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March 15 2008

Bad movie physics report card. Featuring Serenity and a star-studded list of other star-studded flicks.

As it says, "it's understandable that space adventures play fast and loose with physics", so I'll belay my serve-the-story-(or-rollicking-good-time-)above-all rant. Enjoy.

To be fair, Serenity scores far fewer bad marks than most. And the explosion+fire in space is totally explained by oxygen on board ship combusting when the hull is breached. In my space world anyway.
The only thing that really got me, from the TV series, was why Vera needed oxygen to fire? Guns have their own oxygen in the casing and they would not be affected by the cold since the lack of air in space acts as a very good insulator.

And their comment "And a "hull breach" where the ship's crew is exposed to vacuum should kill everyone instantly." is wrong. As long as you don't try and hold your breath you can survive for about twenty or thirty seconds in space before starting to suffer serious effects. NASA had someone who had a seal fail in a space suit in a test and they suffered no injury.
Yep, I do like a nice vacuum jump ('Farscape' was one of the early shows to do it right and I actually clapped in glee because John was a NASA scientist and would totally know that ;). 'Sunshine' is pretty accurate up until the end of that sequence - if you breath out and close your eyes (otherwise your lungs will rupture and the water on your eyes will boil off, possibly damaging them) you can stay conscious for 15-30 seconds and if there's someone to help you after that point there's no reason why you can't survive 1-2 minutes in a vacuum (your skin will swell slightly and there's danger of the bends though). You certainly don't explode and in fact, you'd also be pretty warm to start with (hint: it's hard to lose heat when there's no air to evaporate it into and nothing to conduct it away - you'd only actually lose heat through radiation. To get a feel for how fast that would happen, try toasting some bread by holding your hand over it ;).

Re: explosions, if it's "rocket fuel" that's burning it may well have it's own oxidant mixed in (that, after all, is how rockets burn in vacuum ;).

'Serenity' does pretty well in general (once you accept the highly improbable solar system itself) and i'd argue with:

"All planets have Earth gravity" - this is one you have to just gift them since it's implied that it's part of terraforming and we know they have some kind of control over gravity. Also, you could fan-wank that they only visit moons/planets with near Earth normal gravity, so those are the only ones we see.

"All planets have one climate planet-wide" - climate variation within worlds depends on axial tilt - Earth has different seasons in different places only because it's tilted relative to the plane of its orbit, an untilted planet's climate would only depend on its distance from its star and so would be the same planet-wide. Also, since Inara mentions that it's autumn where she is (but clearly not on the Reaver attacked bank-job planet/moon) and in 'Firefly' we see Tracey's homeworld during winter (at his funeral) we know that not all worlds are the same simultaneously so planet-wide climates are an assumption.
Picky, picky, picky;)
If I'm going to have a complaint about this report card is that the way it is depicted does not make a distinction between "done well" and "not applicable". As an example in Serenity there are no aliens, so off course there is no problem with communicating with them (or breeding with them). I think that indeed for most movies do not make most of the errors mentioned here only because they were not applicable. It is only when a storyline is affected by trying to adhering to some physical rules that one can award a well-done to a movie.

Then again: I don't really care what physical rules are broken, as long as the story is good. (Though I prefer the physics to at least be consistent throughout the movie.)
why Vera needed oxygen to fire?

Well, I suppose one can assume that 'verse guns don't use traditional gunpowder bullets, based on the sounds they make. What they are supposed to be using, I have no idea; the need for an external oxidizer would seem to make whatever it is a downgrade from gunpowder.
And would also be pretty daft for a space-faring civilisation (because you'd need entirely different guns for use in vacuum). The big cannon used in 'Serenity' looks fairly conventional too. Maybe Vera has some kind of complicated gas-recoil mechanism which requires her to be fired in an atmosphere ?

Then again: I don't really care what physical rules are broken, as long as the story is good.

If it's presented as science fiction then I think there are some rules you can't break, regardless of the story (or maybe only if breaking them or finding out eventually that they can't be broken is the focus of the story). Do what you like in fantasy though where everyone knows going in that all bets are off.

Though I have to say, it'd be really interesting to see a film made where e.g. causality didn't hold (I don't mean time-travel, I mean at any time effects could precede causes - people would probably put it in sci-fi because they wouldn't know what else to do with it but it wouldn't be IMO).

