Big budget movies that got their science right

By Phil Plait | September 2, 2010 2:08 pm

blastr_logoFor my second article for Blastr — SyFy Channel’s web portal — I wrote an article about five movies that actually got some science correct. Not all of it, mind you, but at least some! So head on over there and see what I chose, and add your own to the comments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: SciFi, TV/Movies
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Comments (74)

  1. Rider

    Good to see some people get it right. Just the another night I saw some guy on the discovery make this crazy claim that a 6 mile long asteroid will be sticking out of the atmosphere when it impacted the earth.

    Glass house stone, think you know how it goes.

  2. Great stuff. I can never read enough about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. His sardonic and technically brilliant work gets more fascinating with each viewing.

    Sometimes I think Sergio Leone’s excellent Once Upon A Time In The West (which in a cosmic cinematic confluence came out the same year as 2001) should be considered as science fiction. The characters seem to be inhabiting another world in another dimension, one of pure film (the original title was Once Upon A Time There Was A Cinema). And railroad trains are sciency, aren’t they?

    Btw, it was your insightful and funny movie critiques that lead me to your blog in the first place. I’d love to see more along these lines.

  3. Star Trek? wait Phil, are you saying space really will be filled with unnecessary lens flare?!? This changes everything!

  4. Trebuchet

    Pedant mode: In the Star Trek review, you say “And the movie wins a second kudo from me…”

    “Kudos” is singular. It’s Greek. So the you should have said “the movie earns a second kudos…”

    I was hoping you’d say 2001 and there it was, in first place. I have to admit to never having seen any of the others!

  5. MikeSaunders

    Right, movies with faster than light travel got their science right…

    Come on Phil

  6. Haha, why do I hear professor Frink’s voice when I read:

    “In the Star Trek review, you say “And the movie wins a second kudo from me…”
    “Kudos” is singular. It’s Greek. So the you should have said “the movie earns a second kudos…”

  7. Dave

    Have you seen the film, Moon, Phil? It’s rather good.

  8. Old Rockin' Dave

    Here’s one thing (others can probably pick a goodly number more) that “Deep Impact” may have gotten wrong. That tsunami would of course be huge, high, wide and long, and moving extremely fast. Wouldn’t it push an incredible amount of air in front of itself? And wouldn’t that air displacement create a crushing pressure wave at worst or winds beyond hurricane strength at best?

  9. Gotta agree with you re: Armageddon. That was a travesty from a science standpoint, a science fiction standpoint, a scriptwriting standpoint and a general film-making standpoint. It was a practically criminal offense to my brain, eyes and ears to witness that horrifying dreck. It’s about the only time I’ve ever actually been angry at a movie.

  10. I really can’t get behind griping about “sound in space” unless there’s some indication that characters in the movie can hear the sound. Otherwise, you may as well gripe about the orchestral music that permeates space.

  11. Ray

    Naked Bunny has a point. Space doesn’t come with a soundtrack and yet no one ever whinges about that.

    Oh, and I kinda like Armageddon. Bruce Willis got blown up. Of course, it took to the end of the movie for it, so you’ve got to accept the pain with the pleasure.

  12. Old Grey Geologist

    Been a while but, as I recollect, really good detail in Deep Impact: when the guy is rushing away with the photos – the camera flashes the envelope briefly and it is addressed to Carolyn Shoemaker!

  13. Re “Interplanetary travel is boring.” The space travel in Tim Burton’s silly remake of the already silly Planet of The Apes is a good example of what you’re critiquing. Like most sci-fi films, 2001 and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running excepted, our hero’s teeny space pod appears to be coasting like a Volkswagen bug at 40 miles per hour, yet it manages to leave the hirsute planet’s atmosphere, zips through a wormhole and sails across the solar system to reach Earth in about 60 seconds flat. If a ship were traveling at those speeds, it wouldn’t register on even the best Panavision camera. That’s one thing I love about Kubrick — he always tried to be technically correct. Many critics call him obsessive, but he was a real craftsman.

  14. I am rarely upset about things being scientifically or technically wrong in a movie. If the movie is entertaining it rarely effects my enjoyment of a movie.
    I used to think the picking at science in the movies was pedantic, but I am starting to see where many people are getting their science knowledge from the lore in movies and TV. Its a bit more worrisome then. So the actual critiquing of the issues is educational to many people and that is good. Of course its not the entertainment industries responsibility to educate the public about these things. But in the sense that they provide an opportunity for someone like Phil to explain the way it would really work using a popular and understandable reference is really a good thing.

    I think shows like Phil’s new one are a better way to educate people about science and thinking critically, but expecting accuracy from 99% of hollywood is a waste of energy.

  15. Michael Swanson

    Armageddon came out at the end of my 20s, when I had realized that I was tired of movies that were supposed to be automatic blockbusters just because they had some famous people, a ton of special effects, and a *****y script. A friend talked me into seeing it anyway.

    So the movie opens up with a nice looking shot of the Earth, and the caption “65 million years ago” before it’s hit by a giant asteroid. Then a quick fade and the caption “Present day” comes up. I turned to him and said, “Do you want to go?” He thought I was kidding, so I whisper-argued for a moment that he knew as well I as I did that the movie was going to be worthless (insert more colorful language), but he insisted on staying. As soon as the credits rolled he turned to me and said, “You were right.”

