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Feature: Should the Sci be Greater than the Fi?

From Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its excruciatingly detailed interpretation of the delicate mechanisms of space flight (so intricate some consider the film a cinematic ruse to test Stan’s camera-trickery for the ‘faked’ moon landing footage of 1969) to Paul Anderson’s (not that one) abominable lump of worthless space-junk Event Horizon and its ‘gravity drive’ hidden behind not one, not two, but three magnetic fields(!), Hollywood’s attempts to conquer the final frontier have been as varying in scientific legitimacy as when the Soviets first slung Laika the terrified terrier to her fiery demise in a lower earth orbit in 1957. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s 170-minute, small-third-world-nation’s-gross-domestic-product-costing venture into the great unknown, the prospect of a soirée amongst the stars is eye-wateringly tangible from the safety of an IMAX, probably the closest any of us will ever come to an outer-atmosphere experience—particularly in the wake of fatally flawed Virgin Galactic test flights and an economy that condemns the all-consuming financial commitment of space exploration.

So now that we’ve seen the majesty of the unknown projected before our infantile globes across five decades, why in the period since Kubrick’s masterpiece have so many got the science portion of the sci-fi so wrong? How is it that George Lucas got away with conjuring up a moon-sized space-base only to fob us off with a floating storm trooper hotel-o-sphere, divided into top-to-bottom floors, with gravity pulling uniformly downwards? Why, when destroyed by the malicious Arachnids, does the ill-fated mega ship in Starship Troopers explode into flames in the oxygen-less vacuum of space? How the fuck is it that in Capricorn One, two characters are able to have a real-time phone conversation between Earth and Mars, a distance which radio waves need 20 minutes to traverse?! While these films will render you thoroughly entertained, they each shame-facedly transgress basic scientific concepts. Are they cases of lazy film making, made popular only by a scientifically illiterate public?

Or does it not matter? It’s easy to label these as the pedantic musings of an insufferable cynic looking to impress, and easier still to consider these objectively massive blunders unimportant. Perhaps the magic of sci-fi is in its transcendence of the trappings of dusty old physics; maybe it’s okay for a film to exist in its own universe, where breaking the rules merely enhances the spectacle. Nah, ‘fraid not, guys. Keep your flux capacitors and midichlorian counts; genuinely thrilling, immersive and classic sci-fi needs a basis in reality. One could argue that a film can only be considered true sci-fi if, and only if, grounded in Hoth-cold fact. Anything beyond that is merely fiction in space—not inherently valueless, but not science fiction. This may or may not be the case, but only when a film guides you through the realm of reality and then beyond can it truly inspire and mesmerise. But that isn’t to say that sci-fi can’t push the envelope of our comprehension past the boundaries of our puny psyches.

Take the case of Interstellar, the release of which was trailed by a gargantuan tidal wave of critiques penned by pricks and pedants decrying its multidimensional menagerie of mayhem armed only with their broadband connections and gilded scalpels of truth. The criticism focused on its interpretation of time as a dimension (which I actually considered to be a hugely inventive and enthralling (if a little Nolan-y) attempt at visualising a fundamentally un-visualise-able concept) and its pseudo-scientific spiel about ‘love’ as the all-pervading, all-transcending, all-empowering universal force. Yes, of course it was all nonsense, but prior to this, wormholes aside, Interstellar maintains an attention to detail and reverence for the harsh realities of the vast expanses of empty space that rival those of 2001:… The dialogue may be as hammy as a hoard of Gamorreans and Anne Hathaway’s acting as two-dimensional as a Euclidean plane, but the precision is undeniably impressive.

Neglecting the fundamental laws of our universe in favour of plot and journeying beyond our comprehension of the unforgiving realm we occupy are both forgivable in the pursuit of an entertaining story, but only the latter as the third act in a reality-based trek can make for profoundly exciting cinema. This is what 2001:… and Interstellar share, although if you’re undecided on what to watch before a night spent gazing at the heavens, go for Ed Wood’s unappreciated 1959 classic, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Tags: 2001 a space odyssey, Interstellar, plan 9 from outer space, science fiction, star wars

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