Bad Science in Movies

by Nancy Atkinson on December 28, 2010

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Graphic: Bad Science in Movies. Credit: io9. Illustration by Stephanie Fox. Research by Nivair Gabriel.

If you’re finding the time to watch a few movies during the holidays, you might want to make your choices based on this “report card” put together by the website io9 a while back. They rated 18 movies based on how many laws of physics they mangled. Star Trek is not included just because there is too much of it (bad science and movies!) to fit all in one graphic.

Hat tip to Nate!


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

trika December 29, 2010 at 11:37 AM

What I’m seeing here is that the Science Fiction movies don’t equate to real science, yet the movies based on real science do. Not hard to figure out why it’s called Science FICTION.


Gummby3 December 29, 2010 at 1:05 PM

What I want to see is a graph of current science FACT based on Star Trek fiction alone. What I see here is a lot of nitpicking. I know I’d be bored out of my skull watching a space battle with no sound, even though I know it’s in a vacuum. Without some sort of similar language base, there’s not going to be much dialog to advance the storyline. :) These are just a few of my nitpicks of the nitpickers…

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 29, 2010 at 1:27 PM

Yeah, you are absolutely right… but why can’t we have just a little fun with the nitpicking and look for the holes in movie story-lines?

Face it movies are mostly about escapism, and frankly if you enter a movie theatre or watch one in front of the television, most of your brain should be switched off anyway.

As for sci-fi movies at least they are mostly entertaining. hell. It could be worst.
You could be forced to watch chick-flicks like “Sex and the City”, “Gone With the Wind”, or even, both film versions of the dreaded movie on humankind — &#%@ing Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Woman”! (American’s true WMD!!!)

I already know which film genre I’d be “bored out of my skull” with!

Lawrence B. Crowell December 29, 2010 at 4:03 PM

A realistic depiction of a space battle would be very different from the Star Wars sort of thing. For one thing, advancing technology separates combatants. Compare medieval warfare with WWII or modern war. The Star Wars battle scenes were completely taken from WWII depiction of aircraft dog fights. The X-wings and Tie-fighters fought little differently than combat between P-38s and Messerschmitt 109s. A movie centered around a real space battle would depict a lot of guys on the ground, and to make it interesting a few guys in a spacecraft in orbit or in space somewhere. A lot of the plot could depict detection and intelligence, analyzing information to identify enemies, short bursts of alarm when the crew realize there is an incoming round, and so forth. Much of it could involve interpersonal drama, such as conflicts over command decisions.


Paul Eaton-Jones December 29, 2010 at 1:14 PM

It’s hardly surprising that Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff score highly, they were based on real events. As much as I love s.f. they nearly always break down as films because the dialogue is so appallingly crap. It’s almost at the level of the 1930′s-1950′s pulp s.f. comics – muscle-bound heroes, shrieking pneumatically-endowed women, “and with one bound he was free”. Intelligent s.f. novels would be almost impossible to make properly. Can you imagine the balls-up the studios would make with Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels? Niven’s ‘Ringworld’?, Harrison’s ‘Eden’ novels?

Lawrence B. Crowell December 30, 2010 at 6:06 AM

Ring world is hopelessly unrealistic. For one thing the physics is wrong. A ring around a gravitating body has antipodal points that counter each other. Assume we have a ring world of mass per unit length m’ around a star with mass M. If I take an angular region from the star to the ring the arc length on the ring has the mass which gravitationally interacts with the star. So for the ring at distance R from the star the gravitational potential is then U = -GMm/R, where the mass of the angular region, m, is given by the arc length L = @R (@ = angle) and the mass m = m’@R. So the gravitational potential energy is

U = -GMm’.

However, if I were to extend the lines for the arc length out to the other side I get a similar result, and the fact that the result has no dependency on the radial distance of the arc length of the Ring World tells us that there is no net radial attraction on the ring world. This may be extended to Dyson spheres as well. So any perturbation on the system can cause the ring to drift relative to the star within the plane of the ring. In fact the star could end up crashing into some portion of the ring.

I seem to remember there was some plans to film AC Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. However, there has been to news on this and I have not seen any release of such a movie.


Paul Eaton-Jones December 30, 2010 at 11:34 AM

From what I remember Niven had the anomalies pointed out to him and he went back to correct them. He was quite embarrassed as he was an engineer. Mind you he was dealing with some pretty far out ideas. I too heard about the RwR film but it appears nothing will come of it.

Lawrence B. Crowell December 30, 2010 at 3:32 PM

What is rather surprising is that F. Dyson (co-inventor of QED theory etc) proposed the Dyson sphere and was apparently unaware of this problem. The system is not stable, for the star does not gravitationally stabilize the sphere.


Olaf December 30, 2010 at 4:38 PM

A realistic space battle would mean that no spacecraft would see each other because they fly so fast.

Olaf December 30, 2010 at 4:49 PM

SF movies without bad science are very boring!
Farscape is wonderful!