  16. Michael Swanson

    @ 8. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    “I really can’t get behind griping about “sound in space” unless there’s some indication that characters in the movie can hear the sound. Otherwise, you may as well gripe about the orchestral music that permeates space.”

    I have different standards for science fiction (2001) and space fantasy (Star Wars). But you can’t gripe about music in space in a sci-fi movie unless you’ll gripe about music in any movie, even a documentary. “I was in that march in Berkeley, and I distinctly remember that ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was not playing! This documentary is a lie!”

  17. Steve Metzler

    When I was 13 or 14 years old, my folks were already well aware of my insatiable appetite for films (good and bad, if truth be told). I used to stay up till all hours of the night (on weekends only, of course. My folks were responsible people) watching all that film noir stuff with the likes of Betty Davis and Humphrey Bogart. So from my 13th birthday or so onwards, we would go for a nice meal, and then to a film of my choosing.

    IIRC, the first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one blew me away, but it wasn’t till I got around to reading Arthur C. Clarke’s novel about 10 years later that I finally understood WTF it was actually about.

    Funnily enough, I really enjoy watching Armageddon. And I’ve watched it a few times. Maybe it’s so bad, that it somehow manages to come good. Dunno. No accounting for taste, is there? I suppose it’s when you start believing that even 1/4 of the stuff depicted in there could really happen is when it becomes dangerous thinking.

  18. Tim

    I always liked the way that the Vipers in the Battlestar reimagining handled like you’d expect ships in zero gravity to handle such as the ability to strafe and flip directions is opposed to them just flying around like terrestrial fighters à la Star Wars . I liked the sound of the guns as well; muffled as if you were “hearing” them through the hull of the ship as opposed to hearing them directly.

    Mind you those Cylon raiders still made that unrealistic whining sound constantly so they lose points for that.

  19. Actually, as long as we’re on the subject, back in the early days of “Babylon 5″, Joe Straczynski asked some NASA guys and physicists (including Freeman Dyson) about sound in space, and was told it’s a much more complex question than the traditional fan/geek ukase allows. See . So — hate to say it, Phil, but in this case, “Star Trek” seems to have gotten it wrong; under the particular conditions showed in the movie, there probably /should/ be sound.

    (The famous JPL motto was “Never apply a ‘Star Trek’ solution to a ‘Babylon 5′ problem,” so I’m not violating it by doing the converse. Speaking of which, Phil, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal, howcum you never talk about B5?)

    I’ve already remarked at blastr on the hideous math/theology goof in the book, “Contact”.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    I expected to see ’2001 : Space Odyssey’, & ‘Contact’ there. Good movies both.

    I have never before heard of that Fountain one.

    But ‘Star Trek’ [the reboot] – really? Yeeesh! :roll:

    As you noted that suffers the whole “red matter” and black hole deal – deals plural considering one is created near Earth – which IMHON is enough to disqualify it form being considered a good science movie. Okay it has one decent science moment but is that really enough to make up for the bad science in it? I think not personally!

    Not that I didn’t enjoy the ride at the time I saw it – it was certainly entertaining fun & nonsense in the same way that the Star Wars movies (my faves too) – but you need to turn off your brain and take them for what they are – fantasy not aimed at being scientifically accurate at all! :-)

    Can I just add that I’d have chosen to include GATTACA in that list & am somewhat surprised by its omission? Even if it does have more of a socio-cultural and squishy science focus.

    Plus did you think of including – have you even seen – the various Babylon 5 movies? Now that was a series that did have and listen to (not always but often) their science advisor’s advice. :-)

    PS. Did you ever do a reveiw of Serenity the Firefly series movie? I loved that one although I won’t claim it was great for its science. ;-)

  21. NAW

    With only seeing 2 of the movies on the list. (2001 and Star Trek) I can not fully agree or disagree with you thoughts there. But I think most people know there is no sound in space by now, and normally saying it out loud makes you sound a little on the dumb side. That is what stopped me from saying it. Nothing like sarcasm to fix a mouth. But I have a love of old B (and lesser) movies, and at times they don’t even try with the science.

    But I must say one of the coolest science parts of Star Trek was when he crashed the Kelvin into the other ship, there was a quick view of Kerk Sr, flying forward from the momentum. So you got to think he died from the high speed “splat” on the front of the bridge before it exploded.

  22. semi

    No, no, no. Sagan did not pen the script for “Contact.” Sagan wrote the novel. Sagan and Druyan are credited with the story. The screenplay is by James Hart and Michael Goldenberg.

    Now that you are in TV land, you have to pay attention to these things :)

    semi

  23. Jeremy

    I don’t understand the inclusion of Star Trek, which you yourself admit here got most of its science horribly, horribly wrong. Yes, that one scene was good, but how is that sufficient compensation to make the list?

