Ever had a friend who cannot bring themselves suspend disbelief? It’s not a moral failing, but it can be a tedious quality in situations like, say, the movies, or the cinema, or whatever you call it when you’ve paid your day’s wages for a giant tub of carcinogenic popcorn and a three-hour distraction. (These days, maybe, an overpriced streaming new release and Grubhub.) Who doesn’t love a big-screen science fiction epic—science be damned? Who wants to listen to the seatmate who mutters "oh, come on!,” “no way!,” “well, actually, that’s scientifically impossible”? You know they never passed intro to physics….
Dominic Walliman, on the other hand, is a physicist. And he is not the kind of person to ruin a movie by going on about how goofy its scientific ideas sound, though he’s likely to express appreciation for films that get it right. He doesn’t get bent out of shape by artistic license and can appreciate, for example, the creative use of visual effects in Interstellar to represent a black hole, which would otherwise appear onscreen as, well, a black hole. “I’m okay with bad physics in movies,” he says, “because the job of a movie isn’t to be a science documentary, the goal of a movie is to tell an interesting story.”
Even so, if you sit him down and ask him to talk specifically about science in movies, as a friend does in the video above, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and you’ll want to listen to him (after the movie’s over) because he actually knows what he’s talking about. Over the years, Walliman has mapped various domains of science, like chemistry, computer science, biology, mathematics, physics, and his own field, quantum physics. His visual explanations make the relationships between difficult concepts clear and easy to follow. In this video, he comments on some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy films (standouts include the first Batman and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons) in ways that are equally illuminating.
Big winners for relative accuracy, in Walliman’s opinion, are no surprise. They include Gravity, Contact (written by Carl Sagan), even a clip from the incredibly smart Futurama. It is soon apparent that the use of a folded piece of paper to represent spacetime through a wormhole has “become a bit of a cliché,” although a helpful-enough visual aid. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “boring” (with apologies), a judgment that might disqualify Walliman as a film critic, in many people’s opinion, but does not tarnish his scientific reputation.
One of the biggest science-in-film fails: 2009’s Star Trek, whose villains have discovered a substance called “red matter.” A single drop can destroy an entire planet, and the idiots seem to have enough onboard their ship to take out the universe with one careless oopsie. Walliman is maybe not qualified to weigh in on the paleobiology of Jurassic Park, but Jeff Goldblum’s explanation of chaos theory fits within his purview. “So, this is not a good description of chaos theory,” he says, “at all.” It is, however, a fabulous plot device.
If you’re interested in more engagingly accessible, non-cinema-related, surveys of scientific ideas, visit any one of Walliman’s many Domain of Science videos here.