Stanley Kubrick's Academy Award-winning epic is often cited as the most accurate science fiction film ever made. It tells the story of evolution when the Earth started millions of years ago with the placing of a monolith. The movie flashes millions of years later when another monolith is discovered on the Moon, which signals another step in evolution. The final part of the film takes place on a spaceship that contains a five-man crew, aided by the insidious computer HAL, as they embark on a mission to Jupiter, where the fight between man and machine signals yet another step in the evolution process.
Director Stanley Kubrick was known as one of the most meticulous perfectionists in filmmaking. He wanted the science and look of the film to actually be ahead of what NASA was doing at the time. It's important to note that humans would not walk on the moon until 1969, one year after the film's release.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lauds the efforts that the crew put into the movie, "I’d say it’s hard in that it’s well-researched and that it targets real science as much as it can. 2001 did that more than any movie had, at that point. They have the psychedelic journey and the encounter with this [alien] life, but any encounter with the ship and zero-G, that had foundations in real physics. You have to applaud all the efforts that went into that."
The astrophysicist also appreciates the aesthetic qualities of the film and the story. "Perhaps the first film to be all about the discovery of alien intelligence yet not show what it looks like, knowing that our imagination could surely do a better job than Hollywood. In any case, it was a visual orgy of space travel and space exploration that we remain far from achieving, even 13 years after the 33 years-in-the-future it portrayed."
Interstellar (2014) takes place in the not-too-distant future, where climate conditions have created a dire scarcity of food. The human race is facing inevitable extinction unless a group of explorers can travel through a wormhole and find a planet that is fit for human survival. Director Christopher Nolan worked alongside Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist, to make sure that the science in the movie was as precise as possible. That's not to say that every single plot point was 100% accurate, especially because a lot of what takes place in the film is considered "Speculative-Albeit-Imaginable Science."
Nolan and Thorne worked alongside the film's visual effects studio Double Negative to create the film's depiction of a black hole called Gargantua. It is considered the most realistic look at a black hole ever seen in the movies. In fact, it's been reported that the film's black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.
Thorne did later publish a report stating that Gargantua could have been depicted even more realistically and that it didn't lead to a scientific revelation. However, we do have to remember that it is a Hollywood movie. No one is (hopefully) going to use the film as a blueprint to travel through an actual black hole.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded alone on Mars following a massive storm. In order to survive, Watney has to figure out how to contact NASA and grow food on a planet with soil that does not contain the same nutrient-rich material found on Earth. Thankfully, Watney is also a botanist. He knows how to "science the sh*t" out of what he has and build a farm using soil fertilized with human waste and water made by removing hydrogen from rocket fuel.
Many scientists thought Ridley Scott's 2015 movie was one of the most realistic sci-fi films ever made. It was perceived by many spectators to be so accurate that they actually thought it was based on a true story. Much of the agriculture science is correct and most scientists think that the movie's imagery of Mars is spot on.
Perhaps the hardest part of the movie was getting NASA right. Astronaut Clayton Anderson talked about how The Martian nailed its depiction of NASA:
Rather for me, the highlight was the film’s refreshing and inspiring depiction of NASA. I’m not talking about physical depictions mind you (the Vertical Assembly Building does not reside at the Johnson Space Center) but instead the film’s sense of an ever-present drive on the part of NASA employees to pull together to win the day, even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds. Just as I witnessed so often throughout my own 30-year NASA career, a team of ordinary, caring people with little regard to their personal needs put in just a little bit extra, to do something extraordinary.
In Fritz Lang's 1929 German silent film, a scientist blasts off to the moon in search of gold. Woman in the Moon is often cited as the first science fiction film. It is also the first time the blast-off countdown from 10 to 1 is used on celluloid. It's the same countdown that NASA would eventually use for all their launches.
It would be 40 years before the human race would actually get to the moon, which makes Lang's film even more impressive. Film scholars and military officials have lauded the film for its amazing accuracy. The scientists that served as advisers to the movie understood the basics of rocket travel and gravity. Lang consulted with German rocket expert Hermann Oberth to construct the film's rocket, which impressively gets the escape velocity that is needed to free itself from the Earth's orbit correct. When the rocket does finally land on the moon, its crew correctly experiences zero gravity.
