If there's one thing that crops up again and again as the Achilles' heel of Hollywood writers, it's science. Or, to be clear, accurate science. There's no shortage of go-to ideas for crippling a spaceship, say with a physically impossible conflagration bright enough to burn your retinas and loud enough to shred your eardrums to confetti. And there are also crafty (but still impossible) ways to save that same ship, like by blowing it right past the speed of light or shooting it through a wormhole created with a torpedo and some cinema magic.
For moviegoers, it basically boils down to this: The general population enjoys the spectacle of action-packed scripts. The scientific community wants to see the world in a way that's at least marginally believable, without any huge infractions against the basic rules of physics, math, biology and chemistry.
We can't undo all the factual wrongs in these movies, but we can explain just how preposterous they are in these 10 examples.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is arguably one of the most popular debunkers of sloppy science. Much to Jon Stewart's chagrin (and hardly contained amusement) Tyson has pointed out on multiple occasions that the globe shown during the opening segment of "The Daily Show" is merrily whirling in the wrong direction.
But then there was the bogus skyscape seen above the shipwreck in "Titanic" – Tyson saucily took affront to that, especially because director James Cameron is such a stickler for details. According to Tyson, not only are the stars all wrong for that time and location, they're also mirrored from the middle. So the sky was basically a finger-painted Rorschach test.
Cameron was perhaps a tad irked by Tyson's so-called snarky reprimand, but, all the same, the 2012 rerelease of "Titanic" featured a much more scientifically copasetic starlight backdrop.
Let's put this one to rest once and for all. There is no sound in space. None. Space is a vacuum, and vacuums are devoid of particles. (Unless it's a vacuum cleaner, in which case it's full of all sorts of particles and other dodgy-looking debris.) Sound is a vibration, and no particles means there's nothing to vibrate, hence the lack of noise.
So, all the bips and zaps and yowls and kerpows you hear in space-based movies are totally phony. But moviemakers can rarely resist – or honestly afford to – skip them. Otherwise, fighter ship scenes would seem beyond boring. Even some instrumental music could have a hard time keeping the lame-train from leaving.
Those TIE fighters trying to shoot up the Millennium Falcon in "Star Wars?" Not a peep. At least before the sound engineer got a hold of them.
The not-even-a-little-bit-believable space explosions are a separate issue entirely.
Shoving someone off the roof of a terror-inducingly tall building is such an irresistible way to jazz up a humdrum plot that few action writers can resist plunking it into a story when their muse is on a coffee break. Maybe a hero will come to the rescue; maybe the victim will end up as a pulpy pile of mush. Whatever is needed to elicit cheers or gasps from the audience.
Just one problem: Catching someone from such a fall isn't really going to help. Both of those scenarios will, in fact, result in the human being bursting open like a watermelon when they touch a solid surface. Be it Optimus Prime's metallic mitt, Spider-Man's protective embrace or Superman's swooping last-minute grab, it will leave the person just as dead as if they had actually eaten pavement.
There are plenty of examples, but "Transformers" is a repeat offender.
According to the cinematic gem "The Day After Tomorrow," global warming is going to hit us smack upside the head and at lightning speed. Forget the fact that geological records show that even the fastest-descending ice ages still take about a decade to consume the world ... not a matter of days.
But even worse than this fundamentally basic climatological blip is what occurs as the ice age descends. (This descent, we should note, does not solely punish those who live in already frosty climes. It is an equal opportunity meteorological avenger.) More pertinent to the plot is when a cell of tornadoes sashays down the red carpet in L.A. and a tsunami roundhouses Manhattan to the face.
The temperature, all the while, is going down fast. Like 10 degrees a second fast. Once it hits 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus90 degrees Celsius), you know stuff's about to get real. And by real, we mean even more ludicrous. Because that's when a flooded Manhattan freezes over, and the water doesn't do something water definitely does when it freezes – expand to crush all the buildings and the people cowering inside. (Sure, other liquids get smaller when they freeze, but water expands. Just look at what happens to soft drinks when the fridge gets too cold.)
Let's start out by dabbling in the social sciences here. In the 2005 version of "War of the Worlds," Earth is a world in which cities apparently don't issue building permits, and there are no busybody neighbors hovering around to see who's next door digging a hole for a new "pool." Either that, or somebody actually managed to get permission legitimately to bury alien killing machines all over the place. Another potential argument is that the film's alien murder machines predate human settlements, which would just mean that we're really awful at evaluating real estate expansion plans. Granted, that's closer to stupidity than science.
But bad science there is, the biggest share of it committed by the invading aliens. They like to munch on a particular plant-ish substance, but that plant apparently needs human blood to nourish it. Important question: What type of Miracle-Gro were they using before they stumbled across Earth?
Let's just put the idea that an alien life-form could somehow require human blood to survive to the side for a minute. The aliens were obviously smart enough to figure out what they inexplicably needed. Yet, they somehow simultaneously overlooked the heady, bursting-with-bacteria brew they eventually fell victim to.
Ah, to be Homo superior. How grand it is! Your father and mother were both simpletons. Homo sapiens to the core, content to live their lives without ever lighting something on fire with their brains or walking away from a little scuffle with a freight train unharmed. You're humanity's next evolutionary leap!
Problem is, evolution doesn't work that way. First off, there's no goal to evolution apart from survival. We're not climbing a ladder to perfection. We're just trying to graduate from the school of hard knocks, same as the mosquito you just slapped and the lioness that just ripped your arm off.
That's not the only problem: Evolution's changes happen in tiny increments. Yet, the mutants in "X-Men" all of a sudden have totally awesome superpowers and can do things like stop, blow up or derail speeding trains with a single gesture ... or, failing that, telepathically force the conductor to stop the thing. Again, not scientific, let alone realistic. Not even a little.
