Three Movies That Got Space Right
Our favourite films for great space science.
In 1902, the first sci-fi film, Le Voyage Dans La Lune by Georges Méliès, was released. This black-and-white silent film follows a group of astronomers on a voyage to the Moon, and is widely regarded as the first movie to depict space travel.
Throughout the 20th century, space has continued to be a popular theme on the big screen, with films such as Flash Gordon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Apollo 13. More recently, we’ve seen the likes of major blockbusters such as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. While most of these films are science fiction, some do actually depict space with surprising amount of accuracy.
With that in mind let’s take a closer look at the space science and astronomy within three of our favourite films.
2001: A Space Odyssey
One of the most well-known science fiction movies of all time is also one of the more scientifically accurate. 2001: A Space Odyssey is based on the book of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke, where astronauts are sent on a mission to investigate the mysterious appearance of black monoliths across time and space. It features an iconic conflict between man and machine, in the shape of the infamous supercomputer HAL.
The film was released in 1968, a year before astronauts would step onto the Moon, and director Stanley Kubrick was keen that his film remained ahead of NASA’s plans. He knew that if the research was not done properly and the Moon landings were a success then his film could instantly be outdated!
So instead of the usual film industry set designers, Kubrick drafted in aerospace engineers to create the interiors of the spacecrafts. And spacesuits in the film were designed by Hans-Kurt Lange, an illustrator working in NASA’s Future Projects Division, who based them very closely on NASA’s actual suits. The film’s spaceship Discovery One, which travels to Jupiter, was based on concept studies made by NASA on an 8-crew spacecraft to take astronauts to Mars. Kubrick’s team made a real effort to make the movie look both futuristic and realistic based on actual 1960s space research and engineering.
Beyond the suits and the spacecraft, space itself in 2001 is also accurately portrayed. Many sci-fi films include sounds from collisions or laser fights in space (Star Wars anyone?), but in reality sound doesn’t travel across the vacuum of space. In 2001 however, space is shown as a large, quiet landscape.
The film also sticks close to the science when depicting the travel time throughout the Solar System; a journey to Jupiter takes years and there are long time delays to send and receive transmissions back to Earth (the light travel time between Jupiter and the Earth is about 30 minutes at the shortest).
And finally, the infamous supercomputer HAL, who helps the astronauts with the success of the mission, is a pretty close representation of Siri!
Sadly, human space exploration has not advanced as far away from Earth as was expected in the 1960s. So in a way, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke have certainly succeeded in creating a film ahead of its time!
The Martian is a more recent sci-fi film, based on a book of the same name, and we’re a big fan of both for their scientific accuracy. The film is our go-to example to illustrate all of the current challenges of sending humans to Mars.
The story follows astronaut Mark Watney’s fight for survival and rescue after he is left stranded on Mars. Similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this film accurately emphasises just how long it takes to travel between Earth and Mars – about eight months at the shortest – and the toll this takes on the astronauts. When Watney is stranded, the long time it takes to prepare and launch a rescue mission is the main reason Watney has to get so creative with survival techniques. And we love that it’s always his science knowledge and his logical thinking under pressure that gets him out of life-threatening situations.
The desolate Martian landscape dominates the film’s scenery, with many features accurately reproducing what our rovers have actually have seen on the planet.
But if there’s any science criticism to be made against The Martian, it’s the opening dust storm that leaves Mark Watney stranded. Dust storms are very regular and prominent on Mars, and occasionally they can cover the whole planet. However, these storms do not possess the energy to move large objects. This is due to Mars’ thin atmosphere – with a much lower air density, wind speeds of 100 miles per hour on Mars would feel like just 11 miles per hour here on Earth!
But for the sake of driving the plot, we’ll let The Martian off. After all, the author, Andy Weir, knows that the dust storm exaggerates real life: “I just thought it was more dramatic to have him get stranded by a weather event. It kind of plays well into the theme of it’s him versus Mars, and it starts off with Mars smacking him around. But realistically, that could not possibly happen”.
The Martian also shows tornadoes in the background whizzing over the planet. These do actually exist and are termed dust devils! The Spirit rover, active on Mars from 2004 to 2010, was actually able to capture footage of dust devils for real:
In the 2014 film Interstellar, humans are struggling to survive on Earth and reach out to the stars for help. It features gravitational anomalies, wormholes, supermassive black holes, and a space library… what’s not to like! This film has some elements that are based on real, cutting-edge science and other parts that are good old science fiction.
One of the highlights of the film is the enormous black hole, named Gargantua. The film really makes a spectacle of this black hole and it looks cinematically brilliant. What you may not know is that this image was actually based on cutting-edge computer simulations of real black hole physics.
Kip Thorne is a Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist who advised on the film’s science. In order to produce the image of Gargantua that correctly shows the light and matter swirling around the black hole, curved due to the strong gravity of the black hole, Thorne produced the new simulations and even wrote a paper on some new findings. It is potentially the only accurate depiction of what a black hole may look like to the naked eye!
Wormholes also feature in Interstellar. Wormholes are theoretical concepts where space and time are bent so that two points in space are closer together. In the film they use this concept to travel from one point to another in a faster way. While this is theoretically possible, we’ve yet to see any proof that wormholes exist in real life. And if they do, physicists tell us that they’re likely to be extremely unstable and short-lived.
Moving on to yet another heavy topic, we love how this film tackles the relative nature of time, and how people at different points in the universe can age at different speeds!
In the film, some of the characters visit a planet close to the Gargantua black hole while one person remains behind on the spaceship. The crew spend just a few hours on the planet, but return to the spaceship to find their friend aged by 26 years! This effect is described by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity which describes how very massive objects (like black holes) can distort the fabric of space-time nearby and slow down time! This sounds a bit crazy, but we use it in our everyday lives. GPS satellite clocks tick slightly faster in orbit than here on Earth and their times have to be corrected in order to calculate accurate locations!
Interstellar has managed to tackle some complex and fundamental physics laws of our universe, while also injecting plenty of Hollywood drama, making this firm favourite in our books.
There you have it – three films that do a great job showing the realities of space exploration and space science.
About the author: Sam Shingles is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.