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Jeremy – agreed. :-)

    Star Trek science errors – as discussed by the BA in his original review here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/05/08/ba-review-star-trek/

    & from there my comment reviewing it after I’d seen it :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/05/08/ba-review-star-trek/#comment-187571

    Where among other things I note some easily avoidable very bad astronomy :

    Conveniencitis. Major case thereof.. Sorry the Spock -Kirk meeting on Delta Vega I do just NOT buy. Incidentally:
    40 Eridani a.k.a. Omicron Eridani = Keid [Fictionally Vulcan - ed.]
    Vega = a star known as Alpha Lyrae, the fifth brightest star in our sky is an A0 dwarf star like Sirius located 27 lightyears away.
    There is no constellation Vega.

    The movie was a fun, fast-paced ride but on reflection it had a *lot* of plotholes and bad science. It rocked – but the science was just atrocious with the exception of a couple of scenes.

    Also for those who haven’t heard of Gattaca :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gattaca

    gives you the basics. Great movie. :-)

  25. sisu

    What about Moon (2009)? It might just be the best hard SF film since 2001 (1968) and the science was very good. If there are glaring science flaws they are probably biological, not astronomical.

    Thank you for mentioning Deep Impact! It’s an underrated film.

  26. ggremlin

    You put that thing called “Star Trek:Rebooted” into your list and leave out the original “Andromeda Stain”? :(

    Please turn in your Bad Movie critic membership badge at the convention.

  27. MadScientist

    I’ll have to disagree with the “spinning wheel of gravity” bit because once something like a human pushes themselves away from the wheel (or mechanically disconnecting themselves from the wheel if you wish to see it that way) then they will drift – nothing will pull them back. Of course they can wear grav-boots.

  28. Mike

    Fun article. :) Though I laugh (well, cry) every time I see the scene in The Fountain where Izzy looks through a telescope at a full colour nebula. I wish it were like that. The sights seen through telescopes are of course wonderful and amazing but scenes like that build unrealistic expectations. :-/ Lovely movie though.

    Other than that, I hated Star Trek too much to care about where they got science right, and Deep Impact was just a terrible movie. I vote +1 that Moon should have been on the list instead. :D

  29. (Deep Impact)

    Even the scenes filmed at the comet itself were good; the lack of gravity makes it impossible to land a ship, for example, so they tether themselves to it.

    <Nit>
    Wow. Comets have zero mass? :-)
    </Nit>

  30. Thanks for speaking up about 2001. The movie is absolutely brilliant and meticulously artistic, but alas it is also … a bit slow. Kubrik was a genius! I can watch A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove over and over, but I really need to be in the mood to sit through 2001 again.

  31. Naomi

    Knew 2001 and Contact would be up there! And I’m not surprised about Deep Impact – it quite impressed me as a kid. But Phil, the scene with Ellie with the headphones – I can’t remember whether it’s stated in the movie (only seen it once), but the book said she enjoyed listening to it even if the computer was the main driver there. She was very fond of white noise – I think it was pure coincidence that the signal came through on the frequency she was listening to.

    …Now I feel like rereading Contact again.

    @ Ken B – he never said they had zero mass ;) Perhaps it should have been phrased ‘the lack of sufficient gravity’? ‘The lower gravity’? Either way, there wasn’t enough mass to land a ship on it.

  32. Naomi:

    @ Ken B – he never said they had zero mass ;) Perhaps it should have been phrased ‘the lack of sufficient gravity’? ‘The lower gravity’? Either way, there wasn’t enough mass to land a ship on it.

    I realize that. I was just commenting (along with the “<Nit>” flag) on his statement “the lack of gravity”.

  33. In 1929, Fritz Lang and UFA studios released a pretty good German sci-fi film called Woman In The Moon. Haven’t seen it in ages, but I do recall the floor of the spaceship had stirrups, into which the astronauts slipped their feet to keep from floating around. The film attempted to realistically depict zero gravity, but I also recall that the hero’s unclipped neck tie (cosmonauts were quite sartorial in those days) hung down as it normally would. And the ship didn’t so much land on the moon as smash right into it.

    The Science Pundit — The best way to see 2001 is on the big screen in a theatre, don’t you think? TV doesn’t do it justice, and it comes off as a bit dull.

  34. Stargazer

    I didn’t expect to see The Fountain up there, but you’re right to have it there. It’s also one of my favourite movies ever.

  35. Thomas

    MadScientist, as soon as you jump off the floor *anywhere* you will just drift, until the floor comes up and hits the soles of your feet. If you work out what happens if you jump up from a spinning wheel you will find out that you will hit the floor just as if you had “real” gravity+some coriolis force. Your forward momentum doesn’t go away, you know.

    Like some people before me I’d nominate Gattaca and parts of Battlestar Galactica. There were some early Soviet Science Fiction movies that are supposedly good, but I’ve only seen a few scenes from them. “The Sky is Calling” and “The Planet of Storms”.

  36. Stargazer

    And of course in the comment section someone comes with the old rubbish argument “what part of fiction don’t you understand?” as if all the science can be completely wrong and the story is still regarded science fiction. Like the word fiction completely nullifies the science part. If you want to write fantasy, do it, but don’t call it science fiction.

