Credit: Artwork from Wikipedia by 1993MR2Turbo, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Artwork of the lightsaber used by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars

But they're just for entertainment!

I know, I know. Movies are meant to entertain, and are rarely true to reality even if based on true stories. I’m still allowed, also for entertainment purposes, to analyze the lousy science in movies.

As a science enthusiast, I can’t help it. Sometimes the science in movies is so bad that it ruins a movie for me, other times I can let it slide. I’m not really sure why some movies with dreadful science are more tolerable than others. Maybe favorites from when I was a kid, before I knew about the scientific problems, are the ones that I’m able to be more forgiving of.

Obviously there could be a list far longer than the five films listed here. I’m intentionally choosing movies that are well known as examples, all of which I like despite my criticisms. And by no means am I pointing out every single flaw in the films listed below, just some that I consider to be significant. 

#1 - Star Wars

Tikal, Guatemala
Credit: Wikipedia photo by David Dennis, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tikal, in Guatemala, was used for the rebel base in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. It was once the capital city of a Mayan kingdom, although became abandoned by the 11th Century.[4]

Before Star Wars fans get mad, let me assure you that I’m a HUGE fan of these films. They are my absolute favorites. Even the prequels. But that doesn’t mean I can’t critically examine the science. When watching the films I have to forget about these things. I’m picking just two out of many that could be discussed here. Just Star Wars could be an entire article by itself easily.

First problem –

Lightsabers are impossible because of how ridiculously hot they would be, and that’s even if it became possible to power them. The power requirements alone are very extreme.[1]

Red lightsabers like the Sith use would be 1,000 degrees Kelvin (727 degrees C, or 1,340 degrees F). Blue lightsabers like Anakin Skywalker had would be 15,000 degrees Kelvin (14,727 degrees C, or 26,540 degrees F).[1]

Just for reference, molten lava is between 1,300 and 2,200 degrees F (700 to 1,200 C).[2] The surface temperature of the sun is estimated at about 5,778 Kelvin (5,505 degrees C, 9,941 degrees F).[3]

Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber would be about triple the amount of heat as found on the surface of the sun!

The fundamental flaw however with lightsabers, besides their heat, is explosions of hot plasma that would occur when they’d clash in fights, which would kill everyone nearby.[1]

Second problem –

Slow, visible, noisy lasers.

Laser beams in fact are not visible traveling through the air. Have you ever used a laser pointer? You only see the dot at the end, right? If you happen to see a beam, it’s because the particles have been scattered by the air. And you definitely can never see a laser beam traveling through space, where there is no air.[5]

Lasers are light, and would travel at the speed of light. Light travels at about 671 million miles per hour.[5][6] But in the movies we can see them travel between two people hundreds of feet apart, and it even appears possible to dodge the lasers if you’re quick enough.

Lasers also don’t make noise.[5] Everyone who has seen Star Wars knows what the blasters sound like. But in reality lasers make no sound at all. The way lasers ricochet around in the movies – imagine if light made that sound bouncing off your window or a mirror.

#2 - Avatar

Huang Shan mountains in China.
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Arne Huckleheim, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Pandora's floating mountains were inspired in part by China's Huangshan mountains, pictured.[7]

Let’s ignore that there’s currently no known way for humans to accomplish interstellar travel (travel from one solar system to another) like they depict in the film.[8] We can pretend that somehow a method was discovered and accomplished, maybe something like the fictional Star Wars hyperspace.[9]

We can also pretend that Unobtanium, what they were seeking to mine, is real and for some reason had to be extracted from Pandora and couldn’t be manufactured on Earth. And that this whole enterprise was economically viable.

