The Most Egregious Science Mistakes In Movies This Year

Sci-fi movies should bend the rules to impress audiences, but they can't play people for complete fools. Review the most science-distorting movies of 2012 in this gallery.

Nerds have a love-hate relationship with big-budget sci-fi movies. We admire how they take us on mind-bending journeys that’d otherwise prove impossible (or kill us). But we loathe them for torturing science to paint a sloppy portrait of how the universe works, instantly crushing our enjoyment of the movie.

Herewith, we bring you the year’s most memorable cinematic offenses, ranging from excusable infractions to nerd-rage-inducing disregard for grade school-level science.

(Spoiler alert: Our complaints will betray the plots of these movies.)


Click to launch the photo gallery_

The Amazing Spider-Man

In few other movies is there such “blatant disregard for the conservation of mass,” said Katie Duff, one of our readers and a science teacher in Illinois. To suspend our disbelief, script writers invoke the bite of a genetically modified spider — an event that grants Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) a “one-time miracle exemption from the laws of nature,” as physicist James Kakalios told NPR. Only then could Spider-Man pull out of extreme dive-bombs, attached to nothing but spidey silk, without breaking a single bone in his superhuman body. Uh, sure. Two major nerd credits, however, are owed to director Marc Webb. One, he attempted to film as many live-action stunts as possible — thus preventing unnecessary cheating of physics with computer graphics. Two, he consulted Kakalios to write a math equation of cell regeneration and human mortality, called the “decay rate algorithm,” to explain how someone could turn into a giant lizard. The equation is bogus, but Kakalios made it by merging real mathematical expressions, including the Gompertz equation (which describes the probability of living to a particular age) and pieces from a 2001 study titled “The Reliability Theory of Aging and Longevity.” Scientific violation index: Mild


Time travel is crucial to Looper. In the movie, mob bosses living in the year 2074 transport their foes 30 years back in time for hired guns called “loopers” to execute. Too bad science shows backward time travel is impossible–or, if it is possible, it might require more energy than that which exists in the universe. Director Rian Johnson probably knew this before making the movie, and to his credit he built in a clever hat tip to appease angry nerds. The moment happens when the main character named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits down to chat with his future self (Bruce Willis) inside a diner. Young Joe begins to ask old Joe how time travel is possible, and Willis responds “we’ll just end up making diagrams with napkins and straws,” adding that the details aren’t important, but that time travel exists. Mr. Johnson, I suppose we accept your ploy. Scientific violation index: Mild


Suppose you’re held at gunpoint by henchman on a deep, frozen pond. To avoid being shot, you grab the henchman’s semi-automatic assault rifle and shoot a hole so that you both fall into the freezing water. After a few minutes of strangling the henchman underwater, you emerge from the ice, run a few hundred feet, and rescue your companions by effortlessly tossing a knife in the back of your nemesis. This is a key plot sequence in the new James Bond movie Skyfall, and it irks us. Unless you’re Wim “Iceman” Hof, holder of the world record for longest time in an ice bath (1 hour and 52 minutes and 42 seconds), you’d likely experience severe hypothermia in a few minutes, and you’d probably die after about 15 minutes. But before that, your body would siphon blood away from your extremities and hoard it to keep your internal organs warm, causing you to lose consciousness and shiver uncontrollably. That’s hardly a proper setup for a perfect knife throw. Sloppy portrayals of computer science also bugged us throughout the movie. In one particularly annoying scene, a hacking genius named Q attempts to solve an ever-changing “polymorphic encryption algorithm” that hides the next stage of the evil plans of the movie’s villain. Q displays the algorithm on a giant screen, which looks like a mutating wad of code strings. Somehow Bond solves the puzzle in seconds by guessing Silva’s password. Sure, movies need visuals — but if a cipher is supposed to be ever-changing, then why is one short password all it takes? Scientific violation index: Moderate

The Avengers

The Avengers unites six comic superheroes from across the universe. This requires some serious suspension of disbelief to even walk into the theater, and yet there’s one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb: a flying aircraft carrier. The clandestine S.H.I.E.L.D. organization owns this stealthy airborne base, called the Helicarrier, and it looks like a Nimitz Class Carrier-sized vessel weighing about 110,000 tons. Four giant rotors — each with a diameter of about 117 feet — flank its corners and loft it into the skies. Physics professor Rhett Allain crunched the numbers to see what it would take to merely hover the machine in mid-air. The estimated power output was about 1.21 gigawatts, more than twice the maximum output of a real aircraft carrier. That’s not too unreasonable, when you think about it. Yet each rotor would need to span about 1,500 feet — roughly five American football fields — and push air out at nearly twice the speed of sound. Within these parameters, it’s unlikely any known material could survive the tension exerted by such a rotor. Now throw Iron Man inside one and have him try to restart it. (Fat chance, Tony Stark.) Scientific violation index: Moderate

