PM’s 10 most plausible big-budget sci-fi films

  • Sean Carroll is a physics research associate at CalTech and acts as a consultant on sci-fi flicks. As filmmakers try to make their movies more believable, Carroll is just one of many scientists dispensing advice. Image credit: Robert Trachtenberg
  • 2001:A Space Odyssey
  • Thor
  • 'Spinners' from Blade Runner
  • UrbanAero AirMule drone prototype
  • Alien
  • Gattaca
  • Deep Impact
  • Minority Report
  • Armageddon
Date:1 February 2012 Tags:, , ,

Sometimes Hollywood gets the science right – or at least not completely wrong. With input from experts, we’ve picked sci-fi’s most plausible big-budget films. – By David Kushner

In late 2009, a writer, a producer, a director, and three scientists sat in a Los Angeles conference room. They were discussing Marvel’s Thor – a film based on a comic book that was in turn inspired by the Norse god of thunder – about an arrogant warrior who, at the start of the film, violates a truce by attacking the Frost Giants.

As the film team described their vision of the fight, Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, knew the filmmakers had a problem. “They wanted the Frost Giants to fall off the edge of a disc-shaped planet,” he says. “That makes no sense. Where does the gravity to pull them down come from? Enough people know how gravity works that it would throw them out of the movie. You’d get a lot of giggles.” Carroll and the other scientists argued their point, even though, Carroll says, “it was clear some people thought we were being uptight killjoys”.

But producer Kevin Feige sided with the scientists, and in the final cut, the Frost Giants’ planet was spherical. That was just one way that Carroll, a clean-cut 45-year-old who has advised on films such as TRON: Legacy and the TV show Bones, helped the production.

As punishment for breaking the truce, Thor is exiled to Earth. When Feige complained that using the term “wormhole” for Thor’s passageway to our planet was “too ’90s”, Carroll suggested the scientific name for the phenomenon, the Einstein-Rosen bridge. That explanation is given by Natalie Portman’s character, astrophysicist Jane Foster, whose motivations Carroll helped shape.

Scientists have been helping Hollywood since the start of cinema. But as science-fiction movies account for more number increased by nearly 50 per cent in the first decade of the 2000s – filmmakers are turning more frequently to experts for ideas.

“The more you ground your film in the real thing, the better it plays,” says DJ Gugenheim, vice-president of production at Inferno Entertainment. Scientists are willing to help Hollywood because they see a chance to expose a broader audience to science and humanise their profession. “People get images of what science is from movies,” Carroll says. “I want to help get that image right.”

To improve the information flow between the science community and Hollywood, the National Academy of Sciences launched the Los Angeles–based Science & Entertainment Exchange in 2008. The organisation connects filmmakers with scientists in biology, chemistry and other fields. In its first year, the Exchange’s scientists consulted (for free) on 70 projects; by September 2011, on 350. Creators of TV shows such as Fringe and The Big Bang Theory, and films such as Green Lantern and 2012’s Battleship, have all talked to scientists with the Exchange.

But science and entertainment don’t always mix.

“Story creators might think scientists are geeks, but there’s a sense of respect,” says Malcolm MacIver, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University and adviser on TRON: Legacy. “That respect is not always there in the other direction. Scientists feel that filmmakers dumb down everything to make a buck.” Despite holding scientists in high esteem, some filmmakers find them hard to work with. “Scientists say, ‘No, you can’t do that!’” Carroll says. “And the moviemaker finds that unhelpful.”

These days, audiences are savvier than ever. And thanks to the Internet, there’s little they haven’t seen – so filmmakers look to what’s happening in cutting-edge research. “Scientists are more imaginative than we are in Hollywood,” says Jeffrey Silver, producer of Terminator Salvation and 300. “I used to say, that only happens in the movies, but now I say, that only happens in science.”

The average moviegoer is also less willing to suspend disbelief. “If people see a movie and sense a disconnect between the logic of the movie and the science that governs the world of the film,” Gugenheim says, “you risk turning off the audience.” Viewers take their complaints to the Internet, where they spread faster than a zombie virus. “Advisers help you construct the movie with rules that keep you in the realm of what is theoretically plausible,” Gugenheim says. That’s what makes films feel real – and prevents bad word-of-mouth that could cripple box office returns.

Scientists are more concerned that inaccuracies will harm scientific literacy. In The Day After Tomorrow, a man-made ice age occurred in just a week. It would actually take at least a decade for the real thing to set in. And when scientists in K-19: The Widowmaker worried that a nuclear reactor would explode, it spread a dangerous notion: damaged reactors don’t explode, they melt.