    If you at least try to get the established science somewhat right, and add lots of speculative stuff on top of that, cool. But you don’t get to have sound in vacuum, or spaceships that behave like they move in a dense medium, or FTL for objects with restmass, or the core of the Earth to suddenly stop, etc. etc.

  37. Thomas

    Stargazer, sound in space can make sense in a movie, just as the equally impossible way bodies are thrown backwards by bullets in most movies. It’s not realistic, but it is a way to make it easier for the audience to follow what is going on. Imagine a “realistic” space battle with no sound, laser beams that aren’t visible until they hit a target (no scattering of light in space) etc. It would be utterly confusing.

    Science fiction is also allowed to guess at future advances in science, even those that seem very implausible today such as FTL.

    What annoy me most in movies are all the mistakes that aren’t in any way necessary for the plot. If you make a movie about a comet about to hit Earth, make sure to come up with a reasonable size etc or your characters will sound like morons as in Armageddon. It’s not even hard to do, just hire one guy who knows some science to help with the script!

  38. DP in CA

    “Contact” might have got the science right through 80% of the movie, and I loved that part of it, with the science and the politics, but by the end of it I was disgusted and very disappointed in Carl Sagan. Unless I’m missing something, and aliens can instantly analyze the pattern of neurons inside someone’s skull without invasive procedures, without having ever seen a human brain before, well enough to understand the significance of the events that created the pattern, and then somehow non-invasively manipulate the pattern of impulses within that brain (having instantly developed such a device without having ever seen a human brain before) in order to communicate. Care to explain how any of that crap is “getting the science right”? ESP and telepathy is for fantasy stories, not science. I have no problem with Gandalf using a Silmarillion, but please don’t put it at the end of what had been a perfectly sensible and real-world-possible movie about scientists. It completely ruined it for me.

  39. Frode S

    @Rider; well.. technically, Dr. Phil was probably using metric, which would put the edge of a more than 6 mile (60 km, 60.000 meter) long astroid just about in the exosphere. Well above the standard orbit of the Space shuttle.

  40. Sorbit

    Two comments:

    Deep Impact got something else right: It actually foreshadowed a black man as President!

    Foster’s character does not have a “sex life”…she has sex once! On the other hand, claiming that having sex once is tantamount to having a “sex life” is pretty much what you would expect a nerd to say…

  41. alfaniner

    “The Fountain” – nice visuals, but I never had the opportunity to wonder whether the science was right because I found it incomprehensible and boring. One of the few movies I ever ff’d through.

  42. MarkH

    “2001 shows that beautifully by being boring. I mean, by showing that boredom!”

    Heh. No, you had it right the first time.

  43. Tom K

    2001 is one of the few films where the task is to find the few things that they got wrong. The opposite would be something like the Star Trek reboot, where Phil was able to ferret out one thing that they got more-or-less right (the lack of sound in a vacuum).

    In 2001, the one thing that I’ve noticed that is definitely, irritatingly wrong is when Dave is in the pod, going out to recover Frank’s body. The view switches back and forth between Dave in the pod, concentrating furiously, and looking out the front window of the pod. As the pod closes in, the stars sweep by as Frank’s body grows from invisibility to a tiny dot to finally, contact and capture.

    Wait – the stars sweep by? Why would they do that? The pod is going to be taking a straight path from the Discovery to Frank, who is receding from the ship also in a straight path. The stars visible out the pod window should be stationary. They would be sweeping across the window only if the pod were rotating, and there’s no reason it would do that.

    Obviously Kubrick played with the facts in order to give the impression of the pod moving – just the same as how in Star Trek or Star Wars, ships in space go “whoosh” to give the impression of movement and speed. If he had shot the scene correctly there would have been no sense of movement. The only thing that would change would be the visual size of Frank’s body, and that would’ve happened so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible in a given shot. It would be interesting if someone could go back and digitally edit the scene to take out the moving stars and replace them with stationary ones, and see how differently the scene plays.

    Lesser transgressions would include the scene in the conference room at the moonbase, where Dr. Floyd is explaining the situation. People get up and walk normally, without showing the effects of 1/6 Earth gravity. And the moon shuttle that takes them from the moonbase to the site of the Monolith flies horizontally across the moon’s surface. That would take continuous downward thrust equal to the weight of the shuttle and would consume an unreasonable amount of fuel. A more likely method of flight for any kind of large distance would be launching vertically, coasting through a ballistic arc, and then landing vertically again like the original lunar landers.

    And Armageddon? Well, my wife made me finally watch it, and it was every bit as stupid physics-wise as I thought it would be. However after it was over, I had to admit that it wasn’t really any worse than any given episode of Star Trek, and I pretty much watch that without a qualm. I guess people who fly in glass starships shouldn’t run into stony asteroids?

  44. The scenes on the comet in ‘Deep Impact’ were TERRIBLE! When the part of the comet on which the astronauts were working rotated into the sunlight, suddenly they were all panting and overheating and having trouble getting their tasks done. What, did the movie’s creators think that spacesuits in LEO or on the Moon have trouble in sunlight, or that comet surfaces are especially hot?

  45. Messier Tidy Upper

    From the BA’s linked article :

    2001. The obvious anachronism may make this one a teensy bit harder — Pan Am went out of business decades before the titular date, and the Space Station is hardly a giant spinning wheel in orbit — but a lot of the actual science is good.