Do agree though, there should've probably been an 'N/A' entry to clear up any ambiguity.
"All planets have one climate planet-wide"

I can't really think where we saw enough of a planet to suggest this, most excursions stayed local and only lasted a few days so we wouldn't have noticed any seasons or regional variations. It's a given that, even without axial tilt and seasons, the poles will be different that the equator, but again we never saw any episode suggest otherwise.

I did have a slight gripe with the map of the solar system shown in the classroom at the start of Serenity. Having some planets close to the sun and others far in the distance would have caused vast differences in temperature that no terraforming could overcome. In our, much smaller, system setting foot on Mercury would boil us away in a heartbeat while on our outer plantes the sun is little more than one of the millions of the stars in the sky, nowhere near capable of providing daylight or heat.
A solar system with a big sun and a narrow band of planets, with the nearest being maybe only 90% as far at the most distant, would make most sense.
But then we wouldn't have the "Central Planets" Alliance.

But what really ruined the movie for me was the fact that all the girls didn't wear bikinis and wrestle in jello throughout. I hate movies where that doesn't happen.
It has to be said that the Joss 'verse does not entirely work with known physics, not just the gravity part but there is only a narrow band of distance from the sun which will support liquid water essential for life.
The number of planets crammed into this narrow band in the 'verse would create havoc with each other's gravitational fields and probably loads of other important stuff. That's before you think about the furthest ones would be freezing and the nearest ones boiling, though greenhouse effects and other atmospheric thingymagigs probably sort that out.
however, I love Firefly and would have suspended physical belief for any further episodes. I do find Vampires and Demons from other dimensions easier to believe in though.

You see what happened here! while I was typing, zz9 had the same thought, there is nothing original in this universe.
I actually felt that if you accepted the incredibly implausible (read: impossible) lay-out of Firefly's solar system, the impossibility of terraforming every single planet because of varying conditions, assuming the - also unlikely - given that each planet is rocklike in structure and not gaseous and accepting things like faster-than-light travel, the other physics on Firefly were never that bad.

Then of course, Serenity came along and gave us sound in space. Or actually, it gave us sound in weird-undefined-nebula-which-for-some-reason-was-hanging-around-a-planet, which is just as silly (if not more silly because of the very weird planet-nebula-combo itself). This did bother me to some extent, but not enough to not completely enjoy the movie.

As a soon-to-be-graduated astrophysicist, I think I should be more bothered by these types of things, but I find that I'm mostly just not as long as the errors serve the story or setting. Some of my fellow students, however, tend to instantly dislike movies if the physics are wrong. Which is their loss, because there are no sci-fi or action movies out there which feature completely accurate physics. And there probably never will be.
Spooky, Twoflower! Though clearly I win because of the whole "Bikini Jello fight" point. :)
But what really ruined the movie for me was the fact that all the girls didn't wear bikinis and wrestle in jello throughout.

Ah, so you've only ever seen the expurgated version then ? ;)

Yep, as hinted, the solar system itself is highly improbable/impossible - you could widen the habitable zone a lot with clever terraforming (e.g. something released into the atmosphere to absorb solar radiation or even orbiting mirrors) but there are limits (and we certainly don't see anything to suggest massive space based mirrors or sun-shields).

(and that's not to mention space travel which presumably uses near-light speeds but without any apparent relativistic effects and faster than light communications)
I've never understood why sound in space in films bugs people. It's not supposed to be realistic, as if that's what you'd hear if you were sitting out in space nearby. It's a representation of what you would hear if the sound could travel.
Fair point Invisible Green. It's like hearing a voiceover and saying "Hey" You shouldn't be able to hear his thoughts!"
Very valid points guys :-)
I thought that Serenity faired pretty well with the realistic side.
I don't think people can dodge lasers anymore than they can dodge bullets. If people can dodge either of these things it's because they've moved in anticipation of a shot, not after the shot is fired. The skill is in being able to read the person with the weapon.

As for all planets having one climate planet-wide, I don't think we can really know that's the case. People would choose to land on the planet where the climate is best. Civilations would form on the planet where it can be supported by the climate. Who would land on Antarctica? Only the most inhabitable places on the planet would be shown 'cause that's where the action is.
Correct Serenity No Sound in Space. I'm really happy they got that right!

Have to go watch Serenity again.

