Now, a lot of these articles have been about bashing the scientific illiteracy of movie makers. Roland Emmerich has famously stated “I’m a filmmaker, not a scientist.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a quick Google search or hire a professional to make sure the science is actually there and NOT BASED UPON A LONG-SINCE DISPROVED MYTH BORN FROM IDIOTS MISUNDERSTANDING A SCIENTIFIC FINDING.
Sometimes this isn’t all that bad. Obviously fantasy movies can use magic or whatever to deny the rules of physics (see my Magic column for why). And sometimes it’s okay to ignore scientific fact if inaccuracy serves the plot better than hardcore adherence (Inception, for example). I’ll quote George R.R. “Kill ‘Em All” Martin on this one:
“A writer cannot do too much research… though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.”
But, sometimes, media gets it spot on! Sometimes, they get things right that even seem unrealistic. And though a lot of people won’t even catch it, it means a lot to me- and it shows how much the creators actually care. So this one’s for you all, the ones who crack open a text book (or hire someone to do so) to make sure things actually make sense.
First off, the recent movie Interstellar. Now, a lot of people have criticized some of the movie’s finer points about Black Holes and relativity, but it’s still one of the most accurate depictions of wormholes, black holes, and faster-than-light travel ever to appear in media. I’ve already talked about how cool time dilation is, and it was great to see a movie work with that. The whole “love as a fifth dimension” is so freaking stupid, trite, and hokey that it actually made me audibly groan in the theater, though.
I would actually not recommend the film solely on that point, but the science is nice! Theoretical Astrophysicist and science consultant for the movie, Kip Thorn actually wrote a whole book explaining all of it. Now, full disclosure, we’ve never seen a black hole- they are a mathematical discovery, not an observable one. We think that there might be one around the constellation Cygnus, but it’s hard to tell (as they emit no light). But most of the math checks out. The crazy difference in time? True. The gigantic tidal waves? True, massive gravitational tidal forces (for us, it’s the moon, for that planet, it was the goddamn black hole). Unfortunately, even Nolan eschews accuracy for storytelling, in order for that specific time dilation of (1 hour to 7 years) you’d have to be so close to the black hole that nothing would realistically exist there. The people, the water, and the planet itself would go through what’s called “Spaghettification.” The gravity differential between even a few inches is so intense that you’d be stretch out into long chains of molecules and disassociated. Of course, the amount of resources, money, and technology it would take to do all that they did in the film could probably just have been used to terraform Mars, but that’s more of a problem with Nolan’s storytelling (and not the only one I have) than a problem with the science.
It’s been said plenty of times before, but Stanley Kubrick has an obsessive attention to detail. When he was making 2001: A Space Odyssey, both he and Arthur C. Clarke consulted dozens of people from NASA about space travel and space stations to get everything right. Even the little signs all have entirely scientifically accurate instructions and warnings- the sign by the toilet? ACTUAL SPACE-TOILET INSTRUCTIONS ROM NASA.
Kubrick consulted real Space Babies to make sure he got it just right.
You can also see this in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in fact, his mock-up of the then mostly classified B-2 Stealth Bomber was so accurate, the FBI actually suspected him of espionage and investigated it.
Most people don’t suspect it, but the best comedians are usually extraordinarily smart. Stephen Colbert, for instance, went to Northwestern University, and all of Monty Python went to Cambridge. This is why they’re able to hide amazing historical and scientific detail into their additionally humorous works. Now, I’ll come out and say it- I. Fucking. Hate. The Holy Grail. If I hear another person quote it in front of me, I won’t be held responsible for my actions. Enough of it, it’s not that good. A better Monty Python film is The Meaning of Life. In the movie, Eric Idle sings a song appropriately called “The Galaxy Song.”
That song is (or at least was when it was written) as accurate as Interstellar, and doesn’t make me groan. Every so often, Eric Idle checks in with astrophysicists to add/modify the song to be accurate as the body of knowledge changes.
I’m a huge fan of the show Burn Notice (except for the finale), part of that comes from my love of Bruce Campbell, but overall it’s a smart and stylish spy show. Not only is the writing smart, but so is the science. Every explosion and gunshot is earned and grounded in (at least semi) reality.
