Physics report-card for science fiction movies

IO9's produced a science fiction film physics report-card that evaluates the accuracy of the physics in a large number of top-grossing sf films. Basically? They all stink. Link


  1. Hmmm. The two “all planets…” marks against Solaris (1972) are dead wrong. I give this chart a C-.

  2. Whoever made this table should have read Solaris and understood its premise before jumping to those conclusions; anyone familiar with the book would know that the second and third point simply do not apply in this case.

    Although I’m sure that many people think many absurd things about the laws of physics because of sci fi movies, IO9 should have done the gosh darn research first!!!!!!! And the fact that he was incorrect on at least two points makes the rest of his rankings highly suspect, not in the physics, but in the interpretation of what’s actually happening on screen.

  3. “Dodging faster-than-light weapons (e.g. lasers)”

    Now that’s bull. Nothing moves faster than light, especially not laser beams, since they consist of nothing but light.

  4. Planets with a single undifferentiated climate annoyed me since I was a kid. the slow motion zero gravity bit reminds me of my favourite joke to play in the science museum. Find an empty room, make exaggerated slow movements while shouting “wow, this must be the zero gravity exhibit!” Never works tho. Maybe if I gelled my hair…

  5. The two marks against 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Weird depiction of exposure to vacuum” and “People move in slow motion in zero gravity”) are also wrong.

    Dave, when exposed to vacuum without a helmet, did *not* explode or shatter. And to suggest that he should have been killed instantly is flat-out wrong.

    Nor did I see anyone moving in slow motion in zero gravity other than the flight attendant aboard the Pan Am spaceliner whose Velcro(R) soled shoes would certainly slow down anyone’s steps.

    I also give this chart a C.

  6. Planets with a single climate seem less silly than planets where the entire population wears the same ensemble.

  7. The table is incorrect (agree with #2), but it is also misleading (agree with #3 and also the easy communication with aliens in Contact is not a problem). A problem is, for example, unexplained gravity on spaceships like Galactica.

  8. I think they confused movies and tv shows, at least for Stargate. The original movie is pretty good SF (if you accept the wormhole and Ra’s largely unexplained physiology)… but it took place on a single planet (which, having been picked to be a save / host breeding ground of course has gravity similar to Earth’s!), and the “aliens” were simply humans. Who spoke ancient Egyptian. Which was only understood by a specialist, and even then only after some difficulty.

    Major silliness on their part.

  9. antinous, the clothing can be explained by everything looking the same to foreigners; cf early works of terrestrial travelogue. and besides, that isn’t a problem in my youthful obsession, star wars.

  10. I watched Event Horizon the other day and the results of exposure to a vacuum in that movie are… interesting, to say the least.

  11. I wouldn’t be as generous as other people. If you’re going to give out grades, you ought to know what the correct answers are. I’d give this list an ‘F’.

    The experiment of exposing humans to vacuum has been performed on occasion, and the answer “where the ship’s crew is exposed to vacuum should kill everyone instantly” is clearly wrong.

    This link has a nice summary of the effects of exposure to vacuum:
    Including this wonderful tidbit:
    “the person later said that his last memory was of the saliva on his tongue starting to boil.”

  12. David Bowman wasn’t even exposed to raw vacuum anyway. The rapidly expanding air in his pod blew him into the hatch and some of the air probably came with him.

    Isn’t the entire planet in Solaris suppose to be sentient? It manipulates matter in response to the scientist’s subconscious desires.

    Dr. Tyrell’s explanation to Roy about replicant biology and the problem of life expectancy is pure bullshit. I saw it with a friend of mine (a Mayo Clinic PhD/MD researcher in immunology) who declared Tyrell’s speech to Roy gibberish.

    Films do have a right to stylistic choices. The 2001 sequence with the flight attendant in zero gravity is one of the great scenes in film history. So let’s cut Kubrick some slack.

  13. actually, in star wars ep three, general grievous blows a hole in the ship Obi Won and Anakin are on and it basically is portrayed the same as on an airplane. i don’t know if thats right or not.

  14. but aliens speaking English or able to mouth the same words humans can mouth is probably wrong. a very long and specific evolutionary process went into the making of the human vocal track that would surely be impossible to have occurred in any other set of circumstances.

  15. Stargate had interbreeding with aliens? Where was that in the movie? Or in the TV series for that matter? The only alien in the movie was Ra and he didn’t breed with anyone. He took over the body of his host, but that’s not breeding. The only people that slept together in the movie were Daniel Jackson and Sha’re. Daniel was a human from Earth and Sha’re was a human descended from humans from Earth.

