BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Three films that would make Einstein blush

The Core
The Colosseum suffers from sensitive teeth syndrome in The Core

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

An American physicist is calling for Hollywood producers to tone down the fanciful science in movies - and restrict themselves to just one scientific flaw per film. But which are the worst offenders when it comes to bad science films?

Film characters disappear into thin air, travel through time, and know how to fly. They're all scientific impossibilities, but since they take place on the silver screen, we suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride.

But one scientist has had enough and is calling on filmmakers to temper their creativity by obeying the rules of science.

At a recent meeting of American scientists, physicist Professor Sidney Perkowitz suggested a new rule: every film should be allowed just one major suspension of belief for the sake of the story.

In other words, films shouldn't repeatedly violate scientific laws. And they definitely should avoid internal inconsistencies - breaking scientific rules established in earlier scenes.

Deep Blue Sea
Pharmaceutical proteins would be grown in a lab, not super-smart sharks

"If it's scene after scene, it becomes greater than I can stand," says Prof Perkowitz. "I understand the dramatic impulse behind it. The natural tendency is to hype things up."

Others in the scientific community agree.

In order to emphasise a sense of "impending doom", filmmakers often ignore realities like time, says Dr David Kirby, a lecturer in science communications at University of Manchester. After all, if the asteroid in Armageddon was spotted years before it threatened to hit Earth, the story would lack tension.

"Errors of time scale are often done for narrative purposes," says Dr Kirby.

And for those who think the rules of the laboratory have no place in cinemas, Dr Kirby points out movies often tap into contemporary attitudes towards science and can shape people's thoughts. That's why recent films have focused on things like genetic engineering, the environment, epidemics, and the end of the world.

But Dr Steven Le Comber, an evolutionary biologist at Queen Mary college, University of London, is at pains to point out scientists don't always make bad movie-going partners. While he does notice "bad science" in films, particularly when it's in his own subject area, it doesn't necessarily ruin his film-going experience.

"If it's a good enough movie, I'll let them do it," he says. "Science is ruined by bad science, not bad movies."

So which are the worst offenders?


Starring: Saffron Burrows, Samuel L Jackson

The plot: A team of scientists find a cure for Alzheimer's disease using a protein found in sharks' brains. So to harvest more of the useful protein, they create a breed of super-intelligent sharks - their intelligence meaning they have lots of brains - which promptly attack the scientists' underwater lab.

Saffron Burrows
Science porkies as big as her scarf

Silliest science moment: A scientist sticks a syringe directly into a shark's brain, extracts some cells, places them under a microscope, and watches as the cells regenerate... complete with computer-generated sparks. "When we're talking about neurons firing, there's not any actual lightning," notes Dr Le Comber.

What should have been: Chemicals from one organism - usually plants - have been known to have either therapeutic or toxic effects on other species. But even if scientists were able to isolate and identify an Alzheimer's-curing protein in sharks, they would need to grow it in a controlled environment. The solution might be to raise the protein in a bacteria, in large vats in a laboratory, in a way similar to how the first synthetic human insulin was created.

The lab-based solution would eliminate the epic battle with the sharks - and be "not quite as exciting", Dr Le Comber admits. And any scientist knows that such a procedure would entail extensive research and requests for funding - a lengthy process overlooked by the film's rogue scientists.

Does it matter?: "It doesn't give an accurate idea of what scientists do," Dr Le Comber says of the film. "But I don't think science fares any worse than any other occupations."

THE 6TH DAY (2000)

Starring: - Arnold Schwarzenegger x 2

The plot: In the year 2015, a man returns home on his birthday, only to find that a clone has replaced him. The double was created, unbeknown to the original man, using only a blood sample and "memory" capture. The film's ultimate showdown takes place between the two Arnies.

Arnie x 2
Arnie meets Arnie meets bad science

Silliest science moment: Cloning living organisms is difficult enough, but the man behind the "illegal" cloning also pulled off a scientific first by cloning a dead person (his wife). While noting this supposedly romantic gesture to be "a little bit creepy" Prof Perkowitz's main beef is with the science. It may also lead people to believe they can die and easily have their DNA harvested and cloned, he fears. In reality, DNA is fragile and quickly degrades after death - a point that even the fantastical Jurassic Park had nailed, a full seven years earlier. In it, the dino-DNA had to be preserved in sap.

