January 6, 2011
Scientists attending a recent meeting at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory picked their top seven worst and best science fiction movies of all time. Their lists (clips can be seen here):
1) 2012 (2009): Neutrinos from a solar flare heat up the Earth’s core, setting off the end of life as we know it. The plot conveniently ignores the fact that neutrinos pass straight through matter—even us—without doing much of anything.
2) The Core (2003): The Earth’s core has stopped rotating and scientists have to drill into it to start it back up. The moviemakers go nuts with basic geology, ending up with something the New York Times called “monumentally dumb.”
3) Armageddon (1998): A team of drillers is sent to an asteroid on its way to strike Earth to split it into two parts they say will fly safely past the planet, completely ignoring Newton’s First Law of Motion (“an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force”), which says that all they did was make two asteroids that would hit the Earth.
4) Volcano (1997): Los Angeles is destroyed by a volcano that springs up in the city. Bad science mingling with cheesy dialogue and effects.
6) The 6th Day (2000): Arnold Schwarzenegger is cloned. Because one of him just wasn’t enough?
And the Best:
After looking at the lists, I think we can conclude that the last couple of decades has been both good and bad when it comes to sci-fi in the movies. Special effects can make our imagination come to life on the screen, as in “Jurassic Park,” but it’s no substitute for good storytelling, which is what the worst of the worst all seem to lack. It wasn’t that the science itself was bad—that can be ignored if there’s a payoff—but there wasn’t anything good to balance it out.
As for what the lists may be missing, I’d add to the “worst” list “The Day After Tomorrow,” the 2005 version of “The War of the Worlds” and “Jurassic Park 3,” the only dinosaur movie that made me wish the dinosaurs would eat the people and stop annoying me. As for the “best” list, there are plenty they missed, particularly in the modern era, but I particularly liked “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “WALL-E.”
What are on your lists of best and worst sci-fi films?
November 29, 2010
This year, 2010, is a big year for science gifts! We’ve searched far and wide for the coolest, brainiest—but also trendiest—toys of the season, to be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Here’s our wish list for this holiday season:
Mythbusters Kits: Any science enthusiast who also likes television will likely be a huge fan of the Discovery Channel’s hit television series, Mythbusters, in which a team of science-minded handymen and -women, led by hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test common myths. Now Mythbusters fans can take matters into their own hands with one of several Mythbusters kits. Choose from the “Power of Air Pressure,” “Science of Sports,” “Forces of Flight” or the “Weird World of Water.”
Human Power: The new nPowerPEG transforms kinetic energy into energy you can use to charge your phone or other electronic devices. Put it in your backpack or purse and the PEG will gather energy throughout the day. In a pinch, shaking the device will generate enough power for you to make an emergency phone call.
Space Shuttle Gifts: Next year marks the end of NASA’s space shuttle program (I interviewed curator Valerie Neal of the National Air and Space Museum earlier this month.) The Kennedy Space Center has a host of items that commemorate the shuttles’ milestones of space exploration. My personal favorites are the rhinestone-studded T-shirt and the space shuttle Discovery mission patch.
Star Wars Force Trainer: Star Wars is, without a doubt, one of the geekiest (and greatest!) film series of all time. The movies also engendered a generation of toys, perhaps the most popular being the glowing light saber. The new Star Wars Force Trainer allows Jedis in training to hone their use of the Force using nothing but their minds. The Trainer is a Jedi helmet and an encased ball. Manufacturers claim that the helmet actually senses brain waves and moves the ball accordingly (Editor: we’re a bit skeptical of this claim).
Terrarium: This year, terrariums have made a serious comeback as a cool house decoration. Make one yourself by arranging some dirt and moss in a glass container (read more here), or buy one of Etsy’s super stylish options. Etsy also has some mossy rings for taking the terrarium idea to the streets.
City Lights Globe: For trendy but brainy urbanites, the City Lights Globe simulates how the lights from the world’s cities are perceived from outer space.
Let Your Geek Flag Fly: For nerdy friends with a sense of humor, try a gift that really puts their geek status out in the open. Laser-cut “Geek” or “Nerd” necklaces are available on Etsy, while the irresistible “I Heart Nerds” T-shirt is very indie-chic.
Make Your Own Root Beer/Hot Sauce: Those with a proclivity for both science and cooking might enjoy either a root beer or hot sauce kit. There are many more options for “make your own” food kits, but these stuck out as most original. The hot sauce kit in particular will yield enough sauce to spice up any dish, even your root beer! (Okay, that might not be so tasty, but an experiment nonetheless.)
Science Heroes: While coworkers’ desks might be populated with baseball bobbleheads (Editor: That’s me!), yours could have the “Lil Giants of Science,” a collection of four petite figurines of famous scientists: Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Tesla.
Not Your Average Ant Farm: This glowing blue ant farm was the result of NASA’s 2003 tests to see how animals tunnel in microgravity. The farm’s blue nutrient gel is designed to provide all the food and water ants need for up to a year (most farms last only two to six months). The farm also comes with an “illuminator” that lights up the gel so you can watch the insects hard at work even at night.
