Will Hollywood Ever Get It Right?

Tedd Roberts

Sometimes it seems that popular media has a love/hate relationship with science. Evening news and cable TV programs showcase the latest scientific breakthroughs followed by infomercials for the modern equivalent of snake oil and shows that will tell you that everything can be traced back to aliens. Movies, on the big screen and little are no different. One of the more frequent questions that I, as a scientist, tend to ask while watching TV and movies is "What the heck were they thinking? Where was the science advisor? What were the science advisors thinking?" The questions usually occur in response to inconsistencies in physics, inappropriate use of jargon, and what often seems to be an utter lack of understanding of biology. Hence the question: "Will Hollywood ever get it right?" It is not an easy question to answer. The primary interest of Hollywood and other entertainment producers is just that—entertainment. It is not in the interest of the industry to include material that slows the story, distracts the viewer, or drops viewers out of a "willing state of disbelief." For this reason, fictional representations of science and scientists are often condensed and simplified. At the same time, a sense of adventure, suspense or danger is added to prevent boredom or distraction. Before delving further into how these factors combine to reinforce or dilute the accuracy of science in TV and film, we will start by examining two movies with similar themes but drastically different approaches to the science, and then move on to look behind the screens at some of the causes of good and bad Hollywood Science.

Real Science vs. Movie Science

In the past few years, two films have presented the idea of humans who become superhuman with respect to the ability to use and control their mental abilities. In Lucy (2014) and Limitless (2011) the protagonist is exposed to a drug that "unlocks" the full potential of the human brain. Since both are adventure movies, it can be reasonably supposed that they will prioritize the action over the accuracy of the science; however, the idea that humans only use "ten percent of their brain" is an overused trope that is untrue (as revealed by many measures of brain activity). In Lucy the protagonist is an unwilling carrier for illegal drugs surgically placed within her body. The packaging leaks, exposing her to a massive amount of a stimulant that appears to combine effects of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, all in one. This, in turn, increases her mental abilities to the point of giving her mysterious, psychokinetic powers. When she finally reaches "100 percent brain usage" she is transformed (and presumably becomes part of the computer with which she was interacting).


Image by sisacorn, 2015. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.

Aside from the throwaway "ten percent" trope, the story behind Limitless actually parallels the initial discovery and testing of the drug aniracetam, a neuromodulatory (i.e. brain cell altering) chemical that acts on receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is one of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in the brain, and is responsible for sending active information signals from neuron to neuron. Enhancing the action of glutamate via modulation sites resulted in increased attention and memory, faster arithmetic skills, more rapid decision-making and increased ability to solve problems. The effects are actually quite real, and parallel some reports from persons taking modafinil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin) or even other prototype cognitive-enhancing drugs. The protagonist uses the fictional drug NZT to enhance his natural mental abilities to personal advantage—that is, money and power; the 2015 TV series by the same name has the protagonist working as an analyst and problem-solver for the FBI. While Limitless is a thriller, it remains true to the scientific basis of the drug—addressing the risks of brain damage, epileptic seizure, and the need to inject rather than swallow the drug for best effect. It varies from reality in showing that the reason NZT is not available for common use is because of a conspiracy, rather than the actual medical reason which, simply put, is patient safety. As mentioned above, one of the risks of increased neural activity is increased risk of epileptic seizure; another is "excitotoxic" damage to brain cells—that is, the cells are damaged by too much neurotransmitter activity and build-up of toxic by-products. Any drug affecting the brain has specific requirements for administration and effectiveness to forestall such damage. These drugs are in development, but there are many hurdles, as I have discovered in my own laboratory research with similar drugs.

Does It Work for the Story?

Why is it so difficult to portray accurate science in movies and TV? So far we have looked at two movies based on similar science—one of which ignored it, essentially becoming fantasy, while the other worked within the framework of science to produce a thriller that incidentally was more critically accepted and popular. Perhaps it is because scientists and the public have long known that science is (or can be) boring. Experiments take hours, days, sometimes years to complete. The comic "XKCD" often provides excellent examples of the dichotomy between movie science and real science, such as in comic #683 (http://xkcd.com/683/).

