Best and Worst Science in Movies

Last week Smithsonian.com posted two articles by Megan Gambino on the top 5 “Science Done Right” and “Science Done Wrong” movies.  This is a topic near and dear to me, though the focus here at ScienceThrillers.com is novels not movies. Here are the lists, which actually were compiled by David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, a book you might want to check out.

Making the list for Right:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (especially for the artificial gravity)
  • Finding Nemo (for accuracy of the coral reef environment)
  • Contact (about the SETI program: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence–though the later parts of this movie don’t stick as closely to reality)
  • The Andromeda Strain (movie adaptation of Michael Crichton’s masterpiece)
  • A Beautiful Mind (hmm…the fact that this movie made the top 5 suggests there wasn’t much competition)

To this list I would add Contagion (click to read the ScienceThrillers review).

The Wrong:

  • Armageddon (for suggesting that an asteroid the size of Texas wouldn’t be detected until it was a couple of weeks away from hitting the earth)
  • 2012 (if you saw the movie–which was totally entertaining in a brainless way–all I can say is, duh!)
  • The Core (has anyone actually heard of this movie?)
  • Volcano (magma flowing through the streets of Los Angeles. Cool visuals but scientifically ridiculous)
  • The Sixth Day (cloning Arnold Schwarzeneggar! Fully grown! With memories intact!)

If I start adding to this list, I won’t be able to stop. Bad science in movies is terribly common.

Here’s the best thing I learned from Megan Gambino’s article: America’s National Academy of Sciences has a program, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, that “connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming.”

If you’re working on a movie with science in it, it costs you nothing to access the expertise the NAS is offering. (Unfortunately they don’t say anything about helping novelists, though I suppose it couldn’t hurt to call and ask if you’re a writer and have a question.)

I love this bit from their FAQ’s:

What if the real science doesn’t fit into my story?
We understand that story trumps science. The idea is not to stifle your creativity, but feed it. We do not lecture, we engage in dialogue in order to help you. But you might be surprised by some of the ridiculously cool, and unexpected, storylines provided by real science. Science is not a wet blanket; indeed, it is a source of inspiration, a wellspring of untold stories and rich characters, a veritable muse.

To that I say, Amen. Accurate science as muse–that’s what ScienceThrillers is all about. It’s part of the aphorism “truth is stranger than fiction.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if creative people–filmmakers, novelists, playwrights, visual artists–embraced science in their work and let truth help tell their stories?

If you like accurate science in your fiction, try Petroplague by Amy Rogers
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3 Responses to Best and Worst Science in Movies

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    TV shows are also notorious for putting out some “interesting” science. I’m fine with creativity–goodness knows I do enough of it in my own book–but there has to be a reasonable explanation behind it; something that can support the claim.

    • Amy says:

      That’s right. Sometimes the science is so egregiously bad it goes way beyond the necessity of story. It is possible to write good stories which stretch but don’t demolish the science.

  2. Amy says:

    I should point out to my scientist readers that the NAS Science and Entertainment Exchange invites scientists to volunteer to participate in the program. Could be a great way for you to influence pop culture science!

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