Hollywood can sometimes have a strange view of science. Most of the time, science is too fast, too slow, too unsexy, or too complicated to be shown in its entirety. Equally, as works of fiction, movies are undoubtedly allowed a bit of fantastical “creative license“ when it comes to depicting science on the big screen in order to make things a little more interesting.
That said, there are many tropes within blockbuster films that are consistently the bane of scientists and nerds around the world.
Aliens Are Just Blue-Colored Humans
If TV and cinema is anything to go by, extraterrestrial aliens will look like a weird-colored human or a mash-up of other Earth-bound organisms.
There are nearly too many instances of this to mention, but Star Trek is regularly a culprit of dubiously recognizable humanoids. Klingons are just humans with a crease on their forehead, Vulcans are humans with pointy ears, Andorians are blue humans with antenna, and Ferengi are very ugly humans.
We are yet to encounter any life forms from outside of Earth’s atmosphere; however, it’s a fair bet to say they won’t be aliens with funny heads. They could be silicon-based, not carbon-based. They could breathe nitrogen, not oxygen. Who knows!
Nevertheless, if we assume that alien life is subject to the same rules of natural selection as Earth, then we can make a prediction of what they might look like. A study in 2017 did exactly this and, let’s just say, they sure as hell don't look like a Klingon (pictured below).
If Hollywood is anything to go by, hackers in movies wear black clothes, sit in a darkened apartment, and type frantically while “ACCESS DENIED” violently flashes up on the screen. One of the most hilarious examples of this is in Swordfish, where Hugh Jackman has 60 seconds to hack the Department of Defense with a gun to his head.
Realistically, hacking is slow, tedious, complicated, boring, and desperately unexciting to watch.
Laser Gun = Pew Pew Sounds Plus Green Strip Of Light
Guns that on Earth go "bang", go "zap" and fire a beam of light in space – everyone knows that. Just look at the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker, where bearded bad guy Hugo Drax, Bond, Jaws, and the Marines get into an extraterrestrial war with zappy laser guns.
Unfortunately, lasers don’t really work like this. Lasers travel at the speed of light because, well, they are a light source. The stuff they emit from a laser is light, albeit an amplified light using the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation.
So forget the “pew pew” noise followed by a slowly moving streak of bright color – a real blast from a lazer would be over in a flash.
Death Star Explosions
The Star Wars franchise was built on stuff getting blown up in space, with most of its space explosions looking like a booming fireball, just like they do on Earth. Of course, explosions occur in space with the epic cataclysmic creation and destruction of stars, but these Star Wars fireballs are pretty unrealistic.
First of all, space is a vacuum, so there’s no medium for the sound wave to be transmitted through. The explosions, therefore, would just leave a deathly silence. That also means you wouldn't hear a spaceship “whoosh” past you and you definitely wouldn't hear John William's iconic film score.
Equally, an Earthly fireball explosion requires the process of combustion, which needs oxygen. In space, there is no oxygen. Although a tank of liquid oxygen might be able to create some form of flames, it certainly wouldn't behave like it does back home on planet Earth (and it probably wouldn’t happen as often as it does in the Star Wars universe).
Nuclear Bomb? You'll Be Just Fine, Hide In A Cupboard
Nuclear bombs are shockingly beautiful and theatrically over-the-top, making them a regular feature in movies. For just a few instances, think of Dr Strangelove, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Independence Day, The Dark Knight Rises, the Sum of All Fears, etc. Some depict the horror of nuclear war fairly well – many others miss the boat.
One of the most memorable movie mess-ups involving A-bombs starts with Indiana Jones on a nuclear test site in New Mexico. Miraculously, he manages to survive the cataclysmic forces of an exploding A-bomb by hiding in a small fridge. Needless to say, if the blast and radiation wouldn’t obliterate you, it’s unlikely a 65-year-old man in a fridge could survive being thrown across the New Mexico desert.
Faced with backlash from this, George Lucas compiled his own report trying to justify the fridge fiasco, concluding that Indie had 50/50 chances of surviving the blast. The Internet still has not forgiven the mistake, however.