A Mystery Box Full of Red Matter

By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2010 8:53 am

Here is a fantastic TED talk by JJ Abrams, the guy behind many of the most interesting genre movies and TV shows in recent years (Alias, Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Fringe). It’s about the fundamental role played by mystery and the unknown in storytelling.

I’m posting it here because, as wonderful as the talk is, I disagree with it at a deep level. Yes, indeed, the concept of “mystery” is absolutely crucial to what makes a story compelling. But I think Abrams takes the idea too far, valorizing mystery for its own sake, rather than as motivation for the characters and the audience to try to solve the mystery. The reason why mysteries are interesting is because we want to figure them out! If they are simply irreducibly mysterious — if there is no sensible explanation that ultimately makes sense of all the clues — then it’s simply frustrating, not magical.

This isn’t just jousting with words — it has consequences for how stories are told. That’s why I chose Star Trek as my one movie to complain about in our Comic-Con panel last summer (as much as I enjoyed the movie overall). The dangerous planet-killing substance in that case was “red matter.” Shiny, red, and ominous-looking, red matter is not anything known to modern science. Which is fine; modern science doesn’t know about warp drive or Vulcans, either, but they work well in this particular fictional context. The problem is that red matter wasn’t associated with any sensible properties even within this fictional world. We never knew where it came from, why it did what it did, how it would react to different circumstances, etc. (Why did it have to be deposited in the exact middle of a planet, rather than just splashed on the surface?) It was simply “mysterious.” But this particular bit of mystery didn’t make it more compelling — it prevented the audience from engaging with the menace that the red matter presented. If we knew something about it, we wouldn’t just be going “okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha”; we’d be following along as Kirk and Spock tried to defuse the danger, understanding what might and might not do the trick. Not all mystery is good storytelling — sometimes a bit of understanding helps grab the attention.

Just to draw the distinctions even more carefully, let me come out in favor of ambiguity as opposed to mystery. The end of Inception is quite famously amenable to more than one interpretation. (To go back further, ask whether Deckard was a replicant.) This drives people crazy, trying to figure out which one is “right,” an impulse I think is misguided. It’s okay to accept that we don’t know all the answers! But in theses cases we understand quite well the space of all possible answers. There is no black box whose operation is simply mysterious. We don’t need to know all the final answers once and for all; but it’s better storytelling if we understand what the answers could be, and that they make sense to us.

Hopefully it’s not too hard to read between the lines here, and see the consequences for science as well as for movies. There are those who argue that science destroys the magic of the world by figuring things out. That’s exactly backwards — the scientific quest to solve the world’s puzzles is one of the things that makes the story of our lives so interesting.

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  • http://www.factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com Daniel Kuehn

    One person that wrote extensively on the role of the unknown in fiction was H.P. Lovecraft. I think he would generally agree with you – that we don’t know what to do with the unfathomable unknown. However, Lovecraft used this inability to cope to present a fiction that capitalized on that sort of helplessness that you describe.

    If you just leave it as non-descript “red matter” I think you’re right – that probably doesn’t move the plot forward at all. But it is possible to leverage that lack of certainty into something more compelling. That’s essentially what Lovecraft’s stories were.

    I think a good modern sci-fi example of this was the movie Event Horizon. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen it, but I remember the distinct sense of have no clue what the hell was going on or exactly what Sam Neill was. That “unknown” that left us completely in the dark was made to be compelling – it wasn’t just filler like “red matter”.

    Granted, this use of the unknown is probably more easily adapted to horror-oriented sci-fi, but I still think it’s a very productive use of the utterly unknown.

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  • http://www.comedy4cast.com Clinton

    I’m not sure The Mystery Box relates exactly to Red Matter, although I’ll admit it’s been a while since I watched JJ’s TED talk. Perhaps it was the unknown of the parallel universe it helped create that was the true mystery.

  • http://efnx.com Schell

    I totally agree with you on ICP and I’ll add that scientific discovery produces more questions than it answers. You could say that science kills one miracle in order to create newer more miraculous miracles…

  • Mike

    I rolled my eyes when red matter was mentioned in Star Trek, as I saw it as little more than a self-aggrandizing homage to Alias — in which the red matter first appeared. But really, is the “mystery” of the red matter relevant, in light of the plethora of flaws in the film?

