Realism in science fiction movies can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially if that’s what the creators are aiming for. In a lot of films, scientific accuracy is often sacrificed in order to tell a more interesting story.
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Of course, some movies lean into fantasy ideas more than others and that’s not to say they’re bad movies, they just have different aims. Apollo 13, for example, has been praised for being one of the most accurate depictions of scientifically accurate space travel, still, many would argue the Star Trek movies are more entertaining.
Here are some movies that didn’t quite nail the science. Just a heads up, there are spoilers ahead.
Directed by Michael Bay, Armageddon is about an asteroid “the size of Texas” which is set to hit the Earth within 18 days. NASA hatches a plan to break the asteroid apart with a nuclear weapon, but it needs to be drilled into the middle of the object to be effective. With little time to assemble a crew, they send Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) ” considered a hotshot deep-sea oil driller ” and his handpicked crew of blue-collar workers to sort it all out.
The movie gets quite a few big things wrong, but mainly the asteroid itself. According to senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester, David Kirby, the notion of spotting an asteroid that size with only 18 days to spare is insane.
“Any astronomer would tell you, if you have an asteroid the size of Texas, it would have been visible probably years before,” he told Smithsonian Magazine.
It’s also far too big to blow up in the way the movie suggests. Astronomer Phil Plait told Live Science that the bomb used would need to explode with the same amount of energy the sun produces, which, even if it could be done, would be far more dangerous than the asteroid itself.
According to Plait, Deep Impact, while not perfect, did a far better job with the science behind the doomsday asteroid scenario.
Following the destruction of their space shuttle orbiting Earth, two astronauts are struggling to survive in space. Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, the film assumes that the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong-1 are close enough to each other to travel between, which isn’t true.
As Gravity science advisor Kevin Grazier told the film’s creator, Alfonso Cuaron, the closest any of them would get to another would be “the distance between [Hollywood] and Mexico.” All three are at different altitudes, as well as different orbits.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, Interstellar tells the story of Earth becoming increasingly uninhabitable. A NASA physicist plans to transport humanity to a new home via a wormhole, but a small crew must scout ahead first to find out which planet on the other side is best suited for colonisation.
One of the habitable planets in question is orbiting a massive black hole, a concept which is already skirting the outer edges of plausibility. Of course, McConaughey’s character decides it’s a great idea to jump on into that black hole, which he manages to survive.
According to astrophysicist Katie Mack, anything that even tries to get close enough to a black hole would likely be stretched into spaghetti. In other words, a human would be torn apart by the enormous gravitational forces it exerts.
In terms of what’s inside a black hole, no one really has any idea.
Starring action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall follows a construction worker who dreams of travelling to Mars. Instead, he decides to use a service called Total Recall, which implants the memories of a trip to Mars, only something goes wrong. He ends up on Mars, but is hit real or not?
At the beginning of the movie, Arnold is walking along the Martian surface in a spacesuit. He slips, cracks his helmet and dies in a pretty dramatic way. His eyes essentially bulge out of his skull, as you can see in the clip below.
Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman says this depiction of death on Mars isn’t quite right.
“What would happen if you’re exposed to space and were not adequately protected, and that is when parts of your body, parts of your tissues, the liquid vaporizes, turns into a gas and you puff up like a balloon,” he told Insider. “Presumably, that would happen around your face as well, but it wouldn’t look exactly like that. That’s a little Hollywood magic right there.”
He also says the helmet itself isn’t quite right. “Another thing about this clip is that he hits a rock and the visor shatters, and you hear it shatter like it’s glass. Most spacesuit helmets are made out of polycarbonate, which is much tougher.”
“It wouldn’t shatter quite like that. You can break your space helmet, and so tumbling down a surface on Mars and whacking your head into a rock is not recommended.”
If you’re keen to learn more about the actual wild worlds out there in the universe, the upcoming season of Cosmos: Possible Worlds explores just that. It kicks off on March 9 at 8.30pm AEDT on National Geographic.