MindFood: 2011 Sci-Fi Forecast

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Cowboys and AliensJust last week I was lamenting the realization that Hollywood and speculative sci-fi had more or less broken up. Sure, they hook up every now and then, but truly speculative sci-fi is pretty much dating other industries for the foreseeable future. But even if mainstream movies have given up on forecasting the near future, there is still some scientific consultation going on behind the scenes for most mainstream movies, right? Not if this post at the Science and Entertainment Exchange is any indicator.

Haven’t heard of the SEE? It’s a program started by the National Academy of Sciences that acts as a dating service between film and television productions and all manner of scientists and engineers. Basically, if you’re making a movie about robots and want to get some of the real-world science right, put in a call to the SEE and they’ll hook you up with one of its members who will gladly consult with you on how to strike the balance between factual science and movie science.

In the aforementioned post, the SEE blog (delightfully called “The X-Change Films) runs down all of the major sci-fi movies coming out of Hollywood over the course of the next 10 months. It’s intended purely as a calendar of what’s in the pipeline and whether or not their readership are interested in said films, but what’s really interesting is that they made sure to note when a film had actually consulted with the SEE in some regard– and the amount of films that didn’t is actually surprising.

Of the twenty-two films they outlined in their post, only three of the films consulted with the SEE. Of course, that doesn’t mean that 86% of the sci-fi films of 2011 were made without ever consulting an actual scientist, it just means that they didn’t arrange for one through the Exchange. But, all the same, what films actually did make use of their coordinated expertise is fairly surprising.

Did alien invasion films like Battle: Los Angeles, Cowboys & Aliens or The Darkest Hour dial up the National Academy of Sciences? Nope. How about the out-there sci-fi films like Andrew Niccol’s Now, a film about a future in which years of life have replaced money as the currency of the world? Or Steven Soderbergh’s viral epidemic film, Contagion? J.J. Abrams’ cryptic Super-8? Nope.

So which three did do their homework? Apollo 18, Thor and The Green Lantern.


That’s right. The Weinstein Company’s rushed-into-production “found footage” movie about secret NASA missions to the moon took the time time to consult with the Exchange, but the robot-boxing movie Real Steel couldn’t be bothered. That’s not nearly as surprising as Thor and The Green Lantern, however, as hard science is often the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of superhero movies. Given the out-of-this-world origins of both characters, though, it’s not hard to believe that their respective productions would reach out for help in at least accurately portraying outer space (just filling a black background with a bunch of random white dots isn’t going to cut it these days).

PaulSo what’s the importance of all of this; what do we need to take away from knowing who arranged for consultation and who didn’t? Well, on the optimistic side we can probably expect a commendable attention to small details in the three films that did open a channel to scientists. Even if the productions don’t take their advice, the sheer gesture of it is telling of their intentions. Think of it like the Freakonomics study that revealed it wasn’t Baby Einstein videos that actually made children smarter, it was having well-intentioned parents that made the difference.

On the pessimistic side, we can observe one thing while inferring another. The former is that the Exchange is a sorely underused service, the latter is that big budget sci-fi is still mostly science free. Is that a problem? In most cases, no. No one is really going to care if the alien in Paul comes from a galaxy that has been charted to contain plausible exoplanets. No one will be bothered by the silly genetics at play in Rise of the Apes. But it would be nice to know that the filmmakers had at least made the attempt; that at some point the finer points of their films had been mulled over by more than just screenwriters and studio executives.