Dear film industry, please stop breaking my science

By Evette (Evie) Clayton

So, you could say I’m a bit of a nerd. I don’t really take much seriously, but if there is something I do take seriously, it’s science. That’s not to say I can’t take a joke, man, I LOVE science jokes….

I even love SciFi movies that break a few rules here and there, take a few steps in the direction of not-really-possible (who doesn’t like hearing David Tennant describe the non-linear progression of time using such phrases as “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”). But, sometimes things just go too far.

To my mind, you’re going to far when, instead of, say, ignoring a few implausiblities—like there being new stable elements that have yet to be discovered—you’re just plain ignorant of basic scientific concepts.

The explosion of the Death Star, Star Wars.

I can even deal with things that go "BANG" in space, as long as there is a distinction between science and scifi.

The reason I preface this post with the admission of the fact that I am a bit of a nerd, is for the following anecdote….

To this day, I consider one of the most traumatic experiences of my life something which occurred just last year. Whilst holidaying in New Zealand I found myself in the movie room of a backpackers. The movie was already part the way though.

It didn’t look too bad (or at least it looked like it had reasonable entertainment value), I sat down in front of Brendan Fraser and some miscellaneous child-actors. The movie was Journey to The Centre of the Earth.

It was part of the way into the film when I position myself in a beanbag, book in hand, in case the movie turned out to be boring.

I found myself getting a little annoyed at the dodgy science in the movie (most of which, I admit I have blocked from my memory, due to the trauma it induced), quietly as I could—which many of you will know is not necessarily exactly “quiet”—I sat and fumed as the film got more and more inaccurate in its representation of scientific concepts; the culmination of which was one particular scene. (There may actually have been steam extruding from my ears at this point; I’m sure I was red in the face with anger).

In this scene there are some rocks across a very deep divide. They are suspended mid-air. This is okay. Tell me there is some kind of made up force field, or some other kind of imaginary/magic explanation for their levitation, and it’s okay, I’ll dismiss this as fantasy. But that’s not how it was explained; they “used science”.

Apparently, the rocks were supported by a magnetic force. Okay, right, so the rocks just happen to be aligned in such a way that the repulsion between like-forces is causing them to levitate.

One of the misc. child-actors watching his swiss army knife levitate in the magnetic field

It’s not likely that it would really happen like that in nature, but that’s okay, it’s a movie. What happened next made it not okay. The characters, needing to cross the divide, began jumping between rocks, causing them to tip and sway. I don’t know if you’ve ever played with the repulsive forces between magnets, but it’s actually quite difficult to align magnets so that they’re repelling one another, move them in one direction or another, and they will have the forces required to flip them around, and snap together from the attractive forces.

So, tipping and swaying wouldn’t happen with these magnetically levitating rocks; it just wouldn’t work that way. I was seething. But it gets worse… one of the miscellaneous child-actor characters becomes quite overbalanced; his magnetic levitating rock begins to tip quite a lot (my heart beats faster from the rage; my eye twitches), as the misc. child-actor clings to it, the rock turns, more and more until it flips completely—and so do I—I ran from the room, crying “IT’S VIOLATING ME IN MY PHYSICS!”

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that not all people are going to have this reaction. Many people will think that this is a perfectly reasonable demonstration of the science; that this is how magnetic fields work.

But where do you draw the line? Where does fiction end, and the rage-inducing world of broken science start? I’ve pondered this long and hard, both in my own meandering thoughts and for this blog post, and I’ve come up with nothing.

One man, Sidney Perkowitz, an American professor, has suggested that films should be allowed one major blunder in the physics portrayed. Others argue that this would only cause more misconceptions, if there is one error amongst accurate representations, how would people know which bit is bull-plop?

Well, in any case, it appears that a line does need to be drawn. Barnett et. al. discuss in their paper the misconceptions students develop, after watching the film The Core, despite being educated directly in concepts about the Earth. Children from the study are quoted as saying things like

“[The character] Dr. Keyes, who was a geology professor, was able to explain much of the science and it all sounded right to me and he figured out the problem and others believed him. So I think much of the science early in the movie was correct….”