Another humorous view is provided by the comic "People in White Coats": (http://peopleinwhitecoats.blogspot.com/2015/02/movie-science-vs-real-life-13.html) in which the movie scientist travels the world (and space), fights Nazis, escapes from a volcano and gets the girl (or guy, depending on point of view) in the same time that a real scientist is still writing grant applications and dealing with committee meetings. There are many more cartoons with similar themes on the internet—just Google "real science vs. movie science" and enjoy.

Hollywood Science, however, seems to revel in the old adage that it isn't science unless it bubbles, changes colors, makes sparks or noises. True, we sometimes have lasers, microscopes and funny light traces on oscilloscopes, but most of the time the differences are very subtle and not easily detected without looking strictly at the numbers. Then too, there must often be drama and conflict to support the story. In reality, the hazards of science also tend to be rather mundane—Neuroscience researchers seldom have to worry about their systems causing psychoses (The Terminal Man, 1974), hyper-intelligent lab rats (The Secret of NIMH, 1982), or adolescent amphibian martial artists with recombinant DNA (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 2014)! Those long boring hours at a computer writing grant proposals, revising animal care-and-use protocols, reviewing manuscripts, adjusting budgets and teaching statistics classes do not compare to braving jungles and dodging booby traps to retrieve an archeological treasure (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981).

I have been privileged to advise and correspond with many fiction writers, game developers, screenwriters and TV producers about science details from real life examples to "gimmicks" for stories. The job of a science advisor is usually to find a starting point in real science and educate the person on the other end. It can be amazing what a talented writer can make out of that humble beginning; but as we see from Hollywood treatment of science, it may have little or no resemblance to the original science. On the other hand, the story is the ultimate vehicle; in a battle between entertainment and (comprehensive) accuracy and/or reality, the story will usually win out.

Sometimes that is not a bad thing! Take the proliferation of "police procedural" shows such as the CSI and NCIS franchises: On those shows, the science is abbreviated, and nothing short of miraculous—fingerprints are matched in seconds, DNA in minutes and faces in an hour or two. However, what those shows have done is to make the science look cool, as demonstrated by the number of people wandering around San Diego ComiCon or Atlanta's DragonCon in outfits modeled after NCIS forensic scientist Abby Sciuto! In these shows, forensic science looks cool, and isn't that part of the point of having science in the show? Viewers are influenced to think positively about science in general, and forensics in particular, as evidenced by an increase in enrollment in college-level forensic science programs.

Thus, it is not that the scientist-screenwriter combination can't ensure accuracy to the point that the science is plausible, but rather that dialogue, jargon, details of procedures, all need to advance the story. They also need to influence the viewer to enjoy the science! It is for this reason that 100 hours in the laboratory a scientist spends trying to develop a cure will get foreshortened to 30-60 seconds of screen time. The job of a science advisor is to keep the science understandable and plausible while still fitting the story.

Making It Look and Sound Right

This compression and editing is not (or at least should not be) an unusual concept to the viewer. A TV show has 42 minutes, a movie about 100 minutes, to tell a story. Events portrayed in movies cannot take as long to occur as they do in real-life. For example, the critical events of a car crash are over in seconds; however, foreshadowing the crash, realization that a crash will happen, effects on all parties, aftermath and emotional impact of the . . . well, the impact . . . can all be of value to a story. Thus, the screenwriter provides all of the details, perspectives and insights, and the director films the scene in slow-motion video. By the same token, transatlantic airline travel takes at least 6 hours, transpacific takes at least 13, yet unless some critical plot point requires a scene (or snakes) on the aircraft, that time will be compressed and edited out of the script.

Having a scientist write grant proposals, look up a journal in Index Medicus, or wait for the green and blue liquids to boil, will slow down a story; not to mention the casual observer usually has no frame of reference to judge the accuracy of the science. By contrast, two characters talking in technical jargon lends an air of authenticity—deserved or not. One of my favorite examples of the (bad) use of scientific jargon comes from a Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) episode in which Dr. Beverly Crusher stares at flashing lights on a monitor and says: "The engram has wrapped itself around the cerebral cortex and we can't dislodge it!" The problem is, the phrase contains pseudo-scientific jargon which most audience members won't understand, and isn’t accurate. A scientist will know that "engram" is an old, dis-used term, engrams aren't physical entities, the cerebral cortex is not something that could be "wrapped around," and frankly, she couldn't have gotten all of that looking at one screen with a bunch of swirly colors.

