The problem with sci fi movies

I, like many people, enjoy science fiction films. The biggest problem I find in these fictional universes is not that sounds can propagate through space, people can travel at the speed of light with no relativistic effects then decelerate to a stop in a few seconds and not even be knocked to the floor, be able to generate artificial gravity everywhere, have power sources that rarely need refueling, and so forth. I accept that these are convenient plot devices that keep the story moving forward. Although I do have to say that successful films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and more recently Interstellar and The Martian show that trying to be faithful to science can often provide an even better plot device. I am still impressed by the special effects in 2001 and the amazing attention to detail of director Stanley Kubrick, e.g. near the beginning of the movie when they are on the rotating space station you can see the subtle curvature of the floor inside the rim. I hope the success of these movies lead to more realistic science fiction and even realistic action movies where the violence is realistically portrayed – people can’t be hit by a brick and then get up.

No, the thing that most irks me about science fiction movies is that the film makers either refuse or are too lazy to make their universes self-consistent. This list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive.

  1. Why do storm troopers in Star Wars movies wear plastic suits if they don’t protect them from anything?
  2. In an age with extremely powerful computers and communication devices, why should various control systems only be accessed at specific locations in a building or space craft. Do you really need to go to the engine room to fix the engine? Haven’t they progressed beyond a WWII aircraft carrier?
  3. Why are weapons in the future so bad? Why do people ever miss? There is self-aiming, self-guided bullet technology now and in a future universe with flying cars no one has thought of making this? This also goes for space crafts still engaging in dog fights like the Battle of Britain in 1940.
  4. In the Avenger movies, Iron Man Tony Stark invents a fusion reactor that can fit in his chest and power a flying suit for at least the duration of the movie without ever refueling. Shouldn’t this have transformed the world? This could solve global warming if not end global poverty. Even if he is not making the invention public shouldn’t the rest of the world be working on this?
  5. In the Hunger Games series they have technology to make mutant animals and plants so why is there hunger? They have a ban on GMO’s for food? Why do they still need coal mining or at least need people to do it?
  6. My very first blog post was about the thermodynamic impossibility of the premise of the Matrix movies. Stupid premises seem to be a major problem with the Warchowski sibbling’s films that I have seen. They have this pretense for being intellectual and try to infuse their films with a social consciousness but unfortunately fail. The theme in both the Matrix and the more recent film Jupiter Ascending (JA) is that there is an evil future society that treats humans as commodities – as energy in the Matrix and as a source for an immortal elixir in JA. That could be fine if in JA there was something mystical about humans that could not be reproduced elsewhere but what the Warchowskis do instead is try to infuse some science in it so it is not magic. There is a proto-human race that caused the dinosaurs on earth to go extinct so that humans could arise and then waited 65 million years before they could harvest them for the elixir. That was the easiest way to create a farm for humans? A second premise is that the heroine of the movie is an exact genetic replica of a former Queen who owns earth and who bequeathed her wealth to anyone who is a genetic replica. Again, the Warchowskis forgot to do their math. The probability of an exact genetic replica coming from chance, which is what they insisted on, would be at most 1 in 2^{10,000,000} (if differences are only biallelic common variants), which is unimaginably small. The proto-humans are also billions of years old but have not evolved in any way over that time even though squirrel-like creatures turned into humans in 65 million years on earth.
  7. Even in the movie Interstellar, there is a future race of humans that have the technology to tame a black hole and send messages to the past but they can’t send back instructions for making crops that will grow on earth?

I appreciate that some of these movies are not about science or the future but remakes of old western, adventure, or war movies. However, some are really trying to portray a possible future. If that is the case then some amount of self-consistency is necessary to make the story compelling. One very possible future that I don’t see being explored in popular movies is that unlike dystopian futures where there is a return to feudalism and people are exploited by evil overlords or capitalists, a real problem we may face is that people will become obsolete. People should make movies about what a world where machines can replace almost everything people do would look like. In fact a better premise for the Matrix is that we chose to live in a big simulacrum and a subset of us rebelled. Now that would be an interesting movie.


5 thoughts on “The problem with sci fi movies

  1. Your movie about a world about machines replacing everything that humans do has been done many times. It is called a history movie. Every generation seems to come up with new technology that replaces the things that humans used to do. Then that generation comes up with new things to do. We used to be tending fields instead of writing blogs before the mechanization of the agriculture. History has shown that we will likely come up wit something else to do when the computers start writing blogs. The theme of human replacement by machines dominates both he minds of sci-fi movie producers and real scientists but it truly lacks any historical authenticity.


  2. the matrix i think may have been almost the last movie i’ve seen which is why why i feel very current and informed. its hard for me to sit through these.

    i didnt remember the part about machines running on humans—thats a pretty good idea to me. sortuh sustainable —some animals do things like this—hyenas come out in pairs, and one eats the other due to sibling rivalry. some baby spiders i think eat the parents. (zappa wrote a song ‘america eats its young’).