What I’d like to mention here is the problem of Pandora’s location. Pandora is said to be a moon that orbits around a fictional gas giant called Polyphemus, which orbits around a star called Alpha Centauri A.[10]

Alpha Centauri A is a real star, located 4.37 light years (about 25.7 trillion miles) from our solar system. It’s part of a binary system in which it is orbited by another star called Alpha Centauri B in a highly elliptical orbit every 80 years. They are also very slowly orbited by another star called Proxima Centauri, which is the closest star to Earth other than our sun, at a distance of 4.25 light years away.[11]

Proxima Centauri is known to have a planet orbiting it. Alpha Centauri B might have a planet. But no planets are known to orbit Alpha Centauri A, and it’s probably not possible due to the nature of the binary system and the effect that the presence of Alpha Centauri B would have.[11]

But let’s just say it was possible that there was a gas giant like Polyphemus orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Another problem is that Pandora, located close to the planet it was orbiting, would be tidally locked like our moon – meaning that one day is exactly the same as the period of revolution, making it so that we only see one side of the moon at all times. And Pandora would be orbiting Polyphemus at an incredible speed.[12]

Our moon orbits Earth about every 28 days.[13] But Pandora had days and nights that suggested its orbit around Polyphemus was much faster.

A good comparison is Jupiter’s moon Io, which orbits Jupiter in just 1.8 days (about every 42.5 hours).[14] It seems that Pandora orbited Polyphemus even faster.

This is a problem because the forces exerted upon Io are extreme and cause the surface of its moon to be constantly raising and lowering by hundreds of meters, and it also causes intense heating and volcanism.[14] Such extreme geologic activity, in fact it should be even more extreme, should be seen on Pandora, but this isn’t depicted in the movie whatsoever.

#3 - Stargate

The Great Pyramid
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Nina, CC BY 2.5.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, also called the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops, is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex that borders what is now El Giza, Egypt.  It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Long have people theorized about extraterrestrials being involved in its construction,[15] and this theory is part of the story of Stargate.

We can pretend when watching Stargate that they found some super mineral that does the various things depicted in the movie – the laser weapons had by Ra’s guards, the ability to regenerate life, the ability to travel from one point to another in the universe nearly instantly, etc.

The big problem with this movie, which I like otherwise, is the explanation for how the stargate works. It’s supposedly like a giant combination lock, and if you enter the various coordinates correctly, it connects to another stargate elsewhere in the universe.

The problem is that James Spader’s character refers to entire star constellations as “points,” and supposedly six of these “points” pinpoint a planet. There are major obvious problems with this explanation.

It should be obvious that a star constellation can’t possibly be a point, first of all. When we stand on Earth and look at a constellation, we’re seeing stars that are vast and varying distances away from us.[16] As one example, here are the stars that comprise the well-known constellation Orion:[17]

Betelgeuse, estimated to be 640 light years away.

Rigel, estimated to be 863 light years away.

Bellatrix, estimated to be 250 light years away.

Mintaka, estimated to be 1,200 light years away.

Alnilam, estimated to be 2,000 light years away.

Alnitak, estimated to be 387 light years away.

Saiph, estimated to be 650 light years away.

If the stargate worked by using individual stars instead of entire constellations as a “point,” there would still be very significant problems with the explanation given in the movie.

First of all, the stars that we see in the sky are in our galaxy.[18] Yet the stargate supposedly uses “points” in our galaxy to pinpoint a planet on "the other side of the known universe,” as they say in the film.

Another major problem is that everything is always moving in space. The stargate was supposedly from about 8,000 years ago. In that amount of time everything has moved. A lot. Even if a particular planet or solar system had been pinpointed by six points in space, everything would’ve shifted in that amount of time.[19]

#4 - The Lord of the Rings

Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Guillaume Piolle, CC BY 3.0.

The massive volcano, Mount Doom in The Return of the King, was a stratovolcano in New Zealand called Mount Ngauruhoe.[21]

You may be wondering how a fantasy story, which by definition has all sorts of rules that don’t exist here on Earth, such as magic rings of power and elves that can walk on top of snow, made this list. Well, there are some things that are the same between our Earth and Middle-Earth. The laws of physics aren’t all revoked.

First of all, I want to give a hand to whoever designed the huge “fell beasts,” the dragon-like creatures that are ridden by the ringwraiths. I like how huge they made the wings to make it more plausible that these massive things could fly. Although if they had these creatures, why did they bother with horses at first?

