There was a time when being called a ‘nerd’ could have been considered an insult, but today what was once considered nerd culture – think thick glasses, spaceships and battlebots – has become not only accepted, but celebrated and embraced. We have this to thank, in part, for the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster, which, while perhaps never reserved for nerds alone, has never been more popular than it is today. But popularity, of course, brings the inevitable risk of critique.
While the general public might not bat an eyelid at most scientific inaccuracies in sci-fi flicks, the boffins and nerds among us often have a love-hate relationship with these big blockbusters – thrilled by the ride, but incensed when the science is obviously wrong.
In response Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass, two self-proclaimed science fiction nerds, have set out to celebrate the wonderful world of science fiction by examining the scientific success and failures behind the scenes in a fun and quirky bookshelf edition, sure to delight dedicated sci-fi fans and quantum physicists alike.
“Our primary goal,” the pair explain, “is not to excoriate the creators of movies and shows for errors but to celebrate when they get it right.” That said, the book does not avoid criticising where Hollywood has got it wrong, and significant space is given to examining some of the most extreme sci-fi cock-ups. Hardcore fans of Jon Amiel’s ‘The Core’ – revered as one of Hollywood’s most spectacular scientific failures – might want to give this a miss.
Science fiction is a difficult genre to get right – too much fact and the film becomes a lecture, but focus too much on entertainment and you risk the viewer becoming disconnected. People do not look to sci-fi for information or facts – that’s left to news and documentaries. They want to be entertained, but it has to be believable.
In ‘Hollyweird Science’, Grazier and Cass attempt to analyse the delicate balancing act that is sci-fi, and isolate what makes a great sci-fi flick. How do directors and writers ensure that the viewers emit a delighted “Oh, wow!” at an incredible on-screen adaption of scientific mastery, rather than an exasperated “Oh, please!” at a storyline that is incorrect, far-fetched, and ultimately unbelievable?
It’s harder than it seems. For example, it’s widely known that sound doesn’t travel in space, but who would want to watch ‘Star Wars’ without the sound effects? Battle scenes would have been far less audience-pleasing if the TIE fighters were silent – and Ben Burtt would have had no use for his elephant-call-cum-car-driving-on-a-wet-pavement mashup. So sound travelling in space, while scientifically inaccurate is generally considered acceptable in the commercial world of Hollywood.
But other errors, such as the gravity-defying train journey through the Earth’s core featured in the 2012 remake of ‘Total Recall’, or the huge nuclear explosions that pushed the Moon out of orbit in the pilot episode of British television series ‘Space’, are less acceptable. Directors who commit such science crime should prepare for a veritable cataclysm of criticism from angry movie-goers.
Over the years there has been a lot of trial and error when it comes to science fiction, and of course, directors and writers alike call on the assistance of scientists to try and make their films believable. Despite years of practice, some films do miss the mark and get it oh-so-wrong, but on the whole, Grazier and Cass suggest, Hollywood isn’t doing such a bad job.
This review was first published in print for E&T magazine.