  16. How exactly are “easy communications with aliens” and “easy interbreeding between humans and aliens” physics?

    Also, “all planets have the same gravity” and “all planets have the same climate worldwide” marks against Serenity make no sense. My impression was the film takes place in a solar system with many gas-giants that have terraformed moons with approximately Earth gravity because otherwise humans wouldn’t have colonized them. Furthermore, we never see enough of any one planet to know whether or not they have the same climate world-wide or not.

    The note at the bottom pointing out that “not all planets have the same gravity” is simply dumb. Of course they don’t. Not all of Earth’s surface is covered by city, either, yet that is where the bulk of the population lives so you do see a lot more city-scapes in film than you’d predict from an unbiased prior.

    The exposure-to-vacuum scene in 2001 is moderately famous for being as realistic as possible based on the science of the time: Bowman didn’t explode or freeze solid.

    Finally, why do people pick on SF for being unrealistic? Have they never watched a romantic comedy?

  17. as a relative BB noob, I’m happy to see people apply the same scrutiny to these topics as to the political ones.

    I think the point is, the science aspect of scifi is sometimes neglected for the fantasy aspect. what i love about scifi is its ability to represent psychological drama because it takes place in a universe of where anything is possible. But we all know anything isn’t actually possible.

    i watched the film version of doom the other day [starring the Rock] and was appalled by the genetics employed to explain the monsters. It would have taken the writer 30 seconds with an internet connection to come up with a more plausible explanation, but he pulled something out of his arse instead. he had monsters infecting people with chromosomes for f sake.

    Tom: good point on the romantic comedy. Ive tried acting intentionally clumsy before; never works, noone thinks its cute.

  18. Re: 2001’s demerit for slo-mo in zero-g — We’re used to working in a gravitational field. Even simple operations in zero-g must be done carefully and deliberately. Note that Frank Poole’s death spasms are at regular speed, as is Dave Bowman’s ejection from the space pod into Discovery’s airlock.

  19. Um, easy or hard, interbreeding with aliens is biology, not physics.

    And the Alien aliens weren’t interbreeding, they were parasitoids and they happened to throw a little lateral gene transfer into the mix, scooping up some interesting characters from their various hosts.

  20. Tom@21 — the series stated at one point that they added gravity to moons. Given what we see of the ship… the only way that universe can work is if it has dirt-cheap energy, and dirt-cheap gravity control. (Dirt-cheap gravity control may result in dirt-cheap energy, of course; and if you can manipulate gravity, and have dirt-cheap energy, then that could follow.)

    Given that the show (series and movie) dealt with physics in space better than almost everyone else, in almost every other aspect… I’m willing to give them that one thing. It was obviously a scientific breakthrough just before everyone left Earth. :)

  21. I suppose next they are going to tell us the greeks didn’t all have great abs like in “300”

  22. Not only is the table incorrect (as many others have pointed out), but irrelevant. Why should these movies, excepting “Apollo 13″ and The Right Stuff” be accurate? The themes of these movies range from existential questions (Space Odyssey, Solaris) to variants of classic greek drama (Star Wars). If you want to complain about “science” in science fiction, go complain about something that is supposed to be based on science rather than space opera.

  23. I think a good catagory to add would be the artificial gravity on almost every spaceship in sci-fi. That is even less plausible than FTL travel.

  24. There was sound in space in “Apollo 13”; as fond as I am of this movie, there was sound in space. Also, the scene during the last delta-v burn was totally overblown.
    And yet they give “2001” two demerits? Who are these guys?

  25. I just wanted to point out that Mir’s Spektr module suffered a hull breach, and didn’t kill anyone, though they had to abandon the module. Sozuz 11 had a valve failure that resulted in decompression, but it didn’t kill everyone instantly. Too quickly for them to find and fix the problem, unfortunately.

    Explosions work just fine in space, no need for an oxidizer for a high explosive. No fireball maybe, but then most explosions on Earth don’t involve the kind of fireball shown in the movies.

    Nukes in space (away from the atmosphere) are interesting. In an atmosphere the bulk of their energy is transfered to the air in a very short distance – those x-rays don’t go far. In space you don’t get the same blast damage, but you get direct radiation and nasty charged particles at a greater distance.

