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Does it matter if movies feature blatantly incorrect science?

28 Jul

The movie Lucy opened in the US last week and it has simultaneously thrilled and enraged the geek subculture of which I consider myself a member. If you somehow haven’t seen the trailer, here you go:

See the dilemma? On the one hand, we get a superhero-type action movie with a female protagonist, directed by Luc Besson.  Win win win! (Though she’s still a sacrificial pawn in a male-dominated system, in a movie that is almost devoid of women, so maybe we’ll scratch off one of those wins.)  On the other hand, the plot emphatically repeats the myth that only about 10% of the average human brain is in use. There is plenty of hand-wringing about the lack of general scientific literacy. So, does it matter when big films present scientific errors as reality?

No:

  • Only people who know the correct science will be annoyed by it and it won’t sway their understanding.
  • It’s fiction. We disregard pseudo-scientific plot devices all the time, from radioactive spider bites to zombifying viruses.
  • It’s harmless. If the misrepresented science was important to the audience members, they would know the truth. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter in their lives.

Yes:

  • It’s offensive to actively perpetuate a myth about how we understand ourselves or the world.
  • It’s poor craftsmanship. Is it that hard for a screenwriter to Google “percentage of human brain used“?
  • OMG so stupid!!1!! <insert appropriate Internet rage here>

In the particular case of Lucy, which I saw yesterday:

  • I think this movie got slammed in some reviews because it perpetuates a known scientific myth, rather than using fantasy to extend beyond our scientific knowledge in an impossible way. It’s something we know is wrong, not just something that is exceedingly unlikely. That’s distracting, mildly infuriating, and disappointing.
  • This isn’t an absurd-but-forgivable device like gamma radiation exposure, quickly submersed in action and plot. It’s given credibility by having an “expert” lecture about it in an academic hall and after that, like an inverted countdown, is a continuous presence throughout the film. Lucy isn’t the only film to use this myth, but it declares it so loudly and aggressively that it’s hard to ignore.
  • It was unnecessary. A better effect could have been achieved with a little technobabble and hand waving. Say that the drug is causing Lucy’s brain to build faster, more extensive connections and her neural network is developing superhuman sensitivities. Is that so hard? Let Morgan Freeman lecture about instances of neural deficit and excess based on medical truth rather then give a portrayal of one of the worst scientists ever. As we walked to the car, my husband made an excellent suggestion: simply cutting out everything Morgan Freeman says in the first half of the movie would improve it instantly. His monologues make a mockery of the scientific method and what we confidently understand right now.
  • Why does the rationale need to seem scientifically valid, anyway? I suspended disbelief just fine in The Fifth Element, The Professional, La Femme Nikita — Besson movies I really enjoy — because the ludicrous concepts weren’t shoved down my throat. He can do so much better. Parts of this movie were gorgeous and the action was good fun, but trying to anchor it in science was a mistake.

—————

On a related note, let me give an example of pseudo-mathematics done well. The series Silicon Valley‘s first season was built around the development of an amazing digital compression algorithm. The writers consulted with a Stanford professor and one of his graduate students, who came up with a convincing technical explanation of an impossible algorithm. It was good enough that even the techies in the audience could tilt their heads and say, “Hmm, that won’t actually work, but neat idea.”  In the show, the main character’s revelation of how to structure this algorithm was inspired by a hilarious and remarkably accurate scene in which his team calculates the mean time to accomplish a particular absurd action. It’s much like an NSFW version of a What If? entry, but I swear I’ve been in many meetings that devolved this way. You can watch the scene I’m talking about on YouTube here, with a caution about language and whiteboard penis drawings.

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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Side Topics, Video

 

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