    Its a pity they didn’t try to be that bit more ambitious and make the International Space Station a giant spinning wheel type structure if not quite a full Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, or O’Neill Colony.

    I wonder how much more interesting & more inspirational for folks the ISS could have been if it didn’t look quite so much like just a (admittedly *very*) supersized Mir type station.

    In the most unlikely event that I ever get to be a space tourist I’d like to take a model of Babylon-5 with me and let it float free in space. :-)

    @ 38. Sorbit : Once that we see! I don’t think we are to take it that was really her *only* encounter. ;-)

    ***

    PS. I was going to mention in my comment 24 about my own linked Trek reboot review comment that I was commenting under a different name back then & have changed my moniker here since. Then a thunderstorm came and stayed all day so I had to turn my computer off and keep it off till now. Just on the off chance anyone was wondering. ;-)

  46. Messier Tidy Upper

    If anyone’s curious about what I meant by O’Neill colonies I’m thinking of something like this :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernal_sphere

    Which looks remarkably reminiscent of Babylon 5 come to think of it. :-)

    As for comparing Mir :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mir_entre_l%27espace_et_la_Terre_edit.jpg

    & the International Space Station :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ISS_on_20_August_2001.jpg

    See what I mean – not identical sure but similar. (& yeah Iknow that’s an old image but anyhow.)

    @43. Tom K Says:

    2001 is one of the few films where the task is to find the few things that they got wrong. The opposite would be something like the Star Trek reboot, where Phil was able to ferret out one thing that they got more-or-less right (the lack of sound in a vacuum).

    Yup. I’ll second that.

    In 2001, the one thing that I’ve noticed that is definitely, irritatingly wrong is when Dave is in the pod, going out to recover Frank’s body. .. [Snip!] … As the pod closes in, the stars sweep by as Frank’s body grows from invisibility to a tiny dot to finally, contact and capture.
    Wait – the stars sweep by? Why would they do that?

    @42. MarkH Says:

    “2001 shows that beautifully by being boring. I mean, by showing that boredom!” Heh. No, you had it right the first time.

    Well that depends how stoned you are! I beleive under the ..um .. right conditions .. its very trippy and cool! ;-)

    You do need to be in the right mood for it. ;-)

    Actually I’d describe 2001 ‘atmospheric’ rather than “boring” – its
    a different typeof film from theothers – an arty slow moving but eerie piece that is the polar opposite of the fast-paced blockbuster. Its something to savour and get immersed in.

  47. Ray

    @44 Joseph,

    Another thing with the asteroid in Deep Impact is that the heating wouldn’t be anything like instantaneous. Heat transfer in a vacuum takes a while, and even if we assume the surface heating would cause eruptions and such it would still take a while.

  48. Messier Tidy Upper

    Argh! Too little editing time, too tired to be editing too. :-(

    @@43. Tom K :

    As the pod closes in, the stars sweep by as Frank’s body grows from invisibility to a tiny dot to finally, contact and capture.
    Wait – the stars sweep by? Why would they do that?

    Well spotted! :-)

    @42. MarkH : (& a few others)

    Well thing is ’2001 :a Space Odyssey’ is a very different *type* of movie with a very different type of atmosphere, approach and idea. It is NOT *meant* to be fast-paced or full of gunfights, car chases and explosions like other movies.

    ‘Space Odyssey 2001′ is atmospheric, disquietening, moody, strange, evocative, thoughtful, disconcerting, contemplative, mysterious and to be savoured not wolfed down along with the popcorn. ;-)

    You take it for what it is on its own merits – just as you can enjoy Star Trek [The Reboot] for what *it* is taken on its merits. Sometimes I’ll be in the mood for one, other times the other, they both have their place.

    I did enjoy watching ’2001′ originally and I’ve enjoyed watching it again a few more times since. Yes, I’d have to say it is one of my favourites – as is Clarke’s eponymous SF novel. I’ll admit that I do have to be in the right mood for the Kubrick movie though! :-)

    ***

    PS. The scariest thing for me? We’re now *living* in 2010! Not the original’s date but the sequel to it – & I recall reading all the novels back in high school. Early high school too.(Except for 3001 which was published much later for obvious reasons!*) Yikes. :-O

    —-

    * No, I did not read 3001 in late high school thankyou! ;-)
    I read that last one during the time I was uni – well into my long uni. stage.

    PPS. I want my Tycho moon base already durnnit! What happened to the future & why isn’t it *properly* here even when it is! :-(

    [Goes back to looking up at Jupiter suspiciously and checking for strange black spots .. ;-) ]

  49. parclair

    I seem to have the ability to turn off my critical thinking brain when I watch movies for entertainment. I also can turn it back on to enjoy catching the bad science. I love all the bad movies, and all the good ones.

    My fave worst movie is Meteor. Not only can you catch bad science, my friends and I and some fellowmovie-goers also played “what director did they steal this scene from?”

    Re Contact– I always thought the use of headphones by the Foster character was to demonstrate the character’s obsession. I do know that if one spends enough time studying something, a kind-of open mind occurs where patterns can be discerned.

