Mad About Science: Hollywood’s Science Fails (Part I)

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my personal heroes. Not to glaze over his lifetime of achievements, but one of the things he’s been popular for lately is pointing out why Hollywood needs to spend some of their giant blockbuster budgets on science books.

If you need an example, search “Neil deGrasse Tyson Gravity Tweets.”

A still scene in “Gravity” where Sandra Bullock’s hair defies physics. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment.

This article isn’t going to make me any friends, but bear with me. I still enjoy a lot of these following movies, even if they tend to bend the truth until it snaps.

Hollywood has discarded basic science for decades to make big, showy scenes, skirt budgetary costs and keep a viewer feeling smart without feeling overwhelmed. In the process, they’ve bred a series of recurring and painfully inaccurate tropes you get to point and giggle at today.


Scenes in microgravity are nearly impossible to get right, primarily because of our hair. You can hang Sandra Bullock on as many wire rigs as you want, gravity is still going to pull her hair straight down on set.

The only safe way we can film anything in microgravity is using a reduced-gravity aircraft. This is a plane that climbs in altitude, “levels out” and then begins to fall. During the crest of the arc, the engines exactly compensate for drag and the plane and everyone inside are subject to a few moments of total freefall, where weightlessness is simulated.

Trying to film an entire movie like this would eat up the budget of like 20 movies put together.

It’s just easier to tie everyone to wire rigs like human marionettes.

“Star Wars” is one of my favorite franchises of all time, but it’s rife with scientific faux pas. TIE Fighters (which stands for Twin Ion Engines, which is actual propulsion technology) make an ominous scream as they rip through space. Only problem is, sound is the vibration through air or other gases, and those are sparse in a vacuum.

Laser cannons are another misstep by not just “Star Wars,” but virtually every sci-fi movie that has ever used them. We can see laser beams because it’s the light bouncing through gas to create an effect called “scattering.” Also, lasers are light, so they move at the speed of it. An expert pilot dodging a laser beam would be like an expert pilot trying to dodge sunlight; it’s just not happening.

Everyone is familiar with that scene where there’s a huge space battle going on. One ship fires a nuclear warhead and there’s a huge mushroom cloud. The hero’s ship races through the flaming debris as embers bathe his ship and billowing smoke masks the camera’s view for just one tense moment. Flames are spraying out of the ship that’s suddenly falling rapidly towards the planet!

A space battle with similar technology in space wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch. Nuclear warheads create fireballs in our atmosphere because of the presence of oxygen, and the cloud mushrooms because of how it reacts with surrounding air. In space, the nuclear explosion wouldn’t be able to create a fireball, just a blinding, spherical white flash and an invisible ejection of radiation, which is much more deadly in space.

While the ships might be filled with oxygen, any fires present inside of the ship would be immediately extinguished as the hull is breached. The vacuum of space would pull all of the oxygen out very rapidly and take away the fire’s ability to burn. The lack of oxygen in space would also smother embers that formed on the broken pieces or the ship’s exterior.

Most space battles in movies are based off images and film of naval battles from World War II, where uncontrollable fires and sinking were legitimate concerns.

Hotshot hackers. 

Some edgy kid in a hoodie sitting behind an intimidating-looking command prompt screen is able to break into the tightest government computer systems in the world. He’s dangerous and irresponsible, but the protagonists need him and his quirky millennial edge to hack into the alien computers and save the world.

Most large-scale hacking events are the result of something called social engineering. This is when the hacker uses traditional scam artist techniques to trick an employee or government official into opening something they shouldn’t that infects their computer, or collects evidence to blackmail that person so they can have an easy “in” to the database they’re trying to infiltrate. Brute-force entry into major computer systems is exceedingly rare, and no major companies use “password” or a CEO’s birth date as a password.

As well, just because the hacker is smart doesn’t mean that he knows how to hack alien computers. They may run on electricity and do advanced computing, but unless they developed their systems on Earth, there’s no way we’d figure their technology out in minutes, just like they couldn’t figure out ours at a glance.

We’re still digging up relics from antiquity that served functions we don’t understand.

Are you not entertained? Check back next week as we laugh and learn at some other odd junk we’ve seen in movies.

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