The debate didn’t begin with Neil deGrasse Tyson, but he’s been a major figure in keeping the conversation going: if scientists and science aficionados see your movie and notice things that just aren’t possible, does it matter? Beyond the personal pride of the creator, is it important?
I think that, at the very least, each scientifically inaccurate decision should be made for a specific reason. This means that you would have to at least research and try to understand the science behind whatever is happening in each scene. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out that there’s no sound in space, so any time there’s an explosion in a space battle scene, it should be silent. But let’s be honest, that’s cinematically unacceptable, which means that including a thundering boom is, in that instance, acceptable. And there’s no way to say that coincidences are unscientific. Bad writing? Sure. But if flying space debris destroys everything around the hero except for their escape pod, it doesn’t necessarily defy physics.
But then you have movies like The Matrix (1999), which, according to Popular Mechanics, is illogical, because “burning the calories pumped into people would yield more energy” than their body heat. And movies like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), where all the shocking repercussions of climate change are represented by scenes that defy physics. It’s fair to say that not asking the question, “Is it known whether or not this is even possible?” before embarking on a task as time-consuming as writing a screenplay is pure laziness. If you can’t be bothered to check into the science of your fiction, maybe science fiction isn’t your niche.
Think of it from a fan’s perspective. (What sci-fi writer isn’t also a sci-fi fan?) How would you, as a fan, feel about something being showcased as being scientifically sound, only to find out later on that it was totally absurd? I’ve said on multiple occasions, “I’m assuming they did their research,” about a claim made in a movie. Maybe it’s just a personal thing, but I look at blatantly neglecting research, especially given the existence of the internet, as inexcusable laziness.
Obviously, believability in any genre stems far beyond the science of it. It doesn’t take the movie being set in outer space for there to be, “Oh, please,” moments. There needs to be some level of conflict, which normally makes the “something has gone terribly wrong” plot either a viable route to take or the only conceivable route. And characters conveniently doing something illogical — like personally exploring a new planet instead of sending robots, or abandoning protocol because of absurdly sophomoric curiosity — can be the difference between an exciting film and a boring mockumentary about a successful, fictional space mission.
But then you have movies like Armageddon (1998), which is completely devoid of believability on both a scientific and an everyday level. The fact that they send oil drillers into space instead of astronauts is absurd, and the gravity on the meteor was absurd. That movie is just unacceptable from stem to stern.
Here are two more major questions that need to be answered: what are the rules for parallel universes, and where do the creators personally stand on adding fantasy elements into a sci-fi plot? Star Wars is a sci-fi movie, but it’s also a fantasy series. For one thing, Jedis lift things with their minds. But what about the fact that they speak English? How are (non-Jedi) Star Wars humans just regular humans? The evolutionary parallels were to a T? What about how robots have artificial intelligence with the unbridled freedom to advance independently, and yet robots don’t rule the galaxy?
The question is: where’s the line on fantasy? Does a single scientific inaccuracy automatically do away with the notion that it’s a pure, hard sci-fi? Does any scientific inaccuracy equal fantasy?
Well, why not? Sure, you could go with the parallel universe argument, but even then, the mere idea that you’re allowing the audience to peak into this parallel universe, one that’s not tied to the same physics or logic of our universe, is a fantasy element. Is the mere introduction of a nonexistent extraterrestrial fantasy by definition? If there’s nothing scientific about its basis for existence, then you just created a fantasy creature that flies around in a space ship, no?
2015’s The Martian was a hard sci-fi movie because there was nothing fantastical introduced. However, there were scientific inaccuracies according to aerospace engineer Dr. Robert Zubrin, not to mention some seriously improbable moments. And the same goes for the movie Gravity (2013), which featured nearby space stations that are nowhere near each other in real life.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is said to be, for the most part, scientifically accurate. It’s certainly possible to make a movie near-perfect in terms of scientific accuracy. I mean, anything dealing with one-on-one self-learning AI interactions, like in the movies Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2016), would be scientifically possible.
Maybe the issue comes down to a pride thing. A sci-fi writer might not want to admit that they came up with a sci-fi fantasy that leans more sci-fi. Listen, either get rid of the fantasy elements or prepare for the criticism if you’re not willing to define it as a cross-genre sci-fi fantasy.
But technically and historically speaking, you do not have to be scientifically accurate to create a sci-fi movie. Plenty of movies completely ignore any semblance of real science and still go on to become enormous successes. But should you be scientifically accurate? I think so. As a sci-fi writer, you should feel the responsibility of living up to the expectations of your audience.
Maybe if all those guilty of not putting in the time to ensure scientific accuracy just copped to the fantasy elements preemptively, the question would become irrelevant. I don’t see that happening, but I also don’t see very many people hoping that it does. And as mentioned earlier, if you consciously ignored the science for the sake of something working better on screen, that’s completely fair. It means you did the research and made a decision, and the piece of artwork that you’re responsible for is better off because of it.
Besides, hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson and other experts pick the movies apart can also be said to deepen the movie and further its appreciation, which means that the mere fact that the movie is inaccurate could be said to encourage scientific discovery on a more widespread scale. That’s arguably more important.
So, does a sci-fi movie have to be scientifically accurate? The only way to answer that is vaguely, intangibly, and subjectively: no, it doesn’t, as long as it doesn’t suck.