A Comet is hurtling towards earth, threatening our entire existence with absolute destruction. Thankfully, the asteroid is discovered well in advance. A crack team of astronauts set forth into space with just one mission; to drive alongside the comet very slowly and over time, use the spacecraft’s gravitational pull to change the comet’s orbit and miss earth completely, ensuring everything stays just fine. Not quite Hollywood blockbuster material, is it?
But according to University of Colorado physicist and ‘comet advisor’ on 1998’s Deep Impact Joshua Colwell, that’s one of the best ways to avert extinction. “If you don’t have much time then a more dramatic intervention might be necessary, maybe involving lots and lots of nuclear weapons,” he says, and Deep Impact tells the story of just that: an asteroid is on collision course with Earth and we must blow it up to stay alive.
Deep Impact is a rarity in the world of big budget disaster epics. Today, the film stands up as one of the more factually accurate depictions of cinematic catastrophe. In a 2014 interview with BuzzFeed Neil deGrasse Tyson explained, somewhat unscientifically, how Deep Impact “had really good science”. Colwell’s role on the movie was to make the unbelievable believable to your average moviegoer, but for all Deep Impact’saccuracy, does the average moviegoer care how factually correct their summer blockbuster is? And more importantly, is our understanding of real world events skewed because of them
“On one hand, it doesn’t matter very much,” Colwell says. “In a movie, nobody wants a spaceship to make no sound because sound doesn’t propagate in space, and stories like Star Wars are about people and exploration, and they succeed in exciting viewers about science. But I think that when you’re making a science-fiction movie about something that could actually happen, a comet hitting earth perhaps, it’s important that you have made some effort to plant it in the real world. To not use crazy liberties, because then the whole thing can be dismissed as fantasy that has no root in reality.”
“I think real science is fascinating, so if you can sneak a little bit of real science underneath whatever narrative arc the filmmaker or novelist is going for then I think that’s useful,” says Dr. Gavin A. Schmidt. As a climatologist at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Schmidt’s research aims to understand past, present and future climates and the impacts of climate change. “For example, Jurassic Park and the Chaos Theory scene, did people look up Chaos Theory because of Jeff Goldblum? Well, maybe, but what he said wasn’t wrong. That was interesting, a stupid plot point yes, but it was actually correct.”
“For all the bad aspects of Armageddon, and it really is the archetype of terrible science in a science-fiction movie, the worst part about it was how the scientists were portrayed”
2004’s The Day After tomorrow might have grossed over $500 million worldwide, but to Schmidt, the film “was so appallingly bad that […] it prompted me to become a more public scientist,”encouraging him and his colleague Michael Mann to create the climate research blog realclimate.org. “I was frustrated for the people who weren’t getting answers to questions that they had, but I also had a more naive view of what, and how, people pay attention to things compared to now,” he says. “But my point was that The Day After Tomorrow was working from a premise that is real. There are ocean currents, they can slow down and cause cooling, but everything else is totally wrong. There’s a scene where an atmospheric hurricane freezes everybody solid in ten seconds, would that happen? No, it’s laughably stupid, and when it’s laughably stupid nobody gains from that.”
But who cares if science in films is totally nonsensical? “Famously, in Star Wars, Han Solo says that he completed the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, as if parsecs were a time unit. It’s not, it’s a distance unit,” Schmidt says. “But are people going around misquoting parsecs as time instead of distance in conversation from that? No, but it peaked curiosity in people who perhaps went on to do wonderful things in science.”
In recent months we’ve seen the very real effects of climate change in images from Florida to Texas and Puerto Rico to Cuba. Do films such as The Day After Tomorrow change our perceptions of what climate change looks like? “I don’t know about that,” Schmidt says. “I think there was an opportunity to engage with people off the back of that movie which would have been a positive thing for a lot of people. But were people mis-informed because of that movie? Or did they not register as an issue it at all? I think the latter’s much more likely.”
