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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)

  • 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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