  • http://sarajdavis.net/ Non-Believer

    Have any studies been done on the correlations between what people understand about science and their TV and Movie experiences?

    Its popular to assume that our knowledge of science is influenced by TV and Movies. (and I have often used the assumption when discussing the subject) There are studies that show that many of our fundamental stereotypes and biases are influenced by these Media, but that is not the same as knowledge of science.

    Is any one aware of any related studies?

  • Analyzer

    The red matter is a MacGuffin whose properties are unexplained because they are irrelevant. Sci-fi that attempts to explain the science of every last technology that it employs to drive the story rapidly becomes pedantic and really boring. How does the Force work? Heck, how does a lightsaber work? How do Star Trek’s infamous “inertial dampers” work, or the “Heisenberg compensator” that allows the transporter to function? How does Cerebro work? How does time travel work in every sci-fi story ever? It doesn’t matter. It’s not the point. The answer does not drive the story.

    Red matter destroys planets. That really is all that you need to know. “Okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha” is exactly the intended reaction. How red matter might work is an interesting topic of discussion for a handful of physicists after the movie’s over. It’s not interesting while you’re watching the movie.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    I deeply agree. Red Matter was the greatest plot flaw in the otherwise very entertaining, emotionally clever, well-acted Star Trek movie.

    I’d known, back when he was on faculty and I an undergrad at Caltech, Leonard Mlodinow, after Gell-Mann brought him to Caltech’s Physics Department, and we were both hanging out with Feynman. See Mlodinow’s:
    “Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life”

    Beyond his research (what would QM say if there were an infinite number of spatial dimensions?) and books on popular science, he also wrote the screenplay for the film Beyond the Horizon (currently in production) and has been a screenwriter for television series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver.

    I’m not demanding that you, Sean, write a screenplay. But you and your talented wife and others can collaborate on one, as evidenced by Kip Thorne’s “Interstellar.”

    How does that sound: Sean Carroll, Executive Producer of the smash hit “From Eternity” starring Zoe Saldana, Star Trek’s new Uhura…

  • http://dippinginthetoe.blogspot.com/ Scott

    Hmm, I go with Analyzer’s view.

    I *would* agree with the premise of the post if Red Matter were the central premise of the movie, like this:
    “There is a dangerous thing called Red Matter and it’s causing black holes to erupt willy-nilly around the galactic sector containing many habitable planets. We need to find out where this Red Matter is coming from, then figure out how it works so we can stop it as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the Enterprise is the only ship in the sector and we need you to break off your training cruise to…”

    But in this move, the red matter was just a weapon. They didn’t care how the weapon worked at the time. They just wanted to stop the baddie from using it again – and they warped around to do it.

    RM was just some weapon which is unrealistic given current scientific knowledge.
    Warp (or Star Wars hyperspace, or BSG Jump) are means of travel that are unrealistic given scientific knowledge.

    For that reason, you kinda either give both things a pass in the ST franchise or you condemn it for both (which many do).

    I absolutely do agree that the more central a particular “sci” device is to the premise of a movie or a film, the more plausible it should be.

  • Elwood Herring

    Whenever I watch any Trek episodes or movies made since Gene Roddenberry’s death, I always try to ask myself, “What would HE have thought of that?” Roddenberry was well known for getting the best out of his stable of writers, mainly by means of ensuring that whatever crazy ideas they came up with, they always had to be subordinate to the plot. “Yes, yes, but what’s it about?” was his main grilling point.

    Regarding red matter, I think he probably would have okayed it, but might have asked for some extra supporting techno-babble. But since it moves the plot on swiftly without too much fuss, he’d have probably given it the green light. I don’t like it myself, and it did grate on me when I watched the movie, but after asking myself that question I imagined I heard the ghost of G.R. say “It’ll work. Trust me.”

  • http://www.thethinkingman.org Al Feersum

    “Red Matter” = “Unobtainium”. At least Cameron had the sense to use the name of the thing that it symbolises.

    Often poorly written Sci-Fi includes plot devices such as these and makes no attempt to explain them. I tend to avoid novels with the lazy incorporation of ‘unexplainedium’.

    A good Sci-Fi author will use speculative science to make the plot devices seem plausible, even though they may be fantastically impossible – often invoking scientific gobbledegook to back up said devices.

