Ridiculous things that movies always get wrong

12:00 pm EDT, November 21, 2012

A lot of movies are unbelievable. However, sometimes they just get things plain wrong. In this opinion piece, Richard looks at some of the less obvious (yet no less ridiculous) things that crop up time and time again.

There’s something to be said about a good story. Actually, there is more to be said about a bad story than a good one, but that contradicts with my opening narrative. But while we’re on the topic, have you ever noticed that the longest reviews and critiques are generally negative? Isn’t it odd that we enjoy criticism more than appreciation? Clearly there is something odd from an evolutionary standpoint that enlightened humans revel in masochism, albeit in an intellectual way. Anyway, getting back to good stories.

I’m talking about the kind of tale that gives you a strange tingling deep in your stomach containing a mixture of apprehension and exhilaration. It’s really a conflict between wanting to get to the end of a story and not wanting the story to end. One of the few good conflicts in life; the only other one I can think of is deciding whether to leave the job you love for another one that is a bit duller but pays 10x more and gives you a free helicopter. If that tingling is closer to nausea, then you’re more likely to be hungover than exhilarated. On the other hand, if you’re watching say, The Shawshank Redemption, and you get nothing from it emotionally, then you’re probably just dead inside. Finally, if that tingling is a bit further down from your stomach, then you probably aren’t consuming a good story, but instead watching pornography.

What really fascinates me is that we’re fully willing to abandon all plausibility when we’re gripped in something, whether it be a film or a book or television episode. We know (or at least should know) when reading something completely fictitious (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Bible, etc) that the plot is out-with the realms of probability or even possibility, yet we pursue the fantasy with energy and gusto.

There are, however, some regular occurrences (particularly in the movies) that I want to focus on which simply defy all logic, belief and credibility yet no one seems to bat an eyelid or even notice. Before we begin, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Can’t you just enjoy movies for what they are and be done with it?” … “Weren’t you JUST moaning about everyone in journalism complaining all the time a mere three paragraphs ago?” … “Are you THAT much of a killjoy?” … “I didn’t actually like The Shawshank Redemption, but now that you’ve mentioned pornography. Hmmm…” and so on. Well, yes. These are all true, but allow me to paint a picture for you…

Professionally, I’m a scientist. I work in an academic institution where I’m expected to make claims and back them up with sufficient evidence. If I say something unsubstantiated, the first response I typically hear is, “prove it!” Scepticism, it seems, is contagious. A questioning, inquisitive and arguably narcissistic mind has been instilled into me, and it has boiled over from the test tube of science and into the dubious world of entertainment.

7 things that movies always get wrong:

Massive Explosions in Space

Virtually every science fiction movie ever made makes this glaring error. When the Death Star blows up at the end of Star Wars, there is a massive boom with sparks and fire and debris and so on. This is all nonsense. It’s nonsense in Star Wars, nonsense in Star Trek, nonsense in The Avengers and nonsense in everything else. I can accept that say, in the future, mankind has found a way to make space travel a regular occurrence. I can accept that we interact with alien life. I can even accept that the aliens seem to speak English. This isn’t impossible, just highly improbable. What IS impossible is to see flames of any kind in space. Why? Because flames require oxygen to burn and there is no oxygen in space. And there is no boom either. Sounds require air to travel and as we’ve just learnt, no air means no loud explosions.

This might not bother you, but I wince each time I see one of the fundamental laws of physics essentially shat over in each sci-fi movie. Imagine you were watching something really terrible like My Best Friend’s Wedding. I know, it’s a horrible thought, but bear with me. Now imagine that as Julia Roberts’ character starts singing “I Say A Little Prayer” at the wedding reception, she started hovering in mid-air instead, then a pink unicorn crawled out of her massive, massive mouth. This is exactly how ridiculous it is to have an explosion in space, yet somehow, if a floating Julia Roberts in the middle of a romantic comedy transpired, your gut instinct would not be to admire the wonderful special effects but instead to ask “Why?” You might even raise an eyebrow.

Reason: Explosions look cool. It IS possible to have a small and very instant ignition if a massive ship was to blow up, from the oxygen inside the ship. However, that oxygen would burn up in a fraction of a second in the vacuum of space.

Humanoids in Space

While we’re on the topic of space, let me point out another ridiculous notion, and that’s the general assumption that aliens have a slight (often profound) resemblance to humans. Our own particular species wasn’t just planted on this planet the way we are now. We’ve evolved over millions of years of gradual, non-random change and along the way, we’ve developed the tools that we need to survive.

Our distant cousins, for example, didn’t walk on their hind legs like we do now but on all fours. Our legs have grown stronger and stronger as we gradually made more use of them. Our bodies’ intake of oxygen and output of carbon dioxide (which subsequently fuels other life) developed to become a seamless process. Why aliens would share this is simply ludicrous.

Why would one assume that aliens have noses (or can even smell)? Perhaps on their home planet, it favoured their species from an evolutionary standpoint to eat through their anus. Perhaps they don’t even have an anus. Perhaps their entire “body” for lack of a better word is just one giant anus. Come to think of it, that seems rather efficient doesn’t it? One organ that eats, sniffs, breathes and poops.

Reason: Set and prop designers lack imagination. And for some reason, we’re apparently more likely to identify something as an alien if it’s closer looking to humanity than not.

