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Hollywood Science

Everyone knows that films are make believe. Everyone knows whole chunks of movies would never stand up, let alone be achieved in so-called “real life”. Right?

Apparently not. I have lost count of the number of times someone has watched a film with me and argued that something “could never happen” and thus suck the fun out of it, particularly action movies. (Note I’m saying nothing about narrative logic here: I’m talking about those moments in film that are incredible, but not so incredible within the world of the story we are watching).

For me it works like this: as long as your character does something that makes sense within the story, it doesn’t have to actually be real or “work” in reality. If it did, we might as well stop making sci-fi films or any film where something out of the ordinary happens altogether. We’d only be able to make Ken Loach-style dramas. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually love Ken Loach, Mike Leigh et al. But not all the time. Sometimes I want big explosions. And aliens. And werewolves. And tidal waves. And meteors. And people coming back from the dead with chainsaws. And everything else that opens Pandora’s Box of Crazy Writing.

So if a hero jumps off a building then attached to a fire hose as Bruce Willis does in one of my all-time faves Die Hard, does it really matter if the science works?


Because it works in the story. John McClane is the type of guy who would do this. You or I would get barbequed, we’d be freaking so royally we’d never think of it – or if we did we’d make a mess of it and either still get barbequed or fall squillions of floors to our squishy deaths. That’s assuming of course we’d be on top of the building at that exact moment anyhow: chances are I would be sitting downstairs with the rest of the hostages.

This isn’t reality. Do what works for your story.

That said, the Open University does a rather impressive set of calculations for Bruce’s jump here and whether he would survive. Pity Physics was never my thing and I haven’t got a bloody clue what they’re talking about. Enjoy!

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25 thoughts on “Hollywood Science”

  1. The thing which took me out of I Am Legend wasn’t the vampires. Vampires, I can buy. But someone who’s genuinely never heard of Bob Marley? That’s ridiculous.

  2. Talking of Marley’s ghost… no one ever complains (or do they?) about Marley and his ghoul friends who haunt Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. And it’s one of Dickens’ best-loved, most famous stories. Apart from the book, I’m the world’s biggest fan of the Alistair Sim film version.

    Anyway, the lesson here, Lucy, is never watch movies with literal-minded dullards. Entertainment is all about unleashing the imagination… but you have to have one first.

    Dave Anderson.

  3. Let’s say I’m watching a sci-fi movie that’s set in space with spaceships and aliens.
    One of the characters will shoot lasers from his eyes. Cool, it’s a sci-fi movie.
    Everyone, even the aliens, speak english. Cool, it’s sci-fi.
    However, if someone gets their legs ravaged by a monster and, in the next scene, they’re walking FINE, there’s something wrong. It’s not realistic in any sense. It isn’t realistic in a sci-fi sense, especially since they didn’t show the character getting some sort of special bio-treatment or whatever.
    They’re just walking around, unharmed.

    A friend will say “Yeah, that’s not realistic, but neither are aliens or spaceships LOL”.
    But it is. In the movie’s context, things like aliens and spaceships are real. However, being immune to having your legs torn apart is NOT a part of the movie’s ‘universe’.

    If the same thing happened in Mission Impossible, it would be ‘unrealistic’ for the hero to shrug off being shot by a shotgun to his legs. Sure, he can do a lot of crazy things and the movie is fictional, but there is always a line that fictional stories cannot cross.

    If they don’t adress the the hero as someone who is made of steel and immune to getting shot in the legs, then it’s not believable that he can walk fine after being shot in the legs.

    If I make a story that takes place in present-day New York where ordinary dogs can talk to humans, that’s fine. But if I add to that story that these dogs can survive after being thrown into a pit of searing lava, I’m crossing the line.
    Unless the movie is about cybo-pooches, the realism-line ends at the dogs simply having a larger intellect than they do in real life.

  4. Couldn’t agree more Carlo – that’s the notion of narrative logic for you: it HAS to make sense within the world of the story. What I’m taking issue with here however are those people who insist that the incredible “would never happen” regardless, when it DOES have narrative logic and thus would make sense in the world of the story. Why do they watch films if they can’t suspend their disbelief? Everything in film – like the fact no one generally goes to the loo – would therefore be too much for them, surely?