    For example, in Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe, the FTL devices used seemed plausible, and even had a development lifecycle as a historical narrative, as did the Conjoiners. Even the Shrouders invoked Weyl curvature tensors and quantum stuff to hide their universe.

    There didn’t seem to be any real paradoxical pseudo-science involved, requiring a “special thing that doesn’t exist“. Admittedly, the manipulation of stuff at the quantum level is probably farfetched (and later on, interacting with branes). But at least it was kind of explained to the reader in a way that could be understood (assuming prior knowledge).

    I suppose it helps that Alastair Reynolds is a scientist (sorry, physicist).

  • Josh Neal

    It’s not *just* a MacGuffin; it is more precisely an Artifact of Doom (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtifactOfDoom). The thing about artifacts of doom is that they have to be dealt with, and how that’s done is critically important to the story. Think of Frodo’s Ring. It couldn’t be destroyed (by conventional means), and it couldn’t be effectively hidden, so they had to throw it where no one could ever get it.

    The red matter very specifically creates black holes, apparently when it comes into contact with sufficient matter. I don’t think this is a problem for the movie, other than that deposit-in-the-planet’s-core part. (I say we chalk that part up to the need for dramatic build-up.)

    IMO, this is a sufficient explanation for “how” the red matter works. It works by converting matter into a singularity. How it does that is an interesting topic, but not necessary to be able to follow along with Kirk and Spock as they turn the bad guy into a singularity.

  • Josh

    I think Lost suffered in the same way. It was great at the beginning when there were all these mysteries, but most of the explanations at the end turned out to be red-matter-esque (e.g. “strange electromagnetic properties”), if there were explanations at all.

  • onymous

    I came to the comment thread thinking “the word ‘MacGuffin’ really needs to be injected into this discussion,” but I see Analyzer got there first. MacGuffins work perfectly well and play a useful role in lots of stories, so I think if you’re going to criticize the red matter, you have to do more work to show that it’s not just playing the role of a MacGuffin. (I saw the movie and don’t even remember what role ‘red matter’ played in the plot, so I guess the whole thing didn’t make much of an impression on me. I just remember thinking ‘well, at least it was better than the one where they went looking for God on some asteroid.’)

  • http://msteger.com MarkS

    I agree with those who have equated Red Matter = Unobtainium = Frodo’s Ring = MacGuffin. The fewer details, the better. Maybe Unobtainium handles it best, using a silly name that telegraphs to everyone that it’s silly and therefore unnecessary to bother explaining.

    Sean is maybe too polite not to mention that the mysteries in Lost are of the kind that start out teasing the audience into believing there’s something to figure out. As the episodes wear on, viewers discover there’s really nothing behind the mysteries other than Mystery. Big disappointment in the way that MacGuffins are not.

    Finally, what about 2001: A Space Odyssey? Kubrick’s movie left a lot of theater-goers frustrated because the mysteries were not explained. Readers of Clarke’s book, on the other hand, learned everything (OK, maybe not exactly how those black slabs worked, but at least what the heck they were). The movie was the greater work of art. The book, the proof that the moviemaker wasn’t *just* messing with our minds. Perhaps the perfect way to pair mystery and sensible explanation.

  • psmith

    The problem here seems to be that we are only comfortable if the mystery is in some way anchored to our experience or personal body of knowledge. We need not understand it. It must just be anchored somewhere in our body of knowledge so that the mystery has a context that gives it some meaning.

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  • Matt B.

    The dumbest part of the red matter plot device was that they had hundreds of gallons of it when one drop was enough to collapse a planet. Someone’s expense report is not going to get approved. But the lack of plausibility also seriously damped down any sense of wonder that would have come from it, making Star Trek just an action movie. (The canyon in Iowa proves they weren’t even thinking about plausibility.) The more I think about that movie the less I like it.

    On the subject of MacGuffin-ness, any sci-fi invention will fall apart if examined too closely, and the Star Trek TV shows have been in the habit of doing so. But with no explanation at all, you have to wonder what other inexplicable invention might exist that someone could whip out as a deus ex machina, and that kind of ruins the fun. So somewhere in between is best.

  • Dave

    I’m curious, sean, what did you think of the movie ‘Primer’ in terms of mystery?

  • Bad Trek

    Red Matter is just the tip of the iceberg. JJ Abrams took the Star Trek universe and flipped it on its head.

