physics on the silver screen: the real, the made-up, the outrageous

In case you didn't know but I am a huge SF fan and would (almost) *always* prefer a SF movie to a non-SF movie. A drawback (or more like a perk?) of my SF affliction is that I find myself thinking every time I watch a SF movie that's a new take on the old SF tropes - how much of real science is actually in it? Could that really happen? What does it mean?

Film directors are likely to hire real-life physicists as consultants now, which is great as it means science fiction is closer to real science and then the fiction side of it comes out more realistic too. But then, of course, there's always a place for some mind-bending storytelling that uses realistic scientific ideas to prove its fictitious points. Contemplating on all this, I decided to write about three SF movies which I thought had some truly great ideas at their core, brilliantly mixing science with fiction, and creating a mind-blowing experience for the view... and a few forehead-cringing moments too! I did some research and watched a few really cool science podcasts (thank you, YouTube! and a huge thank you, Neil deGrasse Tyson!) and here's the result: my (very modest) analysis of scientific ideas presented in Event Horizon (1997, dir. Paul W.S. Anderson), Source Code (2011, dir. Duncan Jones), and Interstellar (2013, dir. Christopher Nolan), divided up into three sections: 'the real', 'the made-up' and 'the outrageous' science ideas, used and twisted to create some very compelling science fiction.


SPOILER ALERT: if you have not seen Event Horizon (1997), Source Code (2011) or Interstellar (2014), please note:

And so, without further ado:

Exhibit 1: Event Horizon

1997; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Key Physics Concept/s: Experimental Gravity Drive. See also: Faster-Than-Light-TravelThe idea is that by creating a controlled black hole, a gravity drive can move a spaceship by bridging two points in spacetime - and by doing so it can cover unthinkable distance in a blink of an eye. Sam Neill's character Dr. William Weir explains how it works to his non-sciency crew led by Laurence Fishburne's Captain Miller in this TV-tropey video:

Oh, and the ship's name (eponymous Event Horizon) refers to a 'point of no return' - a boundary beyond which events (such as a black hole's gravitational pull) cannot affect an outside observer. Once you have moved beyond a black hole's event horizon, you are in big trouble.  

The Plot: The year is 2047. A distress signal from deep space is intercepted on Earth: it is coming from Event Horizon, a starship which has vanished during its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri 7 years ago. A rescue vessel named Lewis and Clark, carrying a seven-person crew including Event Horizon's designer (played by Sam Neill) is on its way to retrieve the missing ship. 

When Lewis and Clark crew reach the missing vessel and get inside it, they see that a massacre took place aboard. There were no survivors. Of course, then Lewis and Clark gets blown up to smithereens, and the crew are forced to board the Event Horizon and then... the gravity drive is mysteriously activated. 

As the rescue team contemplates what happened to Event Horizon's crew, they start to experience increasingly violent hallucinations based on their deepest fears, regrets and feelings of guilt. Soon it becomes clear that Event Horizon, propelled by its experimental  gravity drive, has traveled far, far beyond the boundaries of the known universe and... perhaps... just maybe... it has been to a dimension known to the human world only as Hell. 

(It is important to clarify at this point that no cenobites were found on board the Event Horizon.)

And now to the science...

The Real: Faster-Than-Light-Travel or FRL is positioned within the framework of special theory of relativity which does not prohibit the existence of Tachyons - particles travelling faster than the speed of light. 

The notion of the 'event horizon', as explained earlier, in addition to being the name of the nefarious starship, is used in the movie both as a metaphor of a point-of-no-return and a plot device since an artificially generated black hole is involved. 

The Made-Up: according to this blog, Dr. Weir's explanation of the gravity drive is identical to that of Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's been ages since I've last read it, but that sounds about right, so I'm going to believe it. 

Still, let's give some credit where credit is due:

"What makes this film so frustrating in its later stages is that initially it does develop a genuinely interesting premise. The Event Horizon’s reappearance; the question of the unknown "lifeform" detected on board; and the increasingly ugly hallucinations experienced by the crew are mysteries worthy of exploration." From: And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
Unfortunately, while its science set-up is so very fine and got me super-excited during the first half of the film, the movie quickly became a gory 'haunted house' story where blood, torture and demonic possession took over the narrative. While the idea of the sentient non-human presence which feeds on its victim's worst nightmares while sending them on creepy-gory existential guilt-trips is the bread and butter of Solaris, for example, but Solaris (the original, not the terrible 2002 version) does it ultimately - infinitely - better and without any gore at all, which only makes it scarier.   