Dark Gnat December 30, 2010 at 8:56 PM

In defense of the Alien films:
LV-426 and Fiorina 161 have ralatively similar to Earth’s likely because that was one of the reasons they would be settled to begin with, to make it easier for the colonists. Also, we saw only a tiny location on each world, and have no idea what the climate would be like elsewhere.

FTL travel does occur in the Alien films, but it’s never explained, and no visul effects are used to draw attention to it. I think that’s the best way to do it.

The Right Stuff has a very weird visual effect to go along when the sound barrier is broken.

No Star Trek? They pretty much broke all of the “rules”.

Armageddon has lots of bad science. Pretty much the whole movie, really.

tripleclean December 30, 2010 at 9:40 PM

Yes and in the Right Stuff it had that weird thing with the natives and their bonfire flying up into space. I really liked that movie maybe I should read the book. Wally Shira said they should have called it the “light stuff” because of the small,light command imputs flying the mecury and gemini’s.

Lawrence B. Crowell December 31, 2010 at 4:49 AM

The alien films suffer from bad biology. The prospect some alien life form can parasitically infect a human is less than the prospect some plant fungi could set up shop in a human. The other problem is that when the infant alien popped out of the human it was fully grown in the next scene. Those aliens were somewhat large, probably with 150kg mass, and they had to have gotten it from some food supply. The other problem is immune response. Even if such a parasite could make its living in a human the immune system would detect a problem. Even though our immune systems would be ill-equipped to deal with alien biology there would still be some sort of response.

The first couple of alien films did though make a point that contact with alien life could be trouble. Though I suspect it would be trouble of a different sort. Humans on another planet with alien microbes might end up like loaves of bread in the presence of mold spores.


auraboy December 31, 2010 at 5:00 AM

The Alien in the first film does not actually state that it is interacting with the biological nature of the humans though. Much like a fungi or even dust mote, it is simply wrapped inside the human where it absorbs heat and possibly oxygen.

Admittedly the increasing size of the creatures development seems hard to justify, though like some short lived insects, I believe the idea was that the final stage creature would not feed and was simply a bio-engineered machine for use as a weapon. The first film suggests the creature is actually bio-mechanical in nature and not actually an evolved organism. The later films changed that to get in the whole queen alien story.

I suspect ‘mouldy’ humans is actually a better description of human/alien interaction, but it would have been a slightly less exciting movie.

Lawrence B. Crowell December 31, 2010 at 7:45 AM

The first alien film, which I took a high school girl friend to watch, to her considerable disapproval BTW, had an element of mystery to it. The crew of the Earth ship encounters an alien craft of a very Gothic nature on that dismal planet, where the dead alien pilot has its skeletal chest popped open. One guy gets the alien larval form on his face and … . Midway through the movie they are dealing very badly with a fairly large highly aggressive creature which also has some sort of intelligence as well. There are a couple things which would seem to be apparent. This creature is not a simple microbe which is able to feast off of our flesh because our immune systems can’t manage the assault. This creature is able to exploit in a complex manner its host to complete a life cycle, which occurs in Earth life with considerable evolution. A complex parasite, such as a worm, is highly evolved to exploit its host from a molecular scale up to that of the whole host organism. This alien was not only highly complex, but had a sort of intelligence as well, but has not co-evolved with Earth life or humans. Clearly the mass of the creature which popped out of the first victim came from the host, and the alien at that stage was about the size of a very small dog.

Of course science fiction movies depict alien life forms that are pretty much modeled on life here. The Gieger alien is a hybrid of sorts between insect type of life and humans. There is a website called the “Tree of Life,” which as I remember is at U Arizona, which depicts the huge number of branches of life, most of which are prokaryotic with a smaller subset of eukaryotes. There are some 25 branches of eukaryotes, of which 3 are fungi, plants and animals — the three branches which evolved into multicellular life. Amoebas have a branch which is sort of multicelluar, or intermittently so called slime molds. The number of evolutionary dice rolls which lead to these three branches are huge, and the number of possible alternatives almost uncountable. So complex life on another planet is likely to be incredibly different from what we recognize as life. Maybe on some planets there are life forms which are motile, which requires sensory abilities, some dexterity and the bio-machinery to control that. Yet it could turn out to be stunningly different from what we are familiar with.

Probably of all the movies that depict alien life the most accurate might be that Steve McQueen classic “The Blob.” While it is a grade B celluloid affair, it at least imposed a minimal amount of our prejudices on what we think alien life might be. The alien movies fell apart after the second one, “Aliens” which featured the queen and a hive of aliens that had eaten out that planet colony. The one with the prisoners on that other dismal planet offered little, and the resurrection movie was just plain bad. I never saw the Alien v Predator movie —- that sounded too absurd.


auraboy December 31, 2010 at 8:25 AM

The Geiger alien is from his artwork which was actually supposed to be machines meshed with ancient egyptians to create organic machines. The original design concepts for the Alien film were that the creatures were not organic at all but such complex machines (weapons) that they could be released and produce virus like and adapt at a rapid rate to their host species in order to better wipe them out.

