On the Critique of Science in Film
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
"No one was more stunned than I over the media attention given to my flurry of tweets posted this past Sunday, each commenting on some aspect of the Bullock-Clooney film Gravity. Hundreds of references followed in blogs and news sources, including television’s Inside Edition the Today Show, and Brian Williams’s NBC Nightly News.
What few people recognize is that science experts don’t line up to critique Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Man of Steel or Transformers or The Avengers. These films offer no premise of portraying a physical reality. Imagine the absurdity of me critiquing the Lion King: “Lions can’t talk. And if they could, they wouldn’t be speaking English. And Simba would have simply eaten Pumba early in the film.”
The converse is also true. If a film happens to portray an awesome bit of science when there’s otherwise no premise of scientific accuracy, then I’m first in line to notice. In Chicken Little, for example, the hexagonal sky tiles, each mirroring what lies beneath them, was brilliant. So too are the factory-made doors in Monsters, Inc. As portrayed, they’re, functional wormholes through the fabric of space-time. In A Bugs Life the surface tension of water, which makes it ball up in small volumes was accurately captured at the Bug Bar, and for the little fella’s makeshift telescope.
To “earn” the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed. So when I saw a headline proclaim, based on my dozen or so tweets, “Astrophysicist says the film Gravity is Riddled with Errors”, I came to regret not first tweeting the hundred things the movie got right: 1) the 90 minute orbital time for objects at that altitude; 2) the re-entry trails of disintegrated satellites, hauntingly reminiscent of the Columbia Shuttle tragedy; 3) Clooney’s calm-under-stress character (I know dozens of astronauts like that); 4) the stunning images from orbit transitioning from day to twilight to nighttime; 5) the Aurorae (northern lights) visible in the distance over the polar regions; 6) the thinness of Earth’s atmosphere relative to Earth’s size; 7) the persistent conservation of angular and linear momentum; 8) the starry sky, though a bit trumped up, captured the range and balance of an actual night sky; 9) the speed of oncoming debris, if in fact it were to collide at orbital velocity; 10) the transition from silence to sound between an unpressurized and a pressurized airlock; … and 100) the brilliantly portrayed tears of Bullock, leaving her eyes, drifting afloat in the capsule.
So I will continue to offer observations of science in film — not as an expression of distaste or disgust but as a celebration of artists attempting to embrace all the forces of nature that surround us.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
39,000 feet over Arizona