Friday, February 27, 2009

What is Wrong with Most Science Fiction Films?

“Science really doesn't exist. Scientific beliefs are either proved wrong, or else they quickly become engineering. Everything else is untested speculation.”
James P. Hogan

It really, really drove this squirrel nuts.

Our intrepid heroes are “on the other side of the galaxy” while listening to a battle on their handy-dandy “faster-than-light” radio. The Forces of Good are losing. Suddenly, unable to stand it anymore, the captain, in violation of the orders he has been given, takes his ship, at top speed, to Earth, where they arrive just in time to avert disaster.

So, what bugged me? Instantaneous interstellar communications? Well, maybe a little; but that’s not it. Faster-than-light travel? Nope, hard to have interstellar travel without some form of FTL (Faster-than-light) flight. What bugged me was the fact that they arrived back at Earth before the battle was over!

You see, their ship, while capable of speeds much faster than those allowed by Einstein’s theories, still had to travel at a finite speed. The battle would have been long over before they could have possibly arrived at the battlefield.

Think it through with me – The fastest boat in the world has a top speed of just over 300 miles-per-hour. Let’s say that you have that boat and are floating just off of the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, listening on your radio to a battle that is taking place in Tokyo Bay. It is 4784 miles from Seattle to Tokyo in a straight line, and that’s close enough for our purposes. In the fastest boat in the world, it will take you 16 hours to get to Tokyo, far too late to help (not that that sort of speed boat would have the range to make such a journey.)

I hear the question, “Ah, Squirrel, your thinking about this all wrong! Don’t think “boats,” think “airplanes!” Ok, I’ll play…

The fastest plane in the world is Lockheed’s SR-71, and it can fly at 2,200 mph. Not counting take-off, landing, and aerial refueling times, you could go from Seattle to Tokyo in 2 ¼ hours. Fast, but not fast enough. Again, the battle would be over before you could get there.

Nobody really expects absolute realism out of Hollywood. When it only takes Jack Bauer 12 minutes to get from Fontana to Glendale, we chuckle knowingly and enjoy the show. But we wouldn’t be so willing to suspend our disbelief if he took 20 minutes to drive from Barstow to Fresno! (I’ve been waiting for the season where Jack spends 2 whole hours stuck on the 405, trying to keep up with the action on his cell phone.)

“But, wait, Squirrel! 24 takes place in the ‘real world,’ you’re talking about Sci-Fi! It’s not supposed to be real!”

I beg your pardon! We’re talking about Science fiction. It’s supposed to be scientific! You know, science. [sci·ence (noun) – the study of the physical and natural world and phenomena, especially by using systematic observation and experiment - Encarta Dictionary On-line 2009] Science fiction is supposed to be scientifically plausible. Unfortunately, the film and television industries think all you need is a few ray-guns, robots, and rocket ships to make a good science fiction film. “Who needs good writing? Heck, a pretty girl, some wiz-bang special effects, a robot or two, and we’re on our way!”

Now, I know that some things are simply the dictates of the practicality of film making. Star Trek originally came up with the transporter device because it would have been cost-prohibitive to manufacture the special effects needed to show them landing and taking off every time they visited a planet. The vast majority of space ships in film and television also have artificial gravity, because it would be cost-prohibitive to film in the zero gravity of space. (And wire work just looks really cheesy – can anybody say Moonraker?) But none of that excuses sheer nonsense in writing.

(Science fiction books, in general, don’t seem to have this problem. Most (but, unfortunately, not all) people who write books expect that their audience is, at least, literate. But really good books can be turned into really bad movies – can anyone say Starship Troopers?)

This is more than just a pet peeve with me. I see it as a symptom of a much larger problem: the lack of critical thinking skills among people. I’ve seen this trend referred to as “the dumbing-down of America.” What’s “real” doesn’t matter anymore. In a word, it’s postmodernism, and it doesn’t affect science alone, but also history, economics, politics – indeed, every endeavor of mankind.

Since Biblical Christianity is a reasonable faith, people's lack of reasoning skills are a problem.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not defending modernism as a worldview. There is more truth than can be ascertained by scientific reason alone. And I’m not at all prepared to get into the religion of naturalistic materialism, which masquerades as science; at least, not today. But, dagnabit, films about science should be scientific!

I like science fiction. I like it a lot. I've been a space nut since I was a kid, and science fiction is probably at the top of the list for recreational reading material. There are good books and good films out there. And I'm willing to ignore pervasive materialism, blatant atheism, and ever-present evolutionary bias in an effort to enjoy a good story. But I've got a problem with pure irrationality.

So, Hollywood! If you want to make science fiction movies, can we go for a little more realism? Please?