Is Scientific Accuracy Crucial In Cinema?

I have a long to-do list, so much so I have a “still to-do list”. On that list read “watch Gravity”. I didn’t watch Gravity. It was when I watched the BAFTA’s and witnessed Gravity obtain many awards throughout the night as well as 12 Years a Slave. The number of awards this film won, coupled with my passion for science and space, watching this film became a priority.

SYNOPSIS: Whilst on her first space mission repairing the Hubble Telescope, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) along with veteran colleague, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), find themselves in the crossfire of space debris caused by the Russians who blow up their own satellite. What follows is the pursuit for survival in an unforgiving abyss of cosmic proportions. The film has it’s moments of tense action. What really steals the show isn’t the narrative itself but more the gobsmackingly amazing cinematography.

Nevertheless, like most films, people will have criticisms. As this film featured heavy scientific themes, it was bound to come under the scrutiny of the scientific community. One person in particular, Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson garnered much attention of his criticisms of the film via an “awesome Twitter rant“. Time Science also featured a critical piece on areas of science the film got wrong.

One criticism was that this scene was not scientifically accurate. Usually Astronauts wear nappy-like underwear and and a special onesie.

But is scientific accuracy important in cinema?

Despite the “meteor shower” of criticism, is it the job of a film to be scientifically accurate? After all, if we want the facts we can read a book or watch a relevant documentary. In fact, the legendary Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos television series has been remade and is currently on air on National Geographic Channel hosted by the aforementioned Neil DeGrasse Tyson. This is a thrilling documentary series which I would deeply recommend to anyone with a keen, learned interest in all things space. Anyway, the point is, there are avenues for the facts.

What is the job of a cinematic film? Is it to entertain? or to inform? or even both? I think it can be both. But more importantly, a good film will move you. A good film will make you feel. For me, that is the purpose of the film. If a film can illicit a physiological and/or emotional response from the viewer then, for me, it has served its purpose.

The film was developed by an English production team, which really solidifies the skill, and industrious temerity of the British film industry

If a film was scientifically accurate would it compromise the quality of the story? In terms of Gravity, according to the articles mentioned above, the scenarios wouldn’t have happened in the first place or at the least be very unlikely. So by alleviating the scientific facts and replacing them with more imaginative alternatives it may make for a good story.

I’d also be interested to ask what the films intentions were? Of course, Disney Pixar will not receive scrutiny for the notion of toys with consciousness in Toy Story, or the fact that there is a parallel universe in which Monsters live and travel arriving through our wardrobes to scare children like in Monsters Inc. In fact, they would be praised and awarded with numerous awards. I would argue that this is because these films aren’t intended to be “real”, but presented more as imaginative story telling. Conversely, Gravity presents the story as if it could theoretically happen. Of course, if a film is centred around a scientific theme then the science should be presented factually accurate.

But Gravity was more than just a story of human survival. It was actually a catalogue of new inventive ways to film. Ground breaking filming techniques were employed to create the impression of defying gravity. Visually, the cinematography is superb. I can only imagine how good this film would have been if I watched it on iMax. As a Brit, I was also proud that the film was developed by an English production team, which really solidifies the skill and the industrious temerity of the British film industry. If cinema is designed to move you and make you feel, then Gravity surely exceeds these expectations “to infinity and beyond” (sorry I had to go there,  get it? go there?).

It would be best for films to perhaps attempt to portray as much scientifically accurate facts within a film. But this may impact the value of story telling, and this could even impact editing. For instance, in the film when Dr Stone enters a spacecraft/space station, takes off her spacesuit and is immediately fine. In reality she’d need to spend a few hours breathing oxygen and nitrogen to avoid suffering the bends before she could actually do anything useful, like setting the ISS on fire.

Having said that, I ask you, when we watch films should we leave our rational selves at the door and place our imaginations in the hands of the film makers? I say yes. We spend so much time thinking about our future, jobs, deadlines, bills, news stories, and thinking about what we would do if we won the lottery (thats another blog altogether!) that it is rather refreshing to just switch off for a few hours and just be entertained and blast off to a universe of infinite possibilities of film and story telling.

If you watched or intend to watch Gravity to learn something about space you will be/were disappointed. However, if you watch(ed) Gravity to imagine or be entertained, moved, and provoked to think you will be/were pleased.

What do you think? Should cinema be more scientifically accurate?


My views are my own ad do not represent the individual or collective views of the Bollington Town Council

2 thoughts on “Is Scientific Accuracy Crucial In Cinema?

  1. I have not seen it yet, more’s the pity: anything with Sandra Bullock is for me.
    Each film is its own universe, and has to be appreciated as such; having said that let’s extend the metaphor to bring in the multiverse, and each universe superimposed on each other. What we see is through our experience of cinema, yet also what the specific films brings.
    Science is more cerebral than the cinema can take. Scientific accuracy can give a flavour, but it can also can ruin. It is a fine edge that each film walks alone.
    I hope to walk this one with Sandra.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would agree with that to some extent. I suppose there can’t be too much scientific accuracy in The Lord of the Ring for instance. You make a good a point about the multiverse and it is an attractive theory in physics (we may be the only people who have linked it to film theory haha).


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