Science Fiction movie priorities should be movie first, science second. Because movies are hard.

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Hugo award winning science fiction author Greg Egan complained recently about science fiction movies, starting his post with the line “Why is almost every contemporary science fiction movie irredeemably stupid?” He digs into three movies: Her, Ex Machina and Interstellar. Regarding Her, he noted:

The AI who names herself Samantha is sold to Twombly as a kind of Siri plus, and nothing in her official remit lies beyond the capabilities of the very much non-self-aware software we have right now. This leaves her true nature as a case of either oversight or overkill of ridiculous proportions, and — if taken seriously, even for a moment — disturbing implications. It’s as if every copy of Windows 20 came with a complimentary slave.

Since I have nearly identical complaints with these movies (see my comments about Her in this post), I was disappointed Egan never really answered his question beyond a vague Hollywood ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Though his line about Microsoft including a slave with every copy of Windows 20 is pretty good.

Let’s try answering Egan’s question by going to the source: Hollywood screenwriters. I listen to the (quite good) podcast Scriptnotes, where each week the “screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.” In recent episode 201, they discuss making movies out of news stories. First they discuss the recent FIFA scandal, and whether it could be made into a romantic comedy, thriller, underdog sports movie, etc. As I listened I nodded along.

Next they discussed the re-opening of the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator at CERN where they recently discovered the Higgs Boson. When they gave the Large Hadron Collider the same movie treatment as the FIFA scandal, I suddenly started hating it. Really hating it. Their discussion rambles a bit in true podcast style, so I’ll excerpt a few quotes:

  • Craig: Well, you’ve got some possibilities. You could, again, let’s just start with the real easy one. Straight ahead, it’s a drama about whether we’re going to find this or not. I think that would probably be pretty boring.
  • Craig: When we talk about movies where people are pursuing specific scientific breakthroughs The Imitation Game or Beautiful Mind, it’s really about the individuals and their interesting personal struggles whether it’s with being a homosexual at a time when it’s illegal or whether it’s having schizophrenia. In and of itself, this probably straight ahead will be — no one will care. So then of course, you go let’s fling ourselves the other way into science fiction, right? Okay. Science fiction tends to come in two flavors. It comes in the hopeful flavor or the be careful flavor. My guess is that this would probably fall under the be careful flavor of science fiction.
  • Craig: Yeah. For instance, I could see a story where two scientists work on this project. And there’s something wrong between them. And they turn on the switch, they achieve success. And in achieving success, it becomes clear that they’ve caused a problem. And there’s going to be essentially there’s a certain amount of time that’s going to go by and then the universe will collapse. They’ve got three days. And they’re the only two that know about it. They’re the only two that figured it out. Everybody else thinks it’s great. And so, you have this romantic comedy where everybody in the world is just going about their day, but two people know for sure the world is going to end in 72 hours. And what do they do with that time? That would be very interesting.
  • John: Yeah, the upcoming movie with Bill Hader and Amy Schumer, he is like a sports doctors and she has to write a profile on him. That’s just the conceit to get you started. But that’s not going to be what the bulk of the movie is like. I would say, probably most romantic comedies, the essential premise is just there to get the first 30 pages going and does not become a very important part of the rest of the story.
  • Craig: I mean what you do for your job, I mean, it’s just the way romance works. That may be how you meet somebody, maybe what initially attracts you to somebody. But after the first three or four dates and the first five fights, it’s not about any of that anymore. So in that case here, I think to the Hadron Collider would essentially act as a McGuffin for romance.

As a science fan, I wanted to argue. The Large Hadron Collider is NOT boring. And don’t call it “Hadron Collider” (though that’s technically correct I suppose). The accepted short version is the LHC. L-H-C! And of course the LHC will not bring aliens raining down on us. And of course the LHC won’t destroy the world. The LHC is NOT a McGuffin. It’s great. I even wrote a post about it. You get the idea.

And then, enlightenment about the obvious. Movies are first and foremost about telling people’s stories. And screenwriters like John August and Craig Maizen are experts in making movies worth watching, not science.

Let me share my own story. In this case about my daughter who is 11. A few months ago the kids at school talked about Spock, so she wanted to know who he was. I’m old enough to fondly recall watching reruns of the original Star Trek series on TV.  So it was fun for me to pick out the movie Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, which is the best of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. And. Well. It was ok to watch. But rather slow. My daughter’s curiosity satisfied, she said she was to glad to know who Spock was, but didn’t think she’d watch any more Star Trek. Contrast this with the first three Star Wars movies, which came out around the same time. My kids all love Star Wars. In fact my post on what order to watch the Star Wars movies got a surge of interest this year, getting way more views than when I first wrote it. Undoubtedly due to the new Star Wars movie coming out in December. Star Wars drives clicks. Not because it’s science fiction. Princesses. Swords. Fantasy it is. Fight they do, using magic forces. But unlike Star Trek which is good, those first three Star Wars movies are so so great.

