Movies that Maul Science

The movie "2012" has inspired me to think about the movies I've seen that include egregious science.

I have to start with a personal pet peeve: swooping in space. Aircraft swoop when they're dogfighting, and this is the mental image everyone has of air battles. But they swoop because they're using their wings to travel through air: there's no air in space. There's also no up and down, so there's no reason that ships should orient themselves "right side up" with respect to each other. But almost every science fiction movie and TV series in the history of man has included swooping. "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" are the most high profile offenders, but there are many others. The most notable exception (as it was in so many ways) is "Babylon 5:" when a ship gets a call to return to base, it fires a side thruster to turn itself 180 degrees on its axis and then fires its rear engines to head home. And when a ship is making a firing pass by an enemy ship, it keeps its weapons pointed at the enemy and continues to fire (the ship turns but continues on its old trajectory). Sorry folks - this is how space works.

There's a movie worse than "2012:" "The Core," in which not only do humans create a machine that can burrow down to the core of the Earth with people on board (not remotely possible with our current technologies), but that can also travel at hundreds of kilometres per hour through rock or molten lava ... and oh yeah, someone can go outside in an environment suit. By comparison, "2012" is almost pedestrian.

"Snowpiercer" should be mentioned, because perpetual motion machines are a great idea (and that's not its only ridiculous flaw, merely the most prominent one). And "Upside Down" always makes it to my list: again, brilliant cinematography in the service of a film with bad acting, bad science, and that even breaks its own internal rules.

Other masterpieces of Bad Science include "Armageddon" and "The Day After Tomorrow" (which, I was interested to notice, shares director Roland Emmerich with "2012"). "Sunshine" wins some kind of prize for "best cinematography while doing bad science," and my top prize is reserved for "Pacific Rim." Not simply because it's Mecha vs. Godzilla, which makes no damn sense to start with, but for an utter failure to convince the viewer that bombs wouldn't have worked better against the kaiju ("giant monsters") than mecha. But it mostly wins the prize for its fantastically awful portrayal of scientists: the two guys who save the world bear a remarkable resemblance to bickering five year olds, except they look nerdier than scientists have ever looked before and they get almost zero thanks for their mildly important achievement.

And none of this is going away: many authors and directors really don't care about the laws of physics (or chemistry, biology, even math) so long as it's "a good story" and shit blows up real good. I try to suspend disbelief (it's a good skill to have in a movie theatre) but it can be very difficult when you're a former mechanical engineer and the offences are as significant as they are in these movies.

A particularly odd exception to this behaviour is James Cameron: he makes blockbusters with lots of action, but the man is a scientist at heart: look at his funding and use of the Deepsea Challenger, he's pretty hard-core. His movies are generally, despite their bombast, reasonably scientifically accurate.

Another favourite of mine along those lines is a Bollywood movie called "Three Idiots:" the movie is partly set at an engineering school. It contains all the overblown emotions and grand gestures of a typical Bollywood film, but the science is dead on. It also happens to be a really lovely film, and I think I'll end on that positive note.

2018-09 Update

Netflix's new take on "Lost in Space" is nearly on par with "The Core."

But if you like science done right, "The Expanse" is a beacon to stand beside "Babylon 5."