Doc, Marty and the DeLorean in Back to the Future

Doc, Marty and the DeLorean in Back to the Future

10/24/2007

Good Movies, Bad Science

by Joe Brownstein

It’s not hard to pick apart the science of Hollywood films. Plenty of films come out every year with flimsy plots and even flimsier science behind them. And plenty of critics rip those movies to shreds.

But even some of the best movies make mistakes in their science. And those films are often good enough that the mistakes are, for the most part overlooked.

Here are five classics that could be made a little better:

1. Jurassic Park (1993)

On a remote island, eccentric billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) builds a lab to bring back the dinosaurs using preserved DNA.

Some of the stretches here are obvious—dinosaurs being created in the 20th century from preserved DNA? It’s doubtful that, as the movie supposes, DNA would survive in amber for millions of years, as the molecule is very fragile (as this article in Discover discusses http://discovermagazine.com/1998/jan/theyearinscience1355).

Research since the movie’s release has also shown that the portrayal of T. Rex as a ferocious hunter--already a shaky premise at the time--is inaccurate.

T. Rex grew as much as a pound a day--much too large to run as quickly as depicted.

And while the idea that T. Rex was a scavenger has gained even more credibility since the movie’s release, it is unlikely that even back then a scientist like Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) would be so convinced that T. Rex was a hunter and not a forager.

Sequels to this film have bigger problems, primarily the claim that some of the dinosaurs have evolved to communicate at almost human levels.

Evolution simply doesn’t work that fast; it takes many of generations for any genetic mutation to take hold, as the affected animal needs to reproduce to pass on the change.

In other words, Hammond would probably have to have started his island project a few million years sooner to get the kind of bad lab results coming out of it.

How to make it better?

Kill the evolution talk—it only exists now to explain how the sequels were possible, and unlike this film, those weren’t worth watching.

2. Spider-Man (2002)

After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) becomes the web-slinging Spider-Man and battles Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who has turned himself into the Green Goblin in his lab.

Comic book movies don’t entirely fall into the realm of science fiction because they take place in the here and now, so while the superheroes may have superpowers, everyone and everything else should follow rules of nature.

In one of the most memorable scenes in “Spider-Man,” the Green Goblin forces Spider-Man to choose between saving a cable car full of people and the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The Goblin drops both from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge simultaneously, but using his webbing, Spider-Man is able to save everyone.

Anyone familiar with the comics) will know that in the original comic this scene showed the death of Parker’s original girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Spider-man shoots his webbing to try and save her, but the sudden stop from being caught by his webbing snapped her neck.

Whether the movie’s writers wanted to rewrite Spider-Man’s history or create a redemptive scene as an homage to the comic books, only they know. But they had to ignore science to do it.

How to make it better?

Keep the original story line, which gave Peter Parker more depth and a more interesting back story. The movie producers brought Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) into the third movie anyhow, and she isn’t as compelling.

3. Back to the Future (1985)

While traveling 30 years in the past in a time-traveling car created by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), high school student Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) almost prevents his own existence when his mother falls in love with him instead of his father.

While time travel itself is enough of a stretch--there are no hard and fast rules-- the rules a film sets should at least make sense in and of themselves.

Some do this through parallel timelines, others have events change immediately if someone does something to change the future. This tries to do both, which is the source of the problem.

When Marty McFly first disrupts his parents’ initial meeting, his siblings start to fade from a photograph he has with him, then he himself begins to fade.

In “Back to the Future: Part II,” however, Doc explains that the changed future he and Marty end up in is the result of a change in the past that sent them on alternate timeline.

If Marty can travel to alternate timelines, why would he disappear from any of them. Any of the changes aren’t from own his timeline.

And if he does fade from existence, shouldn’t he also immediately be given the new memories he would have when he, at the end of the movie, goes to a new 1985?

By the alternate universe logic, when Marty returns to his future life at the end of the first film, he is in an alternate universe—and one where he would have no need to travel back in the first place. If there were no alternative universes, he should have all the memories of the changed timeline.

But if he is in an alternate universe, he should, at some point, run into himself. And to resolve that, he might have to make like Hugh Jackman in this next film.

How to make it better?

Pick one set of time travel rules—alternate universes or one changeable timeline—and stick with it.

4. The Prestige (2006)

Magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) each try to create the greatest stage act in England. The rivalry grows bitter after a magic trick involving Angier’s wife goes awry and she dies—an accident for which Angier blames Borden, his partner at the time.

The focus of their rivalry is to perfect a trick called the “Transported Man,” where a man goes from one point on stage to another in a split-second.

Angier spends much that time trying to figure out Borden’s version of the trick, owing to his own failings to pull it off with a double.

Frustrated by his rival’s success, Angier ultimately goes to Colorado Springs to have a duplicating machine built for him by Nikola Tesla.

Each time he does the trick, Angier creates a clone that he kills off—ultimately using one of these clones to frame Borden for murder.

While Borden’s version of “The Transported Man” was impressive, it also has a logical explanation—which proves to be Angier’s undoing.

Meanwhile, Angier’s trick is impossible in a movie striving for reality.

Creating enough matter for a person (think E=mc2) is no small task. It’s a staggering amount of energy, given the size of the right side of that equation. With the power resources available in the late 19th century, the idea of generating enough energy to create a man from nothing is absurd.

(The 1.21 gigawatts Marty and Doc needed to fuel the powerless DeLorean in 1955 pales in comparison.)

Unlike the other movies, this implausibility is something most people seemed to catch even as they were watching the movie.

How to make it better?

Beats me. The one logical problem ruins a movie that was otherwise almost flawless.

 5. The Fugitive (1993)

Wrongly convicted physician Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) goes on the run after escaping a prison bus, hoping to find out why his wife was really killed.

Coming out a decade before scandals, with drugs like Vioxx and Avandia, this movie was prescient., But it doesn’t present the pharmaceutical market realistically.

Kimball’s wife was mistakenly killed instead of Kimball himself by a drug company’s assassin to cover up the problems Kimball discovered in its new drug.

While any American company likes to avoid bad publicity, having a physician knocked off and putting a drug on the market that you know is killing people isn’t a strategy that’s going to gain approval at any business school. Ethics aside, it’s a sure way to lose a fortune through lawsuits.

How to make it better?

A company might try to cover up past misdeeds by eliminating evidence of wrongdoing, but it wouldn’t be pressing ahead with a drug that would kill people. Plenty of doctors are sure to notice these problems if Kimball did.

 

Science and Hollywood obviously have different goals. And clearly, getting the science wrong isn’t enough to torpedo a good film--all five of these have been highly acclaimed despite shaky errors in their storytelling.

In fiction workshops, the rule is always that a plausible sounding impossibility is better than an implausible sounding possibility. In other words, if your audience doesn’t buy it, what really happened doesn’t matter. And if your movie is scientifically impossible, but you can make it seem plausible to your audience?

You might have yourself a blockbuster.