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Bad science in sci-fi movies

The adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise defined a new level of science fiction fandom in the late sixties. The image of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star forever changed the impact and scope of blockbuster moviemaking. Audiences ate it all up without even batting an eye at the believability of the scientific concepts on display, but the science in such sci-fi favourites is often questionable at best.

Bad science in sci-fi movies

Sounds in Outer Space

The dramatic screeching of TIE fighters swooping across the screen to the strains of John Williams’ Imperial March in The Empire Strikes Back is in an unforgettable part of science fiction history. So are the whooshing sounds of the Enterprise going to warp speed in the Star Trek movies.

Now imagine the same images with no sound whatsoever. Nothing. Nada. Doesn’t have the same impact, does it? The reality is that outer space is devoid of sound because no medium exists to carry sound waves. Space is just that – space. The void between cosmic bodies.

But great cinema isn’t about great science; it’s about great storytelling. The blasting of photon torpedoes and the thunderous explosions of starships is half the fun. Cinema may be a visual medium, but a movie without the dramatic sound effects is like a sporting event without the cheering crowds.

Laser Beams Zapping Across the Screen

Imperial Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Just watch the Star Wars films to see how many shots the troops fire without hitting a damn thing. During the epic battles, brilliant beams of light zig and zag in every direction to create a hypnotic symphony of razzle dazzle.

Now try this: go outside with a flashlight on a dark, foggy evening. Point it to the sky, turn the flashlight on, then quickly turn it off. Wasn’t it exciting to see the beam zoom away from your flashlight like tracer fire and fly off into the distance, getting smaller in size the further it flew? No? The light beam simply appeared when you turned the flashlight on, then disappeared immediately when you flicked the off switch.

science in sci-fi movies

The same would be true of laser fire. The actual movement of the beam itself would be imperceptible to the human eye because it’s moving at the speed of light. But action sequences would be much duller without the kinetic energy of lasers criss-crossing the screen like runaway projectiles from hell, not to mention more confusing in terms of figuring out who’s shooting at who.

Gravity in Space

With the exception of specific zero gravity sequences in a few movies (The Black Hole, Moonraker), spaceships are almost exclusively shown operating in space with normal earth gravity. Little or no explanation is given as to how this is possible without the generation of centrifugal force to create gravity.

2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, 2010, realistically depicted space stations and vehicles rotating to create gravity for those within. Star Trek always took the easy route by referring to artificial gravity generators without explaining their operation, but at least they showed a spectacular zero-gravity assassination sequence in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Everybody Speaks English

True, Klingons and Romulans and Vulcans have their own languages, but the Enterprise crew seems to encounter new Anglophone aliens every week. Who knew that extra-terrestrials that live on Delta Omega Vega Omicron VIII would all speak with mid-Atlantic accents?

In all fairness, the writers did create the universal translator device for the Federation to use, but they don’t explain how it would work with alien races never before encountered by humans. And the translator miraculously works in real time with no delay. Probably a favourite stocking stuffer in the 23rd century.

All-Too-Earthly Aliens

sci-fi movies

Klingons have bumpy foreheads. Romulans have bumpy foreheads. So do the Arkarians and the Acamarians. Essentially they’re just guys with bits of rubber glued to them. Keeping alien makeup simple allows the actor underneath to perform unhindered and helps to keep budgets down.

The chances of the Enterprise crew encountering so many humanoid races are astronomically small, but people tend to relate best with others who share common characteristics. Viewers probably wouldn’t become as emotionally involved with alien characters who looked like a rock or a mushroom.

Science fiction is fiction first and science second. If viewers want reality, they can tune in to the news. The science may not always be sound, but people will always need a momentary escape to a future century or a galaxy far, far away.

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