So my criticism comes from the third film, The Return of the King, when Gollum and the ring fall together into the molten lava within Mount Doom. Gollum sinks into the lava and disappears, and the ring floats on top of the lava for a bit before melting and ruining all of Sauron’s plans forever. The big problem with this is that it’s the dense gold ring that would’ve sunk, and Gollum would’ve floated and burned, and it would’ve been disgusting if shown accurately.[20]

#5 - Jurassic Park

Jeep from Jurassic Park film
Credit: Photo is from Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

A replica of one of the Ford Explorers featured in the first and fourth films, at Universal Studios Japan.

This criticism doesn’t apply to just the first film, it actually applies to all of them. Once again I love these films and went to the first showing of Jurassic Park on the first day it came out in June 1993. I had read the book a few months prior, and was junior high age. The movie was and is incredible, but that doesn’t mean it lacks major scientific problems.

Maybe some readers think I’m going to talk about the accuracy of the dinosaurs. They were actually quite good in the first film compared with what was known at the time. Now we know that Dromaeosaurids (raptors, which includes Velociraptor, Deinonychus, Utahraptor, Dakotaraptor, and other related species) were heavily feathered and are close relatives of birds.[22] Just as one example. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about here.

The most critical part of the story, that makes it all possible, is the idea that it’s possible to (1) get dinosaur DNA, which in the movie is derived from mosquitoes long trapped in amber, which is fossilized tree sap, and then (2) use that DNA to bring these animals back to life. If #1 can’t be done, then certainly #2 can’t be done. And #1 absolutely positively can never be done. The reason is because DNA deteriorates over time, including if it’s in a mosquito in amber, and there’s no such thing as DNA so old as 65 million or more years old that could ever possibly be used for cloning purposes.[23]

Some of the dinosaurs depicted in the film are from much longer ago than 65 million years, which is when all dinosaurs except avian theropods (also called birds) went extinct. Here are dinosaurs featured in the first film:

- Tyrannosaurs rex: lived about the last 2 million years of the Cretaceous Period in North America, until the extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago.[24]

- Brachiosaurus: lived about 153 to 154 million years ago, in the late Jurassic Period, in North America. Note how long ago this is. It’s more than twice as long ago as the end-Cretaceous extinction event. Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex were separated by much more time than we are separated from Tyrannosaurus rex.[25]

- Triceratops: lived at the same time and place as Tyrannosaurus rex, and was surely a favorite meal.[26]

- Velociraptor, actually Deinonychus – Michael Crichton chose the name Velociraptor, a different genus within the Dromaeosaurid family, due to favoring the name more, and said that he was actually writing about Deinonychus. It lived in North America during the first half of the Cretaceous, about 108 to 115 million years ago). Actual Velociraptor was native to Mongolia and China about 71 to 75 million years ago.[27][28]

- Parasaurolophus, seen toward the beginning of the movie in a herd by a lake when they first encounter a Brachiosaurus, lived in North America during the late Cretaceous, about 75 to 77 million years ago.[29]

- Dilophosaurus: lived in North America about 193 million years ago, during the early Jurassic Period. By far the oldest animal shown in the film, at 40 million years older than the Brachiosaurus.[30]

- Gallimimus: lived in Mongolia, in Asia, during the late Cretaceous, about 70 million years ago.[31]

Now, how fast does DNA deteriorate, and what’s the oldest animal that could potentially be cloned? Although keep in mind that there would currently be no known way to produce a dinosaur, one of the types that went extinct 65 million years ago, even if we had some intact DNA.[23]

The book and film do mention DNA deteriorating and having “gaps” that they fill in with DNA from frogs. It’s the use of DNA from frogs that supposedly gives some of them the ability to change sex from female to male and reproduce, surprising the bioengineers, who had sought to create only females so that no reproduction could take place. But the fact is that the “gaps” would be far more massive than what is depicted, basically impossible to fix with patches of DNA from anything in an animal that old (between 65 and 193 million years in the film, as explained above).[23]

DNA has a half-life, it turns out, of about 521 years. Under the most ideal circumstances, DNA wouldn’t be able to be sufficient for cloning purpose that was older than 1.5 million years.[23] That’s in the middle of the recent Pleistocene Epoch and its ice ages, and nowhere close to as long ago as the Cretaceous Period. Or even worse, the early Jurassic Period as Dilophosaurus hailed from.