But if you somehow are a valid case of X-style evolution, and have Cyclops's laser vision, the guys in the next flick could really use your help.
"Armageddon" was a cringe-worthy movie for eggheads if ever there was one. From the very beginning, scriptwriters seem to have indulged in picturing steamy scenes they could write for Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, rather than whether the statistics they peppered the plot with were even remotely accurate.
Is there an asteroid the size of Texas in our solar system? No. (The largest is quite a bit smaller – about 560 miles (900 kilometers) across compared to the "Armageddon" asteroid's 870/1,400.) Is an asteroid even likely to get smacked by a comet? (Nope. Them's super slim-pickings.) Could a comet knock this particular asteroid out of orbit? (Not a chance. Seriously.) If it could, would this asteroid impact the surface of the planet with the force of 10,000 nuclear bombs? No. (Interestingly, this number is actually underestimated. Way underestimated.) Would we somehow not notice an asteroid of this size until it was nearly upon us? No. (Pretty much everyone on the planet who knew where to look would be able to glance up at the sky and see it.)
But the science-smack-in-the-face doesn't end here. Moving on.
In "Independence Day," Jeff Goldblum cracks his nerdtastic knuckles and hits the computer triple-time. As his feverishly fast keyboard clicking efforts start to slow, we rejoice to hear he has cooked up a little string of alien-compatible code that, once delivered, is going to help put the invading mother ship straight out of commission.
So what's a ballpark percentage of the likelihood of all this? We'd say 0, but that might be tilting the odds a little too much in ol' Jeff's favor. Not even the most genius of geniuses could magically write computer code that's compatible with an entirely alien IT system. The gulf is wider than Mac vs. PC.
And if you thought the meshing of human and alien computer technology was awkward and unlikely, continue for an even more intimate and unseemly meld.
Apparently, our planet-in-the-future-people prefer sending playas into space. And let me tell you – these ardent ambassadors are more than willing to fulfill our extraterrestrial expectations of human-alien love. Luckily, there is no lack of buxom and beefy booty out there for them to conquer. All these aliens look basically like us. Just us with facial prosthetics and maybe a dye job.
So how's that work? Wouldn't aliens tend to be a little more ... well, alien? I mean, sure, in "Star Trek" you get some funky species now and then, but for the most part, any E.T. encounters involve one-headed, two-armed and two-legged humanoid creatures. Let the games begin!
But statistically speaking, our explorers would be better served by taking a cold shower. The closest they're realistically going to get with another life-form out in space would be a brush with a bacterial infection, and that would make for a real lousy movie. Based on all the research we've done, it's just not that densely populated, especially by humanoids.
"Spaceballs" pokes fun at science from start to finish, but science, being a good sport, takes the ribbing in stride. How can it not, when a Winnebago is considered a space-worthy craft and a radar dish can be "jammed" with "the raspberry"?
It gets even more bewildering when you consider characters such as Barfolmew the mog. Scientific-minded movie patrons would probably be best served by not extensively contemplating Barf's half-man/half-dog origin story. Then there's Vinnie, half-man/half-robot, and Pizza the Hut, half-man/half-pizza; the pair of them 100 percent unlikely.
Vacuums of all sorts feature prominently in "Spaceballs." For starters, there's the utter disregard for them when the plot requires a character to traipse around in space without so much as a breathing apparatus. And then there's the part when vacuums are exploited to suck up a planet's atmosphere after Spaceball One morphs into Mega Maid. Nothing fishy sounding there.
But perhaps the most outrageously unscientific part occurs when the Winnebago goes into hyperactive and Spaceball One must give chase. Pedestrian paces like light speed just won't serve. Spaceball One needs to hit ludicrous speed to catch their prey. What follows is – decidedly – ludicrous.
This film is in the top spot not because it's the worst offender, but because it so clearly knows what it's doing is completely unreal. In this one outlying case, we're OK with that.
Strange, dystopian and imaginative science fiction movies were popular in the 1970s. Test your knowledge of them with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Crazy Examples of Horrible Movie Science
I remember watching many movies with my parents when I was growing up. My mom would frequently question the plot twists, character interactions and other facets of each movie, puzzled and annoyed by why things were unfolding the way they were. "Why did they do that? It didn't make any sense!" or "How come they didn't finish fixing that before they tried to make the other one work?" Whatever it was, my dad would invariably respond, "Because it's in the script."
I enjoy that take on anything created for entertainment. Personally, I'm not too particular when it comes to the accuracy of movies, scientifically speaking or otherwise. My judgment falls purely on an it-really-stunk to an it-was-pretty-good to an it-was-totally-awesome scale. End of story. But for those of you who do like to dwell on the details, I hope you enjoyed this article.
- Chivers, Tom. "The 20 worst science and technology errors in films." The Telegraph. Oct. 9, 2009. (Oct. 1, 2012.) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/6274053/The-20-worst-science-and-technology-errors-in-films.html
- Harris, Richard. "Questionable Science Behind "The Day After Tomorrow." NPR. May 28, 2004. (Oct. 1, 2012.) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1915138
- IMBD. http://www.imdb.com/
- O'Neill, Ian. "'Titanic' Accuracy Tightened by Neil deGrasse Tyson." Discovery News. April 2, 2012. (Oct. 1, 2012.) http://news.discovery.com/space/neil-degrasse-tyson-tightens-titanic-accuracy-120402.html
- Phil Plait. "Bad Astronomy." (Oct. 1, 2012.) http://www.badastronomy.com/
- "Spaceballs: The Script." (Oct. 1, 2012.) http://www.evilwillalwaystriumph.com/script.htm