  50. Randy A.

    Phil, I can’t believe you included Star Trek on your list. It is riddled with errors. The “drilling ship” is one of the biggest booboos.
    * Why drill from orbit?
    * If you drill from orbit, you must either park in a geosynchronous orbit over the equator, and drill at the equator, OR expend a lot of energy fighting against gravity to hover over the drill site.
    * Lowering the actual drill makes sense — but why not lower it down to the surface? Or at least closer to the surface? The less air between the beam generator and the surface, the better.
    * In the movie, it looks like the drill is a variation on the phaser, and cuts into the rock by vaporizing the rock. Where does the vaporized rock go? Keep in mind that it occupies a volume much larger than the solid rock did — it would blast out of the hole at high velocity.
    * Lithostatic pressure would tend to close the drill hole. Oil wells are kept open by filling the hole with “mud” (barium sulfate). But occasionally drillers lose a drill bit when the hole collapses. We can imagine the drillers use force fields in the movie…
    Conclusion: None of this makes any sense, unless you want to make a big budget, flashy science fiction movie. If you wanted to make a hole in the ground, 20th century technology works just fine most of the time (not all the time, as BP proved in the Gulf).

  51. Michael Swanson

    I love how mad some people are at the Star Trek inclusion! (Disclaimer: I hated the movie from beginning to end.) Three things you can’t talk about without somebody getting upset: politics, religion, and Star Trek! I dare you, Phil, I just DARE you to pick your favorite captain.

  52. Whatever

    There are, in fact, even more errors with the drilling sequence.

    First off, there are three basic ways for them to match the angular speed of the surface – geosync over the equator (nice, but impossible, since how damn long would the drill have to be – especially since Vulcan is supposed to have a higher gravity than Earth – to strech all the way from the ship to the surface?); then, hover above one of the poles (isn’t supported by what we can see – there is some nice unfrozen city underneath – then again, maybe it rotates like uranus, but i doubt it); or, being stupid and complicated and… well, you can imagine what (some serious computations needed for matching the speed of the entire planet, the ang. speed of the surface and other things… but no matter… – That’s what is happening in the movie so…)

    …So… the drill comes down… the drag slows the drillhead down… but not the middle part… so it all looks like some sort of a bow… and it’s all several tens of kilometers long (at least) and wouldn’t even fit into Nero’s massive ship… but again… no matter… then all the problems mentioned with pressures, venting and so on (like… aren’t some of the inside layers liquid?)… then: Why they drill this way (or at all) is beyond me… but then!: at least it makes for a nice jumping-from-a-spaceship-freefall scene…

    Or does it… You see… their angular speed may be the same as that of the surface but their tangential speed (if that’s what it’s called) is – considering that Kirk is much higher up – much… higher. So if they jumped at the base of the drill they would miss the drillhead completely… probably by several miles (if they didn’t light up like a christmas tree and die horribly first, that is).

    And then there are the little things. What about the wind? If that drillhead hadn’t been perfectly perpendicular to the drill all the time they would never have hit the center of the planet with that ray of theirs… or at least not for more than just a few seconds (miliseconds maybe). Also, wouldn’t deploying of such a big paraschutes at that speed kill Kirk and the others? And what am I even trying to prove… It’s all rubbish. It’s JUST a rubbish. There isn’t even enought non-rubbish to contrast it with the rubbish.

  53. Ray

    @50, Randy,

    “If you wanted to make a hole in the ground, 20th century technology works just fine most of the time (not all the time, as BP proved in the Gulf).”

    Actually, they made the hole just fine.

  54. Meskine

    I submit for your consideration the film “Dark Star” circa 1974. It’s a low bdget comedy, so keep that in mind before busting their chops. They get the silence of space right, but they really nail the monotony and descent into madness of a 20 year mission into deep space. It is funny as hell! The chicken dinner scene alone is worth the price of admission.

  55. 8. Old Rockin’ Dave Says: “That tsunami would of course be huge, high, wide and long, and moving extremely fast. Wouldn’t it push an incredible amount of air in front of itself? And wouldn’t that air displacement create a crushing pressure wave at worst or winds beyond hurricane strength at best?”

    Good observation. I haven’t modeled this, except in my head, but my first thought is that air, being some 80 times less dense than water (at sea level), would simply pop up over the top of the tsunami. Remember, too, that at the point of impact there is going to be a gigantic column of gas and debris being ejected upward and the air would actually be rushing *towards* the impact. You can see this in film of nuclear explosions where there’s a brief and very rapid push away from the blast (shock wave) followed by a sustained rush towards the blast to fill in the void left by the rising cloud.

    - Jack

  56. 2. Mike from Tribeca Says: “Great stuff. I can never read enough about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. His sardonic and technically brilliant work gets more fascinating with each viewing. ”

    Have I got a book for you, Mike! Just click on my name. “2001″ is the largest chapter in the book.

    - Jack

  57. 29. Ken B Says: “(Deep Impact): Even the scenes filmed at the comet itself were good; the lack of gravity makes it impossible to land a ship, for example, so they tether themselves to it.

    Wow. Comets have zero mass?

