Sci-fi is not really about the science

March 23, 2007

After being a consultant on a film, Kevin Fong realised plot is more important than facts

A couple of years ago, somebody asked me if I'd give a talk to a bunch of actors and a director who were making a science fiction film.

That film turned out to be Sunshine, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's latest big-screen offering. They were looking, I was told, to get as much authenticity into the script as they could. They cast around for a whole heap of science opinions including that of particle physicist Brian Cox, upon whose back-story the plot of the dying Sun is based and who served as consultant on the film.

Now that I've finally seen it, I can tell you that Sunshine looks great, sounds great and plays great. It is cleverer than a lot of films in its genre and is a sci-fi psychological thriller that manages to get you to the edge of your seat and keep you there for much of the movie.

But is it really science? Sunshine is set to reignite the debate as to whether, when it comes to science, art can ever truly imitate life. We in the wonderful world of lab coats and safety goggles are so short of role models that we'll take them wherever we can get them. In this film, some of the best-looking nerds you are ever likely to meet are flying through space trying to save the world from total destruction (so far and so much like my average day).

Now doubtless, with the publicity oompah loompahs out there pushing the fact that the storyline was exhaustively researched, one can expect blowback from the cyber community. I can foresee websites full of comments about how unrealistic the whole thing is complete with back-of-the-envelope calculations to confirm that precisely none of this could have happened in actuality. But does any of that matter? When it comes to mainstream science fiction, it is not always a good idea to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So long as no one is suggesting that physics students should supplement their revision schedule with a couple of hours at the pictures or that our policymakers should get an impression of state-of-the-art science by watching re-runs of Jurassic Park , then where's the harm?

And where in celluloid history should we look for examples of films with respectable science? Kubrick's interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey leads by a country mile; then there are Blade Runner and Close Encounters - but after that you're reaching a little. The problem is that truth is rarely stranger than fiction and reality, whatever the producers of Big Brother tell you, is usually pretty boring. The makers of Sunshine made admirable efforts to shoehorn some scientific detail into their world. By the time I saw it, they had made a host of changes from the original script in an attempt to build in more accuracy. All of this goes some way towards their goal of suspending audience disbelief but, be warned, if you are expecting a docudrama about solar physics, save time and money by staying at home with a box of popcorn and setting your mood control to "disappointed". The science around which this film revolves is not astrophysics, it's psychology.

There was a time when I thought that the role of cinema was to expose me to the gritty realities of real life. Nowadays, I go in hope of being transported as far from all of that stuff as possible. The first job of a mainstream film-maker is to put bums on seats. Regardless of how much attention to detail goes into the thing, if, when the credits roll, I'm looking to get a refund for the past two hours of my life then the movie was still a turkey.

So did I enjoy Sunshine ? Yes. Was it seamless from start to finish in terms of accuracy? Not really. Would I take issue with the stuff that didn't bear close inspection? No - anymore than I would the fact that 2001: A Space Odyssey finishes with a bloke communing with a cosmic paperweight next to Jupiter shortly before turning into a giant space foetus. Sunshine is a film about life as a scientist in the same way that James Cameron's Titanic was a film about maritime history. Science is merely the backdrop to this tale; and if you spend your time examining that rather than the characters in the foreground, then you are probably missing the point.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. Sunshine is released nationwide on April 5.

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