That like totally ruined the movie for me
October 12, 2013 10:17 AM   Subscribe

The Realism Canard, Or: Why Fact-Checking Fiction Is Poisoning Criticism. "Every work of fictional narrative art takes place within its own world. That world may resemble our world. But it is never our world. It is always the world summoned into being in the gap between its creators and its audience. " (via)
posted by octothorpe (112 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
My opinion on what fiction should be like is the only correct one. All these other critics are doing it wrong.
posted by j03 at 10:24 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Note that Neil deGrasse Tyson had this to say about folks making a huge deal out of his Gravity nitpicks.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:29 AM on October 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


When I went to see 12 Monkeys, one of the people I was with just couldn't get over the fact that time travel is impossible; "IT JUST DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:31 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


BBC's Merlin is a good example of another type of fact-checking which I find amusing/irritating. A number of people could accept the idea of wizards, dragons, and strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords, but they freaked out over the use of forks and haircut styles in the time period.
posted by 2manyusernames at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yes, this is driving me nuts about the movie Gravity. It's still fiction people, quit trying to bolt reality to it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:39 AM on October 12, 2013


BBC's Merlin is a good example of another type of fact-checking which I find amusing/irritating.

I keep trying to point out that fantasy has rarely been about history, it's about literature and folklore, most of which comes to us from people like Mallory and Shakespeare who never let historical fact stand in the way of a good yarn, or fire-breathing polemic.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:41 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course, it can also be a defense of laziness on the part of the writer. It only really gets my goat with historical drama, and there the greatest sinners are in Hollywood, to such an extent that I am astonished when they hew to truth.

(Shakespeare gets off the hook because Shakespeare.)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:42 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Yes, this is driving me nuts about the movie Gravity. It's still fiction people, quit trying to bolt reality to it.

I mostly agree, but the thing about Clooney's tether is a good point that took me out of the film a bit while I was watching it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


... Depends on the story being told, the particular way it breaks with realism, and its reason for doing so, doesn't it?

Is that too complicated or something?
posted by kyrademon at 10:44 AM on October 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


I think these things are not all equivalent in their obligation -- if that is not too strong a word -- to realism. Gravity presents itself as a work of hard science fiction that takes place on Earth in approximately the present, and it takes a lot of care with the physics. Getting those physics wrong in some important way -- and making the plot depend on it -- is very different from a swords and sorcery fantasy having forks in it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:44 AM on October 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


I'm doing the opposite with discworld, I'm trying to fiction-check reality because damn, how cool would ankh-morpork be in real life?
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:48 AM on October 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


@j03: All these other critics are doing it wrong.

Indeed. Considering that there are any number of different schools of criticism, that draw on various arguable, even subjective, assumptions about what makes good fiction, why is it so wrong to make critique based on criteria of real-world plausibility? If many people find plausibility an issue, and it's a significant aspect of the experience for them, it's just as valid a critical basis as, say, strength of characterisation.
posted by raygirvan at 10:49 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, this is driving me nuts about the movie Gravity. It's still fiction people, quit trying to bolt reality to it.

I understand, but at the same time, there's a scene in the trailer (I haven't seen the film) where Sandra Bullock screams that, "GPS is down!" And I can't help but wonder where she expects the GLOBAL positioning system to think that she might be while she's in space. Yes, it's fiction, but try harder to make it seem plausible if it's supposed to be realistic.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:50 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


To put it another way, moving from one orbit to another without the kinetic energy do so is roughly equivalent of, in a midseason chase scene across rooftops in a standard cop show, the cop suddenly demonstrating the ability to levitate. Context is really important when you change reality.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:51 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work's purposes. It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure of The Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works towards the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them.

Eh, but the moment these things become noticeable, the fiction loses its ability to hold the knowledgeable reader. I get easily irked with "alternate histories" that posit, I don't know, Richard III winning, but are set in the 19th C with bowlers and Victoria on the throne. I'll easily ignore (or not notice) minor lapses, but I think writers do have the duty to do their homework and apply it as much as they can. If for no other reason than real history is often more interesting than most fiction.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:02 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


"GPS is down!" And I can't help but wonder where she expects the GLOBAL positioning system to think that she might be while she's in space.

GPS has been used for precise satellite navigation since 1992.
posted by suedehead at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


According to this mashable article GPS works in space as long as you are below the altitutde of the GPS sats which they would have been. That is backed up by this website by the government on GPS.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


tylerkaraszewski : They use GPS on the International Space Station, and have done so since 2002.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:04 AM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, that's counterintuitive.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:08 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


If many people find plausibility an issue, and it's a significant aspect of the experience for them, it's just as valid a critical basis as, say, strength of characterisation.

It also matters who the people are and the level of plausibility involved. I'm a history nerd and half the fun I got out of the Tudors was mocking the wrongnesses (and I would totally be the person ragging on Merlin for forks, too). But a lot of people don't notice that stuff, and that's okay.

On the other hand, I'm the sort of person who barely handles physics for poets, and if I can tell your science is massively wrong (like, say, slingshotting through a planet), the science there may be out of the believability zone.

(Also, having played and modded a fair number of fandom rpgs, sometimes what works in books really fails in terms of what you can make a game work with. See: any debate about the demographics of the wizarding world. It's impossible to make an economy make even vague sense, which doesn't matter for Harry but really makes running a Potter game difficult.)
posted by immlass at 11:10 AM on October 12, 2013


I love reading about Ankh-Morpork but I would most assuredly not want to live there. Same with Sunnydale, Hogwarts, etc.
posted by kmz at 11:16 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seems like a suitably-programmed GPS receiver -- i.e. one without hard-coded terms that assume you're within the satellites' orbits -- should be useful up to a pretty large distance from Earth. Maybe if you get so far away that the parallax angle of the satellites' orbital diameter to you is pretty tiny it might stop being useful.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:21 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's still fiction people, quit trying to bolt reality to it.

That's the lazy arsehole's defence of failure. Get it right, especially when you're a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:25 AM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


The whole GPS diversion underlines an important point. A lot of what makes narrative truth or story truth is wrong, and stories shape how we think about the world. You don't fact check things and you wind up with a statue of William Wallace that looks like Mel Gibson, or people thinking forensic science is infallible and always used, or world war one.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:37 AM on October 12, 2013


Writers should never let pesky facts get in the way of drama.
posted by Pyry at 11:40 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Storytelling works because you put enough things in front of the listener that their mind believes the fiction. Even though logically you know that no one is dying, its just words on a page or images on screen, emotionally it really can feel like that person is dying. The emotional brain has to really believe for storytelling to work, so things have to feel real. Characters have to act like people, not plot devices. The rules of the universe have to stay static and absolute, like they are in the actual universe.

Realism, in a sense, is one of the most important pieces of fiction. This is not to say things have to be 100 percent accurate for everyone, since that is impossible, but things have to appear real for the thing to be effective.

Sometimes the listener, like say one Neil deGrasse Tyson, has specialized knowledge and his emotional brain has trouble believing because this one part of the story because, to him, it is clearly not real. I believe this is a problem for him, but it's not a problem for me. So when he has this problem I wish he would just not tweet or tell me about it, because I didn't go to Gravity to learn science, but be engrossed in the story.
posted by john-a-dreams at 11:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Verisimilitude is but one of many factors which yes, absolutely play a role in different genres to different degrees. Historical fiction and hard sci-fi particularly come with the expectation that you are learning something about the world through the experience, and so where it gets things wrong, that will be part of the discussion.