The Outrageous: mixing SF concepts with religious iconography was a bold move.

Further reading: head over to And You Call Yourself a Scientist for its nice critical analysis of the Event Horizon touching on gender, race, science fiction tropes and various other stereotypes

Exhibit 2: Source Code

2011; directed by Duncan Jones

Key Physics* Concept/s: (*technically coming from the computing/computer science discipline) 

Source code and "object code refer to the "before" and "after" versions of a computer program that is compiled (see compiler) before it is ready to run in a computer. The source code consists of the programming statements that are created by a programmer with a text editor or a visual programming tool and then saved in a file"
Definition from TechTarget

Source Code, the movie, cleverly uses theoretical science of parallel universes and alternative timelines. Where it stumbles a bit, in my view, is something that is known as the Grandparent Paradox that is inextricably linked to the idea of time travel.    

The Plot: A soldier wakes up in someone else's body and discovers he's part of an experimental government program working to find the bomber of a commuter train. A mission he has only 8 minutes to completeUsing a program known as Source Code, the soldier is sent back in time to the moment before the train explodes - while he's in this simulation, he's inhabiting a body of one of the commuters and has to use the 8 minutes he's given to find out the identity of the bomber.  

Max Andrews (
Sententias blog) explains how the program works:  
"The Source Code ... takes the electromagnetic field from one person’s brain and allows that person to assume the role of another individual bearing the same likeness. The personal duplication only lasts for eight minutes because that’s how much memory can be accessed by the electromagnetic field of the brain (per the movie)."

And now let's dwell deeper into the science of Source Code:

The Real: the concept of the multiverse that the movie so heavily draws on goes back to the work of Hugh Everett III who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of the quantum physics. Our contemporaries, physicists Mark Tegmark and Brian Greene, lead on research in this sphere. The bottom-line is that multiverse is possible, but jumping between the worlds/universes is something that humanity is yet to master.

The Made-Up: well, the whole thing is not as much as *made up* per se but rather it gives us a look at how physical concepts (parallel timelines, multiverse...) could work on practice, and not in the world of physical particles colliding somewhere in the deep bowels of the Large Hadron Collider, but with real flesh-and-blood people. 

The Outrageous: some of philosophical implications behind Source Code, the program, are discussed here and this is something I kept wondering about too, long after I watched the movie: why the soldier ends up inhabiting the body of this one random specific person on the train - wouldn't it make more sense for him to maybe be a survivor of the bombing himself or have some kind of close connection to one of the bombing victims? Apparently, the bombing victim is chosen out of all the passengers because he is a 'neurological match' of the protagonist. But that doesn't really explain anything, does it?

And finally, what about the movie's sort of/kind of *happy ending* which relies on the idea that somewhere out there there's a universe where not only everybody on the train had survived but also that the protagonist could live on in the body of the passenger he's taken over. 

In this new universe, the protagonist sends an email to the Source Code employee who had originally guided him through his rescue mission - but a) she doesn't know who he is and b) in this universe, Source Code is at the early stage of development - and he asks her to essentially unhook his body from life-support and end his participation in the program so he can live on in this good universe. Huh? But if Source Code program is never invented, then the protagonist can never go back to save everyone on the train and this good universe won't exist. You see? Time travel paradoxes are annoying like that.

Also, there is no such things as parabolic calculus or time-reassignment technology - the two things which are apparently essential to making the Source Code program work. 

Further reading: 
Sententias blog on philosophical implications of Source Code

Jim Kakalios (a physics professor who wrote The Science of Superheroes book and was a consultant on the movie Watchmen - see this awesome video in that regard) also clarified a lot of the points in the discussion on the physics of Source Code. 

Exhibit 3: Interstellar

2013; directed by Christopher Nolan

The Plot:  Interstellar is the very definition of an epic SF masterpiece. I can't wait to watch it again and again as it has captured, in my view, the complicated essence of humanity - and I mean the good bits, not the ugliness - in the mind-blowing, goose-bumps inducing and tears-wrenching way.  