Perhaps the problem is, though, that accurate science just doesn't sound "sciency." A venerable old Family Doctor might say "It's a strong memory, and the patient keeps reliving it. It will be hard to overcome." On the other hand, a Board-Certified Neurologist might say: "The patient seems to have a particularly strong association manifesting as a persistent neurochemical activation state. It appears to be correlated with recall, and may represent an emergent memory formation. It is well consolidated; the activation pattern is so widespread that it will be difficult to depotentiate the synaptic connections." The problem, while accurate, these statements don't create drama or suspense. The TV show dialogue probably resulted from a writer deciding that the scene needed to be enhanced through use of jargon, but even that can misfire. Consider, instead, if Dr. Crusher had said: "The MEA in PFC is picking up firing phase locked to theta. Gamma oscillations in LFPs recorded from CA3 show evidence of LTP. WLMFA of CA1 spike trains shows LRCs with self-similarity; C-one is minus one and C-two is greater than plus point five." This is how two neuroscientists might describe the same phenomenon when discussing with each other. While they seem like utter gibberish, those sentences would make perfect sense to a neuroscience faculty member or graduate student.

Thus, a portion of the inaccuracy of science in movies and TV is intentional, in order to create drama and adventure, and part results from misapplication of jargon. There is a third factor as well, Gene Roddenberry was reported to have told scriptwriters not to explain technology on Star Trek—the cast would simply use the devices, and viewers could figure them out as the show progressed. The Dr. Crusher monologue is an example of this principle: use known scientific terms, plus science-sounding jargon, and the story moves forward with a dramatic flair (pay no attention to the Neuroscientists groaning in the corner).

Making It Up As You Go

Added to this need for time constraints, drama, and recognizable (if not always understandable) speech, that often an author or screenwriter doesn't want to write the science into the story, but rather to understand the science so that they can write the consequences of the science. Baen author Sarah A. Hoyt frequently calls this practice "Heinleining" as a tribute to SF Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein (best exemplified by the opening paragraph of his novel Friday). With respect to movies and TV, we see this in the movie Inception (2010) in which we see both the Roddenberry and Heinlein technique in that the movie starts with protagonist Cobb having been caught in the middle of a theft. Within the next few minutes we learn that it is merely a dream, but it is an artificial one generated by Cobb and his team in order to fool and distract the target of the theft. The beginning of the movie showcases the technique in media res—Latin for "in the middle of things." In just a few minutes of screen time, we learn that:

  • Cobb is a thief who enters people's dreams to swindle, cheat or rob them,
  • The dreams are artificially induced, using a device implied to work with human EEG, and a drug to keep the target asleep,
  • The team needs an "architect" to design the buildings and scenery of the artificial dream,
  • Cobb was used to be part of a (presumed) government agency that invented and used the dream technique.

Thus, much like Heinlein's Friday, writer/director Christopher Nolan has set up the character's background, motivation and something of the society and technological base—without explicitly explaining them!

Like Captains Kirk and Picard, Cobb simply uses the technology and does not reveal the science behind the premise. In fact, mutability of the dream setting is reasonably well grounded in psychology the science of "lucid dreaming." While the explanation for difference in sense of time between dream "levels" is not necessarily supported by science, the depiction of time compression is consistent with what is known about how humans perceive elapsed time in dreams. Overall, Inception is an example of a Science Fiction (Fantasy) movie which remains true to underlying scientific principles, while bending the science just enough to fit the story and entertain the audience.

Spectacular (and Hilarious) Science Failures

The problems with "Hollywood science" come when the screenwriter and director take those principles too far and simply make things up, while simultaneously expecting the reader/viewer to accept them as plausible—often with laughable results. There is a trope regarding "stupid movie physics" that includes such whoppers as sound in space, cars that explode in a crash, visible laser beams, items that fall in space, igniting a puddle of gasoline with a cigarette, and many, many more (see Intuitor's Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics website: http://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics/). As stated with Lucy, science fiction all too easily becomes fantasy when the movie science loses all but the most tenuous connection to real science. On the other hand, with the willing suspension of our disbelief, it is possible to sit back and enjoy without having to worry about the plot requiring that most elusive of scientific materials: unobtainium.

