There aren’t too many science fiction movies that bother to get the science right. TIE Fighters wouldn’t make cool screaming noises as they swoop past because, as we know, in space no-one can hear you scream. The away team wouldn’t be able to ‘beam down’ to the previously-undiscovered planet, because there would be no receiver down there.
We looked in this article, at a few films that play fast and loose with the laws of physics.
Some films do try harder, though! They actually put the science back in ‘science fiction’. Let’s look at a few that succeeded.
We’ll begin with the works of Doctor Michael Crichton. Yes, the guy who brought us Westworld and Jurassic Park and, believe it or not, the TV show ER … Was a Doctor of Medicine. Therefore, you would expect him to have the ability to get the science right!
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) & JURASSIC PARK (1993)
His first film The Andromeda Strain, deals with the discovery of a new biological organism that arrives on earth on a crashed satellite. This is an old idea, going back at least as far as Quatermass in the 1950s, and was revisited as recently as 2017 in the film, Life. Crichton’s interest, in his version, is on the scientific process, as his team of specialists use the state-of-the-70s-art technology to figure out what the little alien beastie is and what they can do about it. It’s chilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
At the other end of his career, Crichton dabbled in genetics. In Jurassic Park, he accurately predicted that we’d be mapping genomes and editing genes and that we could use that technology to ‘de-extinct’ lost animal species. That’s all perfectly credible. In Harvard, they’re working on engineering a ‘revived’ woolly mammoth. At the time the film was released, some commentators said there was an issue about extracting viable DNA from amber, they said it was unlikely to be a good medium for preserving DNA. Well, Forbes reports that other scientists have now successfully done it. We’re still a long way from dinosaurs, mind.
By-and-large, these are both text-book examples of getting the science (just about) right.
Another film which uses genetics to kick-start a new biotechnology, is Blade Runner. In this world, pollution has killed off most of the world’s animals, but bioengineering has created cheaper ‘replicant’ versions. Wars are now fought by replicant soldiers, who are grown for that very purpose. The notion that machines can be grown organically, rather than assembled mechanically, was a revolutionary one, almost 40 years ago, when the film was new. No, it didn’t go into the specifics of how this miracle was achieved. And technobabble lines like “any cells that have undergone reversion mutation give rise to revertant colonies” don’t actually mean much – but they sound convincing to the casual listener.
Nowadays, in the real world, we are 3D-printing organs and limbs from stem cells. It isn’t a huge leap to think that we might be printing complex organisms one day. Like flying cars, it won’t happen any time soon, but it might well happen.
THE MARTIAN (2015)
Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner and, 27 years later, he also helmed The Martian. The novel this film was adapted from was originally written, as a hobby, by a computer programmer called Andy Weir. He was determined that he wouldn’t skimp on any of the science involved in getting to Mars and living there. As he told The Wall Street Journal: “Every time you see Mark talking about anything scientific, I had to do all the math.”
To this end, he wrote software to calculate accurate fuel usage and flight paths for his spaceships. He used Google Mars to work out the precise journey his astronaut would take as well as figuring-out how many calories Watney would need for his journey and, therefore, how many potatoes he would need to grow.
Pretty-much all of this makes its way into the film version. Wow.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
The granddaddy of all scientifically-accurate SF movies is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prior to this film, most depictions of spaceflight benefitted from the magic of ‘artificial gravity’ or had astronauts wearing diving suits instead of functional space suits. That’s if the air on the new planet wasn’t conveniently breathable.
Kubrick hired the best science fiction writer he could find, Arthur C. Clarke. As a scientist, inventor and chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke literally wrote the book on spaceflight, back in the 50s. He and Kubrick worked tirelessly to ensure that the film wasn’t a fantasy, but rather a scrupulously accurate depiction of space flight.
Clarke informed Kubrick that, for example, if they wanted gravity on the spaceship, it would have to be rotating. So, they built a full-size rotating spaceship set. The lengths they went to to create a believable depiction of spaceflight remain unmatched in cinema history … At least until Tom Cruise gets to make his film actually in space, which he is reputed to be doing next year!
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