Science Fiction without Science


By Jacob Foxx

Nothing enrages nerds more than bad science in movies. In particular, films that market themselves as science fiction. The most recent culprit is Lucy. Ross Pomeroy points out the flaw in the entire premise of the film on RealClearScience. With a false premise, everything that follows in the movie is complete fantasy.

Lucy is about a young woman forced to be a drug mule for the Taiwanese mob. The container holding the illegal drug breaks in her stomach, unleashing a powerful chemical into her system. The drug greatly expands her brain use past the 10 percent of a normal brain. She gains X-Men like powers such as great strength, telekinesis, rapid learning abilities, and the ability to change hair color at will!

The movie is built on the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain. This is a myth that has been perpetuated for decades without a bit of truth to it. Neurologists are pretty confident we use the whole damn thing.

Should people not see it because the premise is bunk? Well…it does have Scarlett Johansson. For some her charm was enough, but for most the movie was a dud. According to Rotten Tomatoes, less than half of audiences enjoyed the movie.

Do science fiction movies need good science to be successful? Nope. Despite Lucy‘s ridiculous premise it has grossed over $80 million, surpassing its $40 million production cost. There are many other costs involved with a film including advertising, marketing, post-production etc. Still, I’d guess at the very least, it will break even.

Other bad-science movies have managed to succeed as well. The Transformers franchise has earned truckloads of money despite having almost zero legitimate science in it. Three of the movies have grossed over $1 billion worldwide. US audiences soured on the last one, making it the least successful of the four, but it still managed to earn $700 million+ outside the US.

Since Transformers is based on an old cartoon and line of toys, perhaps it is unfair to expect real science in it. The audience probably doesn’t expect it either.

The same can be said for the parade of superhero movies that have made tons of money over the years. They are based on comic books after all. In many cases the creators wanted to modernize fantasy while avoiding the use of magic. Hence the X-Men gain sorcerer-like powers through mutation, not magic. The Avengers receive their powers largely from scientific experimentation and enhancement, all of it bunk.

Outside of superhero movies, Michael Bay gets the award for making non-science sci fi movies. Armageddon has won several online awards for having the most technical inaccuracies. In fact NASA scientists challenge new employees to identify every single scientific inaccuracy in the film as part of their initiation into the agency.

Roland Emmerich deserves second place in the “bastardizing science for cash” category. His stunners are 2012 and Day After Tomorrow. The movie 2012 is more or less a parody of the Mayan Prophecy using a bizarre geological event that rips the tectonic plates of the Earth apart. The Day After Tomorrow (horrible title aside) attempts to frighten its audience about global warming, despite the fact that no warming effect could come close to producing super-mega storms.

Was it for a good cause? No. I prefer truth over scare tactics. We are not children.

Neither film received much in the way of positive reviews from critics or audiences, yet both earned over $500 million in ticket sales. The bulk coming from foreign audiences. I guess the lesson here is foreign audiences are not as demanding when it comes to scientific realism.

Three other movies deserve attention for their ruthless slaughtering of science: The Core, The Sixth Day, and Reign of Fire.

The Core was a total disaster critically and financially. The premise involves the Earth’s core and its sudden decision to stop rotating. This then leads to a collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field and…whatever.

The Sixth Day had labs able to clone humans in mere hours as well as downloading all memories from a person by scanning their eyes. It was a flop as well.

Reign of Fire imagined a world where live dragons are sleeping underground for centuries then rise to consume the world with fire. These impossible creatures eat ash. How enormous predators could survive on ash is a total mystery.

However, these films didn’t flop because of bad science. They were just bad films, boring even the most easily amused moviegoer.

Obviously Hollywood isn’t concerned with being true to science. It is about ticket sales. I believe audiences know deep down that these movies are fantasy masquerading as science. Movies that use regular magic as their foundation tend to struggle. Modern audiences want something both modern and fantastic. You could call it modern magic, technological magic, new age magic, or just modern mythology. Whatever you call, it’s a thing now.

In addition to science taking a back seat in the sci-fi genre, the fantasy genre has enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade. Classic fantasy creatures and stories are being inserted into a modern setting. Whether it is vampires, werewolves, witchcraft, or wizards people want to see them walking around today’s world.

There is nothing wrong with modern fantasy. The audience knows that what they see is not real. It is when the fantastic things on the screen pretend to be real that it becomes problematic. Specifically, when the audience buys some of the fake science, I think Hollywood is doing a serious disservice to humanity. If its fantasy, just say its fantasy. It is bad enough over half of Americans still think we use only 10 percent of our brain!