Unobtainium is SF nerd shorthand for any material that is rare and unusual—it doesn't exist in this universe, it can't be made, mined or gathered, or it is too unstable to last; it is . . . unobtainable. Two of the top physics failure movies, according to Intuitor, are The Core (2003) and Avatar (2009), particularly since both rely on unobtainium to succeed. At least in The Core, the term is used in a tongue-in-cheek manner by a character describing a new material he has developed. In Avatar, however, unobtainium is the driving motivation; humans mine the rare metal from the moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri system. The serious use of the term in Avatar makes one wonder whether the writers forgot to go back and edit a raw script which may have looked something like: "/// insert name of unobtainium ore here///." It seems unlikely, however, given other instances of ignoring basic astronomy (Alpha Centauri appears to have neither gas giants nor moons), material science (lack of qualitative advances in military armor and weapons), and even economics (i.e. mining a moon a minimum of six years' travel each way from Earth). Most importantly, if the genetic engineering of the time could create the "avatars" and allow a human brain to control it—why was the protagonist still paralyzed? The same science could have been applied to regeneration, transplants, brain-machine interfacing to a robotic body, or even creation of "shell persons" as in Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang. Sadly, the creators of Avatar are not alone in ignoring the possibilities of real science.

As a medical school professor specializing in Neuroscience, I tend to particularly note bad science within my field. For example, I was once part of a community science event discussing memory in the context of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In one scene, the movie scientists are trying to erase a particularly stubborn memory (an "engram" in fact) that was illustrated as a pink dot moving around on a screen showing brain images. The students and professors all started laughing, while the members of the community looked confused. The brain images were from an MRI series (something that requires a very large machine and powerful magnetic fields) while the engram ran around the static images like Pac-Man. In the discussion afterward, the scientists explained to the rest: The brain images could not have been "live" and a memory would never have been located in the regions implied by the movie (cerebellum, brain stem, etc.). This is similar to the "ten percent of the brain" trope mentioned above.

There are numerous other examples from the biological sciences, particularly with regard to "Life Support" in movies involving space travel. In movies and TV, "loss of life support" is generally accompanied by a time estimate for remaining water, food, oxygen, and heat. Since it is fiction, the protagonist will be rescued with only minutes to spare, of course. However, the truth is considerably different; quite frequently, the estimates ignore the fact that the environment is currently filled with oxygen and is heated. Thus, simply turning off the fans won't make those conditions change immediately. At the same time, as the oxygen is depleted and the spacecraft cools, there is not set point at which a human will die—they will often fall into a coma from hypothermia or metabolic waste products well before the point of death. There is no guarantee (in fact, near certainty) that a person in such a coma would miraculously revive, just from an oxygen mask. Once the damage starts, it is very hard to reverse (just ask anyone who has dealt with a stroke victim). Many similar instances of ignoring basic physiology and medical sciences exist: humans who can withstand multiple knife and gunshot wounds and still stand up to rush the evil-doer (e.g. Daredevil, 2014, Kingsman, 2014); the necessities of hygiene (i.e. the lack of toilet facilities in Star Trek TV series); the inconsistencies of density, mass and strength in Ant-Man, 2015; instantaneous forensic results CSI and NCIS, etc.). Then there are eco-disasters that multiply exponentially (any SyFy Channel movie!), yet can somehow still be stopped at the last moment even though "exponentially" should mean that the transition from the halfway point to full effect will be a fraction of the total time (and thus appear to be nearly instantaneous). There are many more examples such as "Where did they put the fuel and supplies in the Jupiter 2 spacecraft?" (Lost in Space, 2965), but it is time to move on to examples of getting the science (mostly) right!


Image by Ron Leishman, 2015. Used under license from Shutterstock.com

Science Done Right

Generally when listing movies that get the science right there needs to be a caveat, such as "mostly right" (the aforementioned Limitless) or "right up to a point" (Interstellar, 2014). The science of gravity and black holes in Interstellar is top notch, thanks to noted physicist Kip Thorne who literally wrote the book on gravity (yes, we do mean "literally"—he co-wrote a physics text titled Gravity). The visual image of the black hole and accretion disk looking like the Greek capital theta (θ) was the result of computer-generated image specialists using Thorne's equations for gravity to understand how light bends around a singularity. The result was a unique image of Gargantua—which made everyone involved (even Thorne) revise the previous concepts of black holes. Unfortunately, we then got to the unbelievable movie physics, such as "frozen clouds," and how the same, small Ranger spacecraft managed to both land and take off on full-gravity planet without boosters or visible fuel tanks, given that Earth itself was no longer able to put more mass than a single Ranger into orbit with a full-sized Saturn-type booster.

