The Science behind this year’s Science Fiction Movies

Science-fiction films offer us a chance to escape into a future which we can only dream of – one where anything and everything is possible. Throughout the last few decades Sci-Fi has made incredible strides, in no part thanks to the advancements in special effects technology. The best Sci-Fi films postulate about the technological, medical and societal advances that man will make decades before such inventions have even been conceived. While some studios prefer to blow their budget on over-the-top spectacles of an explosive nature (I’m looking at you Michael Bay), some Hollywood producers still aim to release movies with scientific credibility. While this year has had its fair share of cinematic ups and downs it has been an astronomical year for Sci-Fi films. The question is; how realistic can science fiction movies ever really be?


Following the story of two scientists attempting to communicate with a new alien species Arrival has caught the attention of movie critics, fans and linguists alike for its gripping story and incredible attention to linguistic detail. David Adger, a linguist at Queen Mary University of London, specializes in syntax and says that the way the film approaches “different hypotheses about the language, coming up with generalizations, and testing them out was spot on.” If, in the future, we are contacted by aliens it is obvious we need a reliable means to communicate with them. One of the difficulties with another species would be the fact that perception shapes how we communicate and everyone’s perception is different; it would be even more so for another species. In Arrival, they suggest that we would use verbal communication, however it has been theorized that a more reliable method would be to use maths; it is more universal. For instance, in the 1997 movie “Contact,” aliens used sequences of prime numbers in their communications, and this held the key to decrypting their messages. Likewise, in 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the alien visitors used five musical tones in a major scale to communicate. This is made possible as, presumably, vibrating strings have consistent harmonics across the galaxy. In general; that concepts used in Arrival attempt to simplify linguistics and the film does so beautifully and could very well provide the most accurate portrayal of alien contact we have seen.

Doctor strange

During production of Marvels latest hit, Doctor strange, producers consulted Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester in New York. They did so to ensure that the rather abstract ideas of the film fit with the more grounded world which has been introduced in previous films; in particular, how to explain the concept of the multiverse. Thankfully, the scientific idea behind a multiverse exists and is not entirely unrealistic.  One idea for a multiverse relies on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which suggests that every time a quantum event happens the universe splits off into a parallel version of itself, and each one goes on splitting and splitting, ad infinitum. The concept of “other dimensions” is heavily relied on in Doctor Strange, this is unsurprising for those of whom have read the original comic; the comic book version of Doctor Strange relied on these other dimensions to gain most of his power. In the case of the film they stretch this idea even further and manage to successfully explain this concept as well as show a visual representation of abstract dimensional space.


In the upcoming space adventure Passengers, we see Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence awoken from suspended animation during deep space exploration.  This form of travel is made possible through the use of fictional Hibernation pods. The need for hibernations pods is fairly obvious; almost any space destination is ludicrously far away. Because of this, science fiction needs a way to explain away the problems that come with decades long space voyages. The concept of Hibernation pods has been around almost as long as space exploration; having featured in Alien in the 80’s they provide a relatively simple solution to space travel. However, while the idea does exist they are a long way from solving all of our problems. The company, SpaceWorks, has suggested a solution which isn’t quite as extreme as hibernation pods. The process involves putting astronauts into a deep sleep, specifically a state called torpor. Torpor is an inactive, low-metabolic state induced by a decrease in body temperature. While this isn’t as good as hibernation, torpor is a proven concept one which displays promise. Theoretically, inducing torpor would allow NASA to drastically reduce the materials needed for a long trip, such as the 180-day trip needed to travel to Mars, thus reducing the weight which would need to be launched. While it Torpor seems promising it won’t keep someone asleep or in stasis for any great length of time and it also requires considerable resources of its own. Despite this, it seems Torpor will likely it be the first steps necessary for long term space travel. One aspect of space travel Passengers accurately portrays is the idea that a lot can go wrong when attempting to travel in deep space; if temperatures fluctuate, if nutrition is miscalculated, if the slightest thing goes awry you’re going to run into major problems. While Passengers may be emphasising the “fiction” in science fiction it deserves a significant amount of credit for looking critically at the demands and challenges that will inevitably come with deep space travel.

It appears that the technology shown in Sci-Fi films is gradually becoming less about escapism and more about accuracy. We no longer view the ideas shown in movies unrealistic because we have already developed incredible technological advances. Overall, it is evident that as audiences begin to assess entertainment more critically, those planning to venture into the Sci-Fi genre need to be ready to produce films of a higher calibre to earn our praise.


Steven Gibney

(Image courtesy of Marvel)

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