Science fiction is a classic film genre used to explore the outer limits of humanity’s imagination when it comes to technology and space. In doing so, writer and directors have no choice but to bend the rules of reality just a little bit. Since we haven’t invented things like light-speed travel or teleportation, movie audiences are willing to accept a little bit of sketchy science in their favorite sci-fi movies. Sure, scrambling someone’s molecules to beam them up to the mothership would likely kill them instantly. But we can pretend that the characters in the movie know something we don’t.
Sometimes, though, directors ask for too much leeway. In their attempts to produce a classic sci-fi film, many of them completely ignore basic science. Sometimes it’s intentional, but more often than not it’s merely a mistake, only noticed later by the ultra nerdy types who make up the target audience. Like us, actually.
Here are 13 science-fiction movies (okay, some of them blend the genre a bit) that seemed to forget exactly how science works. We’re not saying these movies are bad.
Many of them are among our favorites! That doesn’t mean we can’t point out bad science, even if just for fun.
13. The Matrix – Humans are Terrible Batteries
The Great War between the humans and the machines in The Matrix started when artificial intelligence went haywire. Humanity, in their infinite wisdom, somehow managed to permanently blacken the sky and cut off the machines source of power — solar energy. The machines quickly pivoted to using humans themselves as a sort of battery, and an uneasy balance was struck. Humans were plugged into the Matrix, a virtual reality world that seemed normal. In exchange, they have unknowingly used to power the machines. Only a small band of resistance fighters knew the truth.
The real truth, though, is this: humans make terrible power sources. We don’t produce much heat or electricity. There’s a good reason that we die quickly when left exposed in the cold. The machines didn’t need us at all. They could have just wiped us out quickly and spent their time perfecting things like nuclear energy. Or wind power. Or geothermal/natural gas fuels. Any of those things would have worked better, with the bonus of not having to fight a war against the Zion resistance fighters who had a literal God on their side.
12. Alien: Resurrection – Clones Don’t Have Memories
The saga of Ellen Ripley appeared to reach its inevitable conclusion at the end of Alien 3 when she sacrificed herself into a fiery death to kill the xenomorph inside her chest. A solid ending to one of sci-fi’s most iconic trilogies. Unfortunately, movie studios love money more than they love the stories they tell, and eventually, 20th Century Fox ponied up a bunch of money to get Sigourney Weaver back for Alien: Resurrection.
Since the original Ripley was dead, they conjured up a story where she was cloned 200 years after her death. Only this time, some of the xenomorph’s DNA got spliced in with hers, creating a more powerful Ripley, with enhanced strength and reflexes to go along with acidic blood and a psychic link to other Aliens. She also retained some of Ripley’s memories, but there’s no real explanation for that. After all, a close is a perfect genetic match but memories aren’t stored in a person’s DNA. In reality, Ripley-8 (as she was dubbed) would have no idea she was a clone unless someone told her.
11. Gravity – George Clooney Wouldn’t Keep Floating Away
Gravity was visually stunning sci-fi adventure starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two huge names with proven box office draw. The film was praised by NASA astronauts for its realistic depictions of space travel, but it didn’t get everything exactly right. In the climactic scene where Matt Kowalski cuts himself loose and drifts off into space, the movie suddenly seems to forget that there’s no gravity in space.
The pair were on the verge of being stranded in space when Stone (Bullock) manages to catch her foot on the cords of a parachute. At that point, it appears that the two have stopped drifting away from the International Space Station. Stone would only have had to give Kowalski a slight tug towards her to change his momentum and save them both.
10. X-Men – Evolution Doesn’t Work Like That
We hate to be too nitpicky about a franchise of films and comics that we do love, but the underlying science behind the entire X-Men story is pretty flawed. We understand that the concept of some humans being born with mutations that gift them amazing powers makes for a great comic book, but science doesn’t work like that in real life. If, as Magento constantly claims, humans have evolved, then we need to take a closer look at the science of evolution.
In reality, evolution is a painfully slow process. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of years, maybe even millions, before any species develop enough of an evolutionary change that it can be classified as a new species. Yet, in the X-Men movies (and comics), humans just start randomly popping up with incredible healing powers, laser eyeballs, the ability to control the weather, and tremendous psychic and telekinetic abilities.
