A front page article in this week’s Sunday Times stated that NASA had named 2012 the most absurd science-fiction film of all time. In a follow-up article on page nine, the Sunday Times stated that NASA had recently held a conference at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to highlight the good and bad scientific practices of Hollywood. According to the Sunday Times, NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange produced the following lists:
Worst sci-fi movies:
1. 2012 (2009)
2. The Core (2003)
3. Armageddon (1998)
4. Volcano (1997)
5. Chain Reaction (1996)
6. The 6th Day (2000)
7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)
Most realistic films:
1. Gattaca (1997)
2. Contact (1997)
3. Metropolis (1927)
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
5. Woman in the Moon (1929)
6. The Thing from Another World (1951)
7. Jurassic Park (1993)
I was curious about the reasons for some of the choices, so I thought I’d look this up on the NASA website. But I couldn’t find any mention of these films on NASA web site, the JPL web site, or the Science and Entertainment Exchange web site. There were plenty of articles reporting NASA’s choice of films, but none of them I looked at had links back to a primary source at NASA. Many had links to articles in other newspapers. And curiously, none of the articles were in American newspapers.
Then, today (Jan 4, 2011), The Science and Entertainment Exchange issued a statement on its blog:
The article in the London Sunday Times on January 2, 2011 “To Absurdity and Beyond: NASA damns flaws in sci-fi films” incorrectly attributed a top-ten worst sci-fi films list to the Science & Entertainment Exchange. We were not involved in creating the list.
This raises some interesting questions:
- Did NASA, in fact, publish a list of best and worst sci-fi films?
- Where did the lists published by the Sunday Times originate?
- Did NASA have a conference about sci-fi films?
- Why did so many newspapers publish a story about this without bothering to check the primary source?
The newspapers and journals that re-hashed this story include:
Update, 6th Jan 2011
Dave Kellam, at eightface.com, also wrote a blog post on this subject: NASA and bad science movies. Kellam emailed Donald Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, who was quoted in John Harlow’s Sunday Times article. In his reply Yeomans stated:
There is no list and there was no meeting to put together such a list. NASA would never put together a list of “worst sci-fi films.” We are not movie critics.
According to Kellam, Yeomans stated that he was interviewed by a British journalist, but was subject to misquotes and manufactured quotes.
Films are sometimes re-released as a director’s cut – a version that more closely reflects the director’s vision for the film, free from the commercial pressures of the studio.
Science programme makers could take a cue from filmmakers and produce two cuts: one for the general public and one for enthusiasts.
Take Wonders of the Solar System. This has all the makings of a great science programme: an enthusiastic and knowledgable presenter in Professor Brian Cox, great pictures of space and the earth, travel to interesting locations, interviews with scientific experts and fantastic computer simulations. Yet the programme is hard to watch – it’s like eating cabbage: I do it because I know I ought to, not because I want to. And it’s not just me. A friend of mine, who is also a science and technology enthusiast, said he fell asleep during the programme.
The main problem is that the programme is constrained to a 1-hour slot, and is edited to fit that slot. This means there is a lot of filler to sit through. Shots of Brian Cox walking up to a telescope, unnecessary shots of him driving in his car (and, of all forms of filler, presenters driving in their car is the most clichéd and overused), scenes that are portmanteaux of earlier scenes, and so on.
The second problem is that the programme, by necessity, targets a wide audience: since there are relatively few science programmes on television, such programmes have to target both the general public and those who have a deeper understanding of science. This means these programmes generally need to include explanations of the basics, and even when these explanations are good, they are not that interesting to people who already understand what is being explained. A good example is when Brian Cox explained the size of the solar system, by placing planets in their relative positions on a table, and then driving to the position of the Oort cloud. This was a dramatic illustration of the solar system’s size (and, incidentally, appropriate use of a shot of him driving), but not that interesting to someone who understands the vastness of space.
Both these problems could be solved by having two cuts of the programme – a standard version and a scientist’s cut. The scientist’s cut would differ from the standard cut in that it would not include the filler and the basic explanations. But it might include more detail in other areas.
Programme lengths no longer have to be totally dictated by the TV schedule. Perhaps the main showing needs to fit a one-hour slot, but repeats on BBC iPlayer certainly do not. There is no reason why two cuts of “Wonders of the Solar System” should not be available on iPlayer – the full version and the scientist’s cut. The programme is repeated on BBC1 and BBC4, often in the middle of the night – there is no reason why one of these repeats should not be a scientist’s cut. The programme is to be sold on DVD – there is no reason why there should not be a DVD scientist’s cut.
Despite the fact that it contains some wonderful material, I won’t be buying the DVD of Wonders of the Solar System. But if Professor Brian Cox was given full editorial control and was allowed to make a scientist’s cut of the programme, I would buy that.
Film enthusiasts get a special cut, science enthusiasts should get one too.