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When science goes bad: how impossible is too impossible?

Summer is the perfect time for a trip to the cinema to see a science fiction blockbuster (especially as British weather seems so likely to disappoint this time of year.) Top of my list this season has been the superb Spielberg-esque Super 8 followed by the rebooted Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

While the latter film isn’t without its faults, one of its successes is in coming up with a plausible enough scientific premise to persuade the audience to suspend their disbelief. In this case it was the creation of a brain-stimulating virus to explain how apes might evolve to overthrow humans as masters of the planet.

Whether or not this is actually scientifically possible doesn’t matter. The main idea behind any science fiction just has to be believable within the parameters of the world in which it is set. Indeed, the director of the new Planet of the Apes movie, Rupert Wyatt, has said he found the explanation of the original 1960s films – that the apes evolved naturally after being domesticated by humans – unsatisfying.

Some people might find it odd to talk about science fiction needing plausible explanations. The clue is there in the name – science fiction. And there are probably plenty of people who dislike the entire genre because it inevitably includes unrealistic elements.

But really it’s an issue that extends to all fiction. As George Bernard Shaw supposedly put it, you are allowed one big lie and everything else must be logical. Perhaps you can even get away with a few lies, but ask too much of the audience and it all becomes too distracting to accept even the best storyline. In science fiction this can be very difficult to pitch correctly. How many impossible things can you get away with before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll put it?

Anything that suggests we’ll develop faster-than-light-speed travel in the next few years is immediately suspect. People who survive in space by holding their breath isn’t great either. Time travel stories where characters can both change the future and paradoxicallly become the cause of things that have already happened to them can quickly become too confusing to follow.

There are more specific problems, too. Take Spider-Man 2, a largely solid film predicated on the hero gaining his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. We know this wouldn’t really happen but it’s not too much for us to buy into.

Then comes the scene where one scientist is attempting to generate power from nuclear fusion. His solution? Create a set of robotic arms, acting on nerve impulses from his own spinal cord, that allow him to do several things at once in order to make the experiment work. Apparently that’s the element we’ve been missing to make fusion work. OK, perhaps this one is more likely to annoy someone from the engineering community than the average viewer.

But there are things that almost no one will believe. Maybe the best (or worst?) example of recent years was the Indiana Jones & Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which not only combined the supernatural themes of the original films with a new alien plotline but also featured Indy surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge that was then blasted 100 miles through the desert, leaving him relatively unscathed. It’s so outrageously ridiculous that ‘nuking the fridge’ has become a term for any plotline so incredible that it lessens the enjoyment of a story. This lack of care on the part of the filmmakers to attend to basic scientific realities played a big part in why that film was so widely disregarded.

On the other hand, there are times when you just need to relax and let the unbelievable play out, ignoring the sound of spaceships in a vacuum, the time paradoxes and the interspecies breeding. Otherwise you miss out.

Half way through Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I found myself thinking: ‘Real medical testing would never proceed like this. No credible journal would ever publish this so-called research.’ Then I realised it might be better to turn off my reality sensor and just enjoy the film.

Readers' comments (11)

  • ...forget the dodgy science, for me the least credible part of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the bizarre notion that the relationship between the central scientist character and his girlfriend had not developed one iota over the five years that it takes the chimp to grow up. They're still behaving like they only met a week ago.

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  • I think it is important to differentiate between science fact, science fiction and science fantasy, when viewing any of these films.

    I am pretty sure a lot of them are done tongue in cheek, and it is only the U.S. that needs it blatantly spelling out to them, as in Spaceballs and other such films :D

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  • There are just some things that really jar, for me the worst is in Independence Day, it's ok, right up to the point where when they decide they can create a virus for the alien computer, and then manage to connect a laptop to the alien system & upload it without any problems ! That was just a step too far. I cringe every time I see that scene...

