When I was a kid – and who am I kidding; when I was an adult too – I made fun of the science in movies. “That’s so fakey!” I would cry out loud when a spaceship roared past, or a slimy alien stalked our heroes.

Eventually, my verbal exclamations evolved into written ones. Not long after creating my first website (back in the Dark Internet Ages of 1997) I decided it would be fun to critique the science of movies, and I dove in with both glee and fervor. No movie was safe, from Armageddon to Austin Powers.

I was right; it was fun. It was surprisingly easy to deconstruct Hollywood accuracy, or lack thereof. Any mistake was fair game; a flubbed line with bad math was just as likely for me to mock as a plot device upon which the entire movie rested. Blowing up a giant asteroid? Pshaw. Saying “million” instead of “billion”? Please. Shadows moving the wrong way at sunset? Let me sharpen my poison keyboard.

Movie after movie came and went, and I watched each in the darkened theater, off to the side, hunched over my notepad with my pen clicked and ready, and – literally – a flexible red-filtered flashlight wrapped around my neck like a scarf to illuminate my writing in case the scene I was destroying was too dark for me to see my own words.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Well, actually, the epiphany was forced on me. I was at a professional astronomy meeting, and in the exhibit hall I started chatting with a gentleman who worked for a telescope manufacturer. Our conversation eventually turned to the science in movies. “Did you watch the made-for-TV movie Asteroid?” he asked me. I told him I did, and that the science in it was awful. For the next few minutes I regaled him with examples to bolster my opinion.

He bore all this in silence, and when I was done, he asked if I remembered the telescope they used in the observatory scenes of the movie. Sure, I replied. “What did you think of it?” he asked. I told him I thought it looked pretty good given that it was clearly a set, and that it was a fairly accurate depiction of what a ‘scope in an observatory looked like. Really, it was one of the few accurate things in the whole flick.

“I helped build it,” he told me. “The studio called me and asked me to work with them on that part of the set. After we put it together, they said they wanted more equipment on the telescope to make it look more like a complicated piece of scientific equipment. So I added a bunch of electronic boxes and other things that had no real purpose at all.”

He looked at me pointedly, and continued. “If you were fooled by that, and even thought it looked good, then why do you care if there are other little mistakes in a movie?”

I don’t know what my exact reaction to this was, but I can imagine I had a shocked look on my face when I realized he was right. It was a sea change in my attitude toward movies, and – like a bad movie script – it happened all at once from that one comment.

I realized that I had been enjoying watching movies for the purpose of reviewing them, not for the actual purpose of enjoying them. After that, I saw things differently. I accepted that while the science is important in sci-fi, the story must come first. Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer the science be accurate. In fact, I strongly believe that a writer who knows the science (or has access to it through a science consultant) will find plot developments he or she may not have thought of otherwise.

Science can and should lead the story where it needs to go. But in the end, the telling of the story must win out.

After all, the introduction of bad science after good led to my own character development. What might good science after bad do for yours?

Phil Plait is a scientist and science writer, and, clearly, a devoted sci-fi geek. He writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover Magazineand only occasionally pens movie reviews these days … but he keeps the old ones up as an object lesson to himself to lighten up.

Comments

Fine, I'll try. But I'm still going to consider Armageddon the worst movie. Ever.

I agree that it's better if they get the science right, though I'm never bothered much by bad science in films. However, I found the reviews to be really captivating ways to learn about real science. I fondly remember reading the original Bad Astronomy blog back in the day. I never considered the reviews to be strictly meant to bash bad science in movies. Rather, I enjoyed learning the real science through the mistakes made in movies.

I'm not bothered by mistakes -- can happen to anyone -- so much as when a movie just seems to disdain rational thought. And "Armageddon" is a terrible movie in ways that have nothing to do with scientific plausibility -- the characters are one-dimensional wastes of good actors, the dialogue is moronic, the tone is randomly uneven, and Michael Bay doesn't know how to direct an action scene because he's got the mind of a ten-year-old. In the two good Star Wars movies, I can cheerfully ignore the various unlikely propositions, because they present a solid story.

I don't know. I hate movies that assume the audience won't understand unless they scream the punch line directly in your face. I have movies that worry about fancy special effects and, as you did, add a bunch of boxes and lights to make something look "sciency." It insults my intelligence and it is distracting. Do not distract with meaninless and pointless crap. Do not tell me all the details straight out. It's ok if I don't get the joke the first time ... when I figure it out the next time or at night a day later, well ,,, that's a good movie. The best sets are the simplest. The absolute best sets are the ones you see in your mind ... like the ones you see when you read a book. I always thought that the sets for "Our Town" were better than the sets for any other play. I wish Hollywood would stop wasting money on stars and glitz and sets and lawsuits. Tell good stories again. Please? I rarely go to movies anymore. It is not vecause of the Internet. It is not because of piracy. It is not any of the things that Hollywood executives and their thugs think. It is because they have nothing of value to say.

Assuming the same time is spent on the plot in development: Good science leads to a great movie Bad science leads to a possibly hilarious movie Meh science leads to a meh movie I love reading the theories on how to make a lightsaber, or why Armageddon's asteroid blowy-upy scenario wouldn't work, and so on. But I also love Star Trek, where they throw out terms willy-nilly, and inverting the polarity on the deflector dish is the solution to many of life's problems. In the end, I say leaving that aside when I first watch the movie so I can enjoy it is good. Later, I'll rant about how blaster bolts travel way too slow, or how I shouldn't be able to hear the spacecraft in vacuum. But I can still enjoy or laugh at the movie, as you found.

I also hate when movie science is inaccurate, but mostly I don't really think much about it. what I do really hate however, is when the whole story or an important scene is based on something that's just... stupid Also, I've seen movies with worse logic than Armageddon.... waaaaaay worse

I still get a kick out of pointing out flaws in movies and TV shows but I've mellowed over the years as well. It's entertainment and it's the job of our schools to teach science, not the movies. Besides, with the internet there is plenty of resources for the half-aware to understand the real science. So I may still laugh at the science in old Star Trek shows or space fighter physics in Star Wars, I will enjoy watching them.

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