Perception of Science in Movies

Looking at a modern science-fiction movie such as The Core (2002), it is interesting to see how you perceive certain scenes when isolating them from the movie as a whole, as opposed to watching the entire movie at once without pausing to think about what you’re actually seeing on the screen. When falling victim to the clever techniques used to capture viewers in high-budget, A-listed movies, certain fallacies and pure absurdities are easily overlooked.

When talking about these things – accuracies and inaccuracies of science in Hollywood-movies – it’s easy to assume one’s own invincibility to the various misrepresentations of science typically found in motion pictures of today; it is easy to sit there and just say “come on, we’re an intelligent race; people should be able to make out what is fiction and what is not” and laugh when Pierce Brosnan’s geologist character heroically drives through scorching lava with a still near perfectly intact pickup truck in Dante’s Peak (1997). We are, in fact, probably a lot less tolerant to these types of fallacies than we might think. I noticed this personally when watching a clip in class from the beginning of The Core, a typical modern science-fiction movie about how a by-chance-discovered natural phenomenon threatens the safety of our planet.

I remember watching The Core a few years ago. I remember what it was about, but not so much the details. Nor do I have any recollection of ever experiencing the movie as having particularly absurd scientific elements. Now, watching a few isolated scenes from the movie while consciously observing the pure scientific aspect and it’s possible fallacies, it struck me how obviously ridiculous certain things were. One scene had us all straight out laughing. It was an early scene where the scientist character of ever-so-charming Aaron Eckhart explains the science behind the looming catastrophe by using a peach to illustrate the earth and its inner core, later burning it with a home-made flame thrower. The basic geology lesson about the earth’s crust was not the issue, since that did indeed represent actual scientific facts. It was the part after, where the explanation of the phenomenon that was gonna eradicate life on earth was being very dramatically depicted while at the same time making no real sense when you actually thought about it. Moreover, the setup and dialogue of the entire scene made it extremely evident how the movie-makers were trying to use rhetoric techniques to establish credibility and exigency of what was being depicted in the scene.

Like I said, we were laughing at this, but at the same time it fascinated me. I started thinking about how the movie producers do that; how they make you disregard from these things, like I had the first time I saw the movie, and what consequences it might have for people’s’ general conception of science. However, I do think part of why I didn’t notice these things the first time has to do with the fact that when we’re about to see a movie, we go into it with a (rightfully) preconceived notion that what we are about to see is not real; we know that movies are produced as entertainment, and that facts and events are often greatly exaggerated to attract viewers. We go into an “entertainment-mode” where we’ve already told our brain not to think too much about such things as we watch, as this would potentially ruin any movie, regardless of how well-made it is.

Of course, it is important to point out that watching movies – science-fiction movies in particular – with a critical eye and analysis in mind is always a sound approach. I think this is getting increasingly important as movies and special effects are getting more realistic while at the same time movie-watching is seemingly ever-increasing, causing more people to use movies and television as convenient sources of information.

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One Response to Perception of Science in Movies

  1. faith1989 says:

    While I think most of your arguement is fairly well stated, I do disagree with one of your later points, and that is the way in which people watch movies. You say “We go into an “entertainment-mode” where we’ve already told our brain not to think too much about such things as we watch, as this would potentially ruin any movie, regardless of how well-made it is.” I’m going to argue that someone can watch a Sci-Fi movie or any movie in general and look at it with a critical eye while still enjoying the experience of the film, not “ruining it.” Most people, in different degrees of realization, do judge and critique films internally while they watch them, it’s an automatic response that’s not limited to film critics. While you may not be able to really articulate a full analyses, most often to watch a film you can’t exactly turn off your brain. It’s a knee jerk reaction to judge. It’s a very small part of your blog, but I’m a nerd and I thought I’d bring it up. It’s actually a common misconception.

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