A far-from-definitive list of the 20 most annoying science and technology errors in films, from slow-moving lasers to extraterrestrials who use Windows Vista.
Being a science-geek film fan can be exhausting. It’s hard to watch some films without wanting to shout at the screen “but that’s not how evolution works” or “computers can’t do that”.
It’s pedantic, annoying for your fellow moviegoers, and utterly nerdy, but some of us can’t help it.
So in an attempt to scratch that geeky itch once and for all, here is a list of 20 of the most infuriating science and technology errors in movies.
Please add your own or argue with ours below – or, alternatively, use the space to tell us that we’re nitpicking killjoys who should go out and meet some girls once in a while.
1. Aliens are basically humans with silly foreheads
The Enterprise, thousands of light-years from Earth, encounters an alien spacecraft. The matter transporter beams one of their number aboard… and lo and behold, it’s Famke Janssen with some makeup on her forehead.
It’s a similar story with Vulcans (pointy eared humans – see also Romulans), Ferengi (grotesquely deformed humans) and Klingons (humans with Cornish pasties attached). Humanity looks like it does through a very specific set of evolutionary circumstances. Why should aliens look anything like us? And don’t say “to save on effects budgets”.
2. Antigravity love songs
Related to the above, with Star Trek again the main offender, although it happens everywhere. We find the idea of sex with our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, repellent. And yet we are quite happy with the idea of Captain Kirk doing his interplanetary swordsman thing with a variety of smokin’ hot space babes. He might as well try it on with a nematode worm: at least it has DNA.
Incidentally, Spock is half human, half Vulcan. We have no idea how that is supposed to work.
3. The Ice Storm
Star Wars is guilty here. Young Luke grows up on Tatooine, a desert planet; by the start of The Empire Strikes Back, he’s found his way to Hoth, an ice planet. Endor is a Forest Moon. Do none of these planets have some warm bits and some cold bits? Do you have to go to a different planet for a skiiing holiday?
4. Alien computers that run Windows
Independence Day, we’re looking at you. It is almost impossible to write a virus that will affect both Macs and PCs. And yet somehow Jeff Goldblum’s character manages to write a nasty little piece of malware that he can upload into an alien mothership’s mainframe and bring down its shields.
It’s a good thing they didn’t have Norton Antivirus, or humanity would have been screwed.
5. Slow-moving lasers
Laser beams move at the speed of light, largely because they are light. What they don’t do is spear through the ether ahead of your X-Wing like giant glowing arrows.
In fact, they don’t even glow – especially not in space, where there would be no air particles to diffract off. Although – and we have to acknowledge this – it did look much cooler like that.
6. Invisible force fields that stop visible laser beams
Again, laser beams are light. Visible light. Anything that stops visible light will stop them – anything visible light can pass through, they can pass through. So how on Earth do they get knocked aside by invisible deflector shields? Mr Lucas? Sir?
7. In space, no-one can hear an elephant scream
Did you know the distinctive sound made by the TIE fighters in Star Wars is the bellow of an elephant mixed with a car driving on a wet road? Weird – but not as weird as the fact that they make any sound at all.
Sound is a wave that needs to travel through a medium like air. Without particles to move, there can be no sound.
8. Who needs conservation of energy?
The Matrix is a great movie. Lots of things don’t make sense from a physics point of view inside the Matrix itself, but we can forgive that, because it’s meant to be a computer simulation – and, of course, because it’s so cool.
But the film is based on the idea that humans are kept alive as a sort of electricity generator (bringing a whole new meaning to the term “battery farming”). This is not just unlikely – it’s fundamentally impossible.
They will need more energy to keep alive than they will produce. It’s like saying you’ll power your car with batteries, and keep the batteries charged by running a dynamo from the wheels.
9. Dead before you hit the ground
In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Caped Crusader and Vicki Vale fall from a church tower, But luckily, Batman has a grappling hook, which he launches over the parapet. After falling two or three hundred feet, at speeds that would be nearing 100mph, they jerk to a halt.
Keen-eyed viewers will notice that his arm remains attached.
10. Science friction
If you’re moving in space, you will not stop if your engines get blown up, whatever Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may tell you. Well, you might eventually, but only when you run into a planet or something.
11. Steamy Windows Vista
The hacker is desperately trying to hack into the mainframe, or the CIA is trying to trace the bad guy’s phone call, or whatever. The screen is filled with a big red sign saying ACCESS DENIED.
Suddenly it works – and an equally huge green sign saying ACCESS GRANTED. Just like your Gmail account does. Jurassic Park is a particularly egregious example of this.
Another computer-related issue occurs in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where emails are seen appearing on the recipient’s screen as they are typed, one letter at a time. Exactly like they do in real life.
12. Stars of CCTV
If you zoom in really close on a grainy security camera picture until the pixels almost fill the screen, you cannot then press some magical “enhance image” button and make it all perfectly clear. A pixel is a pixel.
Especially embarrassing in Blade Runner – where Decker zooms in on a reflection in a cabinet door and recreates a face – and Enemy of the State, where they manage to rotate the image in 3D.
13. Are we nearly there yet?
In The Empire Strikes Back, the plot hinges on the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive system failing, forcing them to travel from the Hoth system to the Bespin system at sub-light speeds.
If we take our own solar system as a guide, the nearest other star – Proxima Centauri – is 4.2 light years away. Even if it was only that far to Hoth, and even if “sub-light” meant relativistic near-light speeds, we could still expect several years’ journey time. Make sure you pack a good book.
It is a common misconception of evolutionary theory that organisms are always getting “better”, with humans somehow the “best”. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there will be some later, better, superhuman, the “next stage in human evolution”.
The mutants in X-Men are a case in point. Simultaneously across the world, a new generation develops mutations that give them seemingly magical powers. They are even called “homo superior” by one character.
In reality, evolution takes place slowly, over thousands or millions of years. Mutations are rare, generally small, and almost invariably harmful. Species are not “better” or “worse” in some quasi-moral fashion, just more or less appropriate for their environment. An ape, a daffodil or a slug is exactly as evolved as we are, just in a different direction.
While we are on the subject, Kevin Costner’s character in Waterworld has developed gills. It’s as though the mutation happened in response to the environment changing. Again, this is not how it happens: evolutionary pressures work on what is already there, mutations do not happen in response to the environment.
15. DNA profiling
The baddie in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day’s bad guy has “gene therapy” to replace his DNA and change his appearance.
You can’t replace your DNA. It’s in all your cells and is what makes you you. It is considerably more ridiculous than having a brain transplant, which is very ridiculous indeed.
16. The tears of a clone
In Alien: Resurrection (also known as An Alien Film Too Far), the Ripley clone has memories of her old self. This could not possibly happen unless in some way our memory was written on to our DNA. Just to clarify, it isn’t.
Besides, the original Ellen Ripley was burned to death in a lake of boiling lava. The DNA might have degraded somewhat.
17. When the pink, pink robin goes bob, bob, bobbin’ along
A very specific one: the robin in Mary Poppins’s London is an American robin.
Better still – and striking an early blow for gay rights – the two red-breasted robins shown building a nest together are both male.
18. Shooting range
When you get shot by a gun, you will not fly backwards (see: The Terminator, every John Woo film ever made). This is because a bullet does not weigh very much.
A 9mm bullet weighs less than a third of an ounce. If it is travelling at 1,300ft a second (about right) it will knock a 12-stone man backwards at around 0.15 feet a second. He might, in short, stumble slightly. Not hurtle back 20 feet and smash through a shop window.
On a connected note: in real life, bullets don’t spark when they hit things. Well done to Saving Private Ryan for representing that accurately.
19. Explosions are always cool
Cars almost never explode when they crash. The mix of fuel and air in the tank is too rich. As intuitor.com notes: “Onlookers at crash sites are often so concerned about explosions that they unnecessarily jeopardize a person with a spinal injury by pulling them out of a wrecked car. The common Hollywood depiction fuels these harmful misconceptions.”
Similarly, research shows that cigarettes will not set fire to puddles of petrol, no matter how nonchalantly you flick one in.
20. Eco worriers
Regarding eco-disaster thriller The Day After Tomorrow, it has been theorised (although largely discredited) that melting sea ice in the Arctic could stop the Gulf Stream and cause certain parts of the Atlantic coast to get colder. However, it very definitely will not happen overnight and cause some ice-tsunami thing.
Conversely, even if all the ice in the world melted, it would only raise the sea levels by about 200 feet. So no Waterworld-style water world.
The 20 worst science and technology errors in films – Telegraph11 10 2009