9. The Core – Almost Everything
Here’s the summary of 2003’s The Core: the Earth’s molten core stops spinning and throws the planet’s magnetic core out of whack, leading to numerous disasters around the globe. If they don’t find a way to restart it, the planet will be overcome with deadly solar radiation. They start drilling to the center of the Earth in a ship made of “Unobtainium” and plan to kickstart the rotation with a series of nuclear explosions.
There are multiple problems with The Core. First of all, there’s no way the ship would be able to maintain radio contact with the surface. Secondly, the immense pressure from being so far down would crush the ship — and if you’re sitting there thinking “but it’s made of unobtainium!”, you’re still wrong. The ship gets punctured by a diamond at one point in the journey, at which point it would almost instantly fill with magma and burn everyone alive.
On top of all that, Earth’s magnetic field has almost nothing to do with keeping microwave radiation out. Most of the sun’s microwaves entering Earth’s atmosphere are just light. If something were to happen to our magnetic field, we’d probably just end up with a heap of dead cellphones, radios, and wireless routers.
8. Prometheus – “Half-Billion Miles Away From Earth”
This is a really simple one, but it’s still hard to believe no one noticed it. In the secretive Ridley Scott Alien prequel from 2012 called Prometheus, a bunch of super smart and highly trained astronauts and scientists travel to the distant moon as they follow a recently discovered star map. The journey is four years long and requires the crew to be put into stasis for most of the duration. When they awake, one character remarks that they have traveled 35 light-years and are a “half-billion miles” away from Earth.
However, one single light-year is 5,865,696,000,000 miles. So they are much farther away from our home planet. In reality, a “half-billion miles” would put the crew of the Prometheus somewhere around Jupiter, not their much more distant destination. While the line may just have been a throw-away line to give the audience an idea of how isolated they are, we would expect a trained scientist to throw out a more accurate estimation. In reality, the crew was hundreds of trillions of miles away.
7. Waterworld — There’s Just Not That Much Water
We love Waterworld. Honestly, we do. It’s one of those movies that was way better than anyone gave it credit for when it was first released and holds a special place in our hearts despite being a box office bomb (in North America, at least). If you haven’t seen it, it’s Kevin Costner (who is part-fish) saving an innocent little girl searching for dry land after the polar ice caps melted and flooded the entire Earth, save for the very top of Mount Everest.
While it’s an interesting concept and harsh commentary on what we are currently doing to our planet, it would never look like that. There’s just not enough water in the Earth’s atmosphere to flood everything as Waterworld depicts. Sure, the coasts would be wiped out if the ice caps melted, but most of the interior land would still be above the (new) sea level. It would create mass homelessness and even more overcrowding, but you wouldn’t have to live on a boat for the rest of your life.
6. The Black Hole – Black Holes Would Likely Just Kill Everyone
We’ll offer some forgiveness for this 1979 Disney film since it’s close to four decades old at this point. However, it still deserves some scorn for is a shoddy depiction of black holes, one of the universe’s greatest mysteries. In the movie, the USS Palomino and its crew encounter a black hole, but it doesn’t behave the way scientists predict. The entire ship manages to elude the hole’s intense gravitational pull at first, which is already a scientific mistake, but in the movie’s climax, characters are finally pulled into the hole.
In real life, they would almost certainly be pulled apart at a molecular level and die instantly. Instead, the crew has a bunch of psychedelic visions resembling Heaven and Hell. I guess we can’t be sure, but we’re 99 percent certain that that wouldn’t happen in real life. In the movie, the ship then emerges from a white hole (the opposite of a black hole) and everyone is just fine.
5. Total Recall – Exploding Humans
This classic Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action movie Total Recall takes place mostly on Mars in the year 2084, when it is fully colonized by humans, many of them sporting gnarly radiation mutations. The details of the movie aren’t important (Arnold is a spy with repressed memories, fighting against some evil corporate bad guys), but the ending features a pretty absurd scene where Cohaagen (the bad guy) is sucked out onto the unprotected surface of Mars. Once there, he dies as his body expands and his eyeballs pop out of his head. It’s a gruesome scene, but also unrealistic.