Of the many, many reasons that Dan Brown is so awful, for instance, this is perhaps the most major - he presents his stories as being filled with "facts" that the reader would be unaware of, when in truth they are bullshit at worst and insufficiently researched at best. When you are presenting purported reality you don't get to hide behind a shield of fiction when you screw it up.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:47 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


The author ends on the note that it's the internal rules of the story that matter. This disregards the necessity that common ground between the story and the audience is built through allusions to things that the audience is familiar with. People can become engrossed in the story because it plays out according to an accommodation of shared rules created by story and audience. If you break rules the audience is bringing to the story (including misconceptions about GPS), it will pull the audience out of the story.

This isn't just about realism, its about pieces of the audience's prior experience you've use to build your story. If you have Marvel super heroes robbing a bank while the original cast of Star Trek tries to stop them, then you've taken on a burden of weaving together two incredibly intricate imaginary universes with arbitrary rules. Imagine the whining if you fail.

It isn't fair to judge every work by every rule it allude to. I take it in the spirit of Checkov's Gun. If you set your movie in space with the dramatic tension provided by a couple inexorable natural laws, then breaking them will be a hard sell.

@Annika Cicada / @kmz Discworld is incredible in this sense because it borrows the spirit of so many things (real and imaginary), but faithfully recontextualizes them into its own world. A Polaroid camera could just as easily be an imp in a box that paints really fast; given you've established that there could be a ready supply of imps.
posted by ethansr at 11:50 AM on October 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


That's the lazy arsehole's defence of failure. Get it right, especially when you're a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster.

This statement is really bizarre. The film is getting widespread critical acclaim and breaking the box office, so no, a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster does not have to get it right.

Gravity isn't about hard sci-fi at all. It merely uses those tropes to tell a "a human vs the elements story and being reborn by that struggle" story. Everything you see on the screen is just so the viewer can have an up close look at fear and death, without the danger element and then sending them on their merry way.

The writer and director have cheerfully admitted to taking liberties, they know what they're doing isn't physically possible. That's not the point of this story and to keep trying to put that anchor around it isn't helpful to one's enjoyment of the film.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:58 AM on October 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


In all seriousness, I assume every work of fiction I see or read or hear takes place in another universe where the laws of physics might be slightly or largely different, where slightly or hugely different historical events might have taken place, etc.

That's the only way I can get past the blasted nitpicker in my own head as well as the shrill, incessant, pedantic chorus of them on the internet.
posted by treepour at 11:59 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


What irks me is when writers take an interesting aspect of reality, and then out of sheer laziness change it to something less interesting in order to shove it into a well-worn narrative mold. Gravity's treatment of orbit falls into this category: it took the reality of orbital dynamics, which are very strange and interesting and counter-intuitive, and turned orbit into just another glorified ocean. The best fiction imagines beyond what is currently possible, extends from the conventional into the new and strange. The worst fiction takes the new and strange and turns it into the conventional.
posted by Pyry at 12:02 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can someone explain why George Clooney had to let go? Physically, I mean, is it at all plausible? In zero gravity he obviously wouldn't have, but maybe in freefall? Orbital mechanics are very counterintuitive so maybe it could have happened (like he got knocked into a different orbit somehow?), but it just seemed like a bizarre scene.

I think people's complaint with Gravity is basically that it's so meticulously accurate with physics that errors seem like it's trying to put one over on the audience. If you want to bend the laws of nature in a story you have to establish that, people get annoyed if you just do it out of nowhere because it's convenient.
posted by vogon_poet at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


If a science fiction work knowingly gets elementary physics wrong -- and we're basically talking about stuff that goes back at least to Newton, not relativity or other abstruse stuff not readily apprehended with our apelike senses -- then it's really not SF, it is fantasy. If that matters to you you should know it going in and it shouldn't be represented as anything else.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:05 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It all depends on the framework, or premise, that the creators set out for us. If you won't suspend your disbelief that a humanoid from another galaxy could survive long enough in a strange starship as an infant to get to Earth, and because of *handwavy handwavy red sun whatever* has powers far beyond those of mortal men, then you won't enjoy the Superman movies. But that, and only that, is what we are asked to suspend our disbelief for in order to enjoy Superman. So, yay, Kal-El can fly and punch meteors and melt things by staring at them, fine. He's the exception, he's what we suspend disbelief for, we're on board. Give us the movies.

Once he flies out of Earth's atmosphere with a human woman in his arms and she doesn't immediately expire (Superman IV), the storytellers have failed. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it's a free-for-all. We will buy what is being sold, so long as the reality it's set in remains consistent.
posted by tzikeh at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


People can become engrossed in the story because it plays out according to an accommodation of shared rules created by story and audience.

But, there IS a point where this goes overboard. Where the story creator becomes limited because they end up checking if every rule meets audiences expectations. I mean, this is why movies created for mass and international consumption most of the time are...terrible. Because the common rules come down to poop jokes, explosions, and sex appeal.

Also, there are different audiences everywhere. No two audiences will bring the same set of shared rules with it, which is what we're seeing with Gravity. It's a good thing that Gravity wasn't made for everyone in mind, because it can to tell the story it wants to tell without being overburdened by such rules.
posted by FJT at 12:07 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


TBH I think it's cool that Gravity has the level of verisimilitude that people try to figure out things like if orbits are plausible and such - most space films you just wouldn't even bother because everything would be constantly wrong or flat out made up.
posted by Artw at 12:07 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


BBC's Merlin is a good example of another type of fact-checking which I find amusing/irritating. A number of people could accept the idea of wizards, dragons, and strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords, but they freaked out over the use of forks and haircut styles in the time period.

Well, there's a point where an incongruous fact breaks the world. I haven't watched Merlin, myself, so I don't know how seriously it takes itself. But wizards and dragons and lake ladies are all shopworn furniture of the high fantasy genre. A dude in say, a teddy-boy jacket and a ducktail is not. You can establish a fantasy-based world which does a bit of genre hopping and doesn't take itself too seriously, and people would accept that mixing. You can't do a chapter on Gimli and the Bobbysoxer because it breaks the world --- there's a whole different range of references, a whole different society and era and mores bound up in saddle shoes and poodle skirts that simply doesn't fit in Tolkien's pseudo-saga-verse.

For an expert, a nitpicky thing like a fork in a medieval setting or a car that wasn't designed yet or something can take them out of a story. (Defective Yeti had a good post about this once --- his botanist wife is driven mad by the wrong types of plants being shown in films.) And you can definitely take that nitpicky tendency too far. But everyone has a different threshold of where the world starts to break, and if the world breaks the story fails, because it breaks the suspension of disbelief.
posted by Diablevert at 12:08 PM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


What irks me is when writers take an interesting aspect of reality, and then out of sheer laziness change it to something less interesting in order to shove it into a well-worn narrative mold.

How do you know its sheer laziness?

think people's complaint with Gravity is basically that it's so meticulously accurate with physics that errors seem like it's trying to put one over on the audience.

The movie opens with an third person omniscient view of a fictional Space Shuttle on a fictional mission. So it's a lot of things, but meticulously accurate isn't one of them. It's selectively accurate.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


That, the integrity of the piece and of the world it creates, of its internal logics and rules, is what matters.