    – Filming portions of the Engineering area in a brewery? They need pipes of crap going everywhere? Did he even watch the series? Mr. Scott would have had a medical incident.

    – Having Kirk meet ‘old’ Spock on a planet – Ok…far fetched…possible. Meeting Mr. Scott and his pet ‘monkey’ guy? Ok…more far fetched. Having Mr. Scott able to beam them aboard an Enterprise that had been moving in an unknown direction (Kirk was unconcious remember) for a long period of time? – No…rediculous.

    – Communicating with a ship being ripped apart by a black hole? Yeah…right. Escaping the same black hole by ejecting your fuel and having it ‘blow up’ with a shock wave pushing you out? Uh…do you understand physics at all Mr. Abrams?

    Anyway, I enjoyed the acting, nice to see Uhura with some life, McCoy, Kirk and Spock were great. Other than that, flush the whole movie and start again. JJ Abrams shouldn’t be allowed near a Star Trek set ever again…

  • JMW

    I think that commentators arguing the validity or lack thereof of Red Matter are missing the point of the post. The point is that science fiction in particular shouldn’t have magic McGuffins of uknown provenance and unknown properties and unknown effect.

    Not to say that science fiction shouldn’t have mystery. But the mystery shouldn’t be something that one of our main characters understands and (in this case) created.

    If I’m James T. Kirk in the expository scene where Spock-prime is explaining what happened to Romulus, I’m not going to simply blow by the question of what Red Matter is and how it works without comment.

    But this “mystery cult” in science fiction – particularly post-Roddenberry ST – is particularly annoying. I recall one episode of ST TNG where the Enterprise picks up one of its own shuttlecraft with a comatose Picard on board. Turns out they eventually get caught in some whirlpool of time, and Picard has to figure out how to get them out of it, by watching what Picard 2 does, and then doing the opposite.

    But there’s no attempt to analyze the whirlpool, no attempt to explain how it came to be, whether it might pose a danger to other ships travelling through that region…

    TNG relied on this and other kind of poor storytelling far to often for my taste.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Dave @#19 has a good question. Low budget Science Fiction can be very good.

    I was shocked by how good the director’s cut (not the commercial release) of “The Butterfly Effect” was. It is deceptive in the extreme, but turns out not to be
    Sci-Fi, but fully realized Science Fiction. And why nothing from the award-wining “Cube” series?

    Moving to lower budget but genuine Science Fiction, my wife and son and I have seen “Primer” about half a dozen times each, read the websites and blogs with
    their differing reconstructed chronologies and clashing hypotheses, and argued long into the night.

    Made by nerds, for nerds, about nerds, with an awesomely sophisticated plot, insight into how real science and engineering is done, Venture Capital, jealousy, and so much more. It is much more tricky than it looks the first time through. It gains on
    re-viewing, for those who do the work of interpolation from noisy and intentionally misleading data.

    For big budget, I’ve seen “2001” over 20 times, and loved it every time. But for microbudget?

    Dollar for dollar, “Primer” is the greatest Science Fiction movie ever made.

  • Thanny

    I think writers like to champion mysteries for their own sake because they aren’t very good at providing plausible and interesting solutions.

    Take Lost, for example. What’s crashing through the trees making all that noise? The first thing I thought was a dinosaur (a character on the show did, too), but what does it end up being? A cloud of black smoke that makes strange mechanical noises. What is the smoke and where did it come from? The bad guy floated down a stream to a pool and flew out as the smoke, while other people went to the same place and did nothing of the sort.

    Some might say that mysteries become lessened when a prosaic explanation is found. The Lost example is anything but prosaic, and I found it to be a real letdown. I’d be delighted if the explanation turned out to be something quite normal but entirely unexpected.

    So, in general, I consider mysteries best solved. There are cases, however, where I have a hard time imagining a satisfying answer – where leaving the mystery be may be the better option. Two examples are both “what’s in the case” mysteries – from Pulp Fiction and Ronin. Would knowing what’s in those cases add anything to either movie? I have to think that it could, but I also have to grant that it would be difficult to come up with the right answers. It’d be trivial to disappoint with lousy ones.

