10 classic mistakes in sci-fi movies



Updated: September 4, 2009

I considered filing this article in the Life section, but since it touches the physics in so many ways, I decided to foster it in the Hillbilly section, where it rightly belongs. Anyhow, let us begin.

Sci-fi movies come in two major flavors: 1) they happen today, in our world, but have all sorts of aliens to make things more interesting 2) they happen sometime in the future, usually far away from Planet Earth and introduce all sorts of cultural and technological changes, as well as a plethora of alien races. Still, regardless of their genre, they all have one thing in common - the same classic mistakes over and over again.

Mistake 1: Aliens speak English

I know the language is there to make the viewers actually be able to understand the plot, but it's much more than that. The problem is not with the words - Google can do that. The problem is with the understanding. Unless you're human and have lived on Earth for the last few thousand years, being able to understand the nuances of what is being said, regardless of the actual words, is nigh impossible.

You don't have to be an alien to find difficulties in languages. How do you explain cases in Slavic languages to someone who's never used them? How do you explain the 56 tenses in French to a Chinese? What about the simple phrases like Bob's your uncle, Plonker and cushty? Even Americans have problems with those and they speak English, so imagine the cultural shock of an alien landing on a Scouser.

English

A good example is a scene in Stargate Atlantis where a tortured yet defiant human bickers with a Wraith, an alien race with enlarged nostrils, electronic voice and fangs, even though they use their hands to feed, go figure. At one point, tired of the verbal diarrhea, the human tells the alien to go to Hell ... Wait! What?

Why would a figment of Norse mythology insinuated into Christianity have any meaning to some ugly-looking alien from another galaxy? It would be like asking your children, assuming you've made a mistake and created some, to rationalize the delusional world they live in. Simply wrong. If anything, human-alien encounters would probably be funny.

P.S. For those who have no idea why I placed a screenshot of the movie G.O.R.A. above, well, first you should definitely watch it, as it's one of the funniest and more brilliantly made sci-fi movies. Second, the aliens in this movie do not speak English ...

Mistake 2: Weapons

For some reason, all weapons in the future or those used by aliens are particle weapons. Not bad, except the simple fact that focused energy beams (e.g. lasers) dissipate in air rather quickly, making the weapons rather useless. Throw in moisture, rain, fog or snow and things get even more serious. Particle weapons might make sense in the outer space, where the energy dissipation is significantly reduced. However, on any planet with human-like atmosphere, such weapons would be completely cost-ineffective, wasting probably 99.99% of their energy in transient.

This means that such weapons would have to be huge to be of any use. Indeed, particle weapons in use today include the Boeing 747 Airborne Laser and the Israeli anti-missile Nautilus, both of which take a generator the size of a football field to power. Hardly a hand-held device.

Mistake 3: Weapons

Alien weapons

Weapons touted by aliens are usually small, squat, single-arm gadgets that you really can't take seriously. For some reason, the notion of infantry combat in the future no longer seems important and the typical engagement distances of 100-200 meters are reduced to a stone throw range.

Take M16, the staple of modern warfare, a weapon produced in the late 50s. It has a practical range of approx. 500 meters, although it is accurate and effective at about half that, can fire dozens of rounds a second and is used with both arms, firmly gripped and laid against the shoulder.

Now, go 400 years into the future and what you get? You get pistol-sized thingies that fire once every few seconds and are aimed like 14th century handguns. Effective range: 20 meters. Accuracy: none. Does this not strike you as odd?

To make things worse, alien weapons have no machine guns, snipers or other types of support weapons like mortars and grenade launchers. At best, they wield rod-like things that double as staff/sword in close-combat. Furthermore, the alien weapons have no penetration. When the energy beams hit an obstacle, they create a flash, some sparks and a lot of fizzle, ending in a few black stains. Hardly a weapon you would want to use against someone hiding behind a bale of straw. You might accidentally set it on fire.