Most scientists are willing to advise not only because it allows them to be gatekeepers of their disciplines, but because they want to be portrayed accurately – on-screen. “It’s rare that you have a relatable character,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research associate at the Centre for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas. That’s why James Cameron created Avatar’s xenobotanist, Grace. “Scientists are usually shown as geeks or losers or evil,” he says. “I wanted to celebrate the mind and the passion of a scientist.”

Working in Hollywood can be an educational experience for novice advisers, as Carroll discovered during his first consulting gig, on Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons. In the film, Professor Robert Langdon tries to find antimatter stolen from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. It’s a fact that when antimatter and matter come into contact, they annihilate each other in a violent explosion. What, Howard wondered, would it look like if that explosion occurred in the sky?

Carroll suggested a series of rapid booms caused by air rushing into the vacuum created by the explosion. But then the 2007 Writers Guild strike derailed both the production and his consultations. “They were over budget and behind schedule, and we didn’t talk any more,” Carroll says. “That’s Hollywood. I was pleasantly surprised by the intellectual curiosity of those involved, but disillusioned that you can’t always do it right.” Angels & Demons eventually hit cinemas in 2009. (Carroll’s contribution, he says, looked “more or less” as he advised.)

Often filmmakers ignore a scientist’s advice. When palaeontologist Robert T Bakker worked on Jurassic Park, he found the dinosaur artists to be “better animal morphologists than most tenured professors”. But when he sent the film team diagrams of the T. rex’s banana-shaped crowns, “the powers that be didn’t like the real tooth shape”, he says. “The CGI rex and the robot had their fangs sharpened.”

Filmmakers defend their creative licence; their first responsibility, they say, is to entertain. For 2012, director Roland Emmerich wanted an impossible global flood. “There isn’t enough water on Earth for that,” he admits, “so you have to figure out something.” Emmerich asked a geologist to work from the 1950s theory of Earth-crust displacement. “He said, ‘This could never happen’. And we said, ‘Well, if it did happen, how would it work?’” Silver often talks to advisers, but even he says that “if (a story) doesn’t break a fundamental law of physics, then it doesn’t matter how far you stretch it”.

Ultimately, advisers understand they’re not creating award-winning research. “You have to accept that the goal is to tell a story first,” says Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Science & Entertainment Exchange director Marty Perreault agrees: “We’re not the science police.” They also realise that these films could get young viewers interested in science.

“I can write a book where I explain real physics and reach several thousand people,” Carroll says, “or I can help create Natalie Portman’s character in a movie that will reach 10 million people. And some will be young girls who see that Natalie Portman’s playing a scientist.”

Now that Carroll’s done with Thor, he’s moved on to Doctor Strange, about a surgeon who becomes Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Carroll’s job is to apply limits to Strange’s powers. “You need constraints to provide tension,” he says. A world where anything can happen makes for a very boring movie. It’s when science imposes boundaries on what a superhero can do that the real drama begins.

10 most accurate sci-fi movies
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Early in the film, a character takes a routine commercial flight to a space station aboard a shuttle sporting Pan Am’s logo. Swop SpaceX for Pan Am, and 2001 predicts the ambition of the private spaceflight industry. Even HAL 9000’s nuanced descent into lethal system error rings true. Expert opinion: “You can’t train AI (artificial intelligence) for every problem it might have to solve,” says roboticist and author Daniel H Wilson, referring to HAL’s response to learning that secrets are being kept from it. “Different levels of classified information are exactly the wrench that could turn a predictable learner into a murderer.”

Blade Runner (1982)
The heart of this neo-noir film – lab-grown replicants on the loose in Los Angeles – is no more or less plausible a premise today. But the backdrop against which they run, fight and die is a warning of urban and environmental blight. The skies over LA are blotted and pouring rain, the implied result of carbon excess and climate change. Real-life tech equivalent: the flying cars are sci-fi’s most realistic airworthy transporters. These “spinners” are vertical take-off and -landing craft – similar to UrbanAero’s AirMule drone prototype – that require headsets, contact with air traffic control, and a pilot’s licence to operate.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In this adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel, the Pentagon uses a satellite to capture an extraterrestrial virus in order to study its potential as a biological weapon. Instead, the virus runs amok, mutating rapidly and killing almost everyone it encounters.

The plot is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the November 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics, microbiologist Joshua Lederberg warned that “the return of such samples to Earth exposes us to a hazard of contamination by foreign organisms… (including) the introduction of a new disease that would imperil human life”.

Alien (1979)
The utopian layouts and handy faster-than-light engines of most sci-fi spacecraft are nowhere to be found in Alien’s spaceship. The Nostromo is a snarl of leaking hydraulic lines, cramped eating quarters and, for long hauls, hibernation pods. Expert opinion: astronaut Tom Jones says the blue-collar craft “showed a future where space has become part of the industrial fabric. It will be a commonplace working environment, sometimes boring, sometimes dangerous, like an offshore oil rig – not an exotic lab”.