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight Rises, based his summer blockbuster on three Batman comic books and strove for realism in the backdrop of Gotham, a fictional analog to New York City, and seemingly plausible high-tech military weapons. Science gets beaten to a pulp in the process. Quite literally, when Batman faces a hulking villain named Bane. The antihero absolutely clobbers Batman with face-cracking punches and back-breaking throws. It’d be impossible to say for certain if Batman could endure this punishment and live, but it’s unlikely he’d recover from a smashed head and broken back in a few days with enough strength to speak, let alone climb out of a pitfall prison, engage in hours of hand-to-hand-combat, and live to tell the tale. But the more egregious science sin of The Dark Knight Rises is the detonation of a rogue fusion bomb just a few miles from a major metropolitan city. Batman has only 90 seconds to get the device away from Gotham. Even assuming he could zoom away at 290 mph and detonate the 4-or-so-megaton bomb above a bay more than 7 miles away, much of the city would be left incinerated, shattered, and crumbling. Yet onlookers watch safely as a mushroom cloud rises after a blinding flash. In yet another punch to science’s stomach, you hear the rumble at the same time. (Sound travels much more slowly than light, so any noise from the blast would arrive about half a minute after the flash.) Scientific violation index: High

Total Recall

In the 2012 reboot of Total Recall, a global war leaves only two habitable territories: the Colony in the country formerly known as Australia, and the United Federation of Great Britain. To get from the Colony to do factory work in UFGB, you have to travel through a “gravity elevator” that runs through the center of the Earth. The device supposedly completes the trip in a paltry 17 minutes. Forget, for a moment, about the horrifying temperatures and pressures below Earth’s crust, and the lack of any plausible material able to withstand such an environment (let alone about 8,000 miles of it). If a vehicle simply dropped into a hole and popped out the other end of our planet, it’d take more than 40 minutes on gravity’s pull alone. Total Recall’s magic train does it in about one-third of the time. That means, according to one movie critic’s calculations, that the vehicle would need to travel 30,000 mph and reach accelerations of 10 times the Earth’s gravity, or 10Gs. The world’s scariest roller coasters pull more than 4Gs, and most people black out around 9Gs. Barring some made-up anti-gravity technology, both the energy input and survivability of this elevator seems, um, extraordinarily low. Scientific violation index: Severe


Oh, Ridley Scott. We had such high hopes for your Alien prequel movie Prometheus, but poor choices made it a funhouse of ridiculous and horribly distracting violations of science — and common sense. Untold light-years from Earth, an android can’t properly count time; when asked how long the mission has lasted, he says, “2 years, 4 months, 18 days, 36 hours, 15 minutes,” not “2 years, 4 months, 19 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes”. What’s more, a crew awakens from hibernation pods having never met one another — on perhaps the most resource-intensive and expensive endeavor humanity has ever attempted. It only gets worse when scientists and mercenaries hop off the spaceship and enter an alien temple. We witness some of “the most irresponsible, inept archaeologists ever to don spacesuits,” as our Twitter follower Rob Hinchcliffe put it, take off their helmets just minutes after leaving the spacecraft. Advanced atmospheric sensors or not, this is a terrible idea. What if there’s an unknown, undetectable, and highly toxic compound in the air? Or a virulent strain of life? No matter: Soon enough the movie’s characters are touching creepy-looking aliens (and, of course, dying horrible deaths). Then they carry alien heads inside their spaceship and electrocute them until they explode. And then, only after all of this death and catastrophe, they decide to map the temple. Just about the only thing that Scott got right with Prometheus was the organizational ineptitude of the mission, which was essentially a doomed-to-catastrophically-fail season of Big Brother on an alien world. Scientific violation index: Maddening P.S. Our favorite confrontation of plot holes, scientific conundrums, and abuse of common sense is this comedic, question-filled video by Red Letter Media. Alternatively, a very thorough take-down in text can be found here.