March 29, 2010
NASA is usually a master of the art of self promotion, which is why I’m a bit perplexed by this page of downloadable posters promoting NASA manned space missions. The most innocuous ones are simply boring, with proud astronauts grouped in front of a space shuttle or some stars. (No one looks good in an orange space suit, but that’s the uniform.) What I’m talking about, though, are the posters where NASA is trying to be “creative.” Who thought that giving everyone bright blue hair was a good idea? Or referencing Rat Pack promotional posters from the 1960s? Or dressing up the team as characters from The Matrix:
Or Star Trek:
Or Reservoir Dogs (at least it didn’t cost much; all they had to buy for this photo shoot were a few pairs of sunglasses):
Most perplexing to me, though, is this poster for the upcoming May mission to the International Space Station:
Who wants these posters? I can’t see little kids who dream of being astronauts wanting to hang these up on their bedroom walls. And if I was in one of these missions, I would be more than a little embarrassed by some of them. So why is NASA spending time and money on this? Or am I just not getting the joke?
December 17, 2009
Even a bad movie can be enjoyable under the right circumstances. Sometimes, though, you wish you hadn’t bothered. Here are eight clunkers from the last decade:
- Erin Brockovich (2000): Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her work in this true-life story of a woman who fought against polluters in Hinckley, California. But the film glosses over the difficulty of making a connection between strange diseases in a community and the cause, prompting people (including some of my friends) to find pollution- or chemical-caused cancer clusters any time two or more people they know are diagnosed with a form of the disease.
- The Time Machine (2002): This is the remake of a 1960 film based on the novel by H.G. Wells but the story has changed so much—with the addition of new characters and plot holes—that the story no longer works. That hasn’t stopped the rumors, though, of a Time Machine 2.
- The Core (2003): Scientists have to travel to the center of the Earth to set off nuclear explosions that will restart the rotation of the planet’s core. The moviemakers took some basic geology and then went nuts in this film, which the New York Times called “monumentally dumb.”
- Day After Tomorrow (2004): Climate change causes the North Atlantic current to stop, plunging the Earth into a new Ice Age overnight. Mayhem ensues. Yeah, right.
- I, Robot (2004): This is really a decent movie to watch, but the moviemakers deviated too much from Isaac Asimov’s original stories. (As with The Time Machine, the lesson is that you shouldn’t mess with the classics.)
- War of the Worlds (2005): Yet another remake gone bad. It’s got cliches, plot holes and Tom Cruise.
- 10,000 BC (2008): There are mammoths helping to build the pyramids in 10,000 B.C. Hmm. The first pyramid wasn’t built until about 2630 B.C. And that’s just one of the many things the moviemakers got wrong in this film.
- 2012 (2009): Tentatively tied to the date when the Mayan calendar ends, this is another apocalyptic movie. This time, neutrinos from a solar flare trigger the heating of the Earth’s core. Natural disasters abound. Few survive. I guess 2012 isn’t quite the end of the world, though, since there are plans to make a TV-series-sequel, 2013.
What science-y movie of the 2000s did you hate? Did you like any of the ones we didn’t? Tell us in comments below.
December 16, 2009
The last decade has been a pretty good one for science in the movies (though there are exceptions, as we’ll see tomorrow). Here are 10 movies we enjoyed:
- A Beautiful Mind (2001): This is the nearly-true story of John Nash, the mathematician who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work in game theory but later struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Jim Carrey erases Kate Winslet from his brain. It may seem like crazy science fiction, but scientists know how to do it in mice, and this week New York University researchers claimed that they have figured out how to rewrite fear memories.
- Primer (2004): This $7,000 film about time travel was praised for its attempt to portray scientific discovery—even if it’s outlandish and impossible—in a realistic and down-to-earth manner.
- March of the Penguins (2005): We can forgive the anthropomorphization of Antarctic emperor penguins in this French documentary because not only was the movie beautiful and charming, but it also got thousands of people, especially children, interested in nature. The film won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
- An Inconvenient Truth (2006): The documentary about Al Gore’s slideshow woke up the United States to the issue of climate change. (And before the skeptics start arguing with us: Gore got most of the science right.) The movie won an Academy Award, Gore got a Nobel Prize and it looks like the country might be on its way finally to tackling the problem.
- Flock of Dodos (2006): Marine biologist-turned-filmaker Randy Olson explores the evolution-intelligent design debate, smacking down the proponents of creationism and intelligent design and chiding scientists for losing the message war.
- Idiocracy (2006): Two modern-day people have their bodies put into stasis by the military—which forgets about the experiment—and wake up 500 years in the future to find the human race has devolved. It’s crass comedy but one of the best examples of human evolution to be portrayed in a movie.
- Encounters at the End of the World (2007): This was acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog’s answer to March of the Penguins. While there are penguins in the movie, there are also volcanologists and physicists, maintenance workers at science stations and stunning footage of the Antarctic underwater.
- WALL-E (2008): The sweet love story of the only robot left cleaning up the Earth after humans have fled takes on the themes of environmentalism, technology and even human evolution. The film won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
- Star Trek (2009): There’s this one lovely moment at the beginning of the movie where there is silence in space, a rarity in science fiction films. So the movie makers got much of the rest of the science wrong. Who cares? We really like the reinvented Star Trek universe, especially the new Spock.
What was your favorite science-y movie of the 2000s? Tell us in the comments below.