The Truth Is Out There, Just Not in Hollywood’s Portrayal of Space
News of flowing water on Mars was released during the same week that The Martian hit theaters. This made Andy Weir’s carefully researched picture of the planet somewhat obsolete. But The Martian is in good company—many of the best space films of all time are wrought with inaccuracies. Whether the result of new knowledge of the universe or an utter disregard for science, filmmakers have been fudging the truth about outer space for eons.
Sure, certain iconic films like Star Wars ask the viewer to suspend disbelief and enter a world of laser blasters and transdimensional travel, but others aim to evoke a believable version of space. These fictionalized space flicks have propagated all kinds of inaccurate assumptions, and all they would have to is take a look at some space stock footage to get the right idea.
Hollywood has flubbed asteroids, space, and Physics 101 in the name of blockbuster success. We took a look at a few galactic culprits and underlined some errors that’d make Sir Isaac Newton roll in his grave.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The first director that dared venture into the great beyond was Georges Méliès—a pioneer of film who was way ahead of his time. Since A Trip to the Moon was made over a century ago, you can’t really fault it for scientific inaccuracies, but it did establish the long-standing trend of space in film.
The classic image of the smiling moon taking a rocket to the eye continues to inspire imaginative takes on astronomy. Other films of the era were primarily about love and war, but Méliès was shooting for the moon—a feat that would require another 67 years to achieve.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Fast-forward to the cusp of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Stanley Kubrick’s time-traveling masterpiece about humanity, exploration, and Artificial Intelligence is in theaters. Kubrick was known as a perfectionist and the film was co-written by renowned science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, so the fact that it has any inaccuracies is astounding.
Although mankind knew about low gravity on the moon (thanks to the findings of Newton), we had yet to see Neil Armstrong bouncing around in his big spacesuit. The astronomers in 2001: A Space Odyssey walk towards “the sentinel” as if they are still burdened by Earth’s gravity. In reality, the gravitational pull on the moon is 1/6th that of Earth, so they would’ve been practically floating.
Phil Plait, a writer for Slate, described Armageddon as having “more mistakes than frames.” The premise relies on a potential asteroid that will collide with planet Earth if not intercepted. NASA hires a misfit crew of heroes who save the world by securing a nuclear bomb to the asteroid and blowing it up.
Plait (and later students at the University of Leicester) did a little math concerning the size, consistency, and speed of the asteroid. As it turns out, blowing up a hunk of space rock that big would require an explosive with more energy than the Sun produces in a given second. About a billion bombs might do the trick. Fortunately, we’ll never have to worry about that because “asteroids the size of Texas” just don’t exist in our solar system.
Gravity was blockbuster gold—making a quarter of a billion dollars, winning seven Oscars, and starring two major A-list actors. But if you are familiar with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter corrections, then you know the film contains numerous fallacies. Forget that the stars wouldn’t twinkle once you’re outside the Earth’s orbit…or that all of the space stations would never be on the same parallel…or that a medical doctor (played by Sandra Bullock) has no business being up there in the first place. Above all these problems, the most distressing issue with the movie is the title.
In a pivotal scene, George Clooney desperately clutches onto Sandra Bullock for dear life. In actual space, the slightest nudge would’ve sent him rocketing back to her because they were in zero gravity. Instead, an intense (and intensely fictional) tug of war ensues. They lose the battle against a non-existent gravitational pull and Clooney shoots off into the darkness—never to be seen alive again. Clearly, Hollywood still hasn’t figured out this gravity thing.
The Martian (2015)
The Martian tells the story of botanist Mark Watney, who is left stranded on Mars after his fellow astronauts assume him dead. They are forced to evacuate when a huge storm hits the Red Planet.
Stop right there.
According to Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, the realism ends with the mega storm. Because of the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars, storms that intense don’t exist. In fact, they barely amount to more than a flutter—a miniscule disruption that the astronauts might not have even noticed. But what fun would a film be if all members of a risky expedition returned safely?
Every other space movie
To an extent, every space film has scientific flaws. Considering that sound needs air in which to travel and since space is a vacuum, there is no sound at all in space. So, each space film with sound is, technically speaking, incorrect. This fact alone affects most of our favorite celestial movies.
That doesn’t mean we can’t love these films despite (and more likely because of) their egregious inaccuracies. Chances are, none of us will be visiting the outer reaches of the universe any time soon. So why not make like George Méliès and let our imaginations go wild?
To film lovers, the quality of the story will always be more important than the science behind it.
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Stock Footage to Satisfy Your Interstellar Wanderlust
Video courtesy of Marketplace contributor vjanez