  • Chris

    Thank you. I remember thinking what the heck when I first saw the movie and we had a bunch of discussions on what it could be. We felt it would have been better to use Strange Matter. Fire it at a planet and it converts all the normal matter into strange matter. This is at least a “plausible” science, however it doesn’t seem likely to occur, but I have a feeling black holes scores well with the audiences, so they went there.

  • viggen

    I disagree very strongly with how JJ Abrams tells stories. In my opinion, his Star Trek reboot held up under an initial viewing, but doesn’t survive repeated viewings very well. I liked that movie a lot the first time I saw it, but the lack of any reason “why” for most of the visual and story elements in it has become extreme cloying to me. If you look at the structure of how that movie works, it’s a bunch of free-standing plot devices leading one to the next that are not significantly connected to _any_ fundamental structure except that they provided a pretty visual or an exciting moment. “Red Matter” was about the biggest example.

    I think Hollywood has become too interested in catering to the 15 second attention span… given the choice, I’ll patronize “Inception” over the new “Star Trek” every time.

  • uhmmm

    Was Deckard a replicant is a good one. Here’s a few more. I especially like “#4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Was All in Cameron’s Head”, although watching Star Wars and Empire with the idea that Chewbacca is on a mission from Yoda to inject Han into any meeting between Luke and Leia is fun too.


  • uhmmm

    Analyzer (comment 7): “How do Star Trek’s infamous “inertial dampers” work, or the “Heisenberg compensator” that allows the transporter to function?”

    The latter serves to let me know more precisely how fast I am moving through the doorway into another room a second after the former causes me to accelerate violently away from the television showing the particle-of-the-week-show.



    Searching that wiki for “equivalence principle” gets no hits, but on the other hand


    “How red matter might work is an interesting topic of discussion for a handful of physicists after the movie’s over”

    You mean like some of the people here, on this blog? :-)

  • Gammaburst

    Sci-Fi writers almost always commit a writing error (which for a show is worse than a scientific error) when they invent BS to explain previously accepted BS. Did we really need “midichlorians” to explain “The Force”? How many Star Trek episodes got bogged down in technobabble? or were resolved in a “techno deus ex machina”? As a Sci-Fi fan, I want novelty. But for the sake of the story, I need internal consistency, characters I care about, and a worthwhile challenge.

  • http://dfphil.tumblr.com David

    J.J. Abrams is a remarkably successful (Hollywood) story teller. If he rubs science fiction fans and scientists the wrong way, I would argue that the question is what should we be learning from him about what grabs people’s attention rather than arguing with him about details of MacGuffins or the successes and failures of particular plot devices.

    I would argue that Abrams demonstrates that most people see the world as somewhat mysterious and they don’t always want those mysteries dispelled. This of course isn’t news, but Abrams is very successful at manipulating this instinct. A classic example of this instinct is that many would complain when a rainbow is “explained.” How do we as scientists, skeptics, or fans, then go about convincing people that we aren’t dispelling the magic of rainbows by describing how they work but rather deepening the mystery and magic around them?

    Penn and Teller – and other magicians – address this by, for example performing the cups and balls – which I just watched on youtube recently – with clear glass cups so you can see the “magic” happening. It is still magical! Can we convince people that this is what we’re trying to do, too? I don’t know if it’s possible but that’s what we have to try, rather than bemoaning the magical box.

  • Wabasso

    Just checking in as another LOST fan who was severely disappointed for the very reason you’re describing.

    What I find interesting is that a lot of people were NOT disappointed by the Lost mysteries in their black boxes. I find this hard to contemplate — wanting to know more was what kept everyone hooked, wasn’t it?

    I think there’s a big personality type distinction going on here. Perhaps the same one that gets a physicist funny looks when they get excited about how many quarks there are (for lack of a better example).

  • psmith

    No 30, Wabasso said

    “I think there’s a big personality type distinction going on here”.

    Yes, I think you have hit the mark here. Clearly some are quite happy to practice the willful suspension of disbelief.
    Is that a good thing? Should scientists bring a critical, analytical attitude to everything in life? Or are we better, happier people for being able to embrace mystery in some aspects of our life?

  • Ray Gedaly

    I suppose in the next Star Trek movie they’ll fix the timeline with Blue Matter. Of course, they’ll probably look at the gross profits from the first movie and decide to just call it Doesn’t Matter.

