Half the fun of going to see a movie — and especially a science fiction movie — is suspending our disbelief a bit and entertaining the fanciful. These moments don’t have to be complete fiction, though — there are plenty of directors that got the science behind their fiction right.
Let’s take a look at five of the best science movie moments directors nailed — with the help of science consultants, of course!
Interstellar: Time Dilation and Black Holes
Interstellar was one of the prettiest science fiction shows in recent years, and while it may be a little bit romantic, the science behind it is pretty accurate, based on what we currently know about black holes. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne was both a scientific advisor for the film, as well as an executive producer. Not only did they create the most accurate black hole in film history, but the research that went into the movie lead to a scientific breakthrough regarding how we see these galactic monstrosities.
The time dilation portrayed in the movie is as close to accurate as we can see at this point, too. Because of the massive gravitational forces created by the black hole, the closer you get to the center, the slower time moves. This is why Romilly grows old on the Endurance and Cooper’s children grow up back on Earth while Cooper and Brand are trapped on the water planet close to the accretion disk of Gargantua.
The Andromeda Strain: Virology
The idea of bringing home an alien virus during our space travels has been a staple of science fiction and horror movies from the recent blockbuster Life to the classic The Andromeda Strain. This movie follows a group of scientists who are studying a life form that’s brought back to earth in a crashed scooper satellite — a satellite designed to collect space dust for later study. The scooper crashes in a small town and kills everyone except for a grumpy old drunk and an infant, and the scientists have to find out why.
This movie is a notable example of how we would react to an introduced viral pathogen, from determining the source of the pathogen to discovering a way to cure it or prevent it from spreading. While the source of the virus is fiction, the way it’s handled is securely based on fact — even if the movie came out in 1979.
Finding Nemo: Marine Biology
It isn’t just science fiction that has a basis in fact — other movies have done their homework, too. Finding Nemo, the Disney-Pixar movie that has spawned one sequel and delighted fans for decades, was made with the help of marine biologists from the University of California, Berkley. They worked with the animators on everything from how fish scales reflect light to how the animated fish moved to make the movie as accurate as possible.
The head shader for the film even went so far as to stick her hand and a camera into the blowhole of a deceased whale to get accurate pictures of the interior of a whale’s head — that’s why it looks so real when a whale swallows Marlin and ejects him through its blowhole.
Apollo 13: Space Travel
Apollo 13 was one of the most amazing, terrifying events in the history of the space program. The crew on the flight and the crew at Mission Control in Houston, Texas, had to work together to make enough repairs to bring the team home safely. While no one actually said, “Houston, we have a problem,” the details on how mission control saved the crew of Apollo 13 are surprisingly accurate. Even the original astronauts expressed their approval when the movie premiered in 1995.
The sets for the movie were as close to accurate as they could be, and Jim Lovell, one of the original Apollo 13 astronauts, agreed it looked just like he remembered it.
2001: A Space Odyssey: Rotational Gravity
It’s been argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey — based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke — is one of the most scientifically accurate movies of all time, even though it premiered in 1968. One of the coolest things in the film is the artificial gravity present on the space station Discovery One. The 140-meter-long space station rotates fast enough that it generates its own apparent gravity.
This is entirely based on science. It doesn’t rely on artificial gravity, but rather on the Coriolis force — similar to what you feel in a centrifuge ride. The new science fiction show The Expanse uses this, as well — some characters mention the Coriolis force as getting worse the closer you get to the center of the asteroid Ceres. This is the same sort of force that gave Discovery One its gravity.
Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t based on fact. These writers and directors did their homework and got their science right, even if their stories are a bit outside the realm of possibilities. If you prefer to suspend your disbelief, plenty of movies let you do that, as well.
While plenty of other examples exist, these are a few of our favorites. Did we miss your favorite occurrence of science fact in a fiction setting? Let us know in the comments below!