Bad Movie Physics: A Report Card

Illustration for article titled Bad Movie Physics: A Report Card

Space epics almost always play fast and loose with science, treating the laws of physics like suggestions. But some movies dismember Newton and Einstein with way more gusto than others. Here's our report card for bad science in 18 movies.


This is an io9 flashback to a chart we posted in March 2008, which is burning up the Internets this week for some reason!

To some extent, it's understandable that space adventures play fast and loose with physics. After all, who wants to watch Han Solo spend years on the journey to Alderaan, only to find that the planet has twice Earth gravity and he can barely stand up, much less swagger?

The categories of mistakes in our report card should be pretty self-explanatory, but just in case, I'll expand on them a little bit:

  • There's no sound in space
  • Not all planets have Earth gravity
  • Planets should have diverse climates, instead of one unified climate across a "desert planet" or "forest planet."
  • It shouldn't be too easy to communicate with alien creatures, without some kind of high-technology "translator" explanation.
  • And it definitely shouldn't be too easy for humans to interbreed with aliens.
  • Humans exposed to vacuum without a spacesuit shouldn't explode or shatter. And a "hull breach" where the ship's crew is exposed to vacuum should kill everyone instantly.
  • You can't have fires in space, unless there's oxygen leaking out somehow.
  • Asteroids or other objects shouldn't be able to float close together without falling into each other's gravity
  • People shouldn't be able to dodge lasers and other speed-of-light weapons
  • And there's no reason why someone would move in slow-motion in zero gravity.
  • Faster-than-light travel is probably not ever going to be possible.

By the way, we left out Star Trek because there's so much of it, even if you just include the movies, and if you look hard enough you can find places where it violates almost all of these rules. Illustration by Stephanie Fox. Research by Nivair Gabriel.



Maybe we should have a separate infographic for bad infographic research in web postings. While the bullet points listed in the article are more or less okay (BTW: a hull breach is never a good thing, but exposure to vacuum doesn't "instantly" kill you; and, mutual gravitation is pretty weak compared to, say, the magnetic force or momentum of a mass after a collision or explosion, so unless a film really screws up, it could be hard to say definitively that its effects were ignored by the film makers ), by the time the the bullets make it to the graphic and films are rated, one is left wondering if the author actually saw the films in question.

Contact and 2001 have already been defended and, frankly, The Black Hole and The Last Starfighter are what they are the only question is how did they score so well, but there's still a lot in this graphic that really makes one wonder how much thought went (or not) into it.

For example, I have to disagree with the ratings for Stargate the movie. The planets involved, Abydos and Earth, were CHOSEN by the aliens BECAUSE they had similar characteristics (gravity, atmosphere, etc) and the very _rarity_ of such worlds is a plot point in the film. The explorers can communicate with the 'aliens' because the 'aliens' are descended from Earth and speak a variation of an ancient earth language and the explorers brought an archeologist and linguist with them (and even then it wasn't 'easy'). Finally the humans and aliens do not interbreed. Humans may breed with one another while under the influence of alien parasites (who, according to SG-1 but not mentioned in the film, scoured thousands of worlds before find genetically acceptable hosts in human DNA).

These are fairly basic points that pretty much define the stargate mythology. If you want to ding Stargate for playing fast and loose with physics, have at it. But when the basic set-up of the film is "thousands years ago aliens finally find a world like their own and take humans away to use as both slave labor and host bodies" I don't think it's fair to fault the film for having humans living on an earth-like world as a scientific oversight on the part of the film makers. It's not like the explorers 'landed' on a gas giant that looks remarkably like Kansas and meet a race of mushroom people who not only speak English, they know all the lyrics to the theme song of Gilligan's Island.

When the basic premise of the film does not violate the laws of physics, it's not fair to fault the movie for being consistent _with_ that premise. That's like faulting Contact for being based on SETI actually getting a signal or 2001: A Space Odyssey for being set in, well, 2001. Rate the films on what they got wrong through ignorance or oversight, not because you watched the trailer out of context with a checklist of cliches in hand and didn't bother to sit through the whole film.