Monday, December 13, 2010

Bad Science, Good Movie

Let's say it's summer and you're flipping through the channels. Discovery is running Shark Week and you come upon one of their specials. For the 8,357th time you see some marine biologist telling anyone who'll listen that Great White Sharks don't really act the way they do in Jaws. Thanks, professor, I didn't know that.

Okay, maybe it's not his fault, he's a marine biologist and just wants sharks to be better understood. What's bad is when someone takes a piece of fiction, something that is by definition not true, and then dislikes it because it isn't real. In the case of Shark Week, usually, and thankfully, the marine biologist acquits him or herself by saying they love the movie anyway.

On my last post, Bill, Flickhead and myself discussed this very phenomenon in reference to The Core, which I still haven't seen. Bill and Flickhead both commented that it was a decent enough movie but that its most troubling criticisms were that the science in it wasn't accurate. Well, of course it wasn't accurate! It's a movie about setting the suddenly dormant earth's core back in motion. You're looking for accurate science in that? I'm looking for sci-fi entertainment. So sorry to hear about your head injury.

Around three years ago I even wrote a piece about how I really don't care if a movie is filled with inaccuracies and plot holes, as long as it's good (the ensuing comment discussion is lost forever because I was dumb enough to use haloscan for the first two years of this blog. That still chaps my ass). I wrote another piece a few months ago with a different take, imagining what it would be like to be Superman in the real world. I didn't write it for the purpose of deflating any particular Superman comic, cartoon or movie, I just thought it was a fun experiment but I assure you, the dozens of physical unrealities associated with Superman necessitating an extreme suspension of disbelief have never, once, stopped me from enjoying the movies or comics. What stops me is when they're bad. I couldn't care less if the science is wrong.

Here are some other things that have never stood in the way for me:

*Vampires not having reflections. The fact is, of course, that if your eyes can see them, so can a mirror. In order to see something, anything, it has to reflect light. If it does then you and the mirror will see the vampire, if it doesn't, neither will. It's both or nothing. Mirrors don't have some hidden spiritual side that refuses to reflect someone undead. I still think Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula is a garbled mess but not one part of that has to do with Dracula not being visible in a mirror.

*Frankenstein couldn't sew together dead body parts, shoot electricity through them and create a new, living person. If that stops you from enjoying the story of Frankenstein, I must be blunt: You're an idiot.

*I'm pretty sure if you take a sleigh and attach an oversized spinning wooden shield to the back of it, you won't travel through time.

*Your genetic structure cannot change back and forth at will, even if your name is Larry Talbot or Bruce Banner.

*If you're body is flooded with radiation through either insane lab experimentation or bites from radioactive spiders, you're not going to become indestructible. You're going to get cancer and die. It will be horrible for you and all those who love you.

The fact is, I don't go to the movies for lessons in science. That's usually something I'm pretty forgiving about as long as it doesn't cross any kind of "audience respect" threshold. For instance, Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and attaining super powers is fine and thoroughly expected in the superhero universe. Same with Wily Coyote surviving accidents that would do in even the heartiest of mortals. No, as long as something follows its own logic, I think it runs little risk of offending or shocking anyone.

In fact, where I do usually have problems with wrong science or things being generally unrealistic is when I'm watching a drama presented in realistic fashion. In other words, a movie that takes place in a universe where Peter Parker being bit by a radioactive spider would result in him, at the very least, developing a malignant growth. In that universe I expect what's presented on the screen to be generally acceptable as something that could actually happen. But I must admit, even then, it's not a deal breaker if it isn't.

When I watched The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was disappointed, it's true, but not because it contained one of the most unrealistic scenes ever presented in a movie centering itself in a realistic universe. No, I was disappointed for reasons I can only outline once I've seen the third (I haven't yet) and take in the trilogy as a whole and, possibly, review it all here on Cinema Styles.

That scene, by the way, involves our hero, Lisbeth Salander, being shot three times (once in the head), buried under a few feet of dirt and left there, presumably dead. Then, the next morning (this is hours later) we see her hand break through the ground and realize she is digging herself out. Hell, forget the gunshot wounds for now. Get a bag of potting soil, stick your head in it and attempt to breath. Now, not being able to breath, keep your head there for six to eight hours and, well, nice to have known you (by the way, don't actually do that!). But, somehow, Lizbeth is able to breath under smothering conditions while suffering severe torso and head trauma. On top of that, once out, she's able to pick up an axe and hack someone in the leg and then defend herself against another with a gun. She's a hell of a gal but again, and I'm being honest, that's not what disappointed me. It was the lackluster story, forgettable characters and a continuation of formerly interesting characters that took them nowhere that disappointed. The multiple shooting/burial scene? Hell, it's the one thing I seem to remember so more power to it, right?

Bad science, even when presented in realistic drama, should never be a deal-breaker. I understand the temptation to use it for a movie we don't like but the reasons any of us think a movie isn't good should center around the writing, acting, direction, editing and so on. A movie with bad science can be great, just as a movie with good science can be bad. It's not the science that makes Bride of Frankenstein great, it's the acting, direction and writing. It's the set design. It's the cinematography. It's the contributions of every single man and woman working on the crew or for the studio that made it happen. But the science? Hell, if the science in that movie were worth anything I would have long ago created a whole menagerie of little people in jars to keep me entertained when there wasn't a good sci-fi movie on the tube. And when there was? Miniature popcorn tubs for all! Even the king!