Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

In a few of my recent posts, I’ve noted that movies often get the physics of space travel and battle entirely wrong:

It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. This is, perhaps, the reason so many science fiction movies and books seem to flaunt the rules of physics. As a side note, I think a spectacular film could be made while still obeying the rules of physics, but that is only because we’re so used to the absurd physics defying space battles.

Because it was only a side note and would have distracted from the point of the post, I neglected to mention 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is, in fact, a spectacular film that was made while obeying the rules of physics. Of course, the film is long, slowly paced, and unglamorous, but that is only because that’s the way things would be in space.

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics is a website which goes into the details of common mistakes made in movies (presumably to present a more dramatic story). At one point, they speak about how well obeying the rules of physics works for 2001 and they also mention something which leads me to believe that we will be seeing more realistic space travel films in the future:

Arguably, the most dramatic scene in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey occurs when the computer HAL locks Dave out of the spaceship and Dave is forced to enter the ship in a dangerously unorthodox manner. Even though Dave sets off explosive bolts, the scene is totally silent because there is no air in outer space. Yet, the scene coveys a sense of utter desperation.

2001 is included in most lists of the top 100 movies of all times (#22 on the AFI list of the top 100 films), has an enduring quality, and cult following because it got the physics of space travel essentially right. It’s not a particularly strong movie in terms of plot, action, or pacing. Its best dialog comes from its most notable character, a computer portrayed as a disembodied voice and unexpressive camera lens. Its ending is almost incomprehensible. Still 2001 demonstrates that silence is strongly emotional.

The 1970 movie Tora Tora Tora was nominated for four Academy Awards including the award for sound. It won the award for Best Visual Effects. The movie was a marvel of special effects for its time and was vastly superior in historical authenticity to the more recent movie Pearl Harbor. Yet to modern viewers it has an annoying audio distraction. The bullets make a fake sounding ricochet noise when they hit. In 1970 this was standard practice but now sounds ridiculous. Movie makers would do well to take note of this fact. Movie history itself shows that the public eventually does reject nonsense.

Bad physics is such a staple of science fiction movies that there has to come a time when good physics will become more interesting, if only for the sake of variety and percieved originality. I think there will always be a place for visable lasers and loud exposions in films set in space, but I think the silent, slow, unglamorous space battle could also become prevalent, if done correctly…