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John Scalzi – Science and History: Everything the Movies Tell You Is Wrong

I’ve got another one of my questions for you: What do science fiction films and historical films have in common?

What they don’t have in common is obvious: Timeframe. One genre almost always takes place in the future, or at least involves technology that is futuristic; the other, by definition, takes place in the past. There’s generally very little overlap between the two there (“Yeah, but what about alternate history movies? And time-travel movies?” Quiet, friend, you’re bothering me).

What about directors? You say. And actually, that’s an excellent guess. Robert Zemeckis directed both Forrest Gump (which is history-esque, at least) and Contact ; George Lucas’ success with American Graffiti afforded him the chance to make Star Wars ; Ridley Scott essayed cities past and future with Gladiator and Blade Runner ; and Steven Spielberg directed both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year. There’s an immense amount of overlap there. There’s also an immense amount of overlap in motion picture technical fields as well — the amount of special effects and CGI work that goes into a historical epic these days is no less impressive than what you’ll see in science fiction or fantasy films.

But that’s not what I’m after. The primary thing that science fiction and historical movies have in common is that when it comes to the genre’s respective real-world subjects of science and history, neither film genre actually strives for accuracy. Rather, what they strive for is plausibility — something that is “good enough” to get past the audience, for the purposes of the film.

As an example of this in the historical world, let’s take Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart , in which Gibson plays Scottish historical hero William Wallace. Here’s just some of what the film gets wrong:

1. The important Battle of Stirling Bridge takes place on a plain, minus the bridge.

2. William Wallace is seen being with (in several
senses of the term) the English Princess Isabella, but the real world
Wallace died three years before Princess Isabella was married to Edward
II, and she didn’t even go to England until after she was married. So
the two did not meet, much less get it on.

3. Kilts and blue face paint? Both anachronistic, albeit in different directions (kilts came later; blue face paint before).

And so on.

Are audiences appalled at this lack of historical accuracy? Not in
the least. Tell the average moviegoer that 700
years ago Mel Gibson painted his face blue, put on a kilt and kicked
English ass so hard that the future Queen of England couldn’t help but
be beguiled, and he’ll say “sounds about right” and grab some popcorn.
It’s not that average moviegoers are stupid, but that they’re not heavily invested in factual accuracy (there’s a difference), and what they really want is to have a cool movie-going experience for their seven dollars. If the filmmakers fudge the facts along the way, well, eh. It’s Hollywood.

Thus: Braveheart, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, 300
and other “historical” films which send actual historians into a bit of
a tizzy. Occasionally one gets its history more right than not (Schindler’s List),
but generally speaking, when filmmakers have to choose drama or fact,
they’ll go with drama. And as long as William Wallace doesn’t whip out
an Uzi and slay both King Arthur and Henry V, the audience will buy it.

Science fiction films work the same way: The goal is not to be accurate in the portrayal of science, but merely to be accurate enough so
that the average moviegoer — the one who isn’t, in fact, a physicist
or biologist or astronomer or whatever — doesn’t get distracted from
their enjoyment of their film. Indeed, one can argue that strict
adherence to scientific accuracy could pull audiences out of their
reverie: In space, there’s no air to transmit sound, so explosions in
space are silent. But show a frantic space battle without sound, and
most audiences aren’t going to thrill to the scientific accuracy;
they’re going to groan because in the most exciting part of the movie, the sound went out. It is possible to portray science more or less accurately in science fiction — Contact and 2001
are two movies that do it up to a point (and notably both are based on
the work of scientists, Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively).
But again, when fact goes up against drama, fact is usually going to

A cynic will note that the film industry is essentially banking on
the ignorance of its audience in order to handwave over difficult
facts, and the cynic will be absolutely right. It would also be correct
that if we educated our people better, in both science and history,
films wouldn’t be able to let their facts slide nearly as much.

But it’s worth noting that fact has never been an impediment to a
story teller — ask Homer or Shakespeare about this — and in the case
of science fiction, there’s a big fat excuse inherent in its very name.
One half of the phrase “science fiction” is the word “science,” but the
other other half of the phrase is “fiction.” Speaking as someone who
writes science fiction, I’m pretty solidly of the opinion that the
“fiction” part has equal weight. So I think the “plausibility”
guideline is not a bad one when it comes to science fiction,
even as I wish and hope that dividing line for “plausible” for most
movie goers gets a little more stringent over time. That’s not too much
to hope for in the long run.

But in the meantime remember: If you’re getting what you know of history or science from Hollywood, you’re doing it wrong. So. Very. Wrong.

scalzi.pngWinner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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