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11th November 2014

Feature: Hollywood and Science

Nicole Tamer looks at how science has inspired numerous filmmakers

“We look at Hollywood now, I mean, can you imagine Hollywood producing a film with such weight as 2001: A Space Odyssey? I guess we get the cinema we deserve; we’re looking into the mirror. It’s very sad,” argues Anthony Frewin at the Watch the Skies! flagship event in the BFI Blockbuster project SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. Those might be strong words, but he was the personal assistant to the director Stanley Kubrick for 20 years and worked on five of his films. Looking at current trends in the film industry, it is apparent that sci-fi movies are on the verge again. Recent films such as Prometheus, Gravity and Interstellar, which is premiering this weekend in the UK, show on the Box Offices worldwide that their popularity is high, but the budgets are even higher. The $10.6 million Budget of 2001: A Space Odyssey was meagre compared to the budgets of over $100 million for Gravity and Interstellar. To put the numbers into perspective: even the Indian space mission to Mars with a $74 million budget cost less than the making of Gravity. Although it is debatable whether the priorities of human beings are agreeable, it does not mean that there is not any science involved in the making of a film and that they do not inspire more interest and awareness in the field of astronomy or other science.

Science and film often go hand in hand; all of the aforementioned films had prestigious scientists from Harvard or Caltech on set to ensure content accuracy. David A. Kirby, a senior lecturer at The University of Manchester published the popular physics book, Lab Coats in Hollywood—Science, Scientists and Cinema, in which he claims that 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the most scientifically accurate film ever produced. The breathtaking sequences in space seem so realistic because of the co-operation with two former NASA scientists and the more than 65 companies, research organisations, and government agencies that offered technical advice. The relation between science and Hollywood is often more complex than initially apparent and a mutual need to close the gap between science fact and science fiction pushes both sides to work together closely. Although it might first seem that Hollywood profits more from scientists, the depictions of science in popular films can promote research agendas, stimulate technological development, and even stir citizens into political action, writes Kirby. Filmmakers with a smaller budget, who cannot afford specialists from NASA, should not despair because websites such as will help to ensure that “the technical details and jargon in your script sound believable, whether they be mathematical, scientific or medical.”

The gravity of science (pun intended) does not stop at science fiction movies; science consultants help to give comic book adaptations, TV shows—such as Fringe and The Big Bang Theory—and video games a more realistic finish. The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a programme run by the United States National Academy of Sciences to increase public awareness, knowledge, and understanding of science through its representation in television, film, and other media in order to rid the public of false perceptions on these topics. Although the aspirations are often high and science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien mostly succeeded in being scientifically accurate, it is important to remember that the film industry’s first priority is entertainment. If the scientific accurate portrayal is too complex, the risk that the film might turn out too incomprehensible for an audience is high. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for example, is based on Einstein’s general relativity equations and might have turned out visually incomprehensible to the audience, but he luckily solved the problem by staying consistent with the camera perspective. Gravity, on the other hand, is a “piece of fiction” with some inaccuracies, but with a very realistic portrayal of zero gravity.

The rise in popularity of science fiction films also has a positive effect on the decreasing numbers of cinema goers. 2001: A Space Odyssey or Gravity have a bigger effect on the audience on a big screen than streamed online on a small laptop screen. At the Watch the Skies! event, 2001: A Space Odyssey was shown in an open air installation with HAL projected on the Lovell Telescope, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. The atmosphere was buzzing and the film got a whole new meaning while being watched outside with stars and a full moon in the background. The vastness of space became more apparent and the science fair and introduction by Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant made the experience invaluable. Science clearly helps us to appreciate films more and its influence will hopefully be more appreciated in the future.

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