C'mon Hollywood! Five sci-fi pet peeves ...
By Patrick Mullane, Author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s, a humorous coming-of-age memoir. Order signed copies on this website or at Amazon here.
I love a good space-based science fiction film. And I love non-fiction films that have a space-related element to them. But after years of watching them, I continue to be frustrated by Hollywood's seeming inability to make them more realistic for those nerds who are a big part of their audience; nerds who find inaccuracies just slightly less annoying than an obnoxious movie-goer talking from two rows back.
Below is a list of my biggest pet peeves. Let me know if you have similar frustrations or if I've missed some obvious ones.
Surviving while outside of a space ship without a pressure suit by holding your breath. C'mon people! This is not only a lazy plot device, it doesn't come close to working in real life! The issue with space isn't the lack of air to breathe (well, it's not your most immediate issue anyway). It's the lack of an atmosphere to keep pressure on the body. Without that pressure, some nasty things will happen pretty quickly. Your lungs better get rid of any air when you are exposed to a vacuum or they will rupture. But even if you exhale as you're exposed to space, that will only buy you a little time. Liquid water in your body will turn to vapor ... which may sound innocuous but will result in bubbles in your blood stream that will block blood flow, starving oxygen to the brain and lungs (not that you'll need either of them after a minute or two). So please, for the love of all that is holy, stop with this one. (For a more detailed description of what can happen to your body in a vacuum, see here.)
Space suits that look like coveralls. To avoid all the bad stuff detailed in the point above, astronauts need space suits when in a vacuum. A space suit is also known (more accurately) as a pressure suit, as it keeps pressure on your skin to ensure your body keeps functioning as it would in the Earth's wonderful atmosphere. Basically, a pressure suit/space suit is like a giant, form-fitting balloon. It's quite literally inflated. In fact, it's so rigidly inflated that it takes a lot of strength to move your limbs and fingers when in one. Why then do most space suits in films look like coveralls? Need an example? Check out Hillary Swank in Netflix's series, Away. Swank's character is seen walking around the moon in a "space suit." But if I were her character I'd be writing a sternly worded letter to NASA about the crummy piece of gear they gave me. It fits way too loosely to resemble a real suit. Even Matt Damon's suit in The Martian has the same problem - and that's in a film famed for its accuracy (for a sense of what a real Martian suit might be like, see here).
Matt Damon's very un-balloon-like space suit in The Martian. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Saluting that doesn't pass muster. Okay, this one isn't just a science fiction problem, but it might be my biggest pet peeve of all time. If you are going to have military personnel salute each other in a movie, PLEASE TEACH THEM HOW TO DO IT. This is particularly perplexing because, again, there is a large overlap between those who have served in or with the military and those that are likely to watch a science fiction or nonfiction space film (not to mention a military film where this mistake is doubly unforgivable). I have often wanted to contact a director and tell him or her I'll teach actors how to salute for free ... just put my name in the credits. But if I see another salute that looks like somebody trying to shade their eyes from the sun, I might have to begin booing out loud during the offending scene. (And if they don't want my free services just have your actors go through this short training film).
Not the worst I've seen. But still ... ugh.
Orbit changes with ease. Orbital mechanics are complicated; changing an orbit takes a lot of energy. And don't get me started on rendezvousing with another object in space; that's particularly tough. You aren't getting from your dying capsule to a space station by using a fire extinguisher to propel yourself between the two. You might as well try to burp your way there or tear a hole in your suit and get things over with quickly (oh yeah - using a hole in your suit to propel yourself from point A to point B is an equally stupid idea that in almost all circumstances won't work).
Noise in space. I admit that I'm not that upset about this one. Sound helps make a film engaging and exciting. That said, as the tag line for the movie Alien famously said, "In space, nobody can hear you scream." This is literally true - sound is caused by air molecules bumping into each other and propagating through a medium due to some event - vocal cords vibrating, a subwoofer pounding, or a bomb exploding. Without air or some other substance (water, metal, etc.) there are no molecules bumping into each other and so sound is not possible. But then why is it that in any scene shot from outside of a spacecraft in virtually any sci-fi movie, you hear the engines? Or the lasers? Or the explosions? In a vacuum there would be no sound. I am willing to suspend disbelief on this one since a modern sci-fi film that would go silent every time a camera shows a perspective from space would probably be pretty boring. But still - for the purists out there, the is a major issues.
There are many more I could dive into, but whenever I go into these rants my son mocks me - "Angry man shouts at cloud!" - so I'll leave it at these five point. But I'm sure you can think of many more. Let me know of your pet peeves ....