I would expect future weapons to resemble today's, with improvements in ammunition capacity, reduced thermal and audio signature, increased durability, less wear, fewer malfunctions, improved targeting, and more. They might not use chemical energy like today, but they would still fire mechanical projectiles. Rail guns sound like a solid alternative, fast, powerful and lethal. Instead, you get hallucinations from 1961.

Mistake 4: Weapons

Alien weapons all make absurd noises. In the 21st century, we have capacitors that do not make sounds when charging and discharging. However, hundreds of years from now, aliens are using weapons that slowly and audibly charge and slowly and audibly fire. When they fire, the future gadgets not only make the noise like a cat's burp, they also discharge the most absurd munition.

Neon grissini
Neon grissini, 'nuff said.

I don't know if you've noticed, but all alien weapons fire neon grissini, usually in different colors to make the spectators be able to differentiate a little better who shot who. The particle beams are usually about 2 meters long, fly at the comfy 65kph and illuminate the neighborhood well enough to read a book at night.

I also do not understand why particles have to be visible. The visible spectrum is so overrated. Besides, would it not make more sense to use IR particle beams or X-ray, which are not visible by human eye and thus untraceable without special equipment. Additionally, the effect of such weapons would probably be different from what we see today. Irradiate someone with a lot of IR energy and they would probably blister or catch on fire at the spot. Irradiate someone with X-ray and they might get sick with radiation sickness. There's no point in using plasma or visible laser. Plasma would most likely cause huge interferences with radio communications in the vicinity of the combat and turn everyone blind. Visible-spectrum lasers would take a powerplant to make effective at any reasonable distance.

Interesting ... Or maybe the average spectator is so dumb that he/she requires aural cues to make sense of the plot? Now let us not forget the ultimate shield against particle weapons - mirrors. Wear a suit paneled with glass tiles and anyone wielding a laser against you is in big trouble.

Mistake 5: Noise in outer space

This is probably the biggest blunder of them all. Sound is caused by mechanical disturbance in the medium. In vacuum, sound does not propagate. Therefore, all and any encounter in the outer space would be devoid of monotone engine zooms, phew-phew noises of photon torpedoes and phasers charging and alien ships exploding. It would be an eerie, spectacular silence to make your blood curdle.

Mistake 6: Spaceship designs

Alien weapons

I might be able to forgive spaceship designs, except that ... they either look like ship or aircraft. However, if you take a look at today's models, they look like neither, except the Shuttle, which is specifically designed to reenter the atmosphere.

However, any craft designed solely for space travel could easily dispense with any aerodynamic features. Missile profile sounds quite reasonable, as it allows the craft to rotate round its longitudinal axis, reducing exposure to radiation from stars and possibly creating enough centripetal force to permit the ship's crew to enjoy some artificial gravity.

In the absence of rotation, even short exposures against particular areas of craft hulls would result in temperature gradients that could cause damage to ship instrumentation, which makes the aesthetical models shown in so many movies simply impractical. If anything, the rather simplistic flying-saucer design makes some sense here.

However, the shape is not the biggest issue. The real problems are windows. First of all, why would one need windows? You can project space landscape using cameras. Second of all, the space is rather empty, so windows are not really needed to steer. In fact, placing them in the front of the ship makes a very bad choice, as any debris in the flight path would probably shatter the windows and kill everyone onboard.

Protection against projectiles is the greatest problem. Even tiny grains of rock hurling at incredible speeds could cause terrible damage to the ship's structure. Truth to be told, the chances for something like that are low. Then again, the spaceships in the movies often go near planets or asteroid fields, where the quantity of litter is so much greater, increasing the chance of collision. Even very small projectiles would be deadly. A 1gr iron ball traveling at 10km/sec would have the destructive force of a 20mm AP shell fired against the spaceship. It would easily penetrate 5cm of solid steel armor, leaving a huge hole in the hull.

Imagine the materials, thickness, quantity and weight thereof, required to make sure the ship's interior remains intact even if multiple projectiles hit the ship. This would necessitate triple or maybe even quadruple outer hulls, tons upon tons of armor and hiding all vital instruments inside protected nacelles. Oh, and no windows.

