9 Worst Science Mistakes in Movies

Image of a boy with a robotic hologram over his eye
Science movies, even fictional ones, shouldn't ignore basic science facts like the laws of physics.

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You expect errors in science fiction movies because they're fiction. But there's only so much belief you can suspend before a movie crosses the line from fictional into ludicrous. Maybe you're one of the lucky few who can move past the mistakes and still enjoy the film. The rest of us flee to the concession stand or hit the browse button on Netflix. While there are countless mistakes made in movie history, let's take a look at some of the most obvious and (sadly) most repeated science errors.

You Can't Hear Sounds in Space

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Let's face it: space fights in science fiction movies would be beyond boring if there wasn't any sound. Yet, that's the reality. Sound is a form of energy that requires a medium in order to propagate. No air? No "pew-pew-pew" of space lasers, no thunderous explosion when a spaceship blows up. The "Alien" movie got it right: In space, no one can hear you scream.

Global Warming Can't Flood the Earth

Surf engulfing planet earth
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While audible lasers and explosions may be forgivable because they make movies more entertaining, the notion that global warming could create a "Waterworld" is bothersome because so many people believe it. If all the ice caps and glaciers melted, sea level would indeed rise, it just wouldn't rise enough to flood the planet. Sea level would rise at most 200 feet. Yes, that would be a disaster for coastal communities, but would Denver become beachfront property? Not so much.

You Can't Save a Person Falling Off a Building

Catching a person falling off a skyscraper won't save her life.

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It's plausible you can catch a cat or a baby that falls from a second or third story building. The force with which either object strikes you equals its mass times the acceleration. The acceleration from a modest height isn't too terrible, plus your arms can act as a shock absorber.

Heroic rescues become less likely as you get higher because you have time to reach terminal velocity. Unless you suffer a heart attack from terror, it's not the fall that kills you. It's the crash landing. Guess what? If a superhero races after you to snatch you away from the ground at the last possible instant,​ you're still dead. Landing in Superman's arms would splatter your body all over his nice blue spandex suit rather than the pavement because you'll strike The Man of Steel just as hard as you would have hit the ground. Now, if a superhero chases you, catches up with you, and decelerates, you just might stand a chance.

You Can't Survive a Black Hole

Depiction of black holes

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Most people understand you weigh less on the Moon (about 1/6th) and Mars (about 1/3rd) and more on Jupiter (2 1/2 times more), yet you'll meet people who think a spaceship or a person could survive a black hole. How is your weight on the Moon related to surviving a black hole? Black holes exert intense gravitational pull... orders of magnitude greater than that of the Sun. The Sun is not a vacation paradise, even if it wasn't nuclear-hot because you'd weigh over two thousand times more there. You'd be squashed like a bug.

Also keep in mind the gravitational pull depends on distance. Science books and movies get this part right. The further you are from a black hole, the better your chances of breaking free. But, as you get closer to the singularity, the force changes proportionally to the square of the distance to it. Even if you could survive the massive gravity, you'd be toast due to the difference in gravity pulling on one part of your spaceship or body compared with another. If you've ever been in one of those fighter jet simulators that spins you up to 4-g, you'll understand the problem. If you're spinning and move your head, you feel the difference in Gs. It's nauseating. Put that on a cosmic scale, and it's lethal.

If you did survive a black hole, would you end up in some bizarre parallel universe? Unlikely, but no one actually knows for sure.

You Can't Enhance Grainy Images

There isn't a lot science can do to enhance a grainy image.
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This next science error is rife in spy flicks, as well as science fiction books and films. There's a grainy photograph or video footage of a person, which a computer whiz runs through a program to produce a crystal-clear image. Sorry, but science can't add data that isn't there. Those computer programs interpolate between grains to smooth the image, but they don't add detail. Could a grainy image be used to narrow down possible suspects? Definitely. Could an image be enhanced to show detail? Nope.

Now, there are cameras that allow you to adjust the focus after the image has been taken. A tech-savvy person could sharpen that image by changing the focus, but that's using data that is already in the file, not making it up using an algorithm. (It's still super cool.)

Never Take off Your Space Helmet on Another Planet

Exploring mars

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You land on another world, the science officer analyzes the planet's atmosphere and declares it rich in oxygen, and everyone takes off those annoying space helmets. Nope, not gonna happen. An atmosphere can contain oxygen and remain lethal. Too much oxygen can kill you, other gases may be toxic, and if a planet supports life, breathing the atmosphere will cause you to contaminate the ecosystem. Who even knows what alien microbes would do to you. When humanity visits another world, helmets will not be optional.

Of course, you have to come up with a premise to take off your helmet in movies because really, who wants to look at an emotionless reflection?

You Can't See Lasers in Space

You only see the path of a laser beam if there is dust in the air.
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You can't see lasers in space. Mostly, you can't see laser beams at all, and here's why:

Cats undeniably rule the internet and you're reading this article online, so even if you don't have a feline, you're aware of cats' love of chasing the Red Dot. The red dot is formed by an inexpensive laser. It's a dot because the low-powered laser doesn't interact with enough particles in the air to produce a visible beam. Higher powered lasers emit more photons, so there is more opportunity to bounce off the odd dust particle and a greater chance you'll see the beam.

But, the dust particles are few and far between in the near-vacuum of space. Even if you assume lasers that cut through spaceship hulls are incredibly powerful, you're not going to see them. A weapons-grade laser would probably cut with energetic light outside the visible spectrum, so you'd never know what hit you. Invisible lasers would be boring in movies, though.

Water Changes Volume When It Freezes Into Ice

If you freeze a bottle full of water, the ice takes up more volume and could rupture the bottle.
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"The Day After Tomorrow" went with the deep-freeze theory of climate change. While there are a lot of holes in the science of this particular flick, one you might have noticed is how freezing the New York harbor simply turned it into a giant skating rink. If you could somehow freeze an enormous mass of water, it would expand. The force of the expansion would crush ships and buildings and raise the surface level of the sea.

If you've ever frozen a soft drink, beer, or bottle of water, you know the best-case scenario is a slushy drink. While containers are sturdier these days, a frozen bottle or can would bulge outward and possibly burst. If you have a larger volume of water to start with, you get a significant effect when that water changes into ice.

Most science fiction movies that feature freeze rays or any form of instantaneous freezing simply change the water to ice, with no change in volume, but that's just not how water works.

Cutting the Engines Doesn't Stop a Spacecraft

Shutting off the engines doesn't stop momentum.

You're being chased by evil aliens, so you book it into an asteroid belt, cut the engines, stop your ship, and play dead. You'll look just like another rock, right? Wrong.

Chances are, rather than playing dead, you'll actually be dead, because when you cut the engines your spaceship still has forward momentum, so you'll hit a rock. "Star Trek" was big on ignoring Newton's First Law of Motion, but you've probably seen it a hundred times since then in other shows and movies.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "9 Worst Science Mistakes in Movies." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/worst-movie-science-mistakes-609450. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, September 3). 9 Worst Science Mistakes in Movies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-movie-science-mistakes-609450 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "9 Worst Science Mistakes in Movies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-movie-science-mistakes-609450 (accessed January 31, 2023).