Fictional Science in Science Fiction

Looks pretty, and scientifically accurate too!

Looks pretty, and scientifically accurate too!

(Spoiler warnings for various old films…)

I recently watched Interstellar on DVD, having missed it in the cinema. Maybe I should have seen it on the big screen and been wowed by the special effects, because my gut response was that it was two and a half hours of my life I could’ve spent doing something better. Aside from being emotionally disengaged and overloaded with ideas that are already (over-)familiar to science fiction readers, I was put off by the inconsistent science.

I’m happy enough with bullshit science.

Interstellar travel would be impossible without it. But how the bullshit is treated in the script will affect my impression of the film (or book, or computer game, or TV show…). I was happy to accept a ‘red matter singularity’ in the 2009 Star Trek, on the grounds that ‘red matter’ was a synonym for ‘magic plot device!’. However, Khan’s magic blood in Star Trek Into Darkness went from being an ‘automatic healing’ trope to ‘pitiful set-up for Kirk’s resurrection’ the moment Doctor McCoy injected it into a dead animal to see what might happen (seriously, who does that?!). This moment (among others) treated the both the doctor and the audience (never mind fans) as simpletons, and removes any sense of tension from the scene in which Kirk supposedly sacrifices himself.

4427cb28a6aaad96b854d4c168cfe0cdI’m a nerd. I love science fiction, and I can nitpick up to a point – but what concerns me isn’t whether the science is accurate, but whether or not it’s consistent.

For example, the twist in the 1960s Planet of the Apes (which dealt with relativistic differences in the passage of time for travellers) was consistent with what we were told at the start of the film. And in the sequels, the fact that futuristic, speech-capable apes went back in time to establish their lineage (although the rise of talking orangutans and gorillas went unexplained) added a veneer of story-telling plausibility. In Tim Burton’s remake, nothing in the set-up logically led to the conclusion (Earth run by apes with a statue of Ape-raham Lincoln in Washington DC).

I’m happy enough with old SF stories relying on outdated concepts (such as Frankenstein’s monster, or the Freudian ‘monster from the Id’ in Forbidden Planet). And I’m happy enough with technology that seems magical, at the moment. Force-field windows may yet become reality, and the mind-reading/memory-altering machines of Flash Gordon or Total Recall aren’t entirely implausible; in the clip shown below, computers have a decent chance of guessing what clips you’re looking at based on brain scans alone…

Of course, some things are just too easy to shoot down.

  • There isn’t enough water on Earth to drown the planet as seen in Waterworld. But that’s just to distract you from the fact that an oil tanker full of people who smoke non-stop (where do the cigarettes come from?) is powered by all these phlegm-coughing sailors rowing the damn thing.
  • I would have found The Matrix far more plausible if humans were being used as biological computer chips, rather than batteries (if the machine overlords have geothermal and fusion power, they don’t need humans consuming more energy than they provide).
  • Kevin Bacon’s invisibility serum in Hollow Man would have turned him invisible from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
  • The idea of nuking the Earth’s core to get it spinning again in The Core was a dumb idea magnified to stellar proportions in Sunshine (but Sunshine is aaaaart, darling, so the critics loved it).
  • Spirituality (the idea that bodies ‘need souls’) wrecked otherwise entertaining popcorn flicks like The Sixth Day or The Island, and the myth that we only use 10% of our brains trashes the concept of Limitless.
  • I can forgive the crazy orbital mechanics of Gravity on the grounds that I saw the whole film as a Buddhist metphor in space (I reckon Sandra Bullock’s character dies and the film is about her ‘giving up’ her old, mortal concerns one at a time until she achieves enlightenment… leaving nothing but radio static as the end credits rolled).
  • And don’t get me started on the space station in Moonraker.

Despite these, what gets to me is inconsistency. Like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica setting up the idea of going to Earth at a time when the zodiac matches astrology (ie, any time from 600BC to almost the present day) in the first season, then ditching the idea in favour of god being a Jimmi Hendrix fan. At least it demonstrated that interesting characters -while necessary- are not sufficient for a good story. (A full breakdown of how the series ended badly can be found here.)

So why did Interstellar let me down?

Aside from the drama that didn’t do much for me (I’ve seen a female scientist with daddy issues in the film-that-fucked-up-the-book of Contact), it was supposed to be scientifically accurate. The black hole would look like a real black hole and the plot would rely on time passing differently for the astronauts and those they left behind (like we saw in, you know, Planet of the Apes, almost fifty years previously…).

Maybe it’s the influence of playing Kerbal Space Programme, but the moment any claim to scientific accuracy the film had flew out of the window involved the astronauts’ shuttle. It required a Apollo XI-style multi-stage rocketry lift-off to get to earth orbit… yet it could escape the surface of a planet with 30% more gravity than Earth without those multi-stage rockets. Eh?!

Some commenters have tried to explain why this might be OK, but none of the explanations appear in the film and the whole thing comes across as inconsistent. If the level of space technology required for orbit isn’t much more advanced than 1960s moonshots, then having a magic shuttle for the rest of the film pretty much wrecks the idea of scientific accuracy. Stuff the pretty black hole – if you can’t get rocket science right, why should the audience care about the physics of black holes? This is by no means the only flaw in the film, which, stripped of IMAX-sized grandeur, will never find its way onto my list of must-see SF films.

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