What should have been: Since the film takes place in the future, it gets a bit more flexibility in terms of plausibility. But still, "the idea that clones come out fully formed with memories is ludicrous," Dr Kirby says. As it happens, Prof Perkowitz has flexed his own creative ambitions - penning a screenplay in which DNA is extracted from a person, inserted into a human egg, and born via "normal" means - rather than creating a "totally realised" human being. Hollywood, however, has yet to come knocking at his door.

Does it matter?: "Because films reach more people than almost any other media, it has real societal impact," Prof Perkowitz says. He thinks incorrect depictions of cloning can contribute to public fear and suspicion of genetic engineering.

THE CORE (2003)

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank

The plot: When Mother Earth's molten core stops spinning for unknown reasons, a team of scientists must go to the centre and detonate a hydrogen bomb to get it to spin again. The fate of mankind rests on it.

Silliest science moment: When the crew reaches the Earth's centre and disembarks, their leader only breaks a slight sweat. But anyone who found themselves within spitting distance of the Earth's real core would "instantly vaporise", Prof Perkowitz says.

What should have been: The whole idea that the Earth's core would stop spinning is implausible, chimes Mr Kirby. The film would do well to build on the moment when the scientist uses a peach - skin, flesh, and stone - to represent the Earth's three layers, says Prof Perkowitz - a minute-long scene that he concedes is OK. But "they get every other scientific fact wrong," he says.

Does it matter?: The film is so bad, Prof Perkowitz thinks "it's almost deliberately wrong just to irritate the scientists in the audience." He rates it as Hollywood's worst science film.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Perhaps Mr Perkowitz should avoid going to the movies at all. I generally view films as escapist entertainment and not scientific documentary. This has been my position ever since I was disappointed when the transporter beam I bought off a guy outside the Odeon for several thousand quid turned out only to be a box with flashy lights and 6 AA batteries.
Al, Uddingston, UK

I'm guessing it is the "fiction" part of "science fiction" which is not understood by Perkowitz et al...
DSM, Ipswich, UK

What next? Ban every book that breaks scientific laws? Well, there goes Harry Potter. Possible even the Bible if you disallow miracles. What a boring muggle this man is.
Adrian, London, UK

As a scientist I don't think it's just films, but the whole raft of CSI-type programmes, where the investigators come along, take a tiny and massively contaminated sample, stick it in a handheld machine and then quickly tell you everything about the person. I understand that the programme can't be done in "real time", but some acknowledgement should be made to how difficult and limited these processes really are. If people realised just how difficult, time consuming and technically limited real scientific methods are compared to the TV versions, then maybe scientists would get the respect and appreciation they deserve.
Ian White, London

If you are an expert on any subject, a film-maker who makes silly errors can be annoying - the trivial matter of incorrect medals on military personnel is the one that gets my goat. But that shouldn't deter them from creativity when coming up with novel ideas... just make sure they are presented coherently and plausibly so that my belief can be suspended willingly rather than choking on the end of a rope!
Megan, Cheshire, UK

Cameron's Avatar features a world of hexapodal (six-limbed) wildlife, and yet the aliens themselves are four-limbed, which from an evolutionary perspective doesn't make sense. It's shame because they would have been more alien in appearance and less like the elongated Smurfs they've been compared too.
Simon Chadwick, Southampton

In the film The Core they don't disembark at the centre of the Earth, that's just ridiculous. They disembark in a rock bubble filled with crystals which is floating around the earth's mantle. Clearly a much more likely scenario.
Joe Allen, Sheffield, UK

I find these scientific inconsistencies very off-putting. One particular issue that always gets my goat is that no matter who the character is, they never seem to notice the cinema full of people sitting in seats staring up at them on the screen.
Craig, Glasgow, UK

If Jules Verne had followed the scientific rules of his day instead of following his own imagination, would we have many of the scientific discoveries that have been made over the last century?
Val Sutton, Derby

I enjoy moaning about bad science in films as much as the next physicist, but you can be certain that no one enjoys hearing it! These days I only kick up a fuss if a film completely fails to be consistent with itself, or a "science thing" is just completely at odds with its own logic. Unless we're going to start marking new movies with a big "Approved by Physicists" stamp (and lets face it, probably no film would get that), I suggest we all put up and shut up. There's bigger things to get irritated about.
Andrew, Glasgow, UK

It's all about freedom of choice. If Mr Perkowitz and the scientific community find "it becomes greater than I can stand," then they have a choice and can stop watching it. Just because they have no imagination and don't allow themselves to 'escape' for an hour or so into harmless fantasy I don't see why they should impose their dull lives onto us! They shouldn't be allowed to take away our choice to watch it.
Graham Hartley, Ruislip

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific