Movie Science (part 2)
Last time we talked about some of the less-than-entertaining aspects of microscopes and space that are abused, falsified or just plain ignored when film-makers get their grubby little hands on them. This time we’ll be discussing faster-than-light travel. It’ll be great, I promise.
Theoretically impossible but pretty much completely necessary if we’re ever going to get anywhere cool outside of our own planet, faster-than-light travel is common in films involving outer space. And since it’s pretty much made up you can put it in your film and you get to make the rules, which means they should be easy to follow, right? Just keep some basic principles of physics in mind and you can have your characters jump around in space on fun adventures or into dark regions of their own psyche. BUT NOPE, even that is too hard for some film-makers.
There’s two basic types of FTL (faster-than-light, if you needed that acronym explained; I hope you didn’t) travel in movies: wormhole and warp. A wormhole is a bending of space-time to connect two physical points in space that would otherwise be a great distance away. It’s not “technically” faster-than-light travel but it sorta is so it gets included. Warping is usually never really described in-depth so it’s basically just magic that appears in the movie and lets the spaceships jump around in space. You see the latter more often, probably because it’s the easiest to convey in a film and, like I said before, you get to make the rules. Also, describing wormholes to a large audience is pretty tough, in fact I’m sure most of you stopped reading after I wrote the word “space-time”.
We’ll start with wormholes. My main issue with how they’re passed off in movies revolves around the fact that film-makers usually just straight-up ignore the fact that a physical bridge connecting two locations would allow EVERYTHING to travel through it, not just the characters. Since it’s fresh in all our minds we’ll use The Avengers (2012) as an example. *SPOILER ALERT YA’LL* At the end of the film a wormhole-style portal opens over New York City, allowing the evil aliens to attack from where they were waiting in some unknown location in space. Now we know the portal is two way because Tony Stark goes in it and then falls back in. That’s legit, by the way, Earth’s gravity would still affect him across the portal. The problem is that the Earth’s atmosphere does not immediately start getting sucked out into space through the hole (yes, like in Spaceballs) when it’s created. Space is a vacuum (no, not like in Spaceballs) and the difference in pressure between Earth’s atmosphere and space would pull (push?) air through the portal when it opened. What really gets me nerd-raging about this is it wouldn’t even be all that hard to illustrate, especially for a movie that cost more money to make than you, me and everyone sitting in the room with you right now will earn in our lifetimes. Yeah, it might have cut into some valuable alien-punching screen time but it would also have created some extra tension/urgency for the heroes to get to Stark Tower and close the portal before Earth lost all its atmosphere AND get some bonus points with science nerds (like me).
Warping is a bit different. It’s never really explained how it works but that’s ok because it’s not really a real thing anyway. There’s usually some kind of device or engine that let’s the spaceship do its warp business and that’s all the explanation that’s really required. It’s also good for creating tension when said machine breaks down or is damaged at a crucial moment. That’s all warm and fuzzy but the silliness arises when the film can’t even follow the rules it creates itself for how its warp drive works. Take Battlestar Galactica (the recent one, and yeah I know it’s a TV show but there’s also movies based on it, so there) for example. Every spaceship has something called an FTL Drive that allows it to warp to a different location in space. The “rules” seem to be as follows:
- There are some preparatory steps that must be taken for the FTL Drive to work and it must be “warmed up.”
- Some “calculations” must be done before a jump is undertaken. These calculations get more complicated if more than one jump is involved or the distance is large.
- The distance that can be covered by a jump is essentially infinite.
- UNLESS a nuke is headed for the ship and then Odama can just press a (figurative) big red button and they can warp pretty much instantly to safety. (*whew*)
I’m exaggerating a wee bit, I know, but essentially that’s what happens. I like BSG and I know it’s not “hard” sci-fi but they could, at the very least, APPEAR to try to follow the rules they set for themselves. It’s a bit insulting to your audience when apparently you think they’re stupid enough to not realize you’re just doing what you want with the “science” you MADE UP YOURSELF for your show. Not to mention it’s silly too.