Settle into my seat on a flight from Heathrow to JFK. Scan through movie options. Banshees of Innisfree? Definitely on the list, but, maybe, not now. Same with Tar. What’s this? 65, a sci fi movie about a damaged star ship that crash lands on earth 65 million years ago, leaving the pilot and a young girl to try and survive in a horror scape of monstrous predators. Yes! I begin watching, and then not long into the film it happens again. I get bothered by a false assumption crucial to the plot. Therein lies a tale of the bizarre filters we bring to determine whether we will willingly suspend disbelief.
Fair warning: Spoilers galore to follow, though all films mentioned are fair game having left the theaters many years ago.
In the case of 65, I’m more amused than bothered by the fact that the film asks us to believe that 65 million years ago a distant planet housed a civilization far more advanced than ours, and was populated by a species that looked just like us and spoke English. The universe is infinite. It could happen?
No, what bothered me was the assumption (also underlying all the Jurassic Park movies -- which I loved) that tyrannosaurus would immediately want to hunt and eat humans. No! Did the makers ever look up the phrase “food imprint?” Obviously not; because If they had, they would have discovered that when a predator encounters an utterly alien species for the first time, their least likely reaction would be to eat it. Eating humans would not have been on their list of tasty foods. This same phenomenon explains why there aren’t a million people killed by great white sharks every year even though lumbering human swimmers are far easier to catch than seals (funny that I never had a problem with Jaws).
It’s a fair guess that it never occurred to the film makers to do research on how a late Cretaceous predator would react to an unfamiliar mammal popped into their midst. It’s also a certainty that 99.9% of the film’s audience couldn’t care less, and willingly accepts that a Tyrannosaurus’ day consisted of stomping around the swamps eating every moving thing in its path. Also, a too realistic movie wouldn’t be much fun: who wants to see a film set in the late Cretaceous where the big predators simply stare at the interloping humans?
Still, we want some verisimilitude when we venture into the future or past. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who once described poetry as “the arduous victory of the imagination over reason.” This test could well apply to sci fi, because often the most effective sci fi harmonizes with what we know to be true. It’s possible to make a sci fi movie built upon the possible. Think The Martian, Gattaca, Don’t Look Up, Amageddon and Deep Impact; or metaphorically true films such as Starship Troopers.
Maybe I was nitpicking with 65, but there are far worse offenders. Every sci fi film will stretch the imagination, but there shouldn’t be show stoppers When I watched 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the director ruined the wonderfully metaphoric monoliths that were the heart of 2001. I had been totally OK with the monoliths setting apes on the path to becoming humans in Kubrick’s 2001. But I balked when, at the end of the sequel (not directed by Kubrick), a zillion monoliths turn Jupiter into a new star. This was supposed to be a wonderful gift for humanity, but anybody (any killjoy?) with a minimal understanding of evolutionary biology or climate science, even basic common sense, would know that something as powerful as a second sun would throw all the cycles in the biosphere into a cocked hat, and probably doom all life on earth.
One of the most egregious recent face plants in terms of critical but false underlying assumptions was the dramatic climax in the film Gravity, a sci fi adventure films in which astronauts try to return to earth after their space shuttle is destroyed. In a critical scene, when George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are both on space walks and find themselves attached to a single tether, Clooney chivalrously casts himself off so his weight will not break the tether. It’s all very sad as he floats to his death, but, apparently, the film makers never considered that Clooney, Bullock and the space craft itself were all weightless and travelling through space in sync, and all that would happen if Cooney let go would be that he would continue to float along with Bullock. And the movie is called Gravity? A professor at Yale used this epic fail to liven up his introductory lecture on physics.
A useful rule of thumb for filmmakers would be to not contradict fundamental truths of a field when taking poetic license. Alfonso Cuaron, who directed and co-wrote Gravity, should have been aware that gravity would not be a factor affecting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney while they were floating weightless in space. The Dick Wolf franchises that have taken over most of primetime television succeed in part because they are plausible; they may stretch what happens in policework and in the courts, but they don’t absolutely contradict police and judicial fundamentals.
Sci fi begins with the premise that the action will turn on events never seen and technologies not yet invented so the genre starts with built in poetic license. And it’s OK to have English speaking humans on a faraway planet 65 million years ago because viewers need something familiar if they are to relate to the main characters. Many film makers accomplish this by making the sci fi settings and technology merely props and backdrops for normal human interplay of romance, warfare, badinage, power dynamics, and wit. Strip away the sci fi trappings, and Star Wars was a western set in space. That’s why a movie like The Martian is so refreshing as a believable character demonstrates believable survival skills in an extreme but believable setting.
So, here’s a second suggestion for those venturing into Sci Fi: put humans anywhere, anytime, but build upon the plausible wherever you put them. Which brings us back to 65. Maybe an alternative plot would have the astronaut and the girl save a baby Tyrannosaurus from a tar pit and then have the mother and baby follow them back to their escape vehicle. As meteors rain down, signaling the impending doom of the dinosaurs, the mother rights the upside-down space ship with her snout and pushes the baby in with the humans? The humans return to their far away planet and the baby Tyrannosaurus grows up and learns English. Could happen; after all, the universe is infinite.