"All planets have Earth gravity."
Need to see the terra-forming part again, black rock talk, See if gravity is mentioned.

"All planets have one climate planet-wide."
Have to look at the climate on the various planets in the movie.

"Fires in space/Unrealistic explosion"
Have to look at the space battle around Miranda.

I bet Mr. Universe put that ion cloud around the moon.

Serenity Official Visual Companion
"You're gonna get caught in the ion cloud, it'll play merry hob with your radar, but pretty pretty lights and a few mile after you'll be right in my orbit."


Too far from Sunlight. Seems like something Blue Sun would take care of.
"As a soon-to-be-graduated astrophysicist, I think I should be more bothered by these types of things, but I find that I'm mostly just not as long as the errors serve the story or setting. Some of my fellow students, however, tend to instantly dislike movies if the physics are wrong. Which is their loss, because there are no sci-fi or action movies out there which feature completely accurate physics. And there probably never will be."

Try "Destination Moon", from - believe it or not - 1950. It was based on a Heinlein short story and had him as a scientific advisor. It's obviously a little dated, but the science is pretty much dead on from discussions of the amount of thrust needed to escape the Earth's gravity to weightlessness to space suits expanding with the drop in air pressure.
Correct Serenity No Sound in Space

Actually, incorrect - the very first scene in 'SERENITY' is the fleet leaving earth (after the 'uni logo), and one of the fleet flies past the camera and you can hear the ROAR of it's engine. It even mentions it in the script. That's sound in space.

Hee :)
Okay, gossi, I'll be checking on how close to the atmosphere they were at that time. Any second now.
Did anyone else notice the site refers to lasers as "faster than light" weapons?
One of the first things about Firefly that endeared the show to me was that they got "no sound in space" right.

As to the "all planets have one climate world-wide," it's more of a case of "all planets have a Southern California environment," which is true of almost all SF movies and shows. Except BSG, and for that read "all planets have a British Columbia environment." Firefly/Serenity are nowhere near as bad as Star Wars on that front.
gossi,

Serenity the Official Visual Companion
"White pops blossom on the surface, and moments later ships -- huge, intricate space-freighters - come roaring from the surface, passing camera with a thunder of gas and flame."

Wow, that didn't happen in the movie.

There is a light and pop as ships launch. Noise corresponds to light. If real and not an animation film, the recording device must be close enough to hear that sound so there is no delay between light and sound.

No roar. No thunder of gas and flame. Actually no flame at all. And no blue burn like Serenity's out of atmo burn. No gas. Maybe the ships were shot or thrown or pushed by an explosion into orbit.

A slight swoosh as the scene changes to another view of ships approaching the new system.

Actually the whole sequence could be computer generated animation film that the teacher is showing on the screen. SO SERENITY NO SOUND IN SPACE!

Lilac Serenity lands on a great grassy plain. Trees and plants all over the town. Not same.
Sound or no sound, I was just glad they all missed that giant "Universal" in orbit around the Earth.
Comparing Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff to Serenity, Star Wars et al. is like comparing March of the Penguins to Happy Feet.
"All planets have Earth gravity."
"terraformed, a process taking decades to support human life to be new earths."

All planets have one climate planet-wide.
Hey, some of these are moons. Most not whole moon or planet shown.

River's school
Only garden area shown.

Lilac border moon
Serenity lands on a large grass plain.
In town, mud streets. Scrub grass. Trees.

Mr. Universe ion cloud covered moon.
Mud canyon ball. Seems pretty reasonable to have no plant life with the ion cloud storm covering the planet and lightning happening all the time. Probably rains alot. Wonder what modfications to terraforming you would have to make to make and keep such an ion storm going.

Haven moon?
Desert scrub brush. No trees. Only one area of moon shown.

Training house planet? moon?
Tree covered mountains.
Rocky mountains.
Bare spots in tree areas.

Planet with very earth like moon.
Some desert in globe image. Very Earth like.

Haven't finished watching yet.
If you ask me, the sound in space thing isn't meant to represent physics in space, it's meant to communicate something to the viewer. If all it communicates to the viewer is that the movie makers didn't get the physics right, then it's not the movie maker's problem, it's the viewer's for missing the message. If it WEREN'T there more people would complain than accept.