In reality, a human stuck on the surface of Mars without the protection of a spacesuit or some sort of biodome wouldn’t expand and pop like a balloon. The reality is that Mars is basically freezing at all times, and even the temperature at the equator on a sunny Summer day, when the planet is at its closest orbit point to the sun, the temperature only gets to about 20 Celsius. When not in direct sunlight (or in any other season), the red planet plunges to -75 C and can get as cold as -125 C. In those conditions, frostbite, and hypothermia would kick in almost immediately. Hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream) would start within a minute or so. You would simultaneously freeze and suffocate in a matter of minutes. No exploding faces, though.
4. Independence Day – Those Ships Were Too Big
Forget about the more commonly cited scientific problem with Independence Day, which is the fact that there shouldn’t be compatibility between an Apple PowerBook and an alien mothership. We have that plot hole covered right over here. Instead, we want to talk about something bigger — specifically, the sheer size of the destroyer ships that the aliens sent to Earth’s biggest cities as they prepared a coordinated attack.
Director Ronald Emmerich wanted to give audiences an “OMG” moment when he first revealed the ships that planted themselves over New York, L.A., Washington D.C., and other major cities around the world. There are two scientific problems with how huge they are, though. First, they would massively mess with gravity, since they are large enough to have their gravitational pull. Secondly, those ships probably still killed a bunch of people even after the humans figured out how to destroy them. All that ship has to crash land somewhere, and since the ships hovered over major urban centers, the death toll from “winning” the war was probably still in the tens (or hundreds) of millions.
3. Outbreak – The Virus Would Kill Too Quickly, Plus Inoculations Take Years
While Outbreak isn’t exactly a science-fiction film (it’s more of the medical disaster genre), it does include a whack load of science, so we’re making an exception and adding it to our list. It’s about an Ebola-like virus that quickly spreads throughout a small town in California, and threatens to wipe out millions of unsuspecting humans. There’s also a government coverup conspiracy side plot if you’re into that sort of thing.
Dustin Hoffman saves the day in the end, finding the original host animal (a cute capuchin monkey) and quickly using her antibodies to produce a cure. It made for a thrilling conclusion to the film, but it was hardly based on reality. If a virus like the fictional Motaba illness hit a town, there would be no need to quarantine everyone or execute a firebomb plan to irradiate all traces of the virus — everyone would be dead without 36-48 hours anyway.
Additionally, even if a cure was eventually found, these types of medical processes take months (and even years) of time to produce. Dustin Hoffman wouldn’t be hacking it together with the blood of a lost monkey, just in the nick of time. Outbreak may not be scientifically sound, but it still made for an entertaining flick.
2. Lucy – We Already Use 100 Percent of Our Brains
In 2014, Scarlett Johansson starred in Lucy, a sci-fi thriller about a woman named Lucy who accidentally overdoses on a synthetic drug called CPH4. Rather than kill her, the drug somehow unlocks “increased cerebral capacity.” It’s explained to the audience that Lucy is now using 100 percent of her brainpower, perpetuating the myth that humans only use about 10 percent of their total brainpower. At full strength, Lucy gains special physical and mental powers, including telekinesis and telepathy.
In reality, humans do use more than 10 percent of brains, they just use different portions of it for different tasks. The brain activity for remembering things from your childhood is different than the brain activity when you are working out or sleeping, for example. If a human uses 100 percent of their brain at once, they would likely fall into an instant coma and probably end up dead. If Lucy had followed sound science, Johansson’s character would have simply died of the drug overdose.
1. The Day After Tomorrow – Almost Everything
Unless you’re one of those crazy people who don’t believe that climate change is a real thing, it’s pretty obvious that the Earth’s environment is slowly changing. But when we say changes, we mean very gradual changes. Yes, the average temperatures are rising, but in decimal points of a degree. Yes, the water levels are rising faster than ever before, but it’s still a very slow process. Unless you find yourself in the 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, where global warming basically bitch slaps New York into a new ice age overnight.
However, scientists know that ice ages take millions and millions of years to develop. They don’t stroll in with a snowy Northern hurricane over a weekend. One thing that the movie did get exactly right, though, was right-wing politicians dismissing climate change as some sort of liberal hoax. Sadly, The Day After Tomorrow nailed that one.