Crows and other European birds.”

    Regarding science: I can’t think of any fictional (i.e., one not based on a real event) movie that had realistic science in it. There’s another thread topic for ya.

  21. #21 Tony Jeremiah
    August 2, 2008

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