The epitome of Science Done Right is Apollo 13 (1995) which used NASA techniques to create short periods of free-fall during which the crew filmed the spacecraft scenes. This was a far cry from the movie 2010, in which the weightless scenes relied on sticking objects to a clear glass plate, and hoping the adhesive did not show or the object fall off. Apollo 13 used NASA's Vomit Comet aircraft that alternately climbed and dove to create thirty- to forty-second-long periods of zero-gravity. The movie also had a very realistic treatment of the problems of "life support" as mentioned earlier, using the reality of the emergency to create drama and suspense without having to violate the underlying science.

My personal short-list of Good Science movies includes And The Band Played On (1993). We actually use this movie in discussions of research ethics and practices. The movie follows the mid-1980's discovery of the HIV virus and imminent AIDS epidemic. It is one of the few movies to actually show some of the mundane nature of scientific research—the characters have to deal with insufficient data, uncooperative subjects, government regulation, and the inability to get non-scientists to understand the importance of the scientific findings. It is not a fun movie, but it is a good one, with an excellent (and recognizable) cast. For the fun look at science, as well as some true-life travails of being a graduate student, I recommend The PhD Movie (http://phdmovie.com/), from Jorge Cham, creator of the popular webcomic Piled Higher and Deeper (http://phdcomics.com/comics.php).

The Scientists' Obligation:

What then is the scientist's obligation with respect to SF and popular media? Is it always necessary to prevent dumbing down of the portrayal of science, and is it necessarily is harmful to science and education? Do scientists have an obligation to convince writers and producers to get it right? Unfortunately, the answer is . . . it depends. The viewer who simply wants to be entertained will forgive (and forget) inaccuracies in science; whereas the viewer who wishes to be entertained and enlightened, will want to see evidence of at least some effort at making science accurate.

The significance of this last point is brought home by visiting a convention (or the water cooler at work) and listening to the discussion. These fans may occasionally be educated in a specific scientific field, but are often self-educated in other areas. The urge to educate oneself in science is frequently fostered by a long-term interest in science fiction. At the same time, even those persons uninterested in SF will be aware of the science that is showcased in popular media (Avatar is my principal case-in-point). Thus it is important not to dumb-down the science, and perhaps more importantly, not to perpetuate false information. In this latter regard, the memes that proliferate through Facebook, Twitter, websites and email are particularly egregious. While I am happy that people are interested enough in science to look at websites and Facebook groups that feature pretty pictures from science, the information contained in those images is often distorted. In contrast, when the science is unreadable, boring or too simplified, it is all too easy for it to be overcome by false science that has the benefit of flashy packaging and hype. As a result, a doctor's appeal for infant vaccinations may be overshadowed by celebrity opinion; by the same token, the dangers of drug abuse are frequently superseded by the bad examples of musicians or athletes.

What should we—the public, the SF fans, and the scientists—do about it? For scientists there is an organization that pairs real scientists with writers, directors and producers of entertainment media. The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a service of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and serves as a clearinghouse where scientists can list their areas of expertise, and movie & TV writers, and game developers can request an expert to answer science questions for their latest project (http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/). For the public, we need to call out fake science whenever we see it. Write to authors, actors, directors, producers, and request that they make the science more accurate; write reviews for Amazon, book and movie review sites; cite both the good and the bad, but be courteous and respectful in the process; read more; educate ourselves. Make Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education the responsibility of all of us, and not just relegated to the schools. When you find a movie, TV show or story that showcases good, accurate science, spread the world as far and wide, and into as many markets as you can. Let's reward accurate science without losing sight of the entertainment value.

Copyright © 2015 Tedd Roberts

Tedd Roberts is the pseudonym of neuroscience researcher Robert E. Hampson, Ph.D., whose cutting edge research includes work on effects of drugs, radiation and disease on memory function, and the development of a "neural prosthetic" to restore damaged memory function. His interest in public education and brain awareness has led him to the goal of writing accurate, yet enjoyable brain science via blogging, short fiction, and nonfiction/science articles for the SF/F community. Tedd Roberts' other nonfiction articles for Baen.com, are available here in Baen.com Free Nonfiction 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.