This is HOLLYWOOD, not REAL WORLD. That huge loud rumbling and engines shwooshing and cannons firing and guns needing air and all that is artistic or poetic license to convey an act, a mood, a size, a perspective. They're there on purpose- like colors not found in nature or new words being introduced into the language. Hollywood has NO burden or responsibility to provide accurate physics, accurate history, or accurate story lines. That stuff doesn't SELL. Even regular non-sci-fi movies explode reality- example, the 14-round clip in a handgun that never seems to require reloading, or the impossible-to-survive car chase scenes.
... that is artistic or poetic license to convey an act, a mood, a size, a perspective.

Yeah but a clever film-maker can convey those things without sound in space. Silence was used to great effect in 'Out of Gas' for instance where Joss and Tim turned it into an asset rather than a liability.

The "semi-sound" of 'Battlestar Galactica' is another example where it's used to convey not some imaginary sound of engines burning but what it would sound like to be inside the cockpit of a Viper.

That stuff doesn't SELL.

I'm sure Ron Howard (and Universal) will be surprised to hear that ;).

At the end of the day, I get what you mean Ed R and agree, telling the story is almost always more important than realism BUT there's also nothing wrong with using the real world to inform your film/TV show/book/whatever - sound in space is just a convention that arose out of laziness, it's not necessary by any stretch (anymore than spaceships that swoop and bank like aeroplanes are).
If you ask me, the sound in space thing isn't meant to represent physics in space, it's meant to communicate something to the viewer.

Good point. I was watching Kill Bill yesterday and many times a samurai sword made a "Swoosh" sound when a character merely twisted it, when in real life that would make no sound whatsoever. It's part of the soundtrack, the way a musical sting is used to make a point or add tension.
Hey, zz9!

Rather not say a word at this time.
"All planets have Earth gravity."
Incorrect. When they suspect something is wrong with a planet and start listing all the things that check out okay, the Captain says "Gravity's Earth norm." Why say that unless it was a possiblity that it would be different.

We know this is an incorrect answer and the successfully terraformed planets have Earth gravity, but not sure the grader would know it from the movie. Have to watch the series. See that moon that was cracked apart stuff like that. And what the Alliance had done to Shadow hasn't been shown yet.

From Serenity
"Planet...because there isn't one. Terraforming didn't hold or some such. Few Settlers died."
"It's a black rock. Uninhabitable. "
"oceans, land masses, no tectonic instability or radiation."
"Gravity's Earth norm"
"O2 levels check"
"pressure"
"No terraforming event. The environment is stable."

Fires in space/Unrealistic explosion
Not really sure what a realistic explosion in space looks like. Only one in the movie: Mal shot the Reaver ship. It blew up. Looks cool. Didn't really look like fire exactly.

So maybe they are right on this one.
At the end of the day, I get what you mean Ed R and agree, telling the story is almost always more important than realism BUT there's also nothing wrong with using the real world to inform your film/TV show/book/whatever - sound in space is just a convention that arose out of laziness, it's not necessary by any stretch (anymore than spaceships that swoop and bank like aeroplanes are).


I agree, Saje. There's simply no need for 'sound in space', from a dramatic point of view. If anything, it's even more impressive without sound, because it presses home to point of just how different flying in space is, compared to flying inside a planet's atmosphere.

But, yes, Ed R does have a point that people have started to expect sound in space. I remember seeing Contact in a movietheatre a few years back. The amazing opening sequence even had sound to begin with, but when it stopped, people didn't get why, but instead a few went out to ask employees of the movie theatre if the sound of the movie had stopped working. Which just goes to show how much Star Wars ruined it for everybody :p.

Also, on a sidenote:

Try "Destination Moon", from - believe it or not - 1950.


Thanks for the tip, rkayn!
I'd agree that if you include evidence from Firefly, the points against Serenity could be struck from the record.

Looking at the list of movies, I was pleased to see Black Hole included. I absolutely loved this film as a kid, and watching it now is great fun. There's a great scene where a large (and suspiciously spherical) asteriod crashes through a hull of the spaceship, and rolls through it, while everyone is running away (think of that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie with the boulder chasing Indy, but in space). Now, instead of just enjoying the film, my brain is screaming at me "WHY AREN'T THEY SUCKED OUT INTO THE VACUUM OF SPACE???! HOW ARE THEY STILL BREATHING???!"

Oh well, I still love Old Bob and VINCent! (Bonus points if you know what VINCent stands for!)

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