Which is great for a totally fictional setting, but I think how people view the integrity of a world that overlaps with their own, like Gravity or The Wire, is going to differ dramatically based on their own experiences. Like, Pacific Rim is about giant robots punching giant monsters that come through a rift on the bottom of the sea floor, so really, being upset for things like an "analog nuclear robot" or "wouldn't that create a tsunami" or "compression issues on the ocean floor" are very trivial in the pursuit of enjoying a movie about giant robots unless you know my family . Last Legion had many, many flaws, not least of which was ever being made, but it's almost worthless to nitpick because seriously, who cares, it ends up being solved with magic anyway. In contrast, the Goofs section of the IMDB database for Gladiator reveals that people really, really care about it-- the dates for the creations of the statues, the declensions of nouns, the geography of elite family villas. Why? Because there's a lot that it gets right; because it was really popular and not a lot of people actually know about the Roman world; because the world it created had logic and rules and these are the places where that integrity faltered.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:28 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The "analog nuclear robot" is a great example of laziness: they could have slotted in any number of replacement phrases like "radiation hardened" and the story would work otherwise unchanged, which suggests that the writers either didn't know or didn't care.
posted by Pyry at 12:40 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought Merlin was ok because there are multiple versions anyway and the idea of historically accurate depiction of King Arthur's court doesn't make much sense.

What they're doing with Atlantis seems different; wilfully striking at the root of kids' ability to ever get antiquity straight, for the sake of a story that's worthless crap. Hollywood has done the same, of course, but never quite so intensively.
posted by Segundus at 12:42 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are certain things that cause my suspension of disbelief to fail. A lot of it, yeah, is what I'm *expecting* to suspend my disbelief over. In "Gravity", (SPOILER FOR REST OF PARAGRAPH) the bit with the tether would've been (imao) just as good and *not* triggered my suspension of disbelief if it was structured so he had to push her away from himself to get her closer to the station (and thus him further away). Same narrative effect, no "BUT PHYSICS DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY EVEN REMOTELY" disbelief failure.

For example, I assume in most things set in the current time that "computers" are not actually computers and are really just "exposition devices" that serve the same dramatic function as the Greek chorus. I don't expect to hold them to anything remotely close to reality. On the other hand, if partway through you change the rules, then fuck you you've annoyed me.

My current peeve is on "Person of Interest" and previously on "Leverage" - okay, everyone has magic earpieces that keep them all connected and somehow they have signal in the most improbable of locations - a stretch, but okay, I can go with that if that's the rule you're setting up... but somehow people are supposed to be able to 1. maintain conversations in the real world and simultaneously monitor conversations via earpiece (unlikely), and 2. the earpiece magically determines what utterances are destined for the remote conversation so everyone isn't continually in a cacophony of auditory chaos, because sometimes it's a private channel and sometimes it's a party line among them all (kaboom - there goes my suspension of disbelief)...
posted by rmd1023 at 12:59 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


rmd1023, that was what bugged me about the original Mission Impossible series. If you can put on a rubber mask of a person and become that person, to such a degree that you fool people who see that person every day, that is very nearly a form of omnipotence. Writing a story where the good guys win against impossible odds is not very difficult if you give them a power that magical.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:04 PM on October 12, 2013


"What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work's purposes."

This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with, but what's "complete enough" obviously varies with audience, the implied aims of the work, and changing trends in general attitudes and common knowledge.

For example, I think most people are fine with defibrillators being used on people who are flat-lining, but I imagine if there was a mandatory first aid course on how they're used it would become as weird as say, hearing about a character dying from a marijuana overdose.

I'm happy to ignore most things that strike me as off because I know there are likely a hundred other things I don't even notice, but I think it's a really good and natural thing to have a portion of the audience pulling in the direction of being nit-picky. It's not poisoning criticism any more than people who absolutely don't care and just like awesome action.
posted by lucidium at 1:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


> but they freaked out over the use of forks and haircut styles in the time period.

I've never seen the show, but it makes perfect sense to me because it's inconsistent with people's ideas of what the period is like and for a lot of us prevents suspension of disbelief.

The fork thing I could easily note and ignore as a minor, if jarring, detail - but contemporary haircuts in a (more-or-less) medieval setting is to me as ridiculous as wearing a wristwatch or using a cellphone - which I'm sure everyone would have issues with. I mean, where are they getting the hair products? Does Camelot have a Vidal Sassoon outlet?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:13 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


If a science fiction work knowingly gets elementary physics wrong -- and we're basically talking about stuff that goes back at least to Newton, not relativity or other abstruse stuff not readily apprehended with our apelike senses -- then it's really not SF, it is fantasy.

...and the number of mass-market SF movies that have ever been made in the history of cinema is exactly zero.

If that matters to you you should know it going in and it shouldn't be represented as anything else.

If that matters to you, you should never again watch any film or television show that claims to be SF, and probably you should restrict yourself to only reading works by Hal Clement and Bob Forward.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:23 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


ROU_Xenophobe, given your username can you name a Culture universe novel in which the plot depends on getting classical physics wrong? I'm not talking about addenda to physics, new and essentially magic technologies or domains like hyperspace, I'm talking about things like conservation of momentum being violated, in a matter of plot significance and a context where none of those magical addenda are relevant.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:32 PM on October 12, 2013


Also, see where I said "If that matters to you you should know it going in..." In other words, the audience shouldn't be given the impression that such magic does not obtain only to learn halfway through, or worse, in the denouement, that it does. Not that such things must never happen at all.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:38 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


> > If a science fiction work knowingly gets elementary physics wrong -- and we're basically talking about stuff that goes back at least to Newton, not relativity or other abstruse stuff not readily apprehended with our apelike senses -- then it's really not SF, it is fantasy.

> ...and the number of mass-market SF movies that have ever been made in the history of cinema is exactly zero.

I'm sorry, you're just not right. Lots of SF movies are pretty scrupulous about their science. 2001 is the earliest example I can think of, one where they went out of their way to do accurate science (and the "explosive decompression" scene was very carefully thought out and based on actual US army tests involving people exposed to vacuum...) but I can think of many others, including the early Star Trek movies.

There's one caveat - and that's that by convention, explosions in space do go "bang" and make wide flashes even though there's no air to carry the sound or diffuse the light.

The reason is simple - it'd be really anemic otherwise, would lose the drama. Everyone knows this, and it's perfectly acceptable to most people.

But 2001 doesn't even do that.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gary Larson has said that of all the Far Side cartoons he drew, the one that got the most letters was the one where the mosquito husband is walking in through the door beat-tired, saying, "I must have spread malaria across half the country."

Because in reality it is the female mosquitoes who spread disease, apparently.

What we will and will not accept in fiction is bizarre, but it also (ironically?) is pretty consistent within those bizarre rules. Take that as you will.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:43 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was happy to consider Gravity as being set in a very slightly alternate universe where in addition to the extra shuttle there were a few differences with how orbits and such worked. NdgT's post from comment #2 sums it up nicely; yes, it's good to note the departures from reality but if enough is done right they don't need to ruin the story.
posted by localroger at 1:44 PM on October 12, 2013


I think it's worth noting that in many cases fact-checking is only criticism in the commentary sense and not necessarily in the 'calling out as bad' sense. It's often not meant as a way of saying "this movie sucks as a result of these breaks with reality" as much as it is a way of doing one of two things:
1. Educating people by telling them about the realities of a given scenario
2. Making the author look like a smarty-pants.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:46 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The reason is simple - it'd be really anemic otherwise, would lose the drama. Everyone knows this, and it's perfectly acceptable to most people.

More crucially is whether it's treated as a plot point. For the audience to hear it go bang is merely a presentation thing -- a way of relating the event to the audience. For a character in a space suit to learn of the explosion only by hearing the bang and do something that they would not have done if they hadn't heard it as a result is a defect of actual narrative significance.