There is this idea that with enough people and money you can do everything well all at the same time. That’s not true. Not true for movies. Not true for writing books. And in my work experience definitely not true for writing software. Doing something great is all about focus, focus, focus. In my post on software design, I extend Hanlon’s Razor, the first sentence below about stupidity, with a second about difficulty:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. And never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by difficulty.

This is the ultimate answer to Greg Egan’s question. One so often asked by science types: why are movies getting the science wrong again? Answer: making great movies is just really, really hard. And since you can only excel at a few things at a time, focusing more on getting the science right means focusing less on making a great movie. Besides, we already have a name for movies that make scientific correctness their priority: documentaries. Science fiction movies have bad science for the same mundane reason other kinds of movies have similar plot or logic fails. Science is not unique. If, or apparently when, with Ben Affleck producing, the FIFA scandal movie comes out, there’s no doubt hard core soccer fans will be livid about inaccuracies. Livid. That’s why I disagree with Egan’s judgement of Her, Ex Machina and Interstellar. Despite their flaws, all three are very good movies. That’s accomplishment enough. In fact they are better in both their science and as movies than science fiction fare from years ago like Star Trek II Wrath of Khan. I look forward to watching them with my kids once they’re all old enough. Though I’ll pause occasionally to point out holes in the science and logic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Contrast Egan’s (rather typical hard core science stance) with paleontologist Donald Prothero’s review of Jurassic World. He says:

My usual short answer is: “A big disappointment: it’s an OK monster movie, lousy science. And it could have been SO much better.”

His main complaint (which I wholeheartedly share) is no feathers on the dinosaurs:

Not only do feathers occur in birds, but they are present in all the predatory dinosaurs for sure, especially smaller-bodied dinosaurs like Velociraptor, as well as tyrannosaurs, based on the Chinese Yutyrannus. Now there are fossils that suggest that all dinosaurs (even the ornithischians, including duckbills and horned dinosaurs like Triceratops) had feathers as well—or at least some kind of downy covering, especially when they were young. Pterosaurs had feathers or some kind of downy body covering as well. This is even more revolutionary than the changes in dinosaur posture and physiology discovered in the 1970s. Feathers not only further reinforce the importance of birds being survivors of the raptor lineage, but it is also a good example of how evolution often uses features already present and co-opts them for another function.

A brightly feathered T-Rex would be so awesome in a blockbuster movie. Guess we’ll have to wait a bit longer.

The difference between Egan and Prothero is subtle but important. Egan asked why are movies so irredeemably stupid, implying people are stupid as the cause. Prothero asked why can’t movies be better, implying movies are difficult as the cause. That shift makes all the difference. I really enjoyed Prothero’s critique of Jurassic World. What we need to celebrate is not the bad movies that get the science right. Nor the good movies that get the science wrong (though that’s the right priority). Rather we should celebrate those few science fiction movies that manage to get the science right while maintaining their movie greatness: Alien, Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Blade Runner, Contact are on my list. We can also celebrate Greg Egan and authors like him, such as Alastair Reynolds, who have the painstaking discipline to write great SF novels while keeping their science straight. Aside: Reynolds’ short story, Zima Blue, is my pick for favorite SF story I’d love to see made into movie: a robot artist struggles with loss of memory, and in the end returns to a (now ancient) silicon valley swimming pool. Hauntingly good.

Personally the greatest science fiction movie for me is 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s because among many other things it does well, it gets the science right on the Fermi Paradox, the mystery of why we haven’t found any aliens despite searching for them. A mind stretching topic, and the subject of the most viewed post on this site Avoiding “Sagan Syndrome.” Why Astronomers and Journalists should pay heed to Biologists about ET. As mentioned in my post, it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve, but only millions of years for life to expand to fill the galaxy. This means whoever expands first has the galaxy to themselves. Though I should caveat there are other solutions to the Fermi Paradox. What’s so poignant about the movie 2001 is the first, elder aliens decide to seed complex life throughout the galaxy. This gets the science right, and makes a great story and great movie. And I think Arthur C. Clarke’s more profound message is an inversion on this theme. If humans are the first to expand, it would be an act of great beauty if we, out of loneliness or hope, seeded this galaxy with life affirming monoliths.



2 thoughts on “Science Fiction movie priorities should be movie first, science second. Because movies are hard.

  1. The makers of Interstellar actually consulted a bunch of famous scientists to try to get the science right, and this ended up only contributing incomprehensible nonsense to the story. My biggest complaint about the movie, though, was its very downbeat vision of the future, where we somehow lose the ability to solve technical problems.

    I would also say that scifi movies are generally harder to do well than other movies, because they’re a bigger lie. The closer you can stick to the truth, the more believable a lie is. That’s one reason time travel is such a great scifi theme: you don’t need to make as much up.

    Despite this, I’d love to see scifi movies based on Asimov’s “The End of Eternity”, Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”, van Vogt’s “Voyage of the Space Beagle”, and E.E. Smith’s “Lensmen” novels. All books from the optimistic age of scifi.

    Finally, I’d say the best episodes of the original Star Trek TV series were far better than any of the movies, and better paced. Maybe your daughter would enjoy “City on the Edge of Forever” or “Mirror Mirror”.

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