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. With that in mind, we decided to examine some other sci-fi movie premises debunked by actual science and compiled the following list.
Luc Besson once again turned in a slick piece of genre filmmaking last year with Lucy, which starred Scarlett Johansson in her ass-kicking best as an unwilling drug mule who gets exposed to a lethal amount of a drug called CPH4. This drug allows its taker to unlock their full brain capacity (beyond the “10 percent” we Average Joes use), and over the course of the film, Lucy develops powers such as telekinesis and the ability to not feel pain. Though the movie did have some entertaining performances and tried to tackle heady concepts about humanity, it proved to be polarizing with much criticism thrown at its plot.
Like Limitless before them, the Lucy filmmakers decided to run with the “10 percent of our brain” theory, even though it has been disproven time and time again by numerous people (including the Mythbusters gang). Neurologists have shown that a human’s brain is always active and “virtually” every part of it is used throughout the day. Suspending disbelief is all fine and good, but it’s harder to do when the concepts aren’t fantasy and instead an act of neglect by the screenwriter.
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.
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. But please, 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 :-)