So if Sandra Bullock makes a major orbital plane change with no source of delta-v, and the story relies on this, it's bait-and-switch. The story relies on something that doesn't fit the film's signature emphasis on realism.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:01 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think it's worth noting that in many cases fact-checking is only criticism in the commentary sense and not necessarily in the 'calling out as bad' sense. It's often not meant as a way of saying "this movie sucks as a result of these breaks with reality"

And specifically in two of the cases called out by the article, it seems to me this is (a) of value and (b) not at odds with enjoying the story.

In the case of Breaking Bad, one may well wonder to what degree and in what ways it diverges from reality, because the things it discusses are mostly real -- meth addiction is real, gang violence is real. Does it portray these things realistically? The answer from what I can glean seems to be...sometimes. If it serves the story. A viewer moved to curiosity about what these circumstances look like in real life might want to know more, which seems natural. But you'd have to be some kind of a dunderhead to think the show had failed if what you found didn't gel 100% with reality. The show never claimed to be a documentary. You could argue that the show is being irresponsible by portraying real world issues unrealistically, or has questionable racial and/or sexual politics, or makes being evil look cool, or used a Badfinger song even though the people who recorded it probably won't make the money from it they should. But that's different from saying a show goes from great to garbage because that's not how you make meth.

In the case of Gravity, I think it's a mistake to look at it as a simple survival story that just happens to take place in Earth orbit. Intentionally or not -- and I can't imagine the filmmakers didn't consider this -- it ignites an interest in space travel that comes at a time when American space missions are in great danger of becoming a thing of the past, and much of that interest stems from the film making space look amazing and exciting, but at least as much comes from a feeling that this is less science fiction than science. So look: If the film, and I'm not exactly calling it propaganda because it also makes space look spectacularly dangerous, but if the film is meant to make us fascinated by space because it feels like this is real stuff we're watching happen, then it's perfectly reasonable to tell us what's true and what's not. I hope that people don't watch Gravity and then get pissed off because someone would have the audacity to tell them about real science! That idea depresses the hell out of me, quite frankly.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It matters when they break science for no apparent reason but ignorance or laziness or cheapness.

You're right in the middle of suspending your disbelief about flying dragons, because flying dragons are necessary to the plot and have been made somehow plausible enough for the purposes of the plot, and suddenly you're snapped out of everything and forced to think "No fucking way! This is stupid!" not because dragons have popped into the real world, but because the moviemakers were just too dumb, or (worse) thought we would be too dumb, to know how the real world works.
posted by pracowity at 2:09 PM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


In the Gravity universe, where there is also an extra shuttle that doesn't exist in ours and unlike ours is still in service, the HST, ISS, and Chinese station are all in very similar orbits. I can think of a few non-stupid reasons that the agencies involved might have deliberately done that. After all, we nearly abandoned Hubble due to the impossibility of using ISS as a lifeboat in case of repair-shuttle trouble; if it was in a tracking orbit that wouldn't have been a problem. Just because we didn't think ahead that far doesn't mean the story universe people didn't.

I was a bit more concerned with the timing of the Chinese station coming apart around Bullock on re-entry so soon after events in an apparently stable orbit. That I chalk up to dramatic timeline compression and just shrug it off.
posted by localroger at 2:13 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not quite sure why so many viewers took it as hard SF (ie, SF that tries to get all the science right as it currently exists), rather than as standard SF -- ie, SF that gets the science mostly right but bends the rules when it needs to, and at the same time is also interested in the science itself and the plot possibilities inherent all the weird ways science can behave. I think this misreading is because we see so little regular SF on the screen (as opposed to scientific fantasy, like Iron Man or Star Wars) that people aren't actually familiar with the genre.

That said, some gaffs do bother me more than others, especially when it matters for the main effect of the movie. Eg, in Hunger Games, which I do love (the books, at least), despite what Butler says, it does matter that these things are economically unrealistic, because that affects the political message that millions of teens are taking from the books (and I say that despite the fact that I agree with the books' basic message). And there are probably such things about Gravity too if I look, particularly if they affect the movie's basic message (for instance, it always bothers me when movies teach their protagonist to learn to take risks via a miraculous set of plot coincidences that for any actual person attempting to learn such a lesson would immediately kill them).

[Some spoilers:]
The tether thing is close to this level, since it leads to the demise of the beloved (and only) other character, for no good reason except to advance the plot and teach our heroine to be independent. But even so, many of the quibblers seem to be actually getting the science wrong. Sure, his immediate drifting away made little sense (though maybe they were slightly rotating around the satellite, who knows?). But the reason she couldn't just pull him in was not because he was pulling her away, but because her foot was about to slip off -- any pull on him would have given an equal and opposite pull on her foot, perhaps causing her to slip off and drift away herself. Sure, that might not be entirely realistic if it's only a few ounces of force, but the reaction to the tether seems out of proportion to what is basically a minor question of the μ between her foot and the strap.
posted by chortly at 2:13 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just curious, what did you nitpickers think of Inglorious Bastards? Seemed to me this was a case of a filmmaker directly addressing this issue.
posted by Mcable at 2:23 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


what did you nitpickers think of Inglorious Bastards?

We think you didn't spell the name of the movie correctly.
posted by localroger at 2:38 PM on October 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


Just curious, what did you nitpickers think of Inglorious Bastards?

The framework of Inglourious Basterds is (among many other things) an alternate universe version of WWII in which a group of Nazi hunters killed Hitler in a movie theater. That is the posited world. So what is the question you're asking?
posted by tzikeh at 2:42 PM on October 12, 2013


Inglourious Basterds broke with history in very bombastic, intentional, and obvious ways. Killing Hitler (and the rest of the German High Command) in a movie theatre displaying propaganda is the historical fiction equivalent of flying dragons. We know it isn't real and know that the theme's of the story don't work as well without it. It's not at all what we're talking about here.

This is about getting it 99% right (and in a film like Gravity, which is very good but which also TOTALLY PRESENTS ITSELF AS HARD SCI FI) and then claiming that the parts you got wrong were either narratively necessary linchpins (they weren't, in this case) or can be brushed off because it's all just fiction (also, no, because learning about things is one reason people consume entertainment of a certain type, such as Gravity, and when you are lazy you are misinforming them.)

It's a good movie. Very good, in fact. Good enough to withstand criticism about the stuff it fucked up.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:44 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Loved the movie. Do science for a living and could not care less about this fact-checking nonsense.

This is why we can't have nice things.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:51 PM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Sure, that might not be entirely realistic if it's only a few ounces of force, but the reaction to the tether seems out of proportion to what is basically a minor question of the μ between her foot and the strap.

That really doesn't fit the way the scene is filmed. They could have made a scene where that made some sense, but they didn't. They filmed a scene where the strap around Bullock's leg and the tether holding her to Clooney pull taut and then simply continue to pull. Bullock is at risk, certainly, of having the strap around her leg pulled off, but this is because Clooney--for no comprehensible reason at all--is exerting a continuous outward pull upon her that threatens despite the fact that it is holding her hard enough to have ceased both Bullock's and Clooney's outward motion completely to eventually pull her free.

The only thing that would explain what we see is if Clooney had little rockets propelling him constantly outwards.

As to how much this "matters" in both the particular case and in the general case, that obviously depends. A lot of people are obviously not troubled by blatant violations of simple Newtonian physics (Clooney and Bullock should have both bounced back towards the ISS as soon as the two cords had pulled taut), and for those people this isn't a problem. I still think that this scene is a flaw in the film. Fictional worlds don't have to correspond to our reality, but they need a consistent reality which presents comprehensible constraints and challenges to the protagonists. If we begin to feel that the authors will ignore the constraints of the world for the sake of hitting convenient plot points we stop caring about the characters' actions: after all, why should we care about a given perilous situation or a given clever solution the character has come up with, the authors will just step in and pluck the heroine to safety or have the hero's clever scheme fail if that's where they want the story to go.

