Hugo Gernsback, often described as the father of science-fiction, once stated his idea of a perfect science-fiction story was “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science”. Almost all science-fiction films have taken this ideal on board, often sacrificing scientific accuracy for the story’s sake.
Of course, bending the rules of science is almost always necessary in a science-fiction story. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic World would perhaps have been a lot less terrifying, for instance, if it was portrayed as feathered rather than scaly, as recent evidence suggests.
However, there has been a trend within cinema lately to depict science (particularly space travel) in an accurate and factual way. One of those films, the recently released The Martian, has been praised for presenting its science as accurately as possible. Interstellar and Gravity are two other well-known examples of sci-fi films that attempt to be as factual as possible.
But just how scientifically accurate as these films? And perhaps, more importantly, does it matter if they don’t portray science 100% accurately?
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!
The Martian is the story of Matt Damon and his quest to survive after being stranded on Mars. As one Guardian review highlighted, The Martian is the “first genuine Mars movie. It is the first movie that attempts to be realistic and that is actually about human beings grappling with the problems of exploring Mars”. There are no green men or ancient alien civilizations- just a lone guy trying to survive the harsh wilderness of a barren world.
Of course, this is because the book’s author Andy Weir attempted to be as accurate as possible when writing the novel. Similarly, director Ridley Scott also requested the help of James L. Green (Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA) during the production of the film.
As a result, several scenes in the film have been praised for being scientific and technically accurate. Matt Damon’s survival tactics, from his process to produce water to his makeshift organic potato farm, have all been described as accurate and plausible. Particularly, Damon’s process to produce water is currently being used by NASA for a planned Martian rover.
However, there are a few moments in the film in which scientific accuracy had to be ignored for the narrative purposes. One such scene is the film’s hazardous dust storm, which in reality would have been little more than a breeze. However, in The Martian, the storm reaches speeds of 120 miles per hour and forces the crew to abandon the planet. Screenwriter Drew Goddard acknowledged that the force of the Martian winds had to be exaggerated in order to set up the story.
Overall though, The Martian can be considered realistic and accurate, and it doesn’t take too many liberties in its depiction of Mars and astronomical travel.
Interstellar follows Matthew McConaughey’s journey across space and time to find a new home for humanity- and again, features Matt Damon stranded on another planet (who should probably consider another career at this point). The film was praised for its depiction of black holes and wormholes. In particular, the portrayal of a wormhole as a sphere showing a distorted view of the target galaxy (rather than a 2D hole) was considered scientifically correct.
The process of creating the film’s supermassive rotating black hole was also very much rooted in scientific accuracy. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who was the scientific consultant for the film) provided pages of theoretical equations for the artists, who wrote new CGI rendering software based on the equations, so to create accurate computer simulations of the gravitational lensing caused by black holes. The resulting visual effects gave Thorne a further understanding of gravitational lensing- which ensued in two scientific papers being published on the subject.
At the heart of Interstellar though is a conflict between artistic freedom and scientific accuracy. Kip Thorne often butted heads with director Christopher Nolan over particular scenes. For instance, Thorne once spent two weeks talking Nolan out of an idea about a character traveling faster than light (a scientific impossibility).
However, there were times when artistic needs triumphed over attempts to be factual. One such example was seen when Nolan altered the film’s visual representations of black holes. He found that when the Doppler effect was added in by the visual effects team, it resulted in an asymmetrically lit black and blue black hole- which Nolan thought the viewers would not understand. The black hole in the film then does not account for the Doppler effect.
There’s also the question of what happens if you’re unlucky enough to enter a black hole. A popular theory is that hypothetical astronauts who venture into black holes will experience the painfully sounding process of spaghettification- which means they will literally be stretched like spaghetti from head to toe. This thankfully does not happen to McConaughey, who survives his black hole journey through the power of love (and the intervention of fifth dimensional beings).
Compared to The Martian, there seems to be more of a conflict between artistic freedom and being scientifically correct present with Interstellar’s narrative- which leads to a fair amount of inaccuracy. However, not many other sci-fi films can boast that they inspired the publication of two papers on gravitational lensing.
Gravity was another science-fiction blockbuster that was commended for its realism and scientific accuracy. It featured Sandra Bullock being stranded in space after the mid-orbit destruction of her space shuttle. Like the previous two films, it was praised for its attempts to be scientifically accurate as possible- although, some liberties were taken of course.
Several big names in science, such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, nit-picked the film for minor inaccuracies. One example is seen when Bullock’s tear rolls down her face. Astrophysicists such as Tyson noted that after the tear was released, the surface tension in a micro-gravity environment would not be sufficient for the tear to continue sticking to her jawline.
Despite a few minor inaccuracies however, the film’s subject matter of the Kessler syndrome (which is a scenario in which collisions between objects in Earth’s orbit could lead to a chain reaction and then further collisions- rendering space activities and the use of certain satellites unfeasible) is one that could very much happen in the near future.
One major potential trigger of such a disaster is the Envisat Satellite, which is an inactive but large satellite which cruises at an altitude where space debris is greatest. Two known objects are expected to pass within just 200 meters of the Envisat Satellite every year. If either of them collide…well, it could lead to a situation very much similar to the one we see in Gravity, perhaps making the film a grim but realistic glimpse into the future of space travel.
Do sci-fi films need to be completely accurate?
What all the above films have in common is that they attempt to be realistic and accurate as possible- however, they have to sacrifice realism sometimes for artistic, narrative or even technical reasons. In the end however, total accurary doesn’t matter. What matters is getting people invested and inspired by the space industry, and the possibilities that space travel contains. As physicist Brian Cox said “The Martian is the best advert for a career in engineering I’ve ever seen”.
There’s also no doubt that films such as Interstellar and Gravity have helped encourage the general public to become interested with space again, which is why some physicists have campaigned for Interstellar to be shown in the physics classroom despite its inaccuracies. Getting the balance between artistic freedom and scientific accuracy in modern sci-fi films can be a difficult one- but when done right, it can be used to used to inspire and educate millions.