I've had a lot to drink in my life. Why not? Everything is more enjoyable with a great whisky. Unfortunately, there is a long term downside to abusing the nectar of the gods, as evidenced in the perceptible degradation of my cognitive horsepower. Every time you get a hangover, that proverbial wrath of grapes, your brain is mourning the loss of neurons. Once upon a time I was smart. My background is in mechanical engineering, which (before I fried half my brain cells with booze) used to place me just a notch below rocket scientist, as seen in the scientifically accurate IQ graphic below:
As the stereotype can attest to, screenwriters are an inebriated bunch. Most writers follow the maxim that Hemingway famously didn't say: 'Write drunk, edit sober.' This usually works except for one particular case: science fiction. Now, we've always allowed our Hollywood writers some leeway in following the laws of physics, especially the simple Newtonian kind. Some are obvious exaggerations; Popular Science has a great article where they perform some calculations to debunk some impossible stunts.
The problem with sci-fi is that the genre doesn't have to provide a large degree of believability for audiences to suspend disbelief, and screenwriters think that they can get away with it. They can come up with the stupidest explanation of futuristic technology in their drunken stupor, and instead of rewriting it when they are sober, they leave it in the script. The Average Joe will eat it up, inching slightly to the left in the IQ graph shown above. Well Joey, there is no need to fear, the physics police is here. I can write about this for hours because I still have a couple of those old neurons in my noggin. For now, we'll focus on five scientifically advanced concepts that are actually possible, and try to break down these sci-fi mistakes with simple explanations.
1. Space travel
From the magnificent jump into hyperspace in "Star Wars" to mysterious colorpuke tunnel at the end of "2001: A Space Oddyssey," filmmakers have attempted to tackle interstellar transportation to varying degrees of success. Moving faster than light is physically impossible unless you go through a traversable wormhole. Even though the math in relativity allows for wormholes, they have yet to be discovered. Disney's "The Black Hole" and "Event Horizon" played with the possibility of a wormhole created by a dying star. Technically, you can punch the gas in your spaceship, but with special relativity you run into the barrier of time dilation, which means that the faster you go, the faster time passes, and everyone you were supposed to meet at the other end would be dead when you got there. Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" has so many inaccuracies that I don't even know where to begin. Films such as Tarkovskiy's "Solaris" and James Cameron's "Avatar" have only vague references to the subject. The circles in "Stargate" are as unbelievable as elvish magic. My favorite fake form of intergalactic travel are the mass relays in the "Mass Effect" video games, which will likely turn into a film in the next few years.
Who got it right: In "Aliens" Ripley is found floating in space after 57 years, but she has not aged. In the "Prometheus" viral website created for the marketing of the prequel, there is a timeline where the Weyland corporation created something called a FTL drive in 2032, which would allow them to somehow game the limit of the speed of light. I guess that's as good as it gets.
UPDATE: Seems like NASA is also once step closer to the Star Trek warp drive!
I have to introduce the concept of 'Photon Entanglement' here. Think of it as twins who are telepathically linked. Instead of twins, we are talking about photons (particles of light). Scientists have successfully created couples of photons born at the same time, which makes them 'entangled;' the amazing thing is that no matter how far apart they are, when you do something to one photon it affects the other. This is the principle with which a form of teleportation has already been achieved, and possibly we will be able to communicate across the galaxy with entangled photons. Teleportation in film has been popularized with the words 'beam me up, Scotty' from "Star Trek,"a show which usually gets their physics right, but not in this case. In "The Fly," a scientist conducts an impossible teleportation experiment, but his molecular-genetic information gets mixed up with an insect that came into his telepod. Even in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Mike Teevee and his mom are teleported and shrunk into a screen through the magic of Wonkavision.
Who got it right: "The Prestige." SPOILER ALERT: In quantum teleportation, the teleported object gets copied, not transported. Since the film relies on the genius of Nikola Tesla, the undisputed smartest guy of all time, we can assume that Christopher Nolan had to understand this before writing his film.
Cloning is a harder one to screw up. Disappointingly, it seems like everyone always does. In "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" the cloning process in Kamino is said to accelerate growth of the storm troopers and make them obedient; which would not be possible. In "Moon," the same thing takes place, but it is further tweaked by the fact that the Sam Rockwells only last 3 years. In "The 6th Day," full grown clones can be procured as fast as a pizza. In "Splice" we see how the clone is made up of portions of DNA from multiple species; which actually has some basis in reality: for example, rats have been bred with a fluorescent gene from jellyfish which allows them to glow in the dark. Kinda nuts, right? Check them out in google images! Well, that's as good as transgender cloning can get; we can't go around making crazy combinations like Dren. In "Alien Resurrection" they mix up Ripley DNA with Alien DNA, same problem. In "The Fifth Element," they reproduce Leeloo with a 3D printer machine thingy. To spark your nostalgia, there's also the stupid third clone in "Multiplicity."
Who got it right: The only one I've seen is "Never Let Me Go," based on the best-selling novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
4. Nuclear Fusion
Fusion is when you squeeze two atoms together, and the nucleus of one atom gets smooshed with the nucleus of another, and some of the matter from the nuclei gets transformed into a shitload of energy. This is the holy grail of endless free electricity. We know it's possible because the Sun is fueled with fusion, but we haven't been able to replicate sustainable fusion to generate energy yet. Incredibly, we are very close! (Not to be confused with the nuclear fission used in nuclear power plants and atomic bombs, where the opposite occurs and atoms are split up. Fusion is not a radioactive process.) I think the most visible use of hot fusion must be Doctor Octopus in "Spiderman 2," but the way it's shown, like a little sun, is nonsense. In "The Dark Knight Rises" we see a cold fusion reactor contained in some sort of ball, which also turns into a bomb, but in reality a bomb would have to have a fissile trigger (of nuclear bomb-ish quality). In "The Saint," sexy genius Elisabeth Shue supposedly has developed a fusion reactor in what appears to be a glass tube with a bendy straw. A year earlier in "Chain Reaction," another sexy genius played by Rachel Weisz mixes up cold and hot fusion and doesn't really explain how it works.
Who got it right: No one, but there are not a lot of films about fusion yet. Can someone please get this one right? Anyone?
5. Time Travel
While scientists have some proof in quantum experiments where they can see effects occuring prior to a cause (a phenomenon called 'Retrocausality') which makes sending a message back in time a theoretical possibility, the feasibility of sending a physical object back in time is absolutely impossible unless traversable wormholes are real. Therefore, there is no point in discussing any time travel film, as they are all in the realm of fantasy. That doesn't take away the fun though!
Who got it right: No one, well maybe only "Frequency."
Thanks for reading. If I revisit this topic someday, maybe I will discuss invisibility, biological outbreaks, computers, dreams and memory, and nanotechnology. Any other suggestions? In the meantime, have another drink so you can make your brain less critical of these scientific mistakes.