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  • I agree with Mr. Harris, sometimes we really do have to abandon what we know, to enjoy what we wish. Yes, the lack of credible scientific principle is a terrible distraction, but think how badly recieved some of the films of the past have been that actually came to reality as science and engineering progressed. Remember "any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic"? I think it was Arthur C. Clarke, a remarkable scientist.

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  • I think it depends on how outrageous the movie gets.

    Some get decent cult followings. I like Buckaroo and the battle for the Nth dimension because it is outrageous and tongue in cheek. Remember the line "laugh while you can monkey boy" and the butterfly net falling in the back ground.

    How about flesh Gordon or flash Gordon for that matter. The line there was "it is now mean old Ming time".

    The story line is critical to the approach in both scenario's.

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  • The whole relativity scheme has left me rather adrift... I mean there two sides of that thought experiment that Einstein proposed, The person of the planet, views the astronaut slowing down, but the astronaut views the planet bound observer slowing too. And if the astronaut were to turn around at some distant point, and come back, the view of that planet bound observer would appear to be accelerating from that launch point in time, forward to that time of the astronaut's return. However, the planet bound observer would not see the astronaut returning until he suddenly appeared. I think we will discover that the speed limit of light will be much like that of sound: The only limit is in the medium in which light is traveling.

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  • I would like to quote paragraph 5 where you paraphrase George Bernard Shaw and Lewis Carrol to add to discussion at my English composition class at DeVry online university. It seems in writing research, but especially in fiction the collaboration of a few good quotes does a lot to bring the reader to our side.
    Unrelated, do you really think you can get away with "dissin" Dr. Who? ;-)

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  • Rest assured that none of us at Engineer Towers would ever dream of dissing Doctor Who.

  • I loved your article and found myself thinking of Historical fiction which always has my historian father spitting teeth about blatant inaccuracies.
    Back to science though, I feel that the very enjoyable "Mythbusters" must take some responsibility for raising the profile of the reality vs screenwriter battle. And hurrah for them.

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  • Are my wife and I the only ones who particularly enjoyed Babylon 5 because of the care they took over the physics of it all?

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  • I think it's different for us "techies". I liked Mike's comment about fiction and fantasy- the difference with engineers and scientists is that secretly inside we want it to be true. The idea that the boundaries could suddenly open up and that science and the miraculous could cross excites us- for a moment we can suspend our belief (in science) and in a "credible" way entertain transcendant possibilities..

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  • I agree with Mike, (19 Aug 20), that what we find acceptable or ridiculous depends on the context - science fiction or fantasy - and the consistency, or otherwise, of the director in keeping within the rules of the chosen genre. Therefore the reason I found the film 'Sunshine' unwatchable wasn't due to the absurdity of the central premise, although the idea that the Sun could a) be dying, without having run out of fuel, and b) that it could be 're-lit' with a nuclear bomb, was about as plausible as having the level of the ocean drop due to someone having accidentally pulled out the plug and a team being sent to micturate in it to fill it back up again. Nevertheless, if it had simply been a matter of GBS's 'one big lie', (or even two or three), then I wouldn't have had a problem. I have no difficulty accepting current impossibilities such as time, (or faster than light), travel in most Sci-Fi films. In Star Trek the same premise would have been well within the accepted bounds of the genre. However, the fact that Danny Boyle had gone to the trouble of employing physicist Brian Cox as scientific advisor only served to make the many errors irritating, glaring and culpable because it meant that they had to be deliberate rather than the result of ignorance. Lazy screenwriters/directors can't be bothered to resolve scientific plot points within consistent/plausible limits, preferring to rack up penalty points on their artistic licence instead. We even had the Hollywood cliche of 'people surviving in space by holding their breath' as mentioned above. As a result, I found the film as irritating as trying to sit through a BBC documentary on particle physics last year in which the narrator kept saying "nuke-you-ler" every few seconds. At least the BBC was embarrassed enough to get her back in to re-record the soundtrack with the correct pronunciation after I complained.

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