Inspired by the research into gravitational waves and astrophysics by Caltech physicist and Einstein's theory of relativity expert Kit Thorpe, (who also served as a scientific consultant AND executive producer on the movie), Interstellar's story is about the fate of humanity after the Earth's resources become dangerously depleted, farm lands are blighted and everything is screwed up to the point where humanity's time on Earth is up.

Meanwhile, Joseph Cooper, a former NASA astronaut lives the quiet life on a farm with his family. Oh, and have I mentioned his daughter Murphy? She believes her room is haunted - 'the ghost' keeps dislodging her books from the shelves among other odd activity. (Hint: this last bit about Murphy and her 'ghost' is important). 

Fast forward to the point where we learn that our salvation comes from deep space. A mysterious wormhole appeared decades ago near Saturn and through it humanity can potentially access other galaxies with habitable worlds. And so Joseph and a group of astronauts are recruited to follow in the footsteps of previous explorers sent into the wormhole earlier to confirm data received from several habitable worlds near a black hole Gargantua. As Cooper and his colleagues depart Earth leaving their families behind, scientists back on Earth work on a gravitational theory of propulsion which could allow humanity's exodus from the dying Earth and into space to colonize other planets. E
ventually, Murphy takes over this work and dedicates her entire life to working on the theory, but missing important data to complete it.  

Fast forward to the finale as Cooper must jettison himself into the black hole: there, he finds himself locked within a tesseract from where he can see into his daughter Murphy's room at different stages of her life simultaneously. He must find a way to communicate to her that key data so she can achieve her life's work and save all humanity. 

Key Physics Concept/s: The movie draws on the science behind black holes, wormholes, interdimensional beings, time travel - basically, all the good stuff. 

The Real: I will have to start by saying that Neil deGrasse Tyson gave Interstellar 8 or 9 out of 10, 10 being 'very realistic science'. 

Take that giant wave the astronauts are about to be swallowed by as they land on a planet orbiting a black hole. Apparently, that wave is a tidal wave, not a tsunami and that explains why the level of water the characters are wading in does not change as this gigantic wave approaches. The wave is caused by the nearness of the black hole. 

Or take wormholes - our understanding of them is purely theoretical, that is we know how they work but don't know how to manipulate spacetime to make one. As Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, wormholes are a tear in spacetime that could in theory allow us to travel from one point in the universe to another, avoiding having to cover a long impossible distance in the process - this is the same idea as the one used in Event Horizon  and its experimental gravity drive which propels the ship over the unthinkable distances in a blink of an eye by creating and sustaining an artificial black hole.  

Another concept that blows my mind every time and makes me feel very unconformable inside whenever I read or/and think about it is time dilation. 

Time dilation can occur, for example, around the gravitational pull of a black hole - as it was illustrated in Interstellar so brilliantly when Joseph and the others had to leave their spaceship Endurance and travel to the planet orbiting the black hole where time runs slower than on the ship. The only crew member who remained on the ship aged by several decades while the rest of them remained the same age they were when they took off. 

The made-up: you cannot survive falling into a black hole. Let me repeat that: you cannot survive falling into a black hole. If you do happen to fall into a black hole, the experience will stretch and tear you into pieces as well as squeeze you very, very tight...


The Outrageous: apparently you can in theory avoid the grisly fate described above if you plan your trajectory into the black hole real well and avoid going straight into the center of it. Besides, we don't know enough about this particular black hole that we have in Interstellar, so maybe, just maybe it was made in a such way that Joseph Cooper didn't get torn and squeezed to death as he fell through it but instead made him find himself in a mysterious tesseract from where he could act as Murphy's 'ghost' and help her with data she needed to develop the gravitational theory of propulsion which could then be used to enable  mass exodus of humanity from Earth and into the new world. 

Another interesting bit of 'outrageous' physics in Interstellar, as Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us, is that many of the habitable worlds found by the expedition into the wormhole are orbiting black holes and this what was triggered his disbelief. After all, we have found many other next-Earth candidates and none of those are orbiting black holes

I will end this post with a poem. 
Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night runs as a leitmotif throughout Insterstellar as it is a story of rage again the dying and against the inevitable. It personifies perfectly that very essence of humanity - its resilience and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds - that Interstellar storytelling brought up so well:  

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the  next post on science in science fiction movies I will talk about two other science fiction movies which stood out for me in the way they utilised scientific concepts - Looper (2012) and Predestination (2014) - exploring time travel and Grandfather Paradox, both of which fascinate me greatly.


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