In which I take the foolish and reprehensible step of holding a slightly different opinion from that of David Mitchell.
David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author, though he’s brilliant too (and there are apparently many others as well, many of whom I’m sure are also jolly good)) is brilliant. He’s been getting some play in the skeptical community lately because of some rather fun jabs that comedy duo Mitchell and Webb take at pseudoscience in their sketch shows, like the Homeopathic E.R. sequence. And he wrote an article this week, about this physics professor in the US who declared recently that Hollywood films should stick closer to science fact.
The first thing I’m prompted to wonder is why this is suddenly newsworthy now, when I’m sure there have been any number of scientists grumbling on very similar lines for years. And David’s main point has also been made a number of times before: the primary purpose of TV and film is to be entertaining, and it’s entirely correct that this should sometimes take priority over reflecting such petty details as the laws of physics with perfect accuracy.
Reality is unrealistic, after all. You don’t want everything in fiction to perfectly resemble the real world you already know and are bored with – that’s why you’re watching telly in the first place. I think I more or less agree with David’s assessment that:
Being realistic is a storytelling tool, like lighting, music and sexy actresses.
This doesn’t downplay its importance too much. If you’re telling a story, then storytelling tools are vital. If you don’t bother worrying about the lighting while filming, it’s likely to end up looking terrible; likewise, if realism is completely disregarded, your script will probably be a total mess. Realism is important, but to be used wisely as a tool of story-telling, wherever appropriate, not adhered to dogmatically.
Where I started to cringe a little was this paragraph:
How typical of a scientist to try to reduce film-making to a formula. He’s noticed that enjoyable science fiction sometimes needs to include the impossible, but streams of implausible events don’t make a compelling narrative. He’s right but he should have left it at that. The happy medium is found by using judgment not maths.
It’s the first sentence, really. I hang out with far too many science geeks, and read far too many scientists’ blogs and Twitter feeds, not to be acutely aware that reducing anything to a formula is not typically representative of what scientists always do. It’s usual poor tabloid reporting that produces that kind of nonsense. To some actual scientists, such formulae are anathema.
But despite that nagging quibble, he’s making basically a good point. The guy making these recommendations – Professor Sidney Perkowitz of the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – has reportedly suggested a limit of “one big scientific blunder in a given film”. Which is where it starts to get a bit silly.
David speculates that this is comparable to the “one coincidence to which good screenplays are supposed to be restricted”, but that doesn’t seem like a great analogy. Major coincidences happen sometimes in the real world, but rarely in big clumps, so multiple coincidences in your film will make it start to look unrealistic.
But scientifically impossible things don’t happen at all, so whether there’s one breach of the laws of nature in your movie or a dozen makes no difference as to its implausibility. Any such simple hard-and-fast rule is bound to be misleading and unhelpful.
One film I recently really enjoyed was called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’m about fifteen years older than its target audience, but it was warm and funny and energetic and had nifty pacing and great comic timing and for the most part it stopped short of being annoying in its zaniness. Two thumbs up. But it was full of completely impossible things going on that only make sense in a cartoon world – unsurprisingly, being an animated kids’ film – and if you were scientifically nit-picking your way through, you’d have no time left for anything else.
And I would dispute that there exists any precise definable line between stories where you can do stupid cartoon stuff, like drop anvils on your characters and have tweeting birds appear circling around their dazed heads, and sci-fi, where everything must make perfect sense. Just as much as I dispute that allowing “one big scientific blunder” per movie does anything useful to address scientific plausibility in cinema. What’s likely to be acceptable depends far more on the context and the internal logic of an individual film.
It’s also worth noting that sci-fi writer John Scalzi was way more put out by the bad science in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie than was astronomer Phil Plait. These are both guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two, but it’s clearly possible to forgive a lot that you know is technically unrealistic, in the right context.
And while it’s lamentable that it’s taken me this long to reach one of the most interesting points about all this, there’s one thing I’ve heard from scientists on this subject time and again: When big-budget sci-fi movies do get actual science advisors on board to try and make sure things stay somewhere within tentacle’s reach of reality, they almost never have to totally sacrifice huge swathes of cool stuff that they wanted to do. Very often, having someone who really knows their stuff just makes the science even more awesome.
The conversation will go something like:
“Okay, someone send the resident geek in here. And get me some more coffee. Ah, smarty-brain, there you are, how’s it going? Listen, what’s your nerdy take on this bit in scene twelve where James Bond goes solar-wind-surfing? That’s a thing, right, solar wind? So I figure we get him wind-surfing but, like, on the Sun. Pretty cool, right? Not really sure how we get him up there, though. Does the Space Shuttle go to the Sun? Could we get one of those sky elevator things I think I heard about that one time? China has those, right?”
“Yeah, look, I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about this whole scene, none of it really makes any sense, and if you go ahead with it as it’s currently written then your audience are going to tear you a scientifically impossibly large new one for turning their favourite franchise into a joke.”
“Damn. Tina, cancel my breakfast with the Prime Minster of China, tell him he can keep his crazy moon escalators. Okay then, astro-boy, you’d better come up with some new idea that’ll give me an excuse to have Bond to take his shirt off and justify a special effects budget bigger than the GDP of several small countries.”
“Well actually, if you’d ever paid any attention in school, or indeed to any other human being in your entire life, you might be aware of this other thing you could do, which would still look awesome on screen and let you showcase the CGI expertise of your hordes of computer-literate underlings, with the added bonus that it’s not total bullshit.”
“You mean, giving a shit about scientific accuracy might not reduce the entertainment factor by crippling my ability to blindly throw in whatever cool stuff I can think of, and may even put me in a better position to make exciting and visually inspiring references to genuine scientific phenomena?”
“Yep. You want to do things that way then?”
“Make it so.”
Wow, that rather got away from me. Wasn’t expecting that to turn into quite such a flight of fancy. Probably a bit wordy and less funny than I think it is. Still, not in the mood to edit now.
A good example of the kind of thing you may have just skipped over is the occasional recognition in some sci-fi films that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and so cool-looking explosions wouldn’t actually make any noise when observed from a distance. David likes hearing stuff explode, and is willing to forego some realism on that score, which is fine – there’s always got to be some suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, and we all have our different limits – but as Phil Plait points out, a spaceship blowing up in perfect silence can, if done right, be eerie as hell. Knowing how the real world works can really add to a talented director’s repertoire.
Yikes. That was wordy. Have I covered everything? I feel I should sum up. Or at least redraft before I post this. Nah. Thoughts, anyone?