It’s safe to say that scientists aren’t always pleased with how scientific facts, or simply scientists themselves, are handled in movies – and that certainly includes plenty of space-based epics. So, as part of a series on women at the forefront of space exploration, BBC Radio 5 decided to ask a variety of NASA employees what they thought were the best and worst space films.
As for the best, a huge variety of movies came up, including Gravity, Interstellar, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, and even, rather wonderfully, Guardians of the Galaxy. “I just love the little plant!” Subashini Iyer, the lead engineer on Starliner, explained.
Hidden Figures was praised for “showing the true power of women”, The Martian received acclaim for portraying a level-headed botanist in realistically difficult spacefaring conditions, and Apollo 13 was applauded for showing what astronauts have to go through up there.
As for the worst space movies? Well, these varied quite a bit too. Mission To Mars and Red Planet got plenty of basic science facts wrong, Spaceballs was seen as too corny, and Armageddon was perceived as being “just not very accurate”.
Many, however, pointed their nose up at one movie in particular: Gravity. One interviewee suggested that it portrayed an overwhelmingly negative view of spaceflight, another pointed out that she wasn’t wearing a diaper beneath her spacesuit, and someone said that the way Sandra Bullock’s character could just flit between various orbits was essentially not possible.
This is hardly the first time the flick’s come in for criticism in this way. Back in 2014, for example, the giggle-worthy pedants over at CinemaSins, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, pointed out a wealth of science faux pas moments, including:
– Why is Bullock’s character, a medical doctor, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope?
– Why does George Clooney’s character drift away into space when he just lets go of a stationary tether?
– Why are Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese Space Station all in lines of sight of one another?
It’s difficult to explain what makes a movie’s scientific inaccuracies annoying or just part of the fun. After all, pretty much no one watches Star Wars and throws their hands up in the air, aghast that spacecraft have such sharp turning circles in an air resistance-lacking deep space dogfight. At the same time, you have brain-achingly bad movies like 2012, where “mutated” neutrinos heat up the planet, allowing John Cusack to demonstrate that he can just about outrun pyroclastic flows.
At a guess, we’d say the more sci-fi-flavored the movie, the more it’s allowed to get away with. If you’re trying to portray reality, like Gravity, then you’d best stick to it as much as possible, or you may feel the wrath of (some) scientists.