Awesome, so the actor was believable, that means the science was correct?

I will admit now, I have not been able to bring myself to actually watch The Core. You’d think it would be relevant, given the topic of this post, but I think that given the reaction I have described in the above anecdote, you’ll see why I am a little apprehensive about actually viewing this movie.

The long of the short is that 5th grade students who had been learning Earth science managed to re-write their actual understanding with the garb that The Core spewed upon them.**

**(Author’s note: I am aware I am in little position to call The Core garb, without viewing it, however I am using the fallacies from Journey to The Centre of The Earth as a basic approximation of the broken science).

I think the message here, is that movies ought to shape up if they want to use science as a backdrop. It is all well and good to use green gloopy aliens in your film if it is obviously fiction, but when using “realistic” science, like zombie-apocalypse-causing viruses, or discussing the magnetic field of the Earth there should be some obligation to not make it so believable if you’re going to break the science.

One question remains: as proponents of science and indeed the accurate communications of that science, how can we make this happen?


Reference: Barnett, M., Wagner, H., Gatling, A., Anderson, J., Houle, M., & Kafka, A. (2006). The Impact of Science Fiction Film on Student Understanding of Science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2), 179-191. [PDF]

By clayte01

18 comments on “Dear film industry, please stop breaking my science

  1. The Core sat neatly within my suspension of disbelief, then abruptly smashed it to pieces with “an alloy which converts heat and pressure into electrical energy.” Now note that its not just that it generates electricity when under high heat and pressure, but it is in fact not affected by high heat and pressure because it is converting the energy from them into electricity. Let alone that the electrical field produced from dumping something like that into magma would probably fry the people inside their craft made out of it.

    • (Rowan? Not the most identifiable nametag….) thanks for your comment. I know what you mean, I have watched/read scifi’s before that have been enjoyable up to a point until it all comes crashing down with one ridiculously inaccurate concept. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was not like that, I’ll add, it was just bad and worse. Now I feel like watching some good scifi, just to remind myself that it is out there. Why can’t all scifi use explanations like “timey-wimey stuff” and “The Infinite Improbability Drive [which] is a wonderful new method of crossing vast intersteller distances in a mere nothingth of a second without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace”?

  2. Given my lack of physics and chemistry knowledge (year twelve level), the incorrect science references in your blog don’t necessarily make me annoyed. However, I understand where you are coming from, and the point you are making. It is frustrating when people are led to believe something that isn’t true because of the way a movie frames it as ‘fact’.

    However I think changing this probably won’t happen – it makes for more ‘interesting’ viewing, and the majority of the public (such as myself) won’t really notice the fallacy, or care too much if it is false. However, when watching a movie such as ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’, I hope most people would at least take the ‘science’ with a grain of salt. To me it seems a little suspicious from the outset.

    I do think it is possible to portray accurate science and still have it be interesting. A filmmaker might not care so much however. I think this could happen if producers took the time to hire scientists as advisers for the science-y bits in movies. And that does happen quite often, to my knowledge.

    Interesting post!

    • Thanks for your comment, Carmen, I mostly wanted to say that I think that ‘real science’ can still be used well in science fiction. That is to say, you don’t have to obliterate the science in something for entertainment’s sake; they can coexist. You’re possibly right– what is there to make the change happen? A bunch of scientists raging about the rest of the world not respecting their science doesn’t seem to get very much done (or else we wouldn’t have so much “alternative medicine” and other pseudoscience in modern culture)– but I choose to live in hope. Maybe, through communicating science to the general public, general scientific understanding will increase to a point where the film industry won’t get away with dodgy science, because the audience will know that it is too inaccurate and implausible.

  3. Hi Evie, nice post! I can’t agree more! because I’m another one who terribly irritated with those ridiculous “Science” in movies.