Sam Rockwell gives the performance of his career in what is essentially a one-man show in Duncan Jones's stripped-down, low-budget directorial debut Moon (2009). Rockwell plays astronaut Sam Bell, who is on a solitary three-year lunar mission mining for Helium-3. His only companion is the HAL-esque ship robot GERTY, which is voiced by Kevin Spacey. All seems well and good until Bell finds what seems to be a duplicate version of himself aboard the ship. Don't worry, no spoilers here, but Moon does take some interesting twists and turns.
The main scientific question regarding the movie Moon is whether the actual Moon contains mineable Helium-3. According to many scientists, there is a possibility that the Moon does, in fact, contain many useful materials. Helium-3 is very rare on Earth.
The idea that in the future we will be able to harvest a clean form of energy from the Moon is a possibility that scientists have explored for years. While the Earth is protected by a magnetic field, the Moon has been hit with large quantities of Helium-3. Scientists think there is a possibility that Helium-3 can one day provide a safer nuclear energy since it's not radioactive.
Destination Moon (1950) is often cited as the first science fiction film made in the United States that depicts space travel in a realistic fashion. The story centers on a group of men who come together to ensure that the US will be the first country in the world to put a man on the moon. Producer George Pal was set on not just making a fantasy film about space but a "documentary of the near future."
Pal hired experts in science to consult on the film. Although not every single detail in the film is accurate, it is considered quite an achievement, especially considering that man would not actually walk on the moon for almost another twenty years. The film goes about explaining the basic principles of how a rocket is launched and the concept of gravity in layman's terms that the audience will understand.
During production, the movie created quite a stir, as the idea of being able to land on the moon seemed to become a real possibility. The film also wound up having a great importance in the space race, as competition about which country would be the first to land on the moon was heating up around the world. A major narrative element in the movie questioned the ramifications on what would happen if one of America's cold war adversaries reached the moon first.
Ron Howard's 1995 movie is based on the true story of the 13th Apollo mission to the moon. The narrative centers on the ill-fated 1970 flight of three astronauts who experience life-threatening complications after an oxygen tank explodes onboard the spacecraft. Howard and the actors wanted to not only get the historical facts as accurate as possible but also the science of space travel.
All the zero-gravity scenes are not only scientifically accurate, but they are also real. Howard convinced NASA to let the production film in its reduced-gravity aircraft called the Vomit Comet. Ken Mattingly (the man played by Gary Sinise in the film who was bumped from the mission because he had the measles) admits that there are a few differences between the film and what really happened.
For example, in the film, it does seem like the crew and NASA are just making up possible miracle scenarios to get the astronauts home. Mattingly notes that in actuality, NASA had already worked out several possible faulty scenarios and the procedures on how to try and fix them. However, Mattingly concedes that Hollywood movies work off of creating drama, and it's obviously a much more interesting story if the conflict onboard the Apollo appears totally chaotic.
One thing that the Oscar-winning film did get wrong just also happens to be the movie's tagline. After the oxygen tank explodes in the movie, astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) reports to NASA, "Houston, we have a problem," when, in fact, the actual line was "Houston, we've had a problem here." Considering that the movie gets all the physics of space correct, it's probably okay that a couple words were changed.
Mysterious alien space crafts land at twelve different locations around the world. However, no one knows why they are there and if they mean to do harm or good. A linguist named Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in to try and communicate with the aliens. Communication proves to be extremely difficult since the aliens speak by emitting a circular black cloud. After several sessions, however, Banks is able to interpret the black clouds and correctly assign English words to the images.
According to astrophysicist Andy Howell, Arrival largely gets the science correct in the film. However, he points out that there is not a lot to compare the film with. We, of course, have never actually made contact with alien life.
Howell further explains the fine line between entertainment and scientific accuracy:
People think you have to choose between a movie being a blockbuster and getting the science right. But my point of view is that you can get the science right and still have an entertaining movie. And it often helps make a more entertaining movie. If you need to bend the rules to tell a better story, that’s fine. You get certain miracle exceptions for the conceit of the movie, but get the details right and be consistent.
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