  5. Hitchcock called people who worry about such things “plausiblists,” but we all do it!

    I find that if a film engages me emotionally, like Casablanca then I can ignore the the impausibilities. If it doesn’t, like Atonement, then they tend to stick out more.

  6. C’mon Oli, that’s not that far fetched, really – considering she was just a toddler when Marley died. A character thing like that can always be explained as everyone has a different conceptual map.

    But as a nurse if she didn’t know the right way up to inject a needle then that would be ridiculous.

    I agree with Martin as I do find myself happily ignoring minor logic flaws if something engages me emotionally enough. Although I can’t remember any implausibilities in Atonement, quite frankly.

  7. Just asked the youngest person in the office (19) if she knew who Bob Marley was, and she did, so I maintain my incredulity. Plus the character knew who Damien Marley was, and he never gets mentioned without Bob being mentioned in the same breath.

    Anyway, took me out of the film.


    They then followed it up with a sub-Signs suggestion that God had planned a solution all along, which was the coup de grace, as the movie had been a science-action up till that point…

  8. Oli, I really don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine someone hearing of Damian Marley without necessarily hearing his music or reading his biography.

    Your 19 year colleague is not an Hispanic nurse in America who never heard Bob Marley on the radio and whose family didn’t play his music for her. It’s a shame and probably counts as child abuse but it’s not unusual.

    I completely agree regarding the goddy bit of I Am Legend which was keeping faith to the original but they should have lost it.


    God to Will Smith…

    “Yeah, so I’ve provided a solution to that vampire plague…”

    “The one you presumably started?”

    “Oh, yeah, that was me. Sorry, I was in a bit of a mood that day.”

    “Oh. Okay. So, how are you going to give me the solution?”

    “Oh, it’s something to do with butterflies. Like that tatoo on the chick there, the shape of the glass in front of you, and the last thing your daughter inexplicably said to you…”

    “That would be before you threw a helicopter into her, yeah?”

    “Yes. Yes it would.”

  10. It’s psychologically true that should such a pandemic happen people would question God or see it as His plan in some way but they crossed a line in actually making it God’s actual real plan.

    People do believe in selective interventions – and that can include screenwriters and above the title actors as much as anyone else – but how can they possibly explain not having Dr Krippin run over by a bus before it all started?

    Actually, I do know the Christian argument for that and why God would kill billions to prove a point but I’m going to stop there or I’ll be debating myself.


    Atonement – I just didnt believe the stuff with the letter. He’s put his soul into this letter, prevaricated about what to write, wrote a naughty version letter which he’s never gonna send (but he very pointedly folds neatly and puts down next to the typewriter)The he doesnt even glance at it when he puts it in the envelope. Apart from anything else, it’s hard to put a letter in an envelope without looking at it.

    Then the plot hinges on a 13 year old girl just happening to walk in on TWO sexual encounter in the space of a couple of hours – I mean how likely is that?

    However, as NOONE else I’ve seen reviewing the film even mentions it, then its probably just me.

    I AM LEG END – it wasnt God that created the virus Oli. It was man. Man playing at God. Which is the sort of reactionary anti science bollocks you expect from Hollywood SF films. Interestingly, the bleak ending of Richard Matheson’s novel takes almost the exact opposite view of our position in the universe.

    I did like the film tho!

  12. Martin, the whole ‘playing as God’ science stuff that you see is something I’m glad to be seeing in the cinema. It’s the twenty-first century and these kinds of threats – especially those brought because of the barriers we’ve passed – are very real.
    Things like machines replacing human labour, bioscience, nanotechnology, and so forth are all real and ehre today. The themes in hollywood movies only mirror the world that we don’t pay attention to – the sci-non-fi.

  13. Martin, I remember those problems with Atonement now which come into the category of “possible but unlikely annoying contrivances” which I can overlook if I’m in the right mood.

    Carlo, no doubt “playing god” is a powerful theme in science fiction from Frankenstein to Battlestar Galactica, dealing with the conflict between the rational and the superstitious.

    I Am Legend is basically saying that stem cell research and genetic modification is a slippery slope to the death of billions in the future which is simply nonsense but they are entitled to say that. Just like my sci-fi film is entitled to say the exact opposite.

    Machines replacing human labour led to the death of billions of people in Battlestar Galactica but in real life the cylons would have a big off-switch or a remote control.