Now, of course that is always true in some sense, but for suspension of disbelief to work we need to feel invested in the choices the characters are making within the constraints of the rules of their given fictional world. If the choices don't actually matter in the end then we might as well skip to the end and find out if they all lived happily ever after or not.
posted by yoink at 2:58 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think those of us who know physics all know that the "right" way to do the bye-bye Clooney scene is that he SHOVES her HARD away, so she has a second chance to get to the station. The problem is that this doesn't look right in character terms; Clooney would have to do it by surprise if Bullock wasn't willing, and that would have looked very (and badly) different for both characters at a very pivotal story point.
posted by localroger at 3:03 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't say I agree with the blogger's pov. He seems to ignore the fact that it's the storyteller's responsibility to structure the story in a fashion that makes the impossible/unusual/unbelievable believable. If done well, anything will be possible.

However, plenty of storytellers these days are simply not adept at this and you're expected to accept their offering because 'it's only movie'. I'm sorry but I don't accept that. Further, the blogger seems to think that people who don't accept the filmmaker's offering are going out of their way to do so. This is not the case, in my experience. In my film-watching, the poorly handled story is the reason the falseness is evident and it happens in real time. I don't go home and then hours later the falseness hits me. As I'm watching, the falseness is apparent and removes me from the story.

Note that I hate Cuaron so haven't and won't see Gravity so can't comment on it in particular, but I would suspect that those who accept the huge distance between the two points travelled as being "okay" would have a huge problem were they to travel the same distance on land. Why does the filmmaker get a pass because most people won't be scientifically literate enough to spot the error?

Here's an example from a movie I have seen: CHILDREN OF MEN (SPOILERS!). I know a lot of people love this movie, but you cannot (imo) have a story that's built on the fact that "Oh, shit, when this baby is born its very existence will be our downfall" and milk the thrills for 2+ hours and then when the baby is born, it's the quietest creature nature has ever known. I'm sorry, but watching the movie, my brain is gonna scream BULLSHIT and HACK. The storytellers have not earned what they're trying to pass off.

That is not to say that it's not possible for a baby to be born without a peep. Of course it's possible. But in the world that we'd been shown for 120+ minutes, it is not possible and the filmmaker doesn't get to just walk out of the room after painting himself into a corner.

Another example: PRISONERS (SPOILERS)... I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to declare that your detective is the greatest of all time--never had a case he didn't solve--and then have him be the dumbest person in the room, consistently. A father attacks Paul Dano in the parking lot, claiming Dano abducted his daughter and then Dano disappears and the detective doesn't immediately assume the father's responsible? The audience figures out the maze/necklace thing 20 minutes before the detective and the detective doesn't figure it out until it literally falls in his lap? Horseshit storytelling that betrays your own world.

Another: INCEPTION (SPOILERS). You don't get to say that if anything unusual happens in the dreamworld the subject will become aware they're being invaded and then have a friggin train drive down the street without consequence. You don't get to say "We could make a bridge appear out of nowhere to save our asses but it would tip our hand" and then NOT make a bridge appear out of nowhere to save their asses AFTER their hand has already been tipped!

Just curious, what did you nitpickers think of Inglorious Bastards? Seemed to me this was a case of a filmmaker directly addressing this issue.

I had no problem with the Hitler issue. I had a huge problem with the Bowie song. One was correct in the context of the world the filmmaker had created. The other was the filmmaker giving himself away in a fashion that took me out of the story and made me not give a shit about the rest of the film.
posted by dobbs at 3:06 PM on October 12, 2013


The other realistic possibility would be if they were moving at an angle to each other when he grabs the tether, the result of which would be that they'd be rotating around a common center of gravity as long as he held it. This would have been pretty cool, in that when he released the tether they would indeed move away from each other, but also that he would have to get the timing right, releasing it when he saw the target behind her.

This would have been an even more dramatic way to present it. And pretty damn hard to shoot.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:07 PM on October 12, 2013


"Pretty damn hard to shoot" is basically what get's Cuaron's motor running, though.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:11 PM on October 12, 2013


releasing it when he saw the target behind her.

Actually, he would have to release it when the target was to the left or right, according to the direction of rotation. When the target is behind her she's actually moving laterally with respect to it. Also they'd have to get a bit lucky for the plane of their mutual rotation to intersect the station at all.
posted by localroger at 3:12 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


When the target is behind her she's actually moving laterally with respect to it.

Quite right. And obviously if I don't have the presence of mind to work that out here in the comfort of my dining room, in George Clooney's position I clearly would have killed us both.

(But chances might be good that if the target object is their common origin -- i.e. they both left it from different points at different times, it would the plane of their rotation.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:14 PM on October 12, 2013


Well George, I have to admit though that if filmed right it would have done pretty much what the less accurate scene in the film did but even more terrifying.
posted by localroger at 3:21 PM on October 12, 2013


Actually, a really great way to have done that scene would have been for the strap to catch around Bullock's foot, to bring them to a stop, but then to fall off her foot and drift out of reach as they start to move slowly back towards the ISS. Then they could find that they're on a trajectory that just won't quite bring them in arms reach, so Clooney could decouple and push Bullock hard towards the station while he flies off in the other direction.
posted by yoink at 4:02 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want hard sci fi movies, try @hardscifimovies, by Mefi's own ... well, a whole bunch of us over on #mefi.

We were linked by Slate recently.

And io9 got it via William Gibson's twitter.
posted by dmd at 4:09 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


can you name a Culture universe novel in which the plot depends on getting classical physics wrong?

No. Can you name a Culture universe novel in which the plot depends on getting classical physics right? No. Mostly in Culture universe novels, the plot depends on people's (or equivalents) choices, oddly enough. Classical physics are basically irrelevant to the universe the Culture inhabits -- one of warp drives and energy grids and hyperspace and travel from one universe to another.

In other words, the audience shouldn't be given the impression that such magic does not obtain only to learn halfway through, or worse, in the denouement, that it does.

Can you provide one _Gravity_ advertisement that stated that the film was completely accurate in its physics? One statement from Cuaron or other filmmakers to that effect? Of course not, because they've been consistently plain that they were taking liberties where they felt it was needed. In the absence of such a statement, any impression you received that the film would be completely accurate in its physics is really your fault and problem.

Lots of SF movies are pretty scrupulous about their science. 2001 is the earliest example I can think of

Even apart from the silly hyperspace stuff, no. Even in the explosive decompression example -- you should see the pod drifting away after it ejects the door towards _Discovery_ and loses its atmosphere in the same direction. But you don't! Because it doesn't! And it's also quite likely that Bowman bounces around the airlock in a way other than that predicted by Newtonian physics!

Honestly, apart from the tether bit, this is the level of criticism people are applying to _Gravity_. The tether bit is pretty bad, since all you'd really need to do is put enough spin on the station to put tension in the webbing connecting Stone to the station and the tether between the astronauts.

So if Sandra Bullock makes a major orbital plane change with no source of delta-v, and the story relies on this, it's bait-and-switch.

Good thing she didn't, then. Their ISS was in the same orbital track as their Hubble. Oh noes, the real one isn't! Also, the real _Explorer_ is just computer graphics, so it would be incapable of actually repairing Hubble.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:14 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Good thing she didn't, then. Their ISS was in the same orbital track as their Hubble.