    Matrix actually seemed like a pop take on quantum viiews of the universe (‘matrix mechanics’) and life (maybe tegmarks mathematical universe—the idea the universe is really just set of ‘bit strings’ which interact following quantum rather than classical logic. Perception itself is basically some quantum operation.

    the matrix also seemed to have a big dose of glitzy and gratuitous violence—-one reason i dont like modern hollywood type movies. but this culture goes to boxing matches, and football can be pretty violent. I can get my quantum theory and fantasy without seeing alot of fighting.

    The person who took me to see the matrix was a ‘social justice activist’—he had free tickets–we were discussing income inequality with a bunch of lawyers and such before Piketty made it popular —and considering trying to do a rerun of some 60’s welfare rights cases for a guaranteed income (thrown out by the supreme court with thurgood marshall dissenting) , but our little group was divided and conquered by its own dogmas and rivalries—-seems like all freedom fighters are closet or wanna be stalinists, who can sing only one note.
    (it also was sort of offensive to see these hollywood movies spending tons of cash and wasting energy when later we go back to violent slums and talk about the environment. many of the ‘poor’ basically want to be rich it seems—that their definition of social justice, tho it may be called ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ or anarchism or green politics, etc.).

    (i read some of pikettty’s papers before his book—mostly just census type data, absolutety no math or theory i can remember —-his book does have r.>g theory (this is why he has a PhD from MIT where paul samuelson worked — an actually very interesting math economist for his time in my view despite being widely scorned by the ‘left’ and ‘heterodox’ economists who it seems mostly do not like and are envious of math arguments they dont understand and prefer hand waving and crying crocodile tears for the oppressed or someone, at top dollar too. .
    i likely do not understand r, g theory but recently went through it again— its a very advanced form of mathematical economics using tools, perhaps from the langlands program, called ‘arithmatic’ and ‘accounting identities. it really just has to do with properties of a two term equation—-inequality rises if its nonlinear (or nonadditive).. i think the whole argument is done the wrong way but that is because piketty is more concerned with ‘growth’ than inequality—because he’s trained at MIT. can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. while the polar bears are still freezing in the arctic, we must frack.
    it’d be an amusing excercize to try to recast piketty’s argument into 2 possibly mathematically equivalent forms because both involve an assumption about reference frames and a universal constant—special theory of relativity, and price’s equation or a related one. mostly this would show that humans project everything into a universal framework.

    as they do with movies or fiction—supposedly all stories are versions of maybe 7 different narratives.

    .,. Its funny in that the movies i did like (half i learned from taking a film class) were also pretty violent but were parodying it. sor of luike john wayne , ronald reagen, or george w bush in drag. eraserhead, pink flamingos, el topo, weeken, aguirre the wrath of god—everything on the dark side was what i liked. I gather the ‘hunger games’ is still popular—sounded like a remake of lord of the flies.

    regarding the last sentence of the OP, i think one could argue we already live in a simulcra and subsets rebel (but more than one—more like syria with competing groups).

    i was recently doing a casting thing for a new sci fi movie up on mars. we also had to make props etc. unfortunately i dropped my cigarette, and mars caught on fire and blew up. ‘drop the bomb, make earth a sun, let someone else have some fun’.


  3. ps 1984, brave new world, and logan’s run sci fi books seem to have similar themes to the matrix according to the bible (wikipedia). sirens of titan by vonnegut is good too—-all of earth and human evolution is actually just part of the supply chain for some ET’s—humans had to create a part for some business in outer space over a few millenia


  4. Self-consistency is an issue that applies to characterization in addition to universe building. Frequently writers write themselves into a whole (especially for television series), and with deadlines and only a few episodes left to resolve an overambitious plot with too many strings, end up having protagonists do uncharacteristic things to bump a stumbling plot towards a conclusion. The Martian (only saw the film, plan on reading the novel) worked so well for me because in addition to staying pretty consistent scientifically, it also held true in terms of keeping Matt Damon’s character reliably measured and resourceful. Plot movements were typically not driven by sudden character regression.

    For some of the older school “hard sci-fi,” authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven did a lot of calculations before writing their stories. There a lots of anecdotes about Clarke supplementing his short stories with physics, though I can’t bring a specific one to mind at the moment (I remember something about him working out the orbital paths for one of his fictional solar systems). The unfortunate thing about the “hard sci-fi” is the proclivity for characters to become mouthpieces for exposition. The difficulty of balancing scientifically palatable and self-consistent world-building with decent characters is why writers like Asimov and Clarke are legends, of course. Clarke’s workflow is something to refer to — if I recall correctly, he would work out the numbers in his short story universes first and develop enough of a familiarity with them, then set the numbers aside and mention the “technobabble” only when it became relevant to the story.


  5. I was thinking that the aftermath of an unexpected discovery of P = NP would make for a great film or novel. However, this too is no longer a novel idea. A film called “Travelling Salesman” that’s gotten some acclaim has precisely that premise. There have also at least been a couple of plays that have used P = NP as a plot setting.


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