Many Science Fiction Films Are Unrealistic, Physics Professor Complains

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02/23/2010 1:29 PM |

This would never happen.
  • This would never happen.

Films “should be allowed only one major transgression of the laws of physics,” according to guidelines suggested by a physics professor and sometime science advisor to Hollywood, the Guardian reports. Sidney Perkowitz (oh, I’ll bet) allowed that “he liked Starship Troopers, but criticised its giant insects, saying if you scaled up a real bug to that size it would collapse under its own weight.”

Dr. Perkowitz doesn’t object to conceptual inventions, merely internal coherence and respect for the physical laws of the film’s universe.

Here’s where you’re expecting me to take the easy route of going hnrr hnrr nerd alert nerd alert, and quote Kevin Barnes saying “I want my film to be beautiful, not realistic,” and tell some story about how once when I was leaving a screening of Kalatozov’s Siberian odyssey The Letter Never Sent, a highlight of which is a spectacular impossible tracking shot through a forest fire, a girl complained loudly and prissily to her companion, “They definitely would have died of smoke inhalation.” Which would be easy enough to do, and I would be right because come the fuck on.

But here’s the thing.

Dr. Perkowitz is concerned about genre films not taking liberties with the public’s credulousness: “The chances are that the public will pick it up and that is what matters to Hollywood. The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch.”

Moviegoers are, as a species, incredibly pedantic. People love spotting continuity errors, and nitpicking about the logistical probability of even the most emotionally persuasive moments. The enduring popularity of the imdb “goofs” page is a fair barometer of the popular mindset here, and that’s just for the stuff you’re not supposed to pay attention to.

As far as advice to the mainstream sci-fi filmmaking trade goes, Dr. Perkowitz is on the right track—it’s not like, for instance, James Cameron didn’t totally geek out with a whole department of biologists when planning Avatar. If you’re making the kind of movie that has any aspirations to credibility, and want to get it right, why not talk to an expert?

Otherwise, of course, remember the sage advice of the great editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is quoted as having told an underling, “Matching is for pussies,” and apply that all the way from the editing room to the laws of physics, if the movie’s convincing enough on its own merits.