In my internet wanderings, I recently came across a Prometheus review that lambasted the movie for its inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Prometheus is certainly not perfect, and as Nikki pointed out in her review, it can be baffling at times. While Nikki stuck to pointing out basic character, motivation, continuity, and story flaws, the review I found – and the comments that ensued – were breaking down the actual scientific inaccuracies and plausibility of the film.
I should point out that I love and respect science. I devoted a portion of my life to it. I also love films, and the imagination and fantasy that many of them depict. And sure, I like a decent cup o’ plausibility with my fantastical universes. The Prometheus review that I stumbled upon was well-written, made some good points, and had me laughing. But it left me wondering how rigorously films should be evaluated on their scientific merit. And I am saying that as someone with a physical science degree – but that’s almost precisely why I’m saying it.
I am unsure of the scientific credentials of the author of this particular review and its commentators. I can’t expect they were too impressive, though, because there was a nine-comment thread where people were trying to work out the relativistic time and distance possibilities of the Prometheus and its journey. Everybody came up with a different answer to simply work out the ship’s distance from earth, yet each number was stated with utter certainty. The reality was that it took them six comments in to properly convert 3.27*10^14 km to light years, and that aint relativity, it’s multiplication. I especially loved a guy that commented, and I quote, “I’m familiar with general and special relativity, thanks,” and then proceeded to incorrectly convert kilometers to light years.
The fact is, crazy, (often impossible) complex shit goes down in sci-fi movies. My college physics textbook has a chapter on special relativity, and the example problems are all basic and simplified, assuming things like acceleration and deceleration. To truly work out the math of Prometheus, and how fast the ship had to be going…I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t need to take an upper level physics course on relativity. It’s not that I’m against scientific curiosity – of course not – but I’m against the common moviegoer speaking as though they have more authority on a scientific matter than Damon Lindelof, when likely they do not. Lindelof isn’t coordinating rocket launches, but neither are 99% of moviegoers.
Moving away from the Prometheus example, I recently watched the independent film Another Earth, and enjoyed it quite a bit. And this was in spite of some serious, glaring scientific inaccuracies. For example, there is another EARTH in the SKY, appearing bigger than the moon, and yet our own orbit, tides, and moon seemed unaffected. Etc.*10^9. The thing is though, is that there can’t be another earth. Not like the one in Another Earth. To half-quote The Social Network, if there was going to be another earth, there’d be another earth. So of COURSE it can’t happen the way it does in the movie, because it cannot happen at all.
But the question is, what if it could? Not, “what if it could, what would the science be” – you can’t really ask that, that’s like saying, “but what if two plus two was five, how would the numbers work on that?” The question is, if it could, what would the emotional, humanistic, and societal ramifications be? And that, to me, is the purpose of movies. I enjoyed Another Earth because of its lead character, the unique situation that the parallel Earth afforded her, and the resulting choices that it caused her to make. (And just imagine Star Trek if they didn’t have warp drive!)
I’m not against things being realistically displayed, but sometimes they simply cannot be, because they are not realistic. To me, the ability to portray the physically impossible is one of cinema’s advantages. I am content with – and I think, no less the intelligent for – sitting back, suspending the laws and constants of the universe, and seeing what we would do if they were broken.