In 1998, Deep Impact was that summer’s big budget disaster movie, alongside a story that told of an incredibly similar, but much greater threat; total, and complete Armageddon. “Don’t get me started on that movie,” Colwell says. “For all the bad aspects of Armageddon, and it really is the archetype of terrible science in a science-fiction movie, the worst part about it was how the scientists were portrayed. They are treated as idiots who only know how to do things through a textbook”
Colwell was recently invited to explore the role and relevance of science in film at the 2017 Hollyweird Science symposium held by the American Chemical Society. He discussed the power of film to influence and shape public perceptions of science and tackle issues around diversity and scientific literacy. However, as distrust towards experts has attributed to a global political shift over the past few years, films such as Armageddon do the opposite of that, he thinks. “The idea of scientists being bumbling fools as perpetuated in films, coupled with the poor science in a movie such as Armageddon, is a celebration of stupidity. It denigrates learning and expertise. Right now, in the US, some of us are feeling particularly unhappy about the way education, knowledge and expertise are viewed. It’s a raw subject at the moment, so how science and scientists are portrayed is a really important thing.”
And when knowledge and expertise are viewed with such contempt, having a slippery grip on reality in films is especially dangerous. “I think that Hollywood today relies far too much on ‘based on a true story’, because really they’re just trying to mitigate their risk,” says Matt Morgan, a retired marine corps lieutenant colonel and military advisor on Arrival, American Sniper and the Godzilla reboot to name a few. From haircuts and radio terminology to weapons and cultural training for actors, Morgan’s job is to ensure that what’s on-screen reflects real life as closely as possible. “Often times, the movie can be a real stretch of the truth, and that’s misleading an audience. These stories depicted in film will be a part of the popular understanding of that topic, and often times, it creates a form of new mythology.”
He cites American Sniper as one of those films where a story on screen has differed from actual events. Based on the bestselling autobiography of American Navy Seal Chris Kyle, American Sniperdivided viewers upon its release. “Audiences would be well advised to take American Sniper’s version of the war in Iraq with a very, very large pinch of salt,” wrote The Guardian in 2015, yet despite some negative press the film was the year’s highest grossing production.
“Without attempting to disparage Chris Kyle personally in any way, there are a number of things that are accounted for in his book and portrayed in the film that I find stretch the limits of belief,” Morgan says. “But in terms of a true story we have to be as true to life as it can be based upon the source material. My personal feeling is that Bradley Cooper’s version of Chris Kyle was a more sympathetic human being than the actual Chris Kyle, and Americans in general will remember the real Chris Kyle as Bradley Cooper, not as the other guy. But to the larger point, the vast majority of Americans in-particular have developed their understanding of the military, the individual services, and the roles that they play in national defence, through entertainment. It’s the principal way in which they interact with and understand the military, so for better or worse, that’s a reality.”
Hollywood will always have its tropes. So would a relatively low-ranking officer have the clearance to commandeer a helicopter, tank or truck to rescue their partner from a disaster zone? “It’s rather unlikely, but I suppose in extreme circumstances it is remotely possible. However, one person would likely find it impossible to operate the vehicle on their own,” Morgan says. But in his opinion, glorifying military capabilities can have an effect on the viewer’s perceptions, and not necessarily for the better.
“One thing that concerns me today is that films may lead people to have too much confidence in military capability and capacity,” he explains. “If you were to make a movie about North Korea presenting an imminent nuclear threat to the US, the climactic scene would be a destroyer firing a missile from the depths of the ocean, intercepting the North Korean nuke and blowing it up. Capabilities like that are far from a sure thing, but in movies, ultimately, the heroes will always prevail. And so in that, there’s an over-reliance of military capacity being a solution to any problem, and that’s absolutely not the case of course. It’s far more complex than that.”
Are you able to get away with a movie filled with the inaccuracies of Armageddon today? While Michael Bay is still making movies, probably. “It’s all speculation really in terms of how movies affect people’s perceptions in the absence of difficult to perform, large scale sociological studies,” Colwell says. Understandably, few are willing to fund analysis into the psychological effects of Jake Gyllenhaal movies, but while global tensions rise alongside our sea levels, the lines between disaster movie and, well, just disaster are increasingly fuzzy. For reassurance, I ask Colwell that in a Deep Impact-like scenario, what should we do to ensure the future of the human race? “Oh, you wouldn’t survive,” he replies. Great.