  14. Precisely, but then Terminator would just be a boring movie, now wouldn’t it. 😛

    I haven’t come across a movie that tackles these kinds of things without having the movie result in utter chaos. Maybe I’m forgetting one?
    Maybe it’s time for some original ideas! Haha

  15. Robin re “which I can overlook if I’m in the right mood.”

    Good point. Atonement bored and annoyed me up to that point, so the whole unessacarily contrived, complicated, clunky and unconvincing way it lead up to the big plot point annoyed me.

    Legend I found interesting, and engaging, so I forgave it.

  16. Robin mentions Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein, which could be similarly read as reactionary anti-science malarkey, is one of my favourite films. Which I suppose means I’m prepared to forgive a film a shaky moral if it’s wonderful enough.

  17. I still don’t understand how a ‘shakey theme’ could be one that pertains to the changes that things like reverse-engineering could possibly bring. Science isn’t all rainbows and medicinal successes.

    Sure, science at it’s core is not something I feel is suitable for skepticism, but there are certain things that I can comfortably acknowledge will, and have been, changing our world in interesting ways.
    It would be silly to think fields of science such as nanotechnology, or reverse-engineering will not make their mark.

    And that lady in I AM LEGEND should’ve definately known who Bob Marley is. Even if she didn’t know who Bob Marley was, she shouldn’t have made Will Smith feel like a fracking weird man from mars just because he likes an musical artist that she’s never heard of.

  18. Carlo, there’s nothing wrong with that theme in itself, there will always be and should be debate about progress but it should be an intelligent debate based on whether those new technologies work and if there are any adverse consequences for humanity. It shouldn’t involve people arguing for what god or the flying spaghetti monster would think.

    I have no problem with religionists not wanting to take part in stem cell research, for instance, but why should they have the power to ban the non-superstitious from doing so?

    The problem with I Am Legend, as was said, is a practical one of the genre shift from sci-fi to religious fantasy at the end. That’s not being anti-religious, it’s just as annoying when the shift is from thriller to horror.

    Regarding Bob Marley, I actually thought the Will Smith character was being a musical snob. 100 million Americans don’t know who the current vice-president is. Is it really such a leap to imagine that 1 American doesn’t know a popstar who died two decades ago when she was a baby?

  19. Sorry, the formatting got all fudged up.

    Robin, you’re absolutely right about the misplaced theme switcharoo in I AM LEGEND. I’ve also grown tired of the whole ‘God isn’t here for us’ theme.

    Anyways, I personally think there’s a lot of potential, on a storytelling level, in the changes going on in our world and I think it’s about time more movies stop treating them like sci-fi political bologna. Yes, robots like in i-Robot are sci-fi, but the problem I found is that the tone and general theme made it seem as if the film was telling us “See this? Science made this! Do you want science to do this in real life? Didn’t think so!”

    I just think it’d be refreshing to see a movie’s universe be set in a more mature tone, as to say “things are different in the future, but isn’t that the nature of things?”.

    What’s fine with sci-fi futuristic movies are scenes that show you some neat-o futuristic car-parking system or whatnot. Cool Jetsons-esque futuristic gizmos are cool in that they are imaginative. However, the problem with sci-fi futuristic movies is when robots are compared to human beings, and out of that spawns a popcorn philosophy on how humanity will coexist with machines (such as in i-robot and, in I Am Legend’s case, you’d simply replace ‘machines’ with ‘science’).

    I don’t even know much about this stuff, even though it sounds like I’m being a big snob about it. I’m not saying futuristic movies are stupid, I’m just tired of the constant anti-science/religion crap that is tied with every futuristic movie. And, if a movie is going to present a theme that touches upon the dangers of our new technologies and so forth, don’t make it a popcorn sci-fi flick at the same time for you’re embarassing two genres with one stone.

    This is why movies like Galaxy Quest are so great. Sure, it was silly, but it was high concept and fun. No theme such as “See what television does? It could lead us to wars with aliens! Do you want that?! Didn’t think so!”

    In my opinion, movies such as I-robot and I Am Legend rely way too heavily on stuffing drama, morale, and anti-whatever into their theme and overall atmosphere in order to give their movie some substance.

    And I suppose Will Smith was being sort of snobbish, but the woman was also being all “Okay, you like this guy’s music. Stop acting like I’m supposed to know who he is, he’s obviously not popular if I’ve never heard of him!”

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