    They have mass, but so little of it (by astronomical standards) that the gravity is so weak that even minor outgassing, like from a nearby vent, would be enough to push you right off.

    - Jack

  58. 33. Mike from Tribeca Says: “In 1929, Fritz Lang and UFA studios released a pretty good German sci-fi film called Woman In The Moon. I recall the floor of the spaceship had stirrups, into which the astronauts slipped their feet to keep from floating around. The film attempted to realistically depict zero gravity, but I also recall that the hero’s unclipped neck tie (cosmonauts were quite sartorial in those days) hung down as it normally would. And the ship didn’t so much land on the moon as smash right into it.”

    Thank you for mentioning this film! I tried to do so in the comments over on the site, but my post never went through.

    The science advisor on “Frau” was Hermann Oberth, the original “German Rocket Scientist” ™. The science in the movie (if you ignore there being a breathable atmosphere on the moon) was from his doctoral thesis “The Rocket Into Planetary Space” (which, BTW, he didn’t get).

    It wasn’t so much that the “smashed” into the moon, but rather the limitations of the film arts at the time. Lang wanted to show how incredibly fast the Friede was travelling, so he had it explode out of the launching pool (another Oberth idea adopted by NASA as the water deluge below the Shuttle when it launches) at takeoff, and land incredibly fast. You can see Helius (the pilot) frantically working the big knife switch that controls the landing motors all the way down. This film also used his (Oberth’s) idea of a large rocket being assembeled vertically in a large protective building, then transported to the pad on a large platform for launching.

    In “Spaceship Handbook” I call “Frau,” “Destination Moon” and “2001″ the big 3 movies that got spaceflight right.

    - Jack

  59. 43. Tom K Says: “2001 is one of the few films where the task is to find the few things that they got wrong.”

    Very good, Tom, and mostly right.

    1) Sweeping stars – you are correct as to why they’re there. You can also see this out the pod bay door when it is first opened. We won’t mention that with the brightly lit bay, you shouldn’t have been able to see any stars outside. As you said, the pod/Discovery could have been pitching or yawing which would give the appearance of sweeping stars, but they wouldn’t be following linear trajectories.

    2) Lack of 1/6g in the moon base – correct. You left out numerous zero-g errors, like the Bowman and Poole resting their weight on the test bench in the Pod Bay (it’s outside the centrifuge), the Aries shuttle captain visiting Floyd during his dinner and similarly resting his weight on the back of the chair with his hat dangling, Bowman climbing the ladder to the brain room, etc.

    3) The moon bus horizontal flight – oops, look closer at the bus. It has six large downward pointing nozzles to do exactly what you said. They vector slightly to give it forward thrust, but mostly are used to support the vehicle against the moon’s gravity. I raise the same objection as you in “Spaceship Handbook” as to how inefficient this would be in practice. In the book, Clarke has them rockin’ and rollin’ over the surface in a wheeled moon buggy which had vertical thrusters, but only to help it leap over crevasses. The change was a deliberate one by Kubrick who wanted the machines and technology to be seamless and perfect. Transportation should be effortless and ethereal.You don’t get that vibe clanking and banging over the surface. It’s part of a contrast. Technology has been perfected, but man is still imperfect.

    BTW, all of these observations were validated by the horse’s mouth, Fred Ordway (science advisor on the film). I’ve known him for a long time, and he was impressed enough by the chapter to write the Foreword to the book (much as our esteemed host wrote the Foreword to “The Saucer Fleet.”).

    “And Armageddon?…after it was over, I had to admit that it wasn’t really any worse than any given episode of Star Trek”

    It rains on asteroids in Star Trek?

    - Jack

  60. 47. Ray Says: “…the heating wouldn’t be anything like instantaneous. Heat transfer in a vacuum takes a while, and even if we assume the surface heating would cause eruptions and such it would still take a while.”

    The heating of a comet’s nucleus is radiant, from the sun. It works better in a vacuum. You are correct, though that the vents wouldn’t become active that quickly, unless there was some subterranean heat transfer from the portion already in sunlight.

    - Jack

  61. And finally, if you want to see the new Trek film deconstructed by the best reviewer on the web, check out:

    http://www.redlettermedia.com/star_trek_09.html

    - Jack

  62. Paddy

    If I were to make a sci-fi movie…

    I’d do one about asteroid mining. Have just a few human characters sitting around in L2 or L3, circa 2030, in charge of fleets of robotic drones harvesting near-Earth Asteroids. Show the impact of the simple mining of asteroids on world metal markets, and demonstrate how, if you can figure out how to build new space-based platforms from them, this provides a real stepping-stone to further exploration etc. All the real drama would go on on Earth; you’d simply be demonstrating people’s lives getting uprooted by the devaluing of all gold held etc. And demonstrating the arguments over bringing the metal down versus keeping it in orbit. In space, it’d just be a few guys doing their job, plus the odd billionaire tourist turning up etc.

    Either that or a film based on “the moon is a harsh mistress”, suitably updated and with slightly more realistic combats.

    And on Moon: how they portrayed space was hard sci-fi. How they portrayed economics, and biology… nope. Still better than most, and very much worthy of a place on that list.

