Weird hangups about realism in science fiction

I Am Number Four (2011)

Number 4 throws a rockMe: “I don’t think that’s very realistic.”

Jon: “I think it’s supposed to imply that he threw the rock so hard that it broke the sound barrier.”

Me: “Oh, I know that’s what it was supposed to be. But… the sonic boom explosion happened after the rock was already way up in the sky.”

Jon: “So?”

Me: “So, the rock would not be able to increase velocity after it left his hand. All of the momentum is coming from his throw. If the rock were traveling at more than the speed of sound, it would already be doing so at the moment it left his hand. It wouldn’t accelerate after leaving his hand.”

Jon: “Maybe that’s part of his powers.”

Me: “Acceleration at a distance?”

Jon: “Sure.”

Me: “They don’t really hint at that anywhere else in the movie, though. If that’s what they are implying… it’s not very clear.”

Jon: “You never know.”

Me: “I still think the sonic boom should have happened right away, or not at all.”

In case you are not familiar with the movie, it is about intergalactic bounty hunters who are chasing after refugee aliens who are hiding on earth and whom they are only allowed to kill in a particular numeric order.

But the part I had difficulty believing, of course, was the sonic boom of the rock being thrown by the main character alien refugee boy.

Why? Not because it’s not possible that one of his “special powers” was to cause an object to continue accelerating  after it left his hand… but rather, because if that is the explanation, they just didn’t set up it well enough to make it clear. Instead, it seemed like a mistake.

It seemed like the special effect was added by someone who didn’t understand physics.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific RimJon: “You wouldn’t be able to create an effective water seal for a machine that large and complex.”

Jon busted out with this observation about half-way through the movie, and it cracked me up.In case you’re not familiar, this movie is about Godzilla-sized, nuclear-powered, mind-controlled robots fighting off monsters that are being sent from an alternative universe through a tear in the space-time continuum.

Yet Jon’s objection is perfectly reasonable. There is nothing, particularly, about the types of technology that you imagine a building-sized mind-controlled nuclear-powered robot would have, that would somehow solve the problem of water getting into mechanical leg joints. If you are a deep-sea diver, or work in deep-sea conditions, you know that getting materials to provide an effective water seal around moveable parts, especially moveable mechanical parts, is a nightmare.

And yet, this is hardly the most offensive example of insultingly stupid movie physics in Pacific Rim. Maybe the reason it stands out, however, is that it is so mundane. The script writers put effort into explaining, even if in only fantasy-based voodoo-physics-like jargon, phenomena like the rip in space-time existing in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Maybe they should have added a throw-away line about water-seals, as well.  You know, just to make people like Jon and me feel better.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Death Star Praxis EffectMe: “Oh, God, it’s about to happen. This is so annoying….”

Jon: “I know, I know. You always talk about this scene when we watch it. The explosion, right?”

Me: “Yeah. The Praxis effect. The only possible way the shock wave could be oriented to a particular plane is if the body were spinning. The Death Star is not spinning.”

Jon: “They only added that effect later, right? It wasn’t in the original movie, I think.”

Me: “George Lucas ruins everything.”

This has to be another case where the problem comes from the fact that the error is mundane, and is not related to any particular plot point. Warp drive? Sure, they need it to get away real fast. Blades of light that cut through people and extend exactly 1.33 meters in length but no further? That’s part of the charm of this wonderful fanciful universe, and maybe even could be attributed to “unknown, yet-to-be-discovered scientific technology” rather than magic.

But there is no “unknown, yet-to-be-discovered scientific technology” that will cause a spherical object with no angular momentum to have a planar shock wave. So once again, it just seems like an error rather than “part of that universe”.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

The X-Jet hovers for a whileJon: “That could never happen.”

Me: “What couldn’t?”

Jon: “The SR-71 Spy Plane can’t hover!!”

Now, as it happens, the vast extensive canon of X-Men has already addressed this! Neither Jon nor I realized it until we looked it up. In the movie, the X-Men’s aircraft seems like a pretty standard SR-71.

But apparently some authors have already described the X Jet as a modified SR-71 that has been enhanced at accommodate vertical take-off and landing, and it is sometimes referred to as an SR-73 (which has no corresponding real-world counterpart) instead.

Both Jon and I sighed with relief, let me tell you!

Is it actually possible to perform appropriate modifications on an SR-71 so that it would be able to hover and accomplish vertical take-off, without substantially changing its appearance and outward design? I don’t know enough to know the answer to that question. But at least the authors of the canon have risen up to provide some kind of story… even if it isn’t spelled out exactly in the movie.

Once again, the thing that makes all of this discussion a little funny is that we are talking about a movie about human beings with genetic mutations that allow them to, among other things, manipulate people’s minds, mentally control metal, shoot lasers out of their eyes, or suck the very life force out of your body just by touching you.

So I’d say, yeah… the biggest realism issue in that movie has got to be the fact that what looks like an SR-71 is hovering somewhere off the coast of Cuba.



I don’t know why Jon and I pick up on these things when we watch science fiction movies. In some ways, of course, it’s just a lark. It’s fun to point out stupid movie physics mistakes when you are a geek and you are watching a movie with your geek boyfriend. “Oh, look!  He’s running faster than that oncoming exploding ball of fire! Ha ha ha!”

But in science fiction movies I think there is actually an interesting (if not particularly practical) question about why some things seem “fine” while others are not. We are all taught about the idea of “suspension of disbelief” when reading fiction. But perhaps because the level of “suspension” is so high in science fiction and fantasy, the fact that it can fail on such mundane issues seems… unusual.

Why is it OK for The Doctor to travel through time and space, but the fact that he “sort of but not really” used “part of his regeneration energy” in one episode without actually regenerating REALLY BOTHERS THE CRAP OUT OF ME as a fan of the show Doctor Who?

Well, at least I know it bothers other people, too. I think it has something to do with changes that appear to be deliberate fictions in order to create a special universe that has special rules of its own (which is ok) versus things that seem like the unrealism comes from sloppiness or mere convenience.

In all fandoms, people seem to be OK with deliberate fictions in a universe, but not sloppiness.

What about you? What are some things you’ve seen in science fiction or fantasy that have made you say: “Hey, this is a universe with inexplicable technology and/or magic…. but THAT scene right there just seems unrealistic!”

In conclusion, I will leave you with this comment I found on a discussion board, about fighting with two lightsabers at the same time:

“Having two [lightsabers] just seems unrealistic. If someone stronger than you comes then you’re just screwed anyway because your wrists can’t create enough leverage to hold back that much force. At least when he did it with one hand he could use his left hand to support it but now it just looks fake…”

That’s right, Anthony CG. Fighting with blades of light exactly 1.33 meters long? Totally cool!

But you gotta draw the line that the discrepancy between wrist strength and angular momentum that would arise when fighting with a dual lightsaber.

I mean, REALLY. That’s just silly.


NOW READ: Magic, evil, and alternate universes.