Knocking someone unconscious

How many times has James Bond refrained from killing someone (how gracious), instead given them a quick chop to the face, rendering them unconscious? Sometimes they wake up later but generally the movie just moves on and we assume that the victim will recover from Bond’s assault. He kindly allowed them to live. Ehhh, I’m afraid not.

People do get knocked unconscious in real life all the time, but it generally only lasts for a few seconds at most. Any longer and it’s typically called something different: a coma. Yes, all those times John McClain or Jason Bourne left someone “asleep,” they weren’t being humane at all. They were giving those poor people a likely dose of brain-damage and probably a very upset wife to top it off. Fiends!

Reason: You can punch someone unconscious and still get your movie listed as a PG-13, however, if you start shooting people, then that’s much more likely to up the censor’s rating.

Rationality will detonate in T minus 4 minutes

For some unknown reason, it’s customary for a (stupid) ship’s computer to tell us that the space ship, or secret base or bomb will blow up in “T minus 60 seconds,” or some other value of time. Why? Who knows. T stands for time. Therefore, if the ship is to explode in T (Time) minus four minutes, that means the ship has already exploded four minutes ago! This phrase is used time and time again, yet no one seems to spot this glaring logical error. Funny how the ship’s computer is sufficiently well programmed to be able to initiate a self-destruct mechanism, yet the simple task of telling the time is beyond it. The ship’s computer SHOULD be telling us that detonation will happen in T plus four minutes, however, let’s be honest, this isn’t that useful either.

If I’m unfortunate enough to be on a vessel somewhere that is about to be incinerated, the last thing I want is an incorrect countdown. Quite frankly, clarity is a must. Instead, I want a loud shouting voice that repeatedly warns, “RUN! THIS SHIP IS ABOUT TO BLOW UP BUT THERE WILL BE NO EXPLOSION AS WE’RE IN SPACE, BUT YOU’RE STILL GOING TO DIE FROM IT! FOR GOODNESS SAKE, RUN! ARGHHH!” Or better still, ships that don’t self-destruct at all. That’s probably easier for all concerned.

Reason: The term comes from NASA, when they say “launch in T minus 60 seconds” where T stands for “Takeoff.” T actually makes sense in this context, but ever since Ridley Scott (incorrectly) used the phrase in Alien, it took on a new meaning and other screenplay writers started using the term without wondering what it meant.

The Elevator Hatch

Whenever an elevator breaks down in a movie or TV programme, someone invariably pushes open a hatch on the roof and climbs up in fear that it might plummet to the floor. I’ve been looking for a hatch in an elevator for 25 years and I’ve yet to see one. Have you?

Secondly, what do they expect to find up there? It’s a shaft. The only way is up because the elevator is blocking your way down and as I pointed out earlier, you can’t just randomly hover upwards (unless you’re still imagining my image of Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding). You may as well climb back down the imaginary hatch and wait for the rescue to arrive.

Thirdly, the elevator will never just plummet to the ground because like any moving object, it has brakes.

Reason: The hatch seemingly provides a story-arc for whatever follows it. No other reason can be attributed to this nonsense.


Movies always seem to romanticise childbirth. There is always a lot of screaming, and then a loving mother embraces her newly born child. For some reason, such fictional births never seem to include the part where the woman shits herself. Yes, you read that correctly. Most women tend to defecate during birth; it is natural, albeit unpleasant. As a result, I suspect a new mother’s first reaction isn’t to hug her new child, but for someone to very quickly wipe off the faeces that is now dripping down her legs and smelling quite badly.

Another more unpleasant part of childbirth: it’s actually quite common for doctors to make a small cut in a woman’s vagina, giving the baby’s head more room. This is also perfectly routine. However, when Rachel gave birth to her baby in Friends, at no point did a doctor come along with a scalpel and slice an extra inch down her woman-bits. Perhaps this is a bit too much realism for Jennifer Aniston to convey in her acting? One does struggle to find a good expression for illustrating one’s torn vagina.

Reason: If we showed the unromantic side of childbirth in the media, we might put mothers off of having babies which might endanger our human race? I’m sure something stupid like this crossed the mind of the TV producer or film director.

Computer Hacking

This one is my absolute favorite (or most hated, depending on which way you look at it). Firstly, the idea that one can hack into some government agency from an HP laptop in around 11 seconds by pressing lots of keys very quickly, and secondly, the wonderfully elaborate user-interfaces that the computer seems to have on its monitor showing bright colors, wavy lines and moving shapes.

If the aim is to gain access to someone else’s computer (like Q was trying to do in the new James Bond movie), why on earth did he or anyone else spend a seemingly massive amount of time making the process look so pretty? Surely that’s just counter-intuitive AT BEST, given all these moving shapes are going to be a bit of a distraction when you’re desperately trying to guess someone’s password.

Reason: Movies try to make computer hacking seem cool and sophisticated. The reality is most hackers are middle-aged men, considerably overweight, and sitting in front of a screen with just a lot of text on it and nothing else (because pretty much all hacking is done on a command line). Go to hackertyper.com, type really fast and see how movies fake it.

These are just some of the many things that bug me when watching a film or TV episode. I’m not at all advocating that movies should be based firmly in reality because then the magic of fantasy would be lost forever. However, I think (due to movies) that we sometimes forget just what is and isn’t real.

Most importantly, now you know how difficult it can be for scientists to go to the cinema. It turns out, people sitting next to you find it rather irritating when you’re scoffing at something every seven minutes.

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