This might get my geek card taken away, I realize. Oh wait, no, you can’t take my geek card. John Scalzi says so.
But this is the thing. For the most part, I actually don’t care about bad science in movies. Sure, there’s the occasional face-clutching howler (red matter? a black hole that’s going to destroy an entire galaxy? Wow, Star Trek, just wow.) but outside of that, 98% of the time, I seriously don’t care. Spaceships that don’t fly like spaceships should fly and make noise in space? Meh.
What I want a movie to do is tell me a good story. Or failing that tell me a really fun one. If the movie is doing its job at that, then I’m probably not even going to notice the shitty excuse for science. I’m going to be too busy watching villains get punched in the face or clutching the edge of my seat because oh god are these people going to make it or grow up or get back together I need to know.
I do think there are times (cough Total Recall cough) when the MacGuffin is too ridiculous to just accept, or when if the writers had actually spent five minutes on the internet and taken a look at the real science, it would have made the story stronger. But for the most part, the point is the story, not a technical lesson in how spaceships should really fly.
And frankly, I think if you or I can spend our entire time complaining bitterly about all the tortured science, that shows that the movie (or television show, etc) has failed at telling us that story and making us care. Because that means we’re so bored or annoyed or overwhelmed by the sheer stupidity of the base concept that we’d rather pick apart the technical details than pay attention to what the characters are doing. I’d argue that the problem at the base of those movies isn’t the bad science, it’s the failure of the story itself to engage.
Prometheus is an excellent example of this, I think. If I’d actually given two shits about any of those characters and hadn’t found their decisions inexplicable and stupid, I wouldn’t have cared about how grossly ridiculous the more technical details of the story were. (eg: I just had major abdominal surgery and now I’m going to basically run a triathlon. I rolled my eyes until I strained something.) For goodness sake, I loved the hell out of Looper even though if I wanted to I probably could have just gone to town on the way the time travel was handled. But I didn’t care at the time and still don’t because any mistakes (intentional or not) that were made occurred in the service of a damn good, engaging story.
Remember, you can’t take my geek card.
I’ve often heard Contact held up as a paragon to all nerddom because the science was done right. I know some people that really, really liked that movie. If you’re one of them, good on you. I thought it was all right, but I’ve seen it a grand total of once and have never felt compelled to watch it again, which is a strange thing for me since I’m a compulsive movie re-watcher at my heart. (Don’t ask how many times I’ve watched Avengers. Just. Don’t.) I think that highlights that as far as I’m concerned, the correctness of the technical background really has no meaning unless the story grabs me and won’t let me go.
I would further argue that, if it is in the service of a good story, rules should be bent and broken.
(Next: yes, but is it the responsibility of a movie to have good science?)