The later parts of the franchise were pretty bad sci-fi and pretty bad story-telling in general, ignoring their scientific credentials (or lack thereof). The forthcoming film by Ridley Scott is a prequel apparently going back to explaining the creatures as an engineered weapon, rather than a biological species.

The Blobs an interesting thought. Though it’s based primarily on jellyfish and other sea bound creatures which lack a skeletal structure. I suppose it’s always going to be difficult to posit something totally alien in nature – except maybe 2001s ‘obelisks’.

Most biologists who bother to speculate on alien life generally accept that there’d be some form of evolutionary process with a replication involved. Depending on the environmental restrictions, evolution would move in some vastly different ways, but there would always be limits imposed by gravity, temperature, available organic chemistry, time frames, etc. There are actually a vast number of ‘theoretical’ creatures in the earth evolutionary outliers that never could have happened simply because our world doesn’t allow for such mutations to survive within the restrictions of what is available.

Lawrence B. Crowell December 31, 2010 at 10:02 AM

Thanks for the alert on another Alien movie. Ooh boy, unless the reviews are somehow really good I will probably skip it.

Giger (which is as it turns out the real spelling) does disturbing portrayals of necro-fantasy and related bio-mechanics. He did the album cover of ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, which has a sort of tomb motif to it. The portrayal of the Aliens as some bio-mech engineered creation was I believe introduced in the Alien v. Predator films — at least according to my son who is a devotee of this sort of thing. In the Alien films there is that company which has an interest in getting their hands on the Alien, in fact why in the first movie the ship was diverted to that planet. As the franchise evolved I think the storyline evolved as well.


auraboy December 31, 2010 at 4:38 AM

Yes Darkgnat, there does need to be a few defences for the Alien movies and a few of the others there (not to take it too seriously of course!) In the first Alien movie, the small moon LV-426 is described as having a gravity of less than earths and an atmosphere of methane and other gases in the actual script conversations, so I’m not sure it falls into the same category. The later films use terraforming as a plot device, so that may be unrealistic. I like the ‘easy-interbreeding between humans and aliens’ for those films though – it’s somewhat less of a sexy mating for the human than the green-skinned alien girls in Star-Trek…

Not sure where the weird depcition of vacuum comes in for 2001. Other than re-entering the ship, which isn’t in a vacuum. Also I’m pretty sure the slow-motion in space is the film run in slow motion as a dramatic effect, not a depcition. There’s plenty of scenes of people moving at normal speed in 2001.

Nitpicking is fun!

I did wonder about Serenity since I know how seriously they wanted to take some of the science (on a budget of course) but with specifically no faster than light travel they do get to jump around a lot of different planets and moons (all of which look just like some of the ranches outside San Fernando handily).

In defence of some of the Star Wars movies I don’t think they actually refer to any weaponry as a laser, wasn’t it just ‘blasters’? Which could refer to a projectile weapon. But then it’s hard to defend Star Wars when you’re past age 12 and can understand the script is that bad.

A realistic space battle would also probably involve craft moving in a directionless fashion with the thrust required to reach each other giving a brief encounter as the craft bypassed each others trajectory at incredible speeds. I recall Babylon 5 the tv series tried to show this with the ‘fighters’ not moving like jet planes but independently rotating on their directional axis whilst traversing on a translational ‘slide’ following an initial thrust. Problem is (as I work in TV and film and am pretty poor discussing physics) it ends up with pretty dull and hard to depict scenes of tiny craft whizzing past each other for a moment and then not re-engaging for a few minutes.

So bad science can equal better drama. Maybe that’s why sci-fi tends to work better in novel form?

r0blar December 31, 2010 at 4:58 AM

How about “Defying Gravity”, anyone seen it ?

I know it was not a movie but a TV series but it looked quite accurate for me.
Shame it was canceled after 13 episodes though…

Morfos January 7, 2011 at 3:29 PM

The Last Starfighter recognized communications difficulties between aliens. Those sufficiently advanced species saw the problem and solved it with an implant: “You speak english!” “No, you hear english.”

Of course, what you don’t realize is that in the far future the language adopted across the galaxy is in fact Urdu. Every futuristic movie you’ve ever seen is technically dubbed.

Dav_Daddy January 8, 2011 at 8:24 AM

Captain Kirk would so tap the alien queen.

As far as Star Wars weaponry goes they do have a projectile variant of their sidearm. It’s called a “slug thrower.” It is presented as an older weapon type than the “blasters” that most people carry. The blaster only requres power pack so it is deffinately an energy weapon.

That has come up a couple of times in the novels, as far as I can remember everyone in the movies carries blasters. Wow I never thought that information would be of any use whatsoever!

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