When he’s not running the Hayden Planetarium or rebooting Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (which comes out on Blu-ray next week), Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to relax by pointing out the scientific errors in Hollywood movies. In Prometheus, for example, Charlize Theron describes the distant planet on which she’s landed as being located “half a billion miles from Earth,” which may sound like a lot but would only put her slightly past Jupiter. In Titanic, Jack and Rose gaze up at a night sky whose constellations are all wrong for the part of the globe and the time of year. (James Cameron fixed that one in the re-released version.) And in Gravity, which Tyson fact-checked in a series of tweets that rapidly went viral, the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station are both located within Sandra Bullock’s eyesight, although their real-life orbits are more than a hundred miles apart. (Also, he quipped, the movie should have been called Angular Momentum.)
But for Tyson, who’s effectively become the U.S.A.’s national science teacher, accuracy isn’t all that matters. With its flashy computer graphics and animated historical tableaux, Cosmos is designed to engage viewers’ emotions and minds, to trigger the sense of wonder that a seventh-grade chemistry teacher might invite by throwing potassium chloride into a Bunsen burner flame. So instead of asking him to get out his red pen, The Dissolve asked Tyson about the science movies that made him feel that sense of awe, and whether he can still enjoy them even if they get things wrong.
The Dissolve: You’ve become famous for fact-checking the science in movies like Gravity, and the response is usually that the movies are more interested in emotional truth and a sense of wonder than scrupulous accuracy. Were there movies that conveyed that sense of wonder to you when you were young?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I love movies, but they didn’t influence my interest in the universe. A lot of these science-fiction movies typically go beyond what we know into where the imagination takes over, and that has proven to be an extremely fertile mode of storytelling. In my life, however, I was primarily influenced by what is real in the universe. There was the first visit to my local planetarium, the Hayden Planetarium. But I am old enough to remember some films from the ’60s, and there’s no doubt that 2001 and the vision that that offered—entering orbit and space in general being a routine thing that a person could do, showing private enterprise, participating in that adventure—that was a stunning vision of what our future could be.
The Dissolve: There’s a traditional division between “hard” science fiction, which is more interested in the mechanics of the future might work, and “soft” science fiction, which addresses the future on a more conceptual and literary level. 2001 is interesting because it does both.
Tyson: I’d say it’s hard in that it’s well-researched and that it targets real science as much as it can. 2001 did that more than any movie had, at that point. They have the psychedelic journey and the encounter with this [alien] life, but any encounter with the ship and zero-G, that had foundations in real physics. You have to applaud all the efforts that went into that. To distinguish that from, for example, Star Wars—nobody’s going to criticize Star Wars for its science. They just do whatever they want.
The Dissolve: In Star Wars, sound travels in a vacuum.
Tyson: Which is fine! I don’t put out a list of critiques on Star Wars because you can hear the ships in space, or that Han Solo explains how fast he can make a run on the Millennium Falcon in parsecs, which is a unit of distance. It’s fine, it can be what it wants. But if you’re going to try to make it right, I’m going to be right there with you.
The Dissolve: Well, it is a galaxy far, far away. Maybe the laws of physics are different there.
Tyson: Sure! Nobody likes the movie less for that. People think that when I offer a comment, I don’t like the movie.
The Dissolve: It was clear that with Gravity, you were using the fact-check as a playful pedagogical tool, rather than saying, “The movie gets this wrong and is therefore a bad movie.”
Tyson: Yeah, and I buried the hatchet with [Alfonso Cuarón], too. I met him at a party and people were quick to take photos of us together, seeing if we were going to be fighting. But he smiled, even though he may have been a little ticked off at the beginning… I’m imagining this, without any actual data, but he might’ve been a little ruffled. But it kept people talking about the movie for many weeks, beyond the time when the principals did their talk-show circuit. It was being debated in the blogosphere, and the astronauts got in the debate, and so I think he was just charmed at the end that so many people were paying attention to the movie.
The Dissolve: You often mention Contact as a favorite. It’s based on a novel by Carl Sagan, who was an important figure in your life, and not just because of Cosmos.
Tyson: I’d love the movie even without that connection, regardless of whatever biases I might carry.
The Dissolve: Contact is obviously more on the speculative end of science fiction, but there are some wonderfully specific moments, especially the opening shot, where the camera zooms back from the Earth through space and we hear older and older transmissions as it gets farther and farther away.
Tyson: The only thing they got wrong—and they couldn’t have gotten it right and still had the scene work, so they had to do it the way they did—since you’re overtaking the radio signals, you would hear them in reverse. That’s how it would actually happen, but it wouldn’t make any sense to hear Martin Luther King in reverse, or whoever we were listening to. Also, the radio sphere is way smaller than what was portrayed there. The way they did it, they allowed us to pass by some extraordinary nebulae, so it worked visually and the idea was accurately conveyed. The radio bubble is a real concept, really expanding at the speed of light out there.
The Dissolve: This was fairly early in the CGI era, too. It struck me as one of the first poetic uses of the technology.
Tyson: I agree, 100 percent. Robert Zemeckis directed that and Forrest Gump, not many years before that. Forrest Gump made a mark for itself by using CGI not to do something bombastic, but to do something where you wouldn’t even know they were using it. That was part of the storytelling element, rather than just something to blow your mind.
The Dissolve: Is there a science-related movie that you love on a conceptual or storytelling level that still gets a lot wrong?
Tyson: I thought Armageddon was thoroughly entertaining, though it’s probably the most scientifically offensive film ever made. The script is hilarious, it has some tender and heroic moments, the actors put on some great performances, it’s a nice ensemble. That one has the limit of those two extremes, for me. If I’m channel-surfing and I hit Armageddon, yeah, I’m gonna stop and watch it.
The Dissolve: What’s scientifically offensive about Armageddon?
Tyson: Everything! There’s a 200-ton comet and no one notices it. They would’ve noticed it 200 years ago with backyard telescopes! The government is keeping the sky a secret? The government can’t keep the sky a secret, because people have their own telescopes. A 200-mile-diameter comet would’ve been discovered 200 years ago, when the first asteroids were discovered. Then they use a space shuttle to leave Earth’s orbit. Space shuttles can’t leave orbit; they just don’t have the capacity or design to accomplish that. Then the comet pieces had good aim when they hit; they’re hitting, like, monuments and things, like they had LoJack or something. What? It goes on and on.
The Dissolve: Before 2001, it seems like accuracy in science-fiction wasn’t so much of a concern. Are there movies from that era that you have a fondness for?
Tyson: I do. The Day The Earth Stood Still—that one was more psychological. It wasn’t about, “Are the aliens gonna come eat you?” It was one of the more intelligent sci-fi B-films from the 1950s. I thought it was intelligently done. When the alien comes in human form, he has to go to a professor just to tell them what’s going on, because nobody knows. He goes to someone who’s open-minded and scientifically literate. He doesn’t say, “Take me to the United Nations.” He says, “Take me to someone who knows what the hell I just did and who knows what my powers are.” They’ve thought it through.