Stories tagged motion pictures

Feb
25
2010

What's wrong with this picture?: Georges Melies' 1902 fantasy film; A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), has very little to do with actual science, although it does contain some similarities with the Apollo missions of the 1960s.
What's wrong with this picture?: Georges Melies' 1902 fantasy film; A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), has very little to do with actual science, although it does contain some similarities with the Apollo missions of the 1960s.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Sidney Perkowitz is not a happy camper, or rather I should say not a happy moviegoer. The American physicist has been taking Hollywood to task for all the bad science portrayed in the movies. He recently told a meeting of American scientists that movies should be allowed to contain only one major scientific flaw. This isn’t new territory for Perkowitz, who teaches physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He published a book titled Hollywood Science in 2007, and has done numerous appearances, and written several articles on the subject.

One of the recent films Perkowitz complains about is Deep Blue Sea where careless scientists meddle with the brains of sharks that become super-smart and wreak havoc on the underwater laboratory. Great science? Not on your life, according to the crabby Professor Perkowitz. He says tests like those shown in the film where proteins are extracted directly from the super-sized shark brains would actually take place in large vats in a controlled laboratory setting. Think of the excitement watching that process! But as far as I’m concerned Samuel L. Jackson's inspiring rah-rah speech in the middle of the film makes any and all the bad science totally worth any money spent to see the movie.

But what’s the big deal, really? There’s always been a demand for suspension of disbelief in the movies especially in the oxymoronic genre of science fiction. Look at Georges Melies’ fantastical A Trip to the Moon (1902). Based on the written works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, most of the film lacks any scientific truth. Oh, sure it has some prophetic parallels to the actual 60’s Apollo missions. A NASA-like organization of space scientists and technicians is shown launching a manned capsule in an actual “moon shot”. Once there the astronauts (in top hats!) do witness Earthrise from the lunar surface. And when they return to Earth, they’re picked up in the ocean by a ship. But the rest of the classic film is crazy, and has more scientific holes than the Moon has craters. But, again, so what?

My whole childhood was spent absorbing bad science in movies. But I don’t think it was harmful. If anything it fired my interest in science, and gave me a sense of curiosity and wonderment of the natural world. In 1960’s Dinosaurus!, a caveman, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Brontosaurus (its very name a scientific faux pas) are all dredged up frozen from bottom of the Caribbean Sea, all in one tight little group, despite the fact they all lived millions and millions of years apart in time from each other. Did I care? Naw. I doubt anybody did back then. It was just a blast watching them terrorize the island.

The Time Machine (1960) was another favorite that came out the same year. Using a modified Everglades airboat, Rod Taylor travels through time to wage a personal war against the underground Warlocks and save the grazing Eloi. Was it believable? It was for me. I thought it had some real interesting hypotheses. But was it good science? Not really. Was it in any way prophetic? Not yet, but I guess time will tell.

Perkowitz isn’t bother by a little inaccurate science in a movie, but he wants to put a limit on it. To this end, Perkowitz serves as a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization bent on aligning movie producers with competent science advisors in hopes of improving the portrayal of scientists (less nerdiness, fewer pipes and eyeglasses, more witty banter) and scientific ideas in their motion pictures. Perkowitz thinks it will be good for everyone involved.

"The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch," he said.

If you saw the 2003 movie, I think you’ll agree bad science was the least of The Core’s problems. The real problem was someone gave the script a green light in the first place. Perkowitz reasoning doesn't explain why an error-riddled movie like The Day After Tomorrow, and a ton of similar science clunkers out there bring in money. Of course, movies in no way have a corner on the market for bad science. Television is full of it, too (pun intended). On the TV series Star Trek, chief engineer Mr. Scott was always saying he couldn't defy the laws of physics whenever Captain Kirk insisted they power-up to Warp 9. And it looks like Scotty was right, as evidenced in a recent post by JGordon. I admit, however, I do enjoy the current show, Bones. Some of the lab equipment used may be questionable and before its time, but the lead character is a woman of pure science. A humorless woman at that, but she does adhere to the scientific method. And she does smile sometimes.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Professor Perkowitz, that bad science needs to be reined in, or do you think the whole purpose of Hollywood motion pictures is merely to entertain our socks off, no matter how mangled the facts? Are there movies you’ve seen where the science portrayed made you wince? Or made you think? Or yell at the screen? Let us know.

SOURCES
BBC story
Guardian story
Professor Perkowitz’s Emory University page
Sidney Perkowitz homepage
The 20 worst science and tech errors in films