Mistake 7: Ships always meet each other face to face

Why? There's no gravity in the outer space. Why then, in close encounters, do ships have to face one another like a pair of drunk French truck drivers on a strike? It's not like the cant or pitch of the spacecraft really matters. Gravity, if used, is internally generated by each ship, therefore they could align in any which line, any which way. There's no meaning to actual position, therefore the two ships could always use themselves as a reference.

The chance of two vessels coming toward one another at exactly the same spatial displacement is rather small. Considering there are 360 degrees in a full circle and 3 dimensions to enjoy, this gives approx. 50 million one-degree positions.

Mistake 8: Aliens are always humanoids

Alien life form
Do you know what this image shows? It's a 1,000,000 magnification of lichen-like growth found on a rock on a distant planet, which turns out to be unremarkably lichen-like, just like Earth lichen. No iPods for aliens yet, I'm afraid.

It does make sense that life should be human-like, because it's proven to work at least in one case, but extrapolating against the entire universe is a bit presumptuous. I've already written about the odds of finding human-like life in space. Even if every single star held human-like life a one point or another, you would still have to travel approx. 600 light years to get to the nearest one, currently inhabited by human-like forms and sharing the same technology advancements like the human race.

This means approx. 10+ generations of human crews enduring their lonely space travel to meet another race, which might share the same anatomy and living conditions. Not very likely I'd say.

I think the biggest problem is that we can't even begin to imagine what life might look like. Two arms and two legs sounds like a very good idea, then most mammals on Earth are quadrupeds. What if gravity on the alien planet was twice that of ours? Would they be short, squat things? And what if their oxygen levels were much lower than ours? Would they live closer to the ground and have huge breathing organs? Or maybe dwell underwater? After all, let's not forget, most life exists in a marine environment and it hardly uses browsers to read articles on science fiction.

Mistake 9: Too many LEDs

Computer
Oh noes, technology! My high-school fx 82 is probably more powerful than most Cathode tube wonders in sci-fi movies.

Most alien ships have too many LEDs. They are all over the place, blinking, blinking. Even today, massive computer farms hardly have 2-3 lights on the machines, usually one for hardware failures and diagnostics, one for power, and one for network connectivity. There's no reason to obliterate the eyes with a torrent of flashing colors.

I'd expect futuristic computing to rely on miniaturization, voice commands and touch screens, no LEDs.

Mistake 10: Retro-futuristic cultures

Usually, you'll have absurd blends like farming, Amish-like communities using cold-fusion reactors to cycle their crops or horse-riding aliens firing plasma guns. And they all wear robe-like clothes, as if the Middle Ages fashion is still both good-looking and practical. If you go out, you'll see all sorts of clothing styles, worm by ugly and beautiful people, all at once, as varied as you can get. So why would aliens be any different? Why should all wear the same dorky outfits?

Clothing is just one facet of the problem. Alien cultures also have other clues that classify them as mindless, apersonal communities: dorky hairstyle, dorky speech and lots of useless implements that really makes you wonder what kind of herbs they inhaled in the 60s when they wrote most of the sci-fi stuff. No demonstration, I'm afraid. Dressing in creaky leather is not my style ...

Conclusion

Don't take this article too seriously. And don't burn your ripped DVD collections yet. Sci-fi movies and series can be enjoyed. You just have to remember that you should never try to argue in favor of things you see on the screen as viable solutions to today's technologies. It will be a while before we wear robes again or start using ululating phallic objects to heal fractures.

P.S. Star Trek TNG probably made the fewest and least of these mistakes, mainly because of the series legacy to the 1960s originals with Captain Kirk. You get all sorts of life forms and all sorts of ships, including the perfect cube design by Borg. Dorky haircuts and Thunderbird-style outfits worm by Vulcans and Romuleans is yet another ridiculous leftover from the original series. If you have to watch sci-fi, start with Star Trek TNG.

And for more fun - see part two indeed!

Cheers!

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