    One example I still remember is the movie “Angels and demons (2009)”.
    In the movie, amount of anti-matter (that can be seen by nakid eye!) can be carried in small container, and once it bursts (yes, it bursts inside the atmosphere!), and the characters around the explosion site still arrive finely! Are they thinking anti-matter as “jus a little bit big bomb” or something?
    The worth is that, in the movie, evil secret society, the Illuminati, was described as which represents the science as a counterpart of the Catholic church. What a silly story.

    I think we need a pre-caution for most of the movie, like this.
    “This movie is nothing but a fiction, and there are no relation with actual organisations, nations, or characters. Also there are no relation with any general law of physics and chemistry, and all scientific facts”.

    Anyway, what I wanted to say was that, misconception is far worth than ignorance.
    Once they got misunderstanding, it remains people’s mind almost forever, and cause terrible effects, like underestimating the effects of antimatter. The problem is, as it’s just a movie, it is a “fiction”, so no one can blame those inaccuracy from straight ahead. Shame on Hollywood!
    Once misconception reaches to people’s mind, it’s really hard to get rid of it.

    • Hi Kohei, thank you for your comment, and your suggestions.
      You summed it up perfectly: misconception is worse than ignorance. Maybe a caution would be a good way to solve the issue? Perhaps a film should be required to have a warning on it if it contains a certain level of “realistic” science fiction….? I like this idea.

      “WARNING: the film you are about to watch contains depictions of scientific concepts which are inaccurate and not based on physical laws….”

  4. I think we need to arrange a date to watch ‘The Core’ together Evie! I haven’t seen it yet either but I’m so curious about it now! Don’t think I’ll be able to take it seriously with all the hype around it.
    I was just replying to a post on my blog post saying that ‘The Rise of the Planet Apes’ has some very convincing science in it! Have you seen the movie yet? I was honestly thinking to myself, ‘why hasn’t someone created the cure for Alzheimer’s yet? It seems so easy!’ Looking back, I’m a little disappointed in myself for thinking that!

    • Ash, I have to admit, you might not enjoy watching movies with me. I can’t guarantee that I won’t rage loudly and obnoxiously throughout the entire thing. I would like to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I have not yet. I’ll keep my guard up, when I do.

  5. So I need to preface this post with a couple disclaimers. First, I have never seen nor read Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Second, I never took a geology course in my life, nor do I know the history of geology. Lastly I don’t necessarily know what constitutes science fiction. For all these reasons this post might be the most irrelevant thing you have ever read.

    To me Journey to the Centre of the Earth isn’t about communicating science at all. It’s a movie remake of a beloved novel (again I realize I have never seen nor read the story, but I vaguely remember people telling me it’s a childhood classic like its counterpart 20 000 Leagues under the Sea). I don’t know how closely the movie follows the book but hopefully they didn’t deviate from the original work just to fill it with bad science.

    Personally I also get really frustrated with bad science, but then I also get mad when characters have bad reasoning skills as well so perhaps there’s just no pleasing me. I think you just have to know what your getting yourself into before you start watching so that you can be in the correct frame of mind. For Journey to the Centre of the Earth think about it as a classic, for The Day After Tomorrow, just think about Jake Gyllenhaal. I guess that brings up the question should all movies have a disclaimer that says something like:

    “Hey this movie is outdated science fiction from 1864. Viewer awareness is advised.”

    But if we start putting science disclaimers on movies pretty soon everyone will copy us (since scientist are so cool how could others not follow the trend). This would make a pretty long, annoying intro to every movie.

    NEW MOON (twilight)
    “Warning some reality checking is advised. Vampires are not real, nor are werwolves. Serial killers are, so be careful if people start suddenly disappearing from Seattle. Teenage depression is a serious condition and professional help should be sought, particularly if you are hallucinating. Riding motorcycles without a helmet is illegal and dangerous. Lastly, not all teenagers are this awkward, some do in fact have social skills.”