Gattaca (1997)
In its opening sequence, Gattaca presents its society-warping concept: that rapid, ubiquitous genetic sequencing will reshape the world. Whole lives will be mapped out from birth, and a new classism will emerge, based on genetic predispositions. Real life hasn’t caught up to the film’s neo-fascism, but the capability is coming: the $10 million (about R80 million) Genomics X Prize competition hopes to yield the first system that can sequence entire genomes for $1 000 or less.

The Terminator (1984)
This pulpy vision of AI’s most unsettling endgame – that robots could rebel against humanity, a concept still called the “terminator scenario” in academic circles – was surprisingly restrained. The Skynet defence network isn’t malicious and power-hungry; merely a complex program that has run off the rails.

Deep Impact (1998)
Although Nasa has updated its thinking on foreign-object  deflection – a 2007 research paper proposed flying a craft  alongside planet-killers, tugging them off-course with gravity – the movie was true to the technology of detection and  interception at the time. Expert opinion: “It’s almost a lesson,” Jones says. “To find a movie that was accurate to asteroid physics was a nice surprise.”

Jurassic Park (1993)
The premise of this Crichton adaptation – wherein dinosaurs are cloned using blood extracted from preserved mosquitoes – was faithful to early 1990s speculative genetics theories. But what captured imaginations were the creatures themselves, which exhibited behaviours that were news to mainstream audiences. These weren’t lumbering reptiles; the T. rex hit near-highway speeds, with the menace of a massive avian.

Contact (1997)
Much of Contact’s authenticity goes back to astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who wrote the original novel. He understood how radio telescope arrays work and why scientists would use maths to translate an alien language. Expert opinion: even the climax – Jodie Foster’s wormhole ride to a distant planet – showcases enough quantum theory, Jones says, to be surprisingly credible, “with what’s known about physics, and what might be possible one day”.

Minority Report (2002)
The premise – psychics who predict crimes – is ridiculous. The film’s gadgets are not: self-driving cars are increasingly plausible, and the iris-scanning, targeted advertising will be in stores soon. Real-life tech equivalent: the holographic operating system. Researchers specialising in human-computer interaction still show clips of Tom Cruise swiping at mid-air applications to illustrate their goals. Microsoft’s HoloDesk comes close – the research demo maps hand movements to projected images, letting users grasp virtual objects.

10 least accurate sci-fi films
These blockbusters distort research breakthroughs and transform fact-based warnings into fairy tales. – ES

The Black Hole (1979)
When the protagonists’ escape pod flies into one of the Universe’s most destructive phenomena, it isn’t ripped apart, atom by shrieking atom. Instead, passengers have psychedelic visions and emerge safe and sound.

Armageddon (1998)
Nasa sends wildcatters to land on an earth-killing asteroid and blow it in half with a nuke – never mind that even a rock the size of Texas doesn’t have the gravity to keep the rovers on its surface. Ridiculous detail: the rovers are equipped with mounted machine guns, which one character uses to open   re on everything in sight.

The Matrix (1999)
Neo wakes to find that the machines are using humans’ body heat for power – but in reality, burning the calories pumped into people would yield more energy.

Vanilla Sky (2001)
The protagonist has been in a 150-year cryonic slumber while his neurons navigate a virtual world. But he went under in 2001, when real-life cryonics involved being decapitated and dunked in a vat of liquid nitrogen.

The Core (2003)
A team drills to the centre of the earth in a vessel made of unobtanium to restart the core. Ridiculous detail: the vessel is punctured by a diamond and gets dangerously hot. In reality, it would instantly fill with magma, unobtanium be damned.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
The plausible theory that changing temperatures could disrupt ocean currents, triggering an ice age, is rendered absurd when physics-defying waves of cold air descend from the stratosphere to freeze people solid.

I Am Legend (2007)
A plague transforms humans into vampires; an immune virologist uses his blood to make a vaccine. But in real life, he’d have to be infected to create the antibodies for a cure.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008 )
Stuck in the blast radius of a nuclear test, Indy hides in a lead-lined fridge. He survives, and decades of high-energy physics research – which show that the lead would melt – are vaporised.

2012 (2009 )
The Sun lets loose a barrage of mutated neutrinos, which superheat the Earth’s core and set off a seismic apocalypse. Ridiculous detail: glacial melting triggers a global flood. But there isn’t enough water on Earth to fuel such a biblical disaster.

Angels & Demons (2009 )
A gram of stolen antimatter is smuggled into Vatican City. The idea that highly unstable antimatter could be transported with ease is pure scientific blasphemy.