  • meit

    Awesome post Sean! I’m yet another disillusioned Lost fan, who thought that when he pulls all the unknown things together, I’d be left breathless. Unfortunately, he screwed up big time and left it all hanging in the air. And I think the clarification you make between ambiguity and mystery is extremely important. Even if Lost had left a lot of ambiguous loose ends, I would have been more than happy. The problem is that with this guy’s love of mystery, he weaves the puzzle much to arbitrarily and with too much insurmountable complexity, that you pretty much realize that he really is not going to be able to get out of it. I think there is a point to be made here: if you keep the solvability of the mystery in mind, then because of the constraints, you are much more creative. As an analogy, a composer who just uses diverse and outlandish instruments is none the better for it unless he is able to tie them together musically(and the difficulty of this task atleast scales quadratically with the number of instruments) and in contrast to this, you can have a composer who just uses one or two instruments but can still make very beautiful music.

  • Chris Winter

    “But I think Abrams takes the idea too far, valorizing mystery for its own sake, rather than as motivation for the characters and the audience to try to solve the mystery. The reason why mysteries are interesting is because we want to figure them out! If they are simply irreducibly mysterious — if there is no sensible explanation that ultimately makes sense of all the clues — then it’s simply frustrating, not magical.”

    I would phrase it as implausibly mysterious. Event Horizon was mentioned above, and I think this is a perfect example. An experimental starship, missing for some time, turns up in the solar system and is unresponsive. When investigators enter the ship, we are shown its Maguffin: a device that opens a space warp inside the ship. That, for me, rendered the movie ludicrous as SF (though it works well as horror.)

    I don’t mind having something be ultimately mysterious. In Star Wars, The Force works precisely because it is explained as little as possible. I agree with the comment above that Lucas ruined it when he tried to ascribe it to “midichlorians” — obviously analogous to mitochondria. That leads the view to contradictions as distracting as wondering how a ship can travel through a gate that’s inside it.

    “There are those who argue that science destroys the magic of the world by figuring things out. That’s exactly backwards — the scientific quest to solve the world’s puzzles is one of the things that makes the story of our lives so interesting.”

    I fully agree with this. Arthur C. Clarke understood it very well, and explained it eloquently. There’s a quotation from another person that also expresses it well. Unfortunately I’ve lost the attribution, but it goes much like this: “The bigger the ocean of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”

  • http://www.cthisspace.com Claire C Smith

    I’ll agree with the last paragraph.


  • réalta fuar

    JJ Abrams is the prime example of what is wrong with so much SF on tv and the movies: no respect, whatsoever, for a) his audience and b) the art of storytelling. He has nothing but DISDAIN for both. Thank god I never got drawn into Lost (which they made up as they went along), Cloverfield violated Bradbury’s 1st law of what NOT to do in a story. Alias was good for a season or a bit more, then went to hell because they had no plan. Star Trek? commit GENOCIDE (and stupidly, violating all kinds of KNOWN physics (the number one thing NOT to do in SF) to “reboot”?) Please, he’ll never get a euro of my money again.

  • spyder

    While JJ Abrams may be successful with fantastic realms, he isn’t exactly noteworthy in dealing with reality. His newest TV series, UNDERCOVERS, has officially tanked, and will not finish the season.

  • http://www.thethinkingman.org Al Feersum

    I think ultimately it boils down to a question of ‘Entertainment for the masses’ and ‘Entertainment for the geeks’. You’re spending millions of dollars on a movie, you’re going to want mass appeal to ensure that you get a return on your investment.

    An unexplained plot device will work for the majority of the people: they don’t have the curiosity to want to know what it is and how it works, it’s sufficient to just be there.

    2001 has been mentioned a couple of times. In and of itself, it was a brilliant piece of art, and IMO, Trumbull’s FX have yet to be bettered (of a similar style – matting and CGI is getting close, but from a pure modelling basis, none have come close). But taken in the context of the novel, it becomes a disappointment.

    According to IMDB, Duncan Jones’ Moon broke even. A brilliant film, little ‘unobtainium’, but technically very detailed – didn’t have the mass market appeal. Authors have a similar problem: if you put formulae in a book, the public aren’t interested. They don’t want facts, they want entertainment.

