Top 5 “Science Done Wrong” Moments in Movies

From asteroids to cloning, author and scientist David Kirby weighs in

Animators of Finding Nemo aimed for accuracy. Photo courtesy of Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is quite possible that a child’s first exposure to a coral reef is in the movie Finding Nemo. So, with this in mind, shouldn’t filmmakers strive for accuracy? For the Pixar movie, animators painstakingly removed all the kelp from reef scenes after a marine biologist told them that the seaweed would not grow in warm waters.

Similarly, what if the closest a person gets to an astrophysics lab in his or her lifetime is in watching Jane Foster, the astrophysicist played by actress Natalie Portman in the 2011 superhero film Thor? You would want the viewer to see the types of equipment typical for an astrophysics lab and hear Portman use some correct terminology, right?

The scientific community surely does.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently hosted “Hollywood & Science,” a webinar focused on the importance of having scientists and directors work together. David Kirby, a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester in England and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema, kicked off the hour-long session with a presentation on the history of science advising in the film industry.

Since the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers have employed scientists to read scripts, hang out on sets and provide feedback during production. Directors and producers “want you to feel that the show is grounded in science, that it is plausible,” said panelist Kevin Grazier, a NASA scientist and adviser for TNT’s “Falling Skies,” Syfy’s upcoming series “Defiance” and the forthcoming space movie Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Science fiction has some science and some fiction, naturally. ”So, you have to remember that the goal is not to get it perfect necessarily. You get it as right as you possibly can while still telling a good, compelling story,” said Grazier.

After the webinar, I spoke with Kirby, who is well-versed in the science of many popular movies, about some of the most egregious errors. Here is his short-list of movie moments that make him, and other scientists, cringe:

1. Armageddon (1998)

Director Michael Bay did consult with NASA on this action-packed end-of-the-world movie starring Bruce Willis. “So, all the spaceships are great. They film scenes inside the Kennedy Space Center—those are great,” says Kirby. “But the actual scenario around the asteroid is pretty ludicrous.” In the movie, a NASA scientist, played by Billy Bob Thornton, informs the president that an asteroid “the size of Texas” will hit earth in 18 days. “That line of dialogue is just crazy,” says Kirby. “Any astronomer would tell you, if you have an asteroid the size of Texas, it would have been visible probably years before.”

In a critical review published in the journal Nature, Kevin Zahnle of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, wrote:

Armageddon‘s science is simply silly. A few quickies: (1) only the three largest asteroids can be described as “the size of Texas”; (2) at 18 days before impact, a Texas-sized asteroid would be as bright as the stars of Orion’s belt, yet somehow it evades discovery until then; (3) the energy required to split the Texas-sized asteroid is 1010 megatonnes, roughly a million world nuclear arsenals; and (4) an 800-foot drill-hole (everything in Armageddon is bigger) hardly seems like much compared to the vastness of Texas.

Reportedly, the film’s science adviser Ivan Bekey tried to convince Bay to change both the size of the asteroid and the time estimate for its impact on Earth, but the director refused. “We didn’t think the audience would believe something five or six miles long could kill the earth,” said Bay, according to production notes.

A group of graduate students in physics at the University of Leicester recently poked a few more holes in the movie’s plot. According to their estimates, Bruce Willis’ character would have needed to detonate a bomb at least a billion times stronger than “Big Ivan,” the largest bomb ever detonated on earth, in the core of the asteroid in order to split it and send its halves barreling past the planet. He would have had to trigger the bomb considerably earlier too.

2. 2012 (2009)

In 2012, massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis plague the earth. Certainly, the screenwriters had the Mayan calendar in mind; to some, the ending of the calendar in 2012 portends the apocalypse. But, they also attempted to scientifically explain the rash of natural disasters. In the storyline, an astrophysicist in India discovers that a huge solar flare is causing the temperature of the earth’s core to spike. With a horrified look on his face, he adds—the neutrinos have mutated. ”It just doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Kirby. In fact, Irish stand-up comedian Dara O Briain spoofed the outrageous line in one of his skits.

3. The Core (2003)

Josh Keyes, a geophysicist played by actor Aaron Eckhart, gets to the bottom of a series of freaky occurrences—birds losing their ability to navigate, the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge and people’s pacemakers simultaneously on the fritz—in this movie. As his colleague Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) says, “The core of the earth has stopped spinning.” To get it rotating again, Keyes and his team drill down into the center of the planet to light explosives. ”That one got totally reamed by scientists,” says Kirby.

4. Volcano (1997)

Trailer #1




A volcano erupts under Los Angeles? “The entire movie caused scientists to go crazy,” says Kirby. When asked about the plausibility of the scenario, Ronald Charpentier, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, once wrote: “Volcanoes are located where there is a source of magma….Los Angeles and southern California may have a lot of potential for earthquakes, but are probably safe from volcanoes for a while.”

As Kirby writes in his book Lab Coats in Hollywood, the filmmakers took the script to Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology, for review. Hauksson read it but immediately insisted that Caltech not be associated with the film.

5. The 6th Day (2000)

Adam Gibson, a family man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is cloned, and he is on a quest to figure out who is responsible. What’s atrocious, says Kirby, is the way the film depicts cloning. “The idea of clones coming fully formed with memories is pretty crazy,” he says. “That is total fantasy.” When an organism is cloned, its clone is not the same age and its mind is not a carbon copy of the original.

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