Before Stanley Kubrick melted everyone’s brains with the unprecedented scientific realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hollywood directors had a lot more creative leeway in their space adventure films. Francis Ford Coppola wants to make a movie about giant genitals fighting in space? Sure, why not. Adam West and his pet monkey hanging out on Mars? Sign me up!
These days, however, big budget sci-fi films are generally held to a higher standard of realism and scientific accuracy. It’s not uncommon for a space movie to have a team of scientific advisors to remind the director you can’t hear explosions in space, and there’s even a science hotline producers can call in case they forget how a rocket works.
Still, a blockbuster wouldn’t be the same without a little creative reinterpretation of physics, which can sometimes leave an audience wondering—can that really happen? Luckily, WIRED was joined by retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who helped us separate fact from fiction in some of our favorite space movies.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent an inordinate amount of your life thinking about that scene from Total Recall, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s space helmet breaks and his eyes nearly pop out of his skull. It’s a hard image to forget. Direct exposure to space can indeed kill you, but Stott says astronauts don’t spend too much time worrying about their eyes exploding. “The helmet is really durable,” she says. “If you hit it hard enough there are parts on it that could crack, but we try our best to avoid any contact with anything.”
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OK, so maybe a movie about a construction worker turned Martian spy isn’t the paragon of realism. But how about something a bit closer to home, like Gravity? That movie looks like it’s grounded in hard science—George Clooney’s eyes never even leave his face! “The thing that stands out most to me is you’d never have George Clooney just jetpacking around while a space walk is going on,” Stott says. “But the suits we wear do have jetpacks into them.”
For more on the real science behind the Hollywood magic, check out WIRED’s latest video, “Technique Critique: Space.”
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