    • I guess it is a bit of a can of worms, isn’t it? And there will always be those of us who can’t be pleased. Having said that, I think my main problem with broken science is the presentation of it in a factual manner, as I have said, I don’t mind when fiction is presented as fiction; it’s when they start acting like it is real science that it gets to me. I like your New Moon warning; I think this should happen!

  6. I have seen “The Core”; Mum and I watch it when we want a good laugh. I’m fairly sure it’s classified as a “D” grader (or lower).

    Therein lies my point. Most of the movies that contain “bad science” are either for children or are “D” graders. I don’t know of anyone who takes them seriously.

    I understand the point you’re making…but is it really the place of movies to educate students? Shouldn’t that be the role of teachers? A solution could be to view movies in class and then discuss the “science” behind them.

    • I get what you’re saying, movies should be for entertainment, and it can be quite, uh, shall we say, ineffective when they try to be for education.

      I am not saying that movies have to be 100% factual. But it is relevant to note that in the paper, they discuss how students’ understanding, based on their education was changed by the bogus information in the movie The Core. They un-learned things which their education had been effective in teaching them.

      Sure, it is the role of teachers to educate, and movies to entertain, but since this study has shown that this movie has effectively erased the good work done by a teacher, perhaps it is relevant for the film industry to acknowledge that is has a role in affecting scientific understanding.

      If this were a moral or social issue, like teaching kids violence or that it is okay to break the law, then there would be repercussions for the film industry. No, I’m not saying that teaching kids bogus science is tantamount to teaching them to steal or kill, but I think the film industry should recognise that it has a responsibility to do more than just entertain (though some movies fail at even that); particularly if they are aimed at a general audience including young, “impressionable” minds.

  7. I have a lot of love for science fiction. I, however, will sit there and *blink* when science implausibilities or similar appear on screen.

    I wonder how much people now believe in the “science” shown in television/movies, given the amount of advertising there is about things like the CSI-Effect and the amount people point it out. Science is not generally actively promoted in movies as being “fact”, aside from within the parameters of the world created within the film/show. It’s the confusion of these created “worlds” with reality that tends to blur the science, in my honest opinion.

    • Good point, Kate; I think you’ve put it quite succinctly there, it is the blurring of the fiction with reality which causes problems. I guess that would be why I am okay with “timey-wimey” descriptions of science, in a clearly fictional reality where The Doctor can solve any problem, from rifts in the time-space continuum, to wibbley little blobs controlling robot exoskeletons, which aim to exterminate everything in their path; yet I am less okay with my (yet to be verified) perception of movies like The Core, which present a supposedly plausible “future” for our own reality. Having said that, I think GATTACA is a fantastic example of sci fi. I don’t know, it’s all very blurry, and I am finding it difficult to respond to everyone with consistency.

      I guess, to me, GATTACA had the pretense of science, but avoided having bogus sci-fi-ish explanations for what was going on, it is more “this is happening”, rather than “this is happening because of blah blah crap science.”. Maybe they did do that, and I was just totally distracted by Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke and Jude Law….

  8. And these ones too .

    Oh no, and Starship Troopers in one of my favourite futuristic films! Where people actually have a license to have children. Even better is Children of Men, where there are no children, hahaha.

    Speaking of which, how does everyone rate that movie in terms of its science? If you haven’t seen it, it’s set in 2023, and (almost) all the world’s women are infertile.

    • I don’t think I’ve seen Starship Troopers, but I would like to. Maybe just because of the similarity in the name to “Super Troopers” which is one of my all time favourite movies ever.

      I liked Children of Men, when I saw it, but I was in high school then, and had not yet developed my current level of broken-science-induced rage. I think I would like to watch it again, with a slightly more scientifically critical mindset. I think I remember some bogus-y science things with some super-intelligent guy, but I don’t remember much of it.

      Movie night, guys?

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