How Much Science is Too Much Science?
Updated on September 29, 2008, 12:56 AM - Written by Tim Buttner
The "science" part of the science fiction genre originated from fiction that dealt with science, such as the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, and such movies as Frankenstein or The Time Machine fall under this category. For the longest time science was a vague subject that people knew little about, but today most people have a pretty good base knowledge thanks to advancements and education, but that doesn't mean that the genre has lost its appeal. For the most part today's science fiction mainly deals with space, other worlds, and aliens, which for a large part there's still plenty of mystery surrounding the giant void we call the universe. Can detailing a movie with too little or too much science capable of annoying audiences to the level where they can no longer watch the movie?
In the case of a movie having little scientific backing in its plotline it can work either way. Say it's a movie about scientist in space on an expedition to discover life, but these scientists end up knowing little about science or the scientific theories they talk about are too implausible, you end up with a movie like Event Horizon (1997). Sometimes the science given may sound okay but in practice makes our heads hurt from the stupidity such as Deep Impact or Armageddon (both dealing with comets/asteroids heading for the Earth in the year 1998) but we're not watching these movies for the science but the ride. A good deal of the time these ride movies don't even bother explaining their science and let the audience understand that it's simply the rules of the universe that they are entering. Great examples of movies with little scientific explanation but are still great movies are Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and Men in Black (1997) because the story and the characters are sufficient enough that the audience doesn't care about the implausibility and scientific impossibilities.
On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of science in a movie can't always assure that it will succeed. In fact too much science could mean for a snooze of a movie. Unlike a movie like Apollo 13 (1995) where the scientific fact was what made the story so scary and so enticing because the audience had witnessed the real events and understood the consequences if the rules of science were not abided, the movie Destination: Moon! (1950) is so full of science that the plot and characterizations suffer. Robert Zemeckis's Contact (1997) suffers from a scientific overload all the way to the end where when the audience is hoping to finally get glimpse at the aliens they in turn are stuck with Jodie Foster's character's father, or more so an alien in the form of her father to make it more comfortable for her, although it's doubtful most people sat through to that point because the movie lacked anything in the way of moviemaking because the science bored them to death. Another example of a movie that uses science to their advantage to create a compelling science fiction movie is Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995). In this movie the paradox of time travel is explored where Bruce Willis's character can do nothing to stop the spread of a biological pathogen that causes the demise of the human race, but instead lends to the miscommunication about the events and the actual demise. The science used in it is just right.
Perhaps the best means for dealing with science in the science fiction genre is to let the audience understand that the characters understand it and how it's applied in their universe. Once it has been established and accepted by the audience the rules of the universe should dictate how much science needs to be provided by the filmmakers. Science should be wielded carefully though, because too little can upset and disappoint a lost audience, but the same can go for dispensing too much. The ying and yang of science fiction says that bowl of fact and a spoonful of mystery mix into all kinds of different flavors, so it's best to sample a tasting before you serve to the puplic.
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