  26. Sean (25): And they refer to “gravity drive” which, again, implies control over gravity and massive amounts of energy available. io9’s chart is teh sux.

  27. Sure, Noen. There’s sound on Earth, right? And the planet Earth is in space, right? Therefore, sound in space.

    Now, certainly sound doesn’t propagate through a vacuum, and movies that show it doing so are being scientifically inaccurate. But that’s not the same as saying “there’s no sound in space”.

    You’re probably familiar with situations where you get shown an establishing shot and hear dialog over the shot which you wouldn’t normally be able to hear from the position you’re looking from.

    Like, say, there’s a shot of the exterior of the White House shot from Pennsylvania Avenue, and you hear someone saying “Mister President, we’ve got a situation!” You wouldn’t be able to hear someone speaking inside the building from the spot where the camera is, but you readily accept, as a common movie and TV convention, that the place where your eyes seem to be is not always the same location as the place where your ears seem to be.

    Another example would be seeing the starship Enterprise go by, and hearing Captain Kirk recording the log. Even though the vacuum of space separates Kirk from the supposed camera position, we still hear him speaking, and nobody complains.

    Why, then, shouldn’t the audience be given audio cues of engine noise as a spaceship goes by? Why shouldn’t we hear the phaser banks firing as if our ears were inside the ship, even though our eyes are outside it?

  28. For a proper examination of physics in movies, you all need to visit’s Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics page. Now that’s the way to analyze movies.

    I use it all the time with my physics classes. Now all my students are a real pain to watch movies with…

  29. Wow, that is a terrible piece of work. As pointed out, some of those criteria aren’t anything to do with physics (breeding / communication). Some categories even contradict each other (dodging faster-than-light weaponry / faster-than-light travel. Are they inferring that weapons but not travel can be faster than light. How are any of the weapons in those movies *faster* than light anyhow)?

    Then, you get onto the movies themselves, which are far better than they’re suggesting. Take communication with alien races for example. In The Last Starfighter, this was achieved with a special babelfish-like communicator, which isn’t exactly implausible for a civilization capable of having starfighters. For Contact? Are you kidding – “easy communication”? The entire movie was about the struggle to intercept and decode the message and a discussion about the implications of doing so, after while it’s revealed that the aliens have been watching for centuries for the chance to communicate – hardly “easy”.

    “All planets have Earth-like gravity” for Stargate? Are they talking about the TV series or movie? Because in the movie, it was made explicitly clear that the planet was chosen for its similarities to Earth.

    Then the dumbest one of all – did they even watch these movies? – the Alien movies. “Interbreeding between humans and aliens”? No. The aliens were parasites who invaded suitable hosts (mainly humans but also dogs/oxen and other alien species). Not the same things at all. “All planets have Earth gravity”? No. It’s never made particularly clear what the gravity is like on the planet in the first movie, though I do recall a throwaway line that notes its similarity. After that, the second movie is on the same planet with terraformed conditions (i.e. deliberately made similar to Earth), the 3rd on a prison planet chosen for harsh but Earth-like conditions and the 4th on a space station… So one planet with previously unknown conditions in a movie where humans can traverse the galaxy – not far-fetched.

  30. You know, it’s wierd, but science stuff like this, I could care less about in a movie. Suspension of disbelief covers that.

    What drives me up the wall is stuff like ID4 when some random guy with a bit of electronics knowledge manages to hook his Mac up to an alien spaceship in a few hours.

  31. Kubrick was a pimp who researched his nuts off for every movie he made. They totally blew it on 2001.

  32. Humans always pick Earth like planet to live, work and play on? Gee I wonder why that is?

  33. Interestingly, the 2001 “weird depiction of exposure to vacuum” was based on best available science at the time, in the mid-1960s. I remember a number of interviews and articles about this. I never read any of the papers involved, I was back in junior high school back then, but a number of NASA scientists did believe that brief exposures to vacuum were survivable and the 2001 episode was based on this.

  34. how about an article on best depictions in science fiction film that turned out to match reality later?

  35. @AVRAM

    I was about to post exactly the same thing. Sound in space doesn’t bother me at all, provided the sound can exist at the source.

    Another common example of this technique is when a film is showing a crowd scene at a sporting event. There can be hundreds of people in view, all making a lot of noise. But you can hear two people conversing with each other perfectly, even though from the camera’s ‘position’ you couldn’t possibly hear them.

    It’s not a science error; it’s a technique.

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