Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Physicist Looks At Prometheus

Spoiler: he's not impressed. Physics Today Editor Charles Day -- an actual smart guy -- takes the film to task over malprediction rather than plot, and in so doing, hits one of my problems with a lot of cinematic SF: the nuts and bolts of it are implausible; the characters are doing things in ways that have already become outmoded. --Or, worse yet, the science is simply, laughably wrong in ways no suspension of disbelief can remedy.

Or a combination of bad science and lousy technological applications (this ruins the film Sunlight for me, despite excellent sets and a good cast). Some of the least plausible SF manages to work because the writers know when they're lying -- from Stargate to Red Dwarf to Firefly, they get more right than wrong; and when they're deliberately wrong (stargates, stasis fields, ludicrous engines), they make a feature of it. Red Dwarf gets a little more leeway by way of being a comedy, and yet Dave Lister's underachieving Everyman is quite believable in a way that any Dr. Zarkov spouting pseudoscience can never be.

The core of making an SF film (or TV show, or novel, whatever) work is the same as any other film: the characters have to make sense; the plot can't depend on them being idiots at critical points, or pulling hitherto unsuspected abilities out of hats or hip-pockets or even (a-hem, Mr. Burroughs, you're excused by dint of being a trailblazer) on coincidence after coincidence. Nope, they've got to be real to the viewer -- and their world's got to be one in which they'd live, with a few dents in the walls and dust in the corners (or a darned good reason why not.)

Prometheus is undoubtedly a visual treat and rich on thrills; but thanks to Charles Day, I'm forewarned enough to not mind waiting for the video. Or at least to not throw popcorn at the screen.

10 comments:

GBBL said...

I watch little "entertainment" on TV or movies.

I noticed it in shows like "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You". The lead characters are very stupid, but to make them look smart they have support characters that are even dumber.

I don't mind if the physics is flat out wrong as long as it is a "smart wrong" if you know what I mean.

Tango Juliet said...

I was fairly disappointed in "Prometheus." More creepy than spooky and terribly, terribly predictable.

I had hoped for better from R. Scott.

Dave H said...

In fantasy you can make up your own physics, but it has to be consistent. (I think this is what GBBL means by "smart wrong.") It may make certain things possible, but it also has to make other things impossible. Even Aladdin's genie had constraints.

Tossing otherwise normal people into a position where they have to deal with the constraints makes a story.

kishnevi said...

What GBBL and Dave said.

Good science/bad fiction = bad science fiction

bad science/good fiction = good science fiction

which is why people still read Jules Verne and HG Wells even though the science, such as it was, is hopelessly outdated/known to be impossible.

You're better off thinking of SF as a sub-genre of fantasy, in which pseudo science replaces the magic; and like all fantasy, if the author has created a cosmos consistent with itself--Tolkien's "sub-Creator"--and peopled it with good characters, then it will succeed, no matter how laughable the "science" is.

docjim505 said...

kishnevi - You're better off thinking of SF as a sub-genre of fantasy, in which pseudo science replaces the magic; and like all fantasy, if the author has created a cosmos consistent with itself--Tolkien's "sub-Creator"--and peopled it with good characters, then it will succeed, no matter how laughable the "science" is.

I agree. People can accept a deaux ex machina whether it's magic, the happy effects of an inverse tachyon field, or a simple, incredible coincidence so long as the story and characters are compelling. If the story and characters are lacking, it becomes much easier to start noticing plot holes and internal inconsistencies ("Wait: two episodes back, it was established that the transporter COULDN'T do what it's now doing. WTF?")

Carl-Bear said...

"You're better off thinking of SF as a sub-genre of fantasy, in which pseudo science replaces the magic;"

At the risk of starting an argument, I disagree. Sort of. "SF" which relies on pseudoscience (as opposed to hard sci/speculation) should be considered a subset of fantasy; specifically, I call such "science fantasy" and most folks know exactly what I'm talking about (and usually start muttering about Star Drek).

Real or "hard" SF is not a subset of fantasy. It has to make the effort to either be real or at least not blatantly inconsistent with observed facts. I stretched that some in Bargaining Position, but the semi-questionable plot element did have a basis in theories (with some math modeling backup) from a working physicist. And once something like that is introduced, it has to be used consistently (at which point in the conversation people start muttering about Star Drek again).

More to the point of this post, I generally don't treat screen "SF" as if it were part of the same genre as the written media. I don't take it seriously, and simply hope to be entertained. If they manage that and real SF, so much the better, of course. But that's darned rare. Iwas one of those nerds in the audience during Aliens saying, "Suit up and blow the airlocks." But I still enjoyed the movie. Prometheus sounds like it will be the same kind of fun.

LabRat said...

They could have been as lazy with the science as they liked and still have been forgiven- Ridley Scott retains all his skill at building fantastic universes that still feel lived-in and real- if it weren't for the fact that the entire plot runs on people making bad decisions for no particular reason.

Once you lose character believability, the audience has nothing left to do but to start kicking the supports of the universe to see how solid they are.

Linoge said...

Despite the bad science, it was worth the big screen if only for the prettiness of it all. One did have to lean on one's "I believe" button rather firmly, though...

Drang said...

RAH (pbuh) referred to Speculative Fiction, of which the various flavors of science fiction as well as those of fantasy are all subsets.

Archengine said...
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