May 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Get over it. It's not about the science. It's about the audience.

Editorial License - How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love SF Movies
by Ernest Lilley

Though I spent considerable time in bookstores and libraries growing up, as soon as I could be trusted to take myself, and often my younger brother, to the theater, I made it a point not to miss any Science Fiction film's release. For a few decades I prided myself on having seen every Sci-Fi flick that had come to the big screen, and I've never lost my ability to enjoy a "B" movie.

In those films, "B" might as well stand for "Bad Science", though only a handful of films could earn a better grade on the strength of their technical accuracy - 2001: A Space Odyssey, GATTACA, Planet of the Apes, though the last would be the 1968 version, not the 2001 remake.

I've lost track of the SF movies I've seen, and plenty slip by me unwatched these days, the combination of a lack of free time and an abundance of movies, but I still make it a point to see what's new in the future as imagined by Hollywood. The difference between myself and most of my friends is that I don't leave the theater angry about the quality of the science, but neither should they.

If you look at the few movies where the science was done credibly, you'll notice that with the exception of 2001, the general public stayed away in droves. Even there I understand that the special effects pulled in a lot of stoned viewers just to watch the light show Dave Bowman sees as he travels across the universe.

SF readers are generally knowledgeable about a broad range of subjects, which make the faux pas in most films difficult to ignore, but despite their innate understanding that spaceships don't make noise as they go by, they refuse to acknowledge the one thing that these films get right. They're exciting.

Real, careful, repeatable science isn't exciting. Well, it usually isn't exciting. Once in a while it's mind blowing, but for the most part it's anything but. SF movies are the recruiting posters for science, and we shouldn't worry so much that they don't represent reality. A first level college course in any scientific dicipline will correct the misconceptions of the neophyte.

Meanwhile, back at the theater, we need to relax and enjoy the show. Maybe you can't quick freeze someone by exposing them to "tropospheric" air (see our review of The Day After Tomorrow), but it makes for a good plot point. Before you whip out your calculator, ask yourself what else the movie could have done to generate greater tension. Remember, the goal isn't a documentary, it's entertainment.

There's another side effect, quite possibly intentional, that SF movies cause: technophobia.

Stories of science and technology run amok serve as cautionary tales that impact viewers viscerally rather than intellectually. Propaganda? Sure. Accurate? Absolutely. Movies and audiences reactions to them provide a map of public opinion, and more, they shed light on the nature of our fears and aspirations. Typically we know a lot about the subject matter of a film, but less about the people we're in the theater with, unless it's opening night and everyone there looks like they might have just come from an SF convention. The bottom line is that there's a lot to learn in SF movies, but not about science.

Of course, there are lots of handy survival tips to be had if you look for them. Always take off your high heeled shoes before running away from the monster, and never, ever, go out without your helmet.

Ernest Lilley
Editor - SFRevu

Feel free to send me your comments at editor"at"sfrevu.com.

2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia        home  /  Join Mailing List