Yeah, that one seems to me to be of a radically different order than the tether thing. One is a "it so happens that in our reality the two stations are in very different orbital planes" complaint to which "but in the reality of the movie, they're not" is a more than adequate answer (although I did have a nagging "is there any Earth-like reality in which three nations would build space stations within spitting distance of each other? Why would they do that?"). But we're clearly not meant to think that this is all occurring in a universe where simple Newtonian physics doesn't apply, so the tether thing is something that actually breaks the world of the movie in a way that the space station thing does not.
posted by yoink at 4:29 PM on October 12, 2013


I'll defend Gravity as hard science fiction. SPOILERS below.

The catastrophe at the center of the movie is a Kessler Syndrome event. The possibility of a collision cascade is quite real, a hypothetical phenomenon seriously studied in the science/engineering literature which has been up until now obscure to the general public.

The main source of thrills in the movie is its realistic depiction of the dangers of coming untethered on a spacewalk. Lose your grip and there's no way back, just an hour of slowly drifting away as your air runs out, lots of time to think about what you could have done differently and no hope. Hence fingertips scrabbling over the surface of the space station, desperate for any handhold.

Regardless of getting some minor details wrong, this is a movie whose central crisis and source of thrills are entirely realistic. The scientific realism is what makes the story work. As Tyson points out, we shouldn't let criticism of details get in the way of noticing that the movie gets 100 things right. Keeping in mind that Apollo 13 is a documentary, Gravity might be the hardest sci fi movie set in space that I've ever seen.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


TBH I think of it more as a space set technothriller than any kind of SF.
posted by Artw at 5:57 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I won't bother to mention spoilers, as we have covered that a lot above, but yeah, the tether scene was weirdly out of keeping with the general hardish science elsewhere. I figure any attentive viewer would probably give it a pass, if this sudden shift to imaginary physics didn't reduce the cast of the movie to one. That is a major shift in the narrative, and thus it becomes as distracting as if the plane crash in Cast Away had happened not because of severe weather but because the plane collided with Santa's sleigh.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:13 PM on October 12, 2013


I am willing to accept all kinds of nonsense in my fiction. But when that nonsense rubs up against my profession I get cranky. I can accept that there are a bunch of fairy tale characters trapped in a town in Maine. I can accept that Snow White's evil stepmother is the mayor of this town. I can accept that Belle's beast is actually Rumplestiltskin. I can accept that Rumplestiltskin has arranged for Belle to work in the library that the evil mayor shut down long ago. But I cannot accept that NONE OF THE BOOKS HAVE SPINE LABELS.
posted by Biblio at 6:18 PM on October 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


These complaints still seem like holding this film to a different standard than the usual "realist" movie. Realist movies set on earth feature incorrect things that play plot roles all the time: divorces or wills that don't follow the relevant statutes of the state in question; distances and travel times are distorted; characters are imperceptive or over-perceptive as the plot requires; actors are absurdly beautiful; coincidences abound; animals and children are well-behaved or not as the plot requires; poverty, ethnicities, or non-plot-related character interests remain unrealistically hidden; and movies featuring anything remotely technical -- submarines, airplanes, law firms, marketing departments, subways in Manhattan, cancer, weather, gambling, shoe sales, elder care, whatever -- are almost always wrong in ways both subtle and significant. That is fiction. Bad fiction abounds with arbitrary distortions that warp the situation to fit whatever the plot demands; better fiction plays with the net up, but never permanently so. As Tyson said, this one not only had the net up most of the time, it was actively interested in how these technical phenomena affected (as were not just in the service of) character development. Anyone who rejects the movie because of a slight variation in orbital dynamics -- even one that plays a significant role in the plot -- must not consume, or at least happily consume, much fiction. Or else in every movie they must be shouting, "He just saved his daughter by driving from Times Square to the Bowery in under ten minutes! That's completely unrealistic and ruined the movie!"
posted by chortly at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I cannot accept that NONE OF THE BOOKS HAVE SPINE LABELS.

One of my general feelings about getting things right in fiction is that you can fuck with one big detail or a few minor details in service of the plot but not usually both -- the big thing can fuck with the minor things, but it has to happen in plausible ways.

However, getting things wrong in ways that don't serve the plot is just sloppiness, and that's less excusable.

I don't watch the show you're talking about, but it sounds like its premise is the big thing and the library that contains no library books is just sloppy. That'd irritate the fuck out of me, too.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:55 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I figure any attentive viewer would probably give it a pass, if this sudden shift to imaginary physics didn't reduce the cast of the movie to one.

The plot called for Matt to die. Matt was always going to die. Arguing over the specifics of how he died in a major space accident that killed at least 3 other people is odd.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2013


Why does it have to be an either / or? To give an extreme example, would it still be fine if a character died in this film because going too far into space made them melt?
posted by lucidium at 7:43 PM on October 12, 2013


Anyone who rejects the movie... must not consume (or at least happily consume) much fiction.

That is because they are made of straw.

I do not "reject" the movie -- what am I, a movie inspector? I actually enjoyed it a great deal. I just thought it was a clumsy way to write half the cast out of the movie. I actually agree strongly with the premise of TFA; few people are versed in esthetics, and so they -- we -- cannot always articulate why a movie or book or game or play or what-have-you is unsatisfying. Many of us have hobbies or interests with mountains of data so we fall back on trivia accrued from those pastimes. The 'goofs' pages on IMDB are often hilarious demonstrations of this, with viewers sadly reporting that a movie with a flashback set in 1993 has a 1996-vintage photocopier blatantly on display in a police station.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:24 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


New Twitter Account: @HardSciFiMovies

Lightning strikes a facility where a scientist is performing medical experiments on cadavers. The power is knocked out.

Lacking willing test subjects, a scientist is driven to test an experimental serum on his own body. It causes a rash, requiring cortisone.

The government creates an elite police unit to prevent criminal abuse of time travel. The agents have nothing to do. They play Candy Crush.

A powerful new AI has gone haywire. Its code and dataset are rolled back to an earlier version. The mission proceeds normally.

Mankind makes first contact with alien life. A rover collects a rock sample colonized by an alien microbe. The microbes die.

A scientist invents a technology that supplies unlimited energy. It becomes apparent that the technology uses more energy than it generates.


Many more.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:41 PM on October 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


If you want hard sci fi movies, try @hardscifimovies, by Mefi's own ... well, a whole bunch of us over on #mefi.

That's us? I didn't know. Good work guys!
posted by Artw at 9:43 PM on October 12, 2013


The movie opens with an third person omniscient view of a fictional Space Shuttle on a fictional mission. So it's a lot of things, but meticulously accurate isn't one of them. It's selectively accurate.

I'm not sure how "third person omniscient" fits into this. Movies that are filmed from the first person are definitely the minority. Also they often have things that are fictional.

For example, Dirty Harry is about a fictional police inspector investigating a fictional serial killer. But I still think the part where he punched a guy so hard that he flew into the sun was unrealistic.
posted by RobotHero at 9:53 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the Sunpunch is his signature punch!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:01 AM on October 13, 2013


Fine. Sunpunch. But when Clooney unhooked his line it didn't make my day. Authors are supposed to make up the rules. That's fair. I like transporters and warp drives as much as the next guy. Sometimes I can get behind Sean Connery when he's a dragon. Or when that ape fell in luv with the aspiring actress, and she pets his fingers--that was sweet.

But the rule about why Clooney had to unhook the line, I dunno. I can see why the had him do it as far as the, um, plot goes, but, like I said elsewhere, I would have liked it better if Telstar had smacked him.

