How Important is Scientific Accuracy in Sci-Fi Screenwriting?

October 15, 2014

Last year, a sci-fi film entitled Europa Report made its way onto online rental services to little fanfare outside of a few hardcore sci-fi and indie film blogs. The plot follows a team of astronauts on an alien planet, searching for life, And what makes it a remarkable film is that it’s one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies, ever.

What Apollo 18 Should Have Been

Director Sebastián Cordero and crew took great pains to make sure everything in the movie was scientifically plausible; orbital physics are adhered to, the galactic geography is sound, the surface of Europa is realistically rendered and every line of space-talk between the characters is as it should be. The decision to stick so dogmatically to real-world physics is a bold one, and arguably makes this space romp into an incredibly fascinating entry into the genre.

Now, it’s not the best film in the world by any stretch, and only the most ardent of space fans won’t balk at spending $10 just to rent itthe pacing is uneven, there’s some hammy acting in places, and it doesn’t bring anything new to the ‘found footage’ aspect of the film. All said and done however, it’s the immersive exploration horror film which Apollo 18 tried to be, made all the better for its scientific realism.

But what of movies where the science gets silly? Excluding purposeful bending of reality for comic effect, does a movie hamstring itself by not paying enough attention to the hard laws of the universe?

Breaking the Rules, For Better or Worse

Consider the old amnesia movie trope. Rarely is it portrayed with any accuracy, and in fact, rarely is it used as an effective plot device.

But the scientific inaccuracies which usually come with the ‘man wakes up remembering nothing’ cliché aren’t the underlying reason why we groan every time a scriptwriter falls back on it. We actually forgive extreme oversights on silly things such as ‘reality’ as long as the trope is used to execute some original ideas or to craft a compelling experience for the audience. Think of the screenwriting in Memento, or even Total Recall.

There are, of course, some very good reasons to forgo realism, especially when exploring science fiction. In the real universe, it would take nearly 20,000 years of sailing through an uninteresting void in order to get to the nearest exoplanet, and if we’re looking for possible life, it’d be pointless to make the trip given its molten temperature. To get to the Gliese 581 set of planets, which are the closest place with a chance of harboring anything interesting, we’re looking at a 500,000+ year voyage. As such, it’s hardly practical to hinge a movie featuring human exploration on such stellar figures (and the reason why Europa Report was set on our own cosmic back door).

When quizzed on the speed of the Excalibur craft in Babylon 5, creator Michael Straczynski famous said with a wry smile “it travels at the speed of plot.” Namely, precisely as fast or as slow as the writers need it to in order to move the story forward at the desired pace and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also true that some of the best inventions in science fiction were the product of writers trying desperately to get from A to B, either in a physical sense or within the narrative.

Firmly Grounded

But if the lack of scientific accuracy is born out of sheer laziness, then it can create a jarring hole in the very fabric of the movie. While we don’t question why the Icarus II starship in Sunshine has gravity because it’s an unimportant detail not worth spending screen time explaining, we do have our willing suspension of disbelief popped when the relatively small (on a planetary scale) asteroid in Armageddon appears to have more gravity than the moon.

This is because we can easily assume there’s some sort of device or centrifugal force creating the gravity on the Icarus II; we can’t imagine that everything we know about astrophysics goes out the window the second someone steps onto an asteroid. Whether this laziness on the director or writer’s part is through ignorance or an inability (or unwillingness) to present things in a more believable light doesn’t matter; audiences don’t need to have a PhD in rocket science or filmmaking degree to see right through it as the sloppy craftsmanship that it is.

All in all, both good and bad sci-fi will exist regardless of how much of a grasp the filmmaker has over accuracy, or how much they care to use it. Case in point: in one of the DVD extra commentaries for Alien, Ridley Scott mumbles hesitantly about the movie being set “something like… twenty, thirty years from now.” While that film testifies to his mastery of horror and a superb movie all round, if he thought back in the eighties that we’d already be terraforming deep space by now, his understanding of the limits of space exploration technology is severely lacking (at least it was back then).

Back to the present, and we should really take our hats off to the producers of movies like Europa Report and the (slightly less but still impressively accurate) Gravity for at least trying to make extreme accuracy a selling point. It raises some interesting questions, but it remains to be seen whether this will become a trend in mainstream sci-fi writing.

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