Hollywood Science Gone Bad

Journalist David Kushner takes up a topic we all love to complain about: outrageously stupid science in movies and television.

4 min read

Anyone who chronicles technology for a general audience faces the same challenge-- how to make a story interesting and accessible, while getting the science right.

I faced this while working on my first non-fiction book, Masters of Doom . One of the lead characters is John Carmack, the venerated programmer of the computer games Doom and Quake. Carmack is considered one of the best coders in his industry, and I needed to convey the essence of his innovations--what makes him unique and important--to people who think a binary space partition is a form of orthodontics. Now that Masters of Doom is being developed into a movie for Showtime, the challenge is back in meta-form--how to convey the science and technology of computer programming in a compelling but accurate, filmic way.

Writers, filmmakers, TV producers, theater directors, game makers, or anyone who chooses science as a subject for depiction has to strike the right formula of style and substance. Often, however, despite their best intentions, they get it wrong. And when they do, the Bad Science Nerds are waiting to nail them.

To some degree, I think anyone with even the slightest geek cred--gamers, technologists, Trekkies, webheads, tech writers--is a Bad Science Nerd, too. BSNs are easily identifiable. We're the ones in the back of the theater muttering, "Oh please!" when a missile intercepts an earth-bound asteroid at the last second, or pretending to self-induce vomiting every time a chip goes missing with the all-important secret code (in movies, it seems, there's no such thing as data back-up). And we even have our very own Siskel and Ebert, the big thumbs of bad science themselves: Phil Plait and Tom Rogers.

"Movies don't have to be accurate, but if it's just as easy and would make them better, at least try."--Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy Web site

Plait and Rogers, respectively, run the Web sites Bad Astronomy (https://www.badastronomy.com) and Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (https://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics). The sites chronicle and explicate science gaffes, from Armageddon to Titanic . Though they're run separately, they have a common mission: to sift out the good science in movies and television from the bad or, more often, awful.

"A movie has got to have a sense of reality, even if it's a fantasy," says Rogers, who teaches physics at South Side High School in Greenville, S.C. And it's not just a nerdy concern, he adds, it's for the sake of future generations. "What I find is people really believe this stuff," he says. "We're filling people's minds with silliness. I don't think it leads to clear thinking."

Rogers launched his site in 1997 as a way to interest students in thinking about physics. Since then, he's taken his laser pointing pen to more than two dozen movies over the past couple of decades, starting with 1984's The Terminator and running up to last year's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith . Rogers's research has yielded a compelling top ten of outrageously stupid movie physics clichés.

Among the highlights is the ubiquitous flaming car. As Rogers notes, movie chase scenes often end in true Smokey and the Bandit style, with one or more vehicles bursting into flames. Though the conflagration adds a dramatic punctuation to a high-speed pursuit, it's also incredibly unlikely, he points out. "Explosive limits for gasoline are pretty narrow," he says, "it's unlikely that the mixture and source of ignition will coincide."

Another favorite gaffe: Bad guys (and good ones) who fly backwards--preferably into a wall of glass--upon impact from a bullet. Wrong, wrong, wrong, Rogers chides. "If a person works through momentum occasions," he says, "it's just not going to happen. At best, they'll fall down. The momentum is not going to move a human very far."

Rogers's choice for the all-time most stupidly bad movie physics? (Insert drum roll here.) The 2003 sci-fi debacle, The Core . "It's artfully bad," he says. "It's almost hard to imagine how you could make it too much worse." The premise of the film is that the earth's core is about to stop spinning, and scientists must race to the center of the planet to set the world back in motion. As if, Rogers sniffs. "According to the movie, the center of the earth quits rotating, and this disrupts Earth's magnetic field," he says. "Last time I looked, you won't stop microwave radiation from hitting a surface by turning off the magnetic field.

"Phil Plait, an astronomer at Sonoma State University, shares Rogers's opinion about The Core . "The basic premise is wrong and bad," he says. But what really sets his mind spinning is that the filmmakers insisted everything was accurate. Plait, a fan of old time B-movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet , is willing to suspend his disbelief for the sake of a good time. "Movies don't have to be accurate," he says. "But if it's just as easy and would make them better, at least try. That way they're not promulgating myths."

Plait says it was just such dismay that inspired him to launch his site in 1993 while completing a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Virginia. "I was sick of seeing people mangle astronomy," he says. Some of the popular forms of astronomical mangling: sounds in space (without air, sound doesn't travel) and spaceships that bank (no air, no banking). While The Core and Armageddon , the 1998 Ben Affleck doomsday flick, rank among Plait's worst ever, Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey , not surprisingly, tops the list. But the high ranking comes at a cost. " 2001 is the most scientifically accurate movie ever made," Plait says, "but it's also really boring."

I hope that Rogers and Plait will have kind things to say about Masters of Doom when it hits the screen. At the end of the day, Plait admits, he's out for accuracy, not blood. "I don't have to be a jerk," he says. "It's just my job."

About the Author

David Kushner is a journalist and writer. His latest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House), is about underdog gamers who hit Las Vegas. His previous book, Masters of Doom (Random House), about the co-creators of the video games Doom and Quake, is being developed into a movie for Showtime. He has also written for Rolling Stone , The New York Times, Wired, Salon , Spin , and other publications.

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