I kept wanting him to bounce back when the line went taught, the same way they showed it working in other scenes in that sequence--when he was towing her, for example. I don't like it when they change the rule in the middle of the movie. This isn't about being picky. I'm sitting there with my heart in my mouth, blood pounding in my ears; RedBud is squeezing my hand, then....WTF? Okay, I got back into it later on, but my suspicions had already been roused, and kept fighting the impulse to look for the goddam blue screen.

That's what's wrong with those sorts of things. You can let most stuff slide in action movies, because the bullshit level is high, and all you need to know is that burning cars will fly through the air, our heroes can outrun explosions, jump safely out of third-floor windows, landing safely on car roofs, and everyone seems to have unlimited ammunition for their automatic weapons.

I mean, Gravity had me flinching when the debriet clusters started shredding the ISS because of the terrific production values. Then the Clooney thing. Jeez. Lie to me, fine, but don't rub my nose in it.
posted by mule98J at 1:43 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I still think the part where he punched a guy so hard that he flew into the sun was unrealistic.

"Hot enough for ya?"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 2:21 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The movie opens with an third person omniscient view of a fictional Space Shuttle on a fictional mission. So it's a lot of things, but meticulously accurate isn't one of them. It's selectively accurate.

That's the old, dumb argument that "it's just a story", gussied up a bit. Still doesn't justify messing with physics. Having an extra space shuttle != the same as changing how orbital mechanics work. That's a far more fundamental change and one that needn't have been made to tell the story.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:00 AM on October 13, 2013


This statement is really bizarre. The film is getting widespread critical acclaim and breaking the box office, so no, a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster does not have to get it right.

It doesn't have to, but it should. If it's worth doing something, it's worth doing it right.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:07 AM on October 13, 2013


One of the most valuable pieces of advice one of my mentors ever gave me was, If it's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong.
posted by chortly at 9:24 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've forgotten where I read it, but I remember someone comparing science in movies to a hypothetical baseball movie where for unexplained reasons, games are only four innings long, there are six bases, and the main character hits a 2000-foot home run. It might make sense for your plot and it might work fine for people who know nothing about baseball, but you have to accept that it's going to be a serious distraction for anyone who has actually watched or played the game before.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:44 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mbrubeck I made the baseball argument about Good Will Hunting which was a not very smart persons utterly ridiculous fantasy about what it would be like to be smart.
posted by localroger at 9:56 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh man, that was you! Way back in kuro5hin days! Ten years ago last week...

Obviously your idea stuck with me even though I mangled its content a bit over the years. I'd completely forgotten where it was from (and couldn't think of a good way to google for it). I certainly had no idea the original author would be reading my regurgitation of it a decade later.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:06 AM on October 13, 2013


I'm sorry, you're just not right. Lots of SF movies are pretty scrupulous about their science. 2001 is the earliest example I can think of,...

Here's three videos of all of the nitpicky errors in 2001 A Space Odyssey. They're titled "continuity errors" have lots of other kind of errors.
posted by octothorpe at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2013


"...I've forgotten where I read it, but I remember someone comparing science in movies to a hypothetical baseball movie where for unexplained reasons, games are only four innings long, there are six bases..."

Now let's be fair. When you play baseball on Mars you easily can hit the ball half a mile. Not only do you need six bases, they have to be 500 meters apart.* This is not rocket surgery.

*No jet packs, though. That would be silly.
posted by mule98J at 11:40 AM on October 13, 2013


This is not rocket surgery

Is it brain science?
posted by radwolf76 at 5:56 PM on October 13, 2013


That's the old, dumb argument that "it's just a story", gussied up a bit. Still doesn't justify messing with physics.

Pretty much anything can justify messing with physics in a fictional story. This isn't a scientific paper.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2013


I'll defend Gravity as hard science fiction... Regardless of getting some minor details wrong,

It's those details that people find irritating, though. And it's precisely because the premise gives the impression of realism that they stand out.

Personally, I find myself interpreting more and more movies as one of the character's dreams, for this reason (and after so many Matrix/Inception style movies, it's naturally an option...). I found the Clooney character pretty silly to start with, but I was really distracted by his need to engage in small talk when Bullock was running out of oxygen. Seems like that's when it's time to conserve air... that I half-decided she was actually losing consciousness floating alone in space and imagining the story.

Which then just reminded me that of course it's a dream - it's someone's imagined story because that's what movies are - and I was able to accept the "this is just how it is" angle and enjoy the movie in its own universe. It didn't necessarily make sense, but it was all Cuaron's dream sequence anyway...
posted by mdn at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The plot called for Matt to die. Matt was always going to die. Arguing over the specifics of how he died in a major space accident that killed at least 3 other people is odd.

So you'd have been entirely happy and untroubled if a sharknado had taken him out? That would in no way have damaged your sense of engagement with and immersion in the fictional world of the movie, because, hey, Matt had to die, so who cares how he dies?

Look, it's great for you and for many other people blatant violations of ordinary Newtonian physics are no big deal. We all have different thresholds and different categories of things that will bug us as inherently improbable--so inherently improbable as to do damage to our personal investment in a given fictional world. None of us have no such threshold, so this "hey, it's fiction, they can do whatever they want" line is just silly. The only question here is whether the film would have been a better, richer and more engaging film for a sufficiently larger enough audience if they'd found a way not to flout basic physics in Matt's death scene. I think the answer is yes; it would have been easy to craft this scene in such a way that Matt still dies heroically and a small but significant chunk of your audience didn't feel broken out of their investment in the rules of this particular fictional world.

Think of the effort film makers go to to preserve even minor aspects of continuity, for example. The percentage of the audience that actually notices such things ("hey, when we first saw that shot of the kitchen there were only six cups on the almost entirely out of focus shelf at the right rear, now there are five!!") is pretty small and there are a large number of famous continuity violations that viewers happily ignored for years. And yet we all would agree, I think, that it's a good idea for directors to do their best to avoid those kinds of glitches, and that when too many of them accumulate in a film it erodes our investment in the fictional world. This moment strikes me as similar to a really flagrant case of broken continuity. If Matt's spacesuit changed from white to green with purple dots as he floated off into the ether you'd find it a fairly stiff challenge to your investment in the movie's world, nor would you be particularly swayed by an argument that "hey, Matt has to die and who cares if he dies in a white spacesuit or a green one with purple dots?"
posted by yoink at 9:09 AM on October 14, 2013


See, in my stories, I avoid this whole issue by just introducing the invisible hand of the author.
"You'll have to go on without me," Captain Scott said, as the cold Antarctic wind blew. "The invisible hand of the author is going to kill one of us, and I will bravely sacrifice myself so you may live."

Cecil Meares shook his head. "No, we've made it so far! I'll drag you to the South Pole if I have to!"

Scott fended off Meares' attempts to pull him. "You'll kill us both." He pointed in the distance, "See that?"

Meares shielded his eyes from the snow. He could see a small speck of something golden in the midst of the white landscape. "What is it?"

"It's the pyramid of Giza. If you can make it there, you can warm up, and then return to the trek to the pole."

Meares was puzzled. "Isn't the pyramid on a completely different continent?"

"What are you?" Scott asked. "Some kind of science nerd?"
posted by RobotHero at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


So you'd have been entirely happy and untroubled if a sharknado had taken him out? That would in no way have damaged your sense of engagement with and immersion in the fictional world of the movie, because, hey, Matt had to die, so who cares how he dies?

Of course a sharknado would have bothered me. Now a cosmic radsharkadation storm, that would totally work.