  63. Joe Wilson

    Firefly, and it’s the best!

  64. Messier Tidy Upper

    Just wondering BA but why isn’t Apollo 13 in the top five there BA?

    Don’t you like Tom Hanks? Haven’t you seen it or have you just forgotten it? I thought it was a pretty good, dramatic retelling of that finest hour for NASA & I reckon it deserves to be there! :-)

  65. Chris Winter

    I used to fantasize about a really gripping episode of ST:TOS that went like this: Enterprise drops out of warp and enters orbit around an uncharted planet. What follows is an hour (okay, 42 minutes) of sensor readings and reports from away teams doing geology, botany etc. on the planet’s surface, all of this input ably correlated by Mr. Spock. At the end, Kirk would say, “Well, that was restful. May we head for our next destination, Mr. Spock?”

    Which tells you what a science geek I am… or was.

  66. Chris Winter

    It occurs to me that, only because of the sheer number of SF films made back in the 1950s, a few of them would have done fairly well on the science.

    One such, IMO, was Them!, about an infestation of giant ants discovered in the U.S. southwest. If you overlook the silliness of the premise — ants as big as elephants — the science holds together pretty well as I recall, and the exposition delivered by the scientist is very well done.

    I’d also like to submit for your consideration Five Million Years To Earth (known in Britain as Quatermass and the Pit, since it was the third of the Professor Quatermass films.)

  67. Nexus

    I highly recommend the film, “Sunshine” (2007). Aside from it’s excellence, the film-makers actually consulted an Astrophysicist when making the film, so it’s more accurate than most sci-fi films and it’s extremely well done as a film. I would have omitted StarTrek (2009) and thrown in Sunshine for a well rounded critique. :)

  68. Paddy

    @Messier Tidy Upper,

    Apollo 13 is a drama-documentary, not sci-fi.

  69. Taiga

    I saw ‘Armageddon’ in a theatre with a friend. At the end of the film when Bruce Willis is making his drawn-out goodbye to his daughter, I was twitching and muttering “for God’s sake blow up the bomb already!”. After the film was over I started ranting about how stupid it was… then I saw that my friend was crying. Oops.
    My personal favourite for science fail was, I think it was called ‘Red Planet’. It was about terraforming Mars, I remember that, and it starred – Val Kilmer, I think? Anyway, they find these flying bugs and the geneticist calls them nemotodes, which are WORMS. Then later while arguing with someone he declares that his religious belief is in the building blocks of DNA, which he recites. And gets them wrong. NO WONDER the mission failed.

  70. Thameron

    “The iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones were literally forged in the hearts of ancient supernovae.”

    Um, no. The Iron is why the star exploded in the first place. It was made previously and distributed by the supernova. I think that most of the elements beyond Iron are indeed actually made by the supernova, but unless I am misinformed the Calcium and Iron are already there when it takes place.

    Also, I like and admire Carl Sagan as most scientific-skeptics do, but I’m sorry – Faster Than Light travel is a copout done ‘for the sake of the story’ no matter who uses it. It is in the same category as fairies and unicorns until proven otherwise.

  71. Chris L.

    One nit pic for 2001 that no one has mentioned yet. The centrifugal living space on Discovery is (by Clarke’s own calculations) running at 6 RPM. That’s a bit on the high side for use for humans, as the Coriolis effect would be significant.

  72. Messier Tidy Upper

    @69. Taiga :

    Red Planet : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Planet_(film)

    Yeah, that one was bad – and not in a good way.

    @68. Paddy :

    Apollo 13 is a drama-documentary, not sci-fi.

    Yes, I guess so. That explains it. Did the BA ever do a review of it though?

  73. 72. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “Apollo 13 is a drama-documentary, not sci-fi.

    Yes, I guess so. That explains it. Did the BA ever do a review of it though?”

    Not that I know of. But it got most of its science right. It’s the engineering that it got wrong, but all for dramatic effect.

    A couple of examples:

    1) When Tom Hanks is giving a tour of the VAB to reporters, they show the Saturn V stack being assembled in the background. They have the third stage (IIRC) being placed on the inter-stage adapter by a crane. It comes down with a resounding “CLANGGGGG”. In reality, the stages were brought together a fraction of an inch at a time using micrometers to make sure everything was perfectly aligned.

    2) At liftoff, the swing-arms on the gantry are shown retracting sequentially as the Saturn climbs. In reality, they are all retracted together at first-motion.

    3) All of the in-flight maneuvering is shown as being much more violent than it really is.

    Like I said, these were all done deliberately for dramatic effect, so the actually don’t bother me. There were some historical mistakes, like calling the VAB the “Vehicle Assembly Building” (it’s Shuttle name) rather than “Vertical Assembly Building” (its original Apollo name).

    - Jack

  74. Robert Carnegie

    I’m cool with not drawing a distinction between the contents of a supernova explosion and the contents of the star that became the supernova. After the kaboom, let’s see, you have a small expanding nebula and a globule of neutronium, or maybe an empty space that’s suspiciously dark and heavy. But when Betelgeuse pops
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/06/01/is-betelgeuse-about-to-blow/
    do you need to change the name on the charts?

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