29 Sep

The Science in Science Fiction (and Fantasy)

A good science fiction or fantasy film is an escape from reality and a treat for the imagination. If well done, I’m left feeling invigorated and charged about film and fighting dragons or visiting another planet, depending upon the subject matter. There is much discussion as to the believability of the science portrayed in science fiction but the believability to which this article refers is not the way in which a dystopian future or method of space travel is imagined but the basic application of physics to that imagined world.

In the past, this was kept in check because effects were largely practical and as such, physics still applied. Now that entire scenes and the better part of many films are engineered digitally, physics, while often emulated, can be tweaked to any extreme imaginable.

Take for example the most recent of the Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. Jackson has a penchant for casting his characters off a cliff into a canyon, chasm or deep into some void where they spend the better part of ten minutes tumbling wildly through a fall that would render anyone into pulp. I know what you’re thinking, these aren’t real people, they’re dwarves, or hobbits, goblins or a Tyrannosaurus Rex, though he has been known to subject this fate to humans as well (King Kong). But human or not, nothing breaks that mythical fourth wall and pulls me from the lovely state of fantastical (or sci-fi) absorption like the failure to adhere to basic physics.

I’m happy to accept that in this mythical world being projected before me that the axe-wielding dwarves, tunneling to Moriah, unleashed some fire-breathing, winged beast. I can be content and even thrilled at the concept of a lost ship happening upon a mysterious island full of undiscovered natives, dinosaurs and a two-story gorilla. Yet I have a hard time believing that all of these can fall a thousand feet into a canyon and not just survive, but fire arrows, swing axes and dodge the jaws of a dinosaur on the same gravitational inspired journey.

The ease with which filmmakers will cast aside physics of the real world is not reserved to Peter Jackson. In the latest of the series, Captain America, The Winter Soldier, our hero spends time anguishing over his friends demise as the hover-aircraft-carrier explodes and collapses around him. It seems so many action adventure films continue to push the envelope of believability in the name of an ever-heightened state of action and for what end?

Far too often a lack of quality storyline disintegrates into long action sequences that begin to resemble the video game version to be release on Xbox some months later. This was so evident in The Hobbit that I found my index finger instinctively twitching for the right-trigger of the controller as Gandalf raced along the Orc trail in what went from a first-person-shooter to a side scrolling console game. Perhaps it was an homage to Mario.

The entire sequence was so unnecessary to the telling of the film that Tolkien himself neglected to include it in the original, written version. It seems to have been required in order to maintain the desired pacing, a rather obvious and repeated method of adaptation by Jackson which Tolkien’s son Christopher noted in the quote “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people 15 to 25.”

I understand full and well that film is a business and clearly Peter Jackson knows how to make a film that sells which is why his project budgets are hundreds of millions of dollars and any of my features have yet to break hundreds of thousands, but I feel that the strength and longevity of these pictures could be preserved with some thoughtfully applied, reality.

One of the longest running and most adapted subjects which has inspired multiples television series and many feature films, books and toys, Star Trek, has always been rooted in a strong sense of reality, despite the entirely imagined universe. Space craft and worlds which are designed on scientific theory and even futurist projections not only attract a vehemently loyal fanbase of nerds but they also engage the audience in a world whose believability creates a stronger fourth wall.

Compare for a moment the original Star Wars series and the more recent Prequel Trilogy. Common knowledge dictates that the original was ground-breaking, timeless and continues to entertain. The later released prequel rates consistently less popular. While the reasons are wide and cannot exclude one Jar-Jar-Binks, the numerous computer graphics scenes not only stand out visually but also show characters or vehicles suddenly operating beyond the limits of the physical world to which we are accustomed.

I don’t believe that every film should be bound entirely by the limits of our known science. By all means, continue to make movies about dragons and space ships and dwarves, but don’t forget the science – grounding all that sci-fi and fantasy in a steeped sense of the real world makes for a richer escape from reality.


Star Wars
Ratings: 8.7/10 from 635,889 users Metascore: 91/100
Ratings: 8.8/10 from 567,274 users Metascore: 78/100
Ratings: 8.4/10 from 448,149 users Metascore: 52/100

I Phantom Menace
Ratings: 6.6/10 from 381,408 users Metascore: 51/100
II Attack of the Clones
Ratings: 6.8/10 from 324,950 users Metascore: 53/100
III Revenge of the Sith
Ratings: 7.7/10 from 365,539 users Metascore: 68/100