From explosion and sound in outer space to a suspicious lack of pressure at the Earth’s core, Hollywood has always played fast and loose with the basic laws of science for the sake of visual effects and drama.
Despite Tinseltown’s insistence, blood doesn’t dry bright red, arrows don’t fly in a perfectly straight trajectory, and an asteroid the size of Texas would definitely be noticed by astronomers before it was just hours away from hitting the Earth.
Can perfectly-preserved dinosaur DNA be extracted from an amber-encased insect dating from the Jurassic Period? Of course not, but films are meant to be viewed with considerable suspension of disbelief, and audiences are usually more than willing to do so in the name of entertainment.
That said, sometimes Hollywood just gets it so wrong that you wonder why none of the crew had even bothered with the three-second web search it would have taken to realize that their “science” was completely off.
Panic Room (2002): Chemistry
In the film Panic Room, Jodie Foster’s character decides to resourcefully re-purpose the propane that has been pumped into her personal security vault by intruders in her house. She sets it alight, hoping that as the fire flashes across the ceiling, her and her daughter would have a chance to escape. Pretty clever, right? It would be, if the vapor density of propane weren’t heavier than air. The propane, in reality, would have sunk, lighting the floor (not the ceiling) on fire.
Titanic (1997): Astronomy
James Cameron, director of the blockbuster Titanic, is known in the film industry for being a stickler when it comes to the detail in his films. But the April 15, 1912 night sky twinkling over the ill-fated Titanic as it sinks into the North Atlantic is incorrect. The positions of all the constellations are wrong for that date and place, and it appears that half the sky is simply a mirror image of the other half—hardly a realistic depiction of what would have been in the sky that night. After receiving numerous requests to correct this, Cameron finally changed the background, in later releases of the film, to reflect the correct star pattern.
Star Wars (1977-2005): Light Physics
Light moves at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. That speed is a universal constant, meaning that even in space, light moves at exactly that speed. Given this, how is it possible that all of the lasers used in Star Wars project light the way they do? Blaster rifles, light sabers, whatever—they’re not physically possible.
Independence Day (1996): Computer Science
There are many films in which computers display fake code or meaningless equations to make it look like something super technical is taking place on the monitor. Independence Day took code misrepresentation up a notch. It’s probably safe to say that Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film is not familiar with the programming techniques of hostile aliens from unfathomable worlds, yet he whips out his fancy, 1990’s Apple laptop and codes away like he was born to do it. The aliens, in turn, are somehow using both compatible computer technology and absolutely no virus protection. Probably not the best idea to skimp on computer security when the success of your invasion and survival of your fleet depends on it.
Independence Day (again): Microbiology
The scene, in which an alien is dissected in a cleanroom, may not be so much a misunderstanding as it is an illustration of President Bill Pullman’s total ignorance of how bacteria works. Some very nice cleanroom builder had worked very hard on that examination area, only to have the President barge right in wearing street clothes. Did he just not know what cleanrooms are for? Did he just not care? . The President’s inconsiderate violation of antibacterial protocol made the entire point of having a cleanroom set up moot. Did he think the staff were just going to go in after him with a little lysol spray and make everything right again?
Gravity (2013): Gravity
Most of the complaints regarding the lack of verisimilitude in the movie Gravity have, for whatever reason, focused on Sandra Bullock’s lack of the diaper-like undergarment she would have worn under her space suit in an actual outer space situation. Ironically, the film’s lack of attention to the absence of gravity in the spaceship marks it for beauty over accuracy. While objects float around Bullock’s face and she herself drifts weightless through the ship, her hair remains beautifully coiffed and fluid, not standing on end, as it should.
It seems like artistic license wins out over reality in most films. While this makes for some truly exciting scenes and fascinating plots, it can be difficult for the scientifically-inclined to see the basic laws of science stretched to breaking in films. It turns every film, quite literally, into science fiction.
Author Bio: Emma is a freelance writer living in Boston. When she manages to tear herself away from the computer, she enjoys baking pies, reading, and rock climbing.