15 December 2010

No scientific ideas were seriously harmed in the making of this film

Posted by mohi

The intrepid, space-traveling astronomer (Contact). The disheveled, hard-working nerdy hero (Independence Day). And the mad scientist fomenting explosions in experimental zeal (Back to the Future).


Are Hollywood's depictions of planetary impacts accurate? Does it matter? Image courtesy of NASA/Donald E. Lewis

Hollywood embraces all of these scientific archetypes. But what about the reality behind the characters? What about the science? Does anyone care that the Starship Enterprise wouldn’t really “whoosh” as it passes the camera, that global climate change won’t bring about a new ice age in a matter of days, or that we can’t blow up an asteroid with a hydrogen bomb?

Science in Hollywood was the focus of Tuesday night’s panel discussion, titled “Hollywood Does (Geo) Science.” Emory University’s Sidney Perkowitz moderated, and panelists were Jon Amiel, director of The Core and Creation, Bruce Joel Rubin, screenwriter for Deep Impact, Arvind Singhal from the University of Texas at El Paso, and the SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak.

That cinema–and other forms of entertainment–inspire interest in science was undisputed. “Hollywood science fiction is so widespread that you have to call it a cultural force,” Perkowitz said. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the audience indicated that the entertainment industry piqued their scientific curiosity. And, Amiel said he tries to illuminate “the endlessly exciting drama and mystery that’s inherent in all scientific exploration” when he tackles a new, science-driven story.

Panelists agreed that accuracy was important, though it could be sacrificed somewhat to tell a story. Shostak explained that some errors might be made for convenience or out of dramatic necessity–like the Enterprise whooshing by–while others “are just bonkers,” like the expense of mining Unobtainium on Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar–“It’s completely equivalent to ordering a book from Amazon and paying $60,000 for the shipping,” Shostak said.

Other times, the point isn’t to communicate the nitty-gritty of a concept–global warming, for example–but to introduce it in a compelling way. We want to “plant a tiny seed of curiosity in the viewers,” Amiel said. Likewise, it might not really matter if Jodie Foster’s character listens to radio signals on headphones, when the broader issue of extraterrestrial intelligence is what drives the story.

“Films can be factually inaccurate and still illuminate a truth that’s far more profound than the fact itself,” Amiel said.

Both Amiel and Rubin described the process of working with scientists to come up with plausible–if dramatized–stories. For “Deep Impact,” where a comet threatens life on Earth, Rubin extensively researched the possibility of impacts by rocky bodies, worked out a potential scenario for deflection, and carefully calculated the results of an impact. He kept finding “more and more extraordinary information,” he said. The presentation included a screening of a climactic 3-minute segment of “Deep Impact,” when enormous tidal waves drown the eastern United States following a comet’s impact in the Atlantic ocean.

When working on “The Core,” Amiel needed to understand a bit about geology. “For the duration of the film, I became completely immersed in deep Earth science and mesmerized by it,” he said. Sure, you have to indulge in the fantasy that a team of scientists can take an elevator to the core. But the fantasy is what makes it fun!

Such fantasy highlights the differences between science for real and science on film. Shostak said “The hero in science is not the character, but the idea”–the individual scientists don’t matter but the truth they discover does. But the hero in moves is, well, the hero.

–Nadia Drake is a science communication graduate student at UC Santa Cruz