One of film’s most popular genres, science fiction, has given us such memorable things as the lightsaber, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and dream machines. Between time-traveling Deloreans and creatures from other worlds, a viewer is required to employ some suspension of disbelief if he or she is to become fully engrossed in a new universe. As long as the filmmakers effectively establish a clear set of ground rules and follow them from beginning to end, we’ll accept just about any fantastical premise they can envision.
While a movie such as Star Wars or Inception will base their story around fantasy concepts, there are some sci-fi offerings that try to ground their ideas in factual science in an effort to make the proceedings more plausible. This is all fine and good -until actual scientists come around and show audiences that what they just saw was actually junk science.
Case in point: this week’s Lucy. Starring Scarlett Johansson as an unwilling drug mule, Luc Besson’s latest examines what would happen if a human being had access to 100% of their brain’s power, as opposed to the usual 10% us average Joes exhibit. Unfortunately, the “10% theory” has been dispelled as a myth. Neurologists (and even the gang at Mythbusters) have illustrated that our brains are always active and we use “virtually” every part of it. Despite this, filmmakers continue to use this as a plot device (see also : Limitless).
With that in mind, we decided to examine some other sci-fi movie premises debunked by actual science and compiled the following list. For the record, we are not saying that these scientific errors diminish our enjoyment of the final product (we are fans of some of the films presented here). We’re just saying that even sci-fi movies that take place on Earth and try to use hard data require some suspension of disbelief as well.
Planet of the Apes
Ranking as one of the most iconic franchises in the genre, Planet of the Apes has been a favorite of fans since it was released in 1968. With the brand becoming relevant with a new generation – thanks to the success of the new films starring Andy Serkis – greater numbers of moviegoers have been exposed to the series’ smart blend of social commentary and action spectacle. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes attempted to base the core concept in some kind of reality, but even that one fell to the same inaccuracy of the originals.
Due to a slight variation of the FOXP2 gene (the proteins are different in only two locations), apes do not posses the capacity to communicate via speech. They also lack the ability to freely move organs in the vocal tract, including particular cords to form words. So even if an army of hyper-intelligent primates started living in the Red Woods, we would have to find a different way to negotiate a peace treaty.
By bringing dinosaurs back to life on the big screen, Steven Spielberg captured the imagination of an entire generation of moviegoers with Jurassic Park. Breaking box office records and earning rave reviews, the film became a technological standout due to its combining of practical and digital effects, making the prehistoric beings as photorealistic as possible. While the visuals hold up remarkably well (even better than some modern CGI), there’s one aspect that takes the idea of a dinosaur theme park out of the realm of possibility.
Dr. John Hammond and his team famously used blood from fossilized mosquitoes to acquire the DNA needed to clone the t-rex and raptors that populated their attraction. While the process of extracting the samples is slightly plausible (considering a number of factors), the actual process of cloning would not work for dinosaurs. The most frequently used technique is nuclear transfer, in which a nucleus of one cell is placed into a second cell of the same species after the second cell’s nucleus is destroyed. Unless life can find a way, there are currently no dinosaur cells available to complete the task.
I Am Legend
It may have been plagued by an awful ending, but the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend is still a somewhat intriguing bit of sci-fi, and an interesting portrait of a man completely dedicated to his goals. Because of his immunity to the virus that wiped out humanity, Dr. Robert Neville (Smith), spends the film’s run time trying to develop a vaccine that can work as a cure and bring people back. However, there’s one element that Neville overlooked.
Since his blood does not contain the virus, it would be useless in creating any kind of medication. Vaccines work because they contain traces of the virus they are designed for. Infecting a patient with a weakened form of the disease, it allows the body to identify it as a foreign substance, remember it, and develop antibodies for when strands appear again. Neville’s blood wouldn’t make any difference because he would have to be infected to use it for any cure.
Alfonso Cuarón delivered one of the most breathtaking theatrical experiences last year in his Oscar-winning space thriller, Gravity. One element that received much praise was the film’s realistic “zero g” effects, giving audiences one of the most accurate depictions of outer space put to film. The survival story may have been engrossing and the visual effects work astonishing, but a number of people in the scientific community have pointed out some inherent flaws with the movie’s portrayal of space. Even though the catastrophic satellite destruction could happen, other aspects weren’t handled as smoothly.
Famed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to point out some errors. Chief among them was that in real life, satellites orbit the planet west to east, but the film showed the debris orbiting from east to west. Astronauts who have worked on the Hubble telescope (which was featured in the Gravity’s opening sequence), have said that the distance between it and the Chinese space station Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) travel to for refuge would be too great for even space shuttles to travel safely. While these minor infractions weren’t enough to completely spoil the film for some, space enthusiasts had reason to be a little irked.
Its trailer may have marketed it as a romantic drama with a love triangle of Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz, but there’s a lot more going on in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. The Jerry Maguire director throws audiences for a wild twist when it is revealed that David Aames (Cruise) has been in cryonic suppression for the past 150 years after dying of a drug overdose, living in a lucid dream based on the memories of his bachelor lifestyle. It is true that patients may opt for cryopreservation in hope that one day they will be cured, but Crowe overlooked one crucial element that could have changed his film completely.
According to the film, Aames underwent the procedure in 2001. That date is important because back then, real-life cryonics involved decapitating the subject and submerging him or her in a tub of liquid nitrogen. When someone like James Cameron uses the basic idea of cryosleep for Aliens or Avatar it’s okay because it takes place in a fictional world. But when set in our world, it becomes somewhat harder to accept. If Crowe followed the book, Aames would have had a much different fate.
Anyone familiar with the filmography of one Michael Bay knows that “grounded in reality” is not necessarily a term that applies to his directing style. Specializing in bombastic, over-the-top action, Bay treats viewers to elaborate special effects sequences that look amazing on the big screen, physics be damned. One of his most famous set pieces takes place in the film Armageddon, where a team of astronauts led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) looks to save the Earth from an impending asteroid by drilling a hole in it and dropping an atom bomb in its core.
Science has proven that if this were to take place as shown in the movie, the mission would have to start in the outskirts of the Kuiper Belt outside of Neptune in order to have any chance to succeed. This is because the bomb the group uses has insufficient power to split the asteroid into two sections. Based on the information presented in the film – such as the size of the asteroid, speed of trajectory, and location – the hydrogen bomb would have to be a billion times more powerful than “Big Ivan,” the Soviet Union’s gift to the world that is the largest ever detonated on Earth. The Bayhem might be fun as it unfolds, but that’s a glaring mishap that should be impossible to miss.
As works of entertainment, sci-fi films have and will continue to take artistic liberties in order to provide viewers with a more thrilling and appealing final product. Even when such a film takes place on our world and tries to ground itself in actual science, the real thing isn’t always going to lead to the best movie (from a viewer’s perspective). We would like for all our films to obey the laws of physics and science to make everything more believable – but as we’ve just shown, bending the rules is a route many take (even Best Director winners).
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to drop us a line in the comments section and let us know which scientific inaccuracies in movies get under your skin. Again, keep in mind that slight errors of the truth do not mean the film is “bad” – it just forces us to suspend our disbelief. And we have no issue doing that when Jedi Knights or superheroes are onscreen
Lucy is now playing in theaters. Be sure to read our official review of the film.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.