Look, the director clearly had a particular intention and understanding of physics in that scene:
There's one scene I was wondering about. When Sandra Bullock's character is holding onto George Clooney's character, his momentum seems stopped, but he's pulling her away? I'm sure I missed something that explains this.
What happens is she's grabbing the tethers and he comes with momentum. His momentum pulls her. They're moving together. There's a wide shot that shows they keep moving and you can see the background keeps on moving. What happens is, if he lets go, his force stops and the force of the tether takes over.
Is he wrong? I don't think so, but if he is, ok fine. Considering how much effort they put into the film, its seems really petty to get worked up over this one aspect, especially when the director demonstrates he has a clear understanding of how things should work, but perhaps didn't make it explicitly clear (I can't remember all of the exact shots and angles he used for this scene).

On the one hand, the interiors of the ISS are so accurate that the placement of binders and what's on the computer screens is completely believable. On the other hand, the banter between Matt and Mission Control is completely unbelievable, along with Matt just goofing off and jetting around the Shuttle and the Hubble while someone is repairing it, like its no big thing. That would never, ever happen and if even 10% of it did, there would be hell to pay. I was quietly giggling to myself over how astronauts and flight controllers would probably be having fits over that scene, heh. Even Matt having to ask Ryan's backstory is just nuts, because after training intensely for together for a while, even for just six months, you'd know a bit about someone and whether their kid had died.

There are very few perfectly logical and physically accurate films, with zero continuity errors. There is little reason to lambast a production for getting a potentially getting a few things wrong, when they get so much right.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think Butler is too quick to label things as criticism that are not intended as such. "What X gets Right/Wrong about Y" posts, as Butler calls them, should not automatically be taken to be criticisms of X; sometimes the intent is to teach readers about Y, and the connection to X may just be a hook to draw more readers in.

"What Gravity gets right/wrong about orbital mechanics" may not be a good critique of Gravity, but it can be a very good way to teach casual readers about orbital mechanics. "What Breaking Bad gets right/wrong about the drug trade" may not be a good critique of Breaking Bad, but it can be a very good way to teach readers more about the real-world drug trade.

To the best of my knowledge, NdGT has never claimed to be a film critic, but he is well known for explaining science to the masses, so it's reasonable to assume his primary aim was to teach about orbital mechanics, not to critique Gravity.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:58 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is little reason to lambast a production for getting potentially getting a few things wrong, when they get so much right wrong.

TFITFY
posted by mule98J at 11:59 AM on October 14, 2013


Is he wrong?

Yes, totally. That's just not how it is filmed. At all. The tethers pull taught, and they have a quite long conversation with the tethers taught and the one around Sandra Bullock's leg slipping ever so slowly, but not constantly, down her leg while they talk. They sacrificed any shred of physical plausibility because they wanted a Big Tense Scene where the audience could be on tenterhooks for a good while about whether or not he was going to be saved or whether they'd both die or what. For the scene to work the way Cuaron retrospectively would have liked it to, Clooney would have had to uncouple himself while his tether to Bullock was still loose. That could have been brilliant, in fact, with them talking about the pros and cons of it while he drifts slowly onward out into the ether ("I saw that your foot was tangled in those straps, Ryan, but I just wasn't willing to risk it holding our combined weight.") The problem being, of course, that audiences wouldn't have bought his death as necessary. No, they obviously decided we needed time to fully grasp that they were in a Serious Situation with No Alternatives, but, alas, in order to get that across to us, they had to violate the basic physics of the situation so badly that everyone in the audience who actually cares about that kind of think had their allegiance to the reality of the fictional world they were inhabiting badly broken.
posted by yoink at 12:10 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, there's a point where an incongruous fact breaks the world. I haven't watched Merlin, myself, so I don't know how seriously it takes itself.

I tried to like Merlin. But then I got to the episode where Morgan gets kidnapped by the generic bad guy from some rival kingdom. When they find out what's happened, Arthur and Merlin immediately ride off to her rescue, travelling as fast as they can, taking a shortcut through the Fire Swamp, riding day and night without rest. Meanwhile, kidnapper dude is getting all annoyed that he hasn't heard any response yet. Repeatedly, we see him get more and more angry that days have passed and he's had no word as to whether they're going to pay the ransom. For half the episode this goes on, and it just becomes more and more blatant. How could anyone get there faster than Arthur is going to? How did the kidnapped princess even get there before Arthur? It's a couple days' ride at least. Presumably their travel would've been slowed a bit by having a prisoner to drag along. Eventually you just have to accept that the writers meant for us to subconsciously assume there's some kind of instantaneous communications channel to Camelot, and never wonder what it might be. Did not work for me.

From what I hear, that one bit in Gravity might be almost as bad. But at least if it's near the end, the rest of the movie might be enjoyable.
posted by sfenders at 12:59 PM on October 14, 2013


Well, science fiction abuses science in much the same way that fantasy abuses the arts and humanities. Both genres are guilty of hitting their core subjects over the head with blunt objects, dragging the bodies into the alley, emptying the pockets for the credit cards, and running off to buy as much junk food as possible before they get caught.

"Hard science fiction," just is a bit more graceful and subtle about the mugging, sniffing science's account numbers while it's in the act of watching porn so to speak.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:16 PM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interview:There's one scene I was wondering about. When Sandra Bullock's character is holding onto George Clooney's character, his momentum seems stopped, but he's pulling her away? I'm sure I missed something that explains this.
What happens is she's grabbing the tethers and he comes with momentum. His momentum pulls her. They're moving together. There's a wide shot that shows they keep moving and you can see the background keeps on moving. What happens is, if he lets go, his force stops and the force of the tether takes over.
Me: Is he wrong?

Yoink: Yes, totally. That's just not how it is filmed. At all. The tethers pull taught, and they have a quite long conversation with the tethers taught and the one around Sandra Bullock's leg slipping ever so slowly, but not constantly, down her leg while they talk. They sacrificed any shred of physical plausibility because they wanted a Big Tense Scene where the audience could be on tenterhooks for a good while about whether or not he was going to be saved or whether they'd both die or what.


Oddly enough, the director of the film is correct. Matt was indeed moving faster than Ryan, who grabbed his tether and he's clearly pulling her with him, that's shown in two long shots. You can argue about the length of the scene I suppose, but Matt's clearly pulling her out of the parachute lines. She's slowed him down, yes, but he still has the greater momentum. The slippage of the lines down Ryan's leg isn't constant no, but it speeds up when she moves and tries to pull Matt to her.

If anything is wrong, I'd say that's he's pulling her straight, as opposed to them starting to spin and circle around the center point of the whatever the parachute lines were hooked to.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:19 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The slippage of the lines down Ryan's leg isn't constant no

And that, right there, is the whole ball of wax. If the line around the leg is at full extension AND the line between Clooney and Bullock is at full extension AND there is ANY TIME AT ALL at which outward motion relative to the ISS has stopped, then Clooney and Bullock should both bounce back toward the ISS. They don't; the lines remain bar taut, as Clooney exterts his inexorable narrative drive outward into space.
posted by yoink at 6:04 PM on October 14, 2013


If the line around the leg is at full extension AND the line between Clooney and Bullock is at full extension AND there is ANY TIME AT ALL at which outward motion relative to the ISS has stopped...

The outward motion relative to the ISS didn't stop, as shown in the two wide shots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:14 PM on October 14, 2013


Hell, it's not even in just the long shots. Ryan is clearly being pulled by Matt, even in the close ups. What you say should happen, Ryan bounding back to the station once her lines were pulled taunt, was in the process of occurring, until she grabs Matt's tether.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:18 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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