    Coming back to ‘unobtainium’ – logic dictates that as soon as you’ve got hold of some, it becomes ‘obtainedium’… but the masses aren’t pedants and they don’t care what it’s called, or what it does (which Cameron didn’t sufficiently explain – why was it needed anyway?). But as long as there’s drama and thrilling adventures, and they get a return on their movie ticket, everything is as it should be. But as soon as they get bored with the technical explanations… they tell their friends ‘it’s boring, don’t bother going to see it, wait for the DVD’, and the movie companies start to lose money.

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    “Red Matter” = Death Star fuel.

    Seriously, folks. Abrams’ Star Trek was better when it came out in 1977.

  • Wabasso

    @38. Al Feersum

    “Coming back to ‘unobtainium’ – logic dictates that as soon as you’ve got hold of some, it becomes ‘obtainedium’… but the masses aren’t pedants and they don’t care what it’s called, or what it does (which Cameron didn’t sufficiently explain – why was it needed anyway?).”

    The movie hints strongly at it being a room temperature superconductor, of which we would have many many uses. The extra features and literature confirm this.

    At first the name “Unobtanium” really bugged me. But then I started to think of how it would actually play out in real life. I think it’s totally realistic for the media and mainstream to give a new important discovery a totally misleading name, i.e. “The God Particle”.

  • Brian Too

    @7. Analyzer,

    Agreed. Stories can ask for a suspension of belief. There are limits and some commonly accepted guidelines (although these are regularly tested). However the impulse to explain everything is particular to to the mechanistic/scientific mind. Millions like or even prefer mystery.

    One of the things that I really liked about Awakenings was that it never completely explained how the drug worked. In the end it stopped working and no one knew why. The problem was, they had never figured out how it worked in the first place. That left the main characters ill equipped to correct the situation when things started to go wrong.

    The story ended with a mystery and may even have been stronger for doing so.

    Not Sci-Fi of course. Just goes to the point that not everything has to be explained. You can even have a mystery that the whole plot turns on and is never completely resolved.

  • Alan in Upstate NY

    I enjoyed Star Trek, but thought that the “red matter” was given no credibility and simply not believable. I too thought it was a major plot flaw in an otherwise very good movie.

    Clear skies, Alan

  • http://www.cthisspace.com Claire C Smith

    I don’t understand any of this post at all apart from the last paragraph. Thta was what I was supposed to have put before. I thought it was about science. I don’t understand science fiction but am prepared to give it a try, a bit like Coronation Street, which have never liked.

  • bittergradstudent

    @Brain Too:

    I”m pretty sure Awakenings was based on actual events.

    And I’m with everyone who thinks that the Red Matter wasn’t at all the point of the movie. A 5000 HellaWatt laser from the year 2500 that needs 48 hours to charge before the death pulse would have served the same plot purpose. Or would we be complaining because the lasing medium wasn’t sufficiently explained in that case?

  • http://www.cthisspace.com Claire C Smith

    Although I am very much into Star Wars. The whole idea of it is magical. When young, I watched it for the space/sciency effects, the lighting, the mood, but had no idea what the hell was going on with the characters and plot. Even now, can’t much remember any plot. Favourite character, R2D2.

  • olderwithmoreinsurance

    @44 No, we would hate it because no imaginable energy source can overcome the binding energy of a terrestrial size planet. Though a 5000 Hellawatt laser might do a great job liquifying the surface (assuming you could, you know, PROTECT it for 48 hrs.). And has EVERYONE forgotten that a black hole was left in a decaying orbit around the earth in the god-awful movie mentioned? I’m sure that thought never crossed Abrams mind, along with the dozens of other impossible or just plain stupid reasons to have fights, blow things up, have characters violate any imaginable UCMJ, this side of the Taliban (go on, fuck any student you want in your chain of command, we just want to see Spock GET SOME! woohoo)

  • Brian Too

    No, I maintain that elements of mystery can work just fine in all sorts of movies and stories.

    Look, what is perhaps the most common thematic element in every kind of story you can think about? Love. What do we commonly say about love? It’s a mystery.

    We describe love, we explain the situation of love, we can be abstract or particular. We can justify love in evolutionary and reproductive terms. We can be crass or lyrical. Yet we always come back to the idea that love is a mystery.

    Mystery. It’s a great part of story telling. You can solve the mystery or not, that’s a choice of the story teller. Both are fine as long as you engage your audience.

  • Josh Neal

    @ 46

    Didn’t they warp away from the earth before the final battle?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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