In fact, a lot of the main character of fired spy Michael Westen was based on the show’s technical adviser (and former CIA agent) Michael Wilson. One of the best extras on the season 1 DVD is the producer talking about Wilson interrupting one of the writing sessions with “That’s not how you would make a bomb” and proceeded to give an detailed explanation of IED’s. Now, of course, the show would never actually list all the ingredients or parts of bombs, trackers, etc. But they made sure to make the look of it and the effects as close to reality as possible (and ethical).
I’ve really only seen a few episodes the show Lie To Me, despite how much I enjoy Tim Roth, but I have read a lot of what it’s based on: the work of psychologist Paul Ekman.
Ekman studies facial expressions and emotions and discovered something he calls “microexpressions.” While the show glosses over most of Ekman’s owned admitted shortcomings and gaps in the work, it gets a lot absolutely correct. As I’ve talked about before, most of what goes on in the human brain is unconscious- or as we call it implicit. This includes muscle movement, Ekman discovered that even when their putting on a good poker face, people make very slight, minute facial expressions in response to stimuli. Ekman’s recorded and categorized these expressions, and as a result has become an astonishingly good human lie detector. Most people are actually horrible at detecting lies, people think they’re pretty good, but usually average out to 38-43% accuracy (that’s worse than if they just flipped a coin). Even “experts” (police, FBI, and the like) usually only score slightly above 50%. Oddly enough, secret service agents are the best at it. That’s mainly because people look at the wrong things- they look at eye movement, or fidgeting, or sweating, or use a polygraph. The problem is, none of these really work well. Ekman, and other psychologists have discovered that these microexpressions, as well as other paralinguistic cues (like speech pace, as well as voice tone) are the best cues for detecting lies. Ekman usually clocks in at 78% accuracy in double-blind lie detector tests. You know what? I’ll John Cleese and Ekman himself tell it:
Another thing I’ve never been shy about liking is the only Christianity I’m comfortable with- that’s right, Robocop. Now, I’m not about to say that the android or any of the technology is even a mile from close to reality- but what is spot on is the emergency room chatter of the trauma doctors. It’s really cool to see that Paul Verhoven made the extras learn so much about- what? Those were actual trauma doctors? Oh.
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy- it’s now cemented as my favorite Marvel movie, I love director James Gunn and his other works, Chris Pratt is now my spirit actor. But people lambasted what they thought was hilarious scientific inaccuracy in the film. Now, first off, people are okay with mystical space gods, and FTL travel, and aliens, and a talking raccoon, but the fact that Starlord could take off his helmet in outer space in survive for a few seconds is that’s where they draw the line! Oddly enough, it’s definitely possible. In fact, James Gunn actually consulted people at NASA about it. A few quick hits:
1. Yes, space can be cold, it also can be horrifically hot. All in all it is not a nice place for humans but-
2. You don’t automatically, instantly die in the vacuum of outer space- and you certainly don’t explode from pressure.
Actually, the human body could survive a few seconds in the vacuum of space with minimal damage. Couple that with the residual atmosphere exuding out from Nowhere, and the residual heat from the station as well, the fact that Peter Quill is only half human- and Gamora has lots of cybernetic enhancements, and the fact that the scene is in slow motion, and it’s actually entirely scientifically plausible. Again, as much as a movie with a talking tree and raccoon can be…
Oh, man, LA Noire… the greatest detective and noir game ever created. With technology so uncannily accurate and expensive, that it bankrupted the studio that made it. Not only did they create extraordinary technology to realistically map out people’s faces for interrogation, but they used almost 200,000 pictures of 1940’s Los Angeles to get the city exactly right, down to some of the storefronts from the time. Even the plot is based on a real-life housing scam.
You may ask, why does scientific accuracy matter? Well, for one- smart people generally make smart movies (and good movies), now, yes Transformers 5: Fuck You, You’ll Watch it, Like You Have a Choice will probably make a metric Richard Gere buttload of money- but I garuntee you it won’t be good. And that’s mainly because Michael Bay has trouble spelling “Transformer.” And also, movies influence how people think. Media plays a huge role in what people believe and think about reality. And damn it, it ought to be accurate. The government is already waging a fierce war against science, we don’t need the media to be too.
Anyway, be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays, appropriately titled Mindless Action Mondays
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