Leave it to astrophysicist, TV personality, and author Neil deGrasse Tyson to ruin your favorite sci-fi movie. Then again, he could only ruin it if you really thought that everything you just saw in that space flick was totally realistic. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of science, love movies, or just like to get reality thrown in your face, then this one’s for you.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has a knack for making complicated things sound a lot simpler than they really are. His way of explaining seemingly unexplainable things about science and putting it together in an easily digestible form is actually quite refreshing. But aside from his charisma and obvious passion for science, deGrasse Tyson loves to rain on the movie parade. One of his favorite things to do is tell us what’s wrong – and technically impossible – about all those sci-fi films we see… all with a sense of humor.
See which movies are laughable to him and which are actually factual…
He Got James Cameron to Edit Titanic…15 Years Later
Most directors resist the impulse to re-edit their movies after they’ve already been released. Just ask Steven Spielberg, who changed some parts of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the film’s 20th anniversary in 2002. He says he regrets doing it and has since reversed his changes. Still, the opportunity is tempting for many — to go in and change a little bit here and there.
That’s exactly what James Cameron did with his Oscar-winning Titanic. Released in 1997, the film is a testament to Cameron’s notorious perfectionism. That explains why he felt utterly compelled to act upon the “snarky” email he received from rock star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So what was the problem with his seemingly perfect film?
The Star Field Was All Wrong
In his email, Tyson explained that the star field Cameron had created for one of the climactic scenes was effectively all wrong. Cameron explained: “Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen.”
Cameron then admitted that with his reputation “as a perfectionist,” he “should have known that and should have put the right star field in.” He wasted no time responding to Tyson. He wrote: “All right, send me the right stars for that exact time, and I’ll put it in the movie.” And just like that, Tyson sent his corrections.
When Titanic was re-released in 3-D in 2012, the new version of the star field was inserted. (Not that you likely noticed.)
More often than not, sci-fi movies are quite heavy on fiction and light on the actual science part. So, whether we asked for it or not, the science community’s coolest nerd is going to tell us what’s what. But he doesn’t just stick to sci-fi movies. As you’ll see, he attacks films like Baywatch, too.
Let’s begin with the Alien films that have been directed by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Tyson’s beef is with 2017’s Alien: Covenant specifically, in which a group of human couples are sent to a planet far into the galaxy to colonize it for the continuation of humankind. The issue: “There is no sensible space mission that’s gonna send humans to a planet before we send robots,” Tyson said.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Did you love the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks? Well, according to Tyson, you wouldn’t be able to hear them in space. He said that Guardians’ Fleetwood Mac-laden soundtrack wouldn’t even be heard in space, not by us or the characters. He borrowed a line from Alien: “If no one can hear you scream, no one can hear you explode.”
He explains how, during all those space battles, nobody would be able to hear anything exploding. In fact, you wouldn’t hear anything. Why? Because due to the lack of air in space, the sound doesn’t travel. But Tyson can get over it if the movie is good enough. “If there’s enough other interesting things going on in a big-budget epic sci-fi film, then you can distract me from all the science you’re getting wrong… A walking, talking tree, a raccoon that will insult you, a green woman, okay. We’re there. I’ll just sit back and watch.”
The X-Men Franchise
Here’s a question: would we have superpowers if we used our entire brain? It’s the crux of many movie and TV plots and is apparently based on a popular myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. In the X-Men franchise, Professor X develops telepathy, whereas Lucy develops telekinesis in the 2014 film Lucy. How? By accessing dormant knowledge and sensory capabilities in the brain.
Tyson’s take on it? He debunks the whole idea since the 10-percent rule was never even true, to begin with. According to Tyson, it misquotes a neuroscientist who said over 100 years ago that “The brain is so complex we only know what 10 percent of it is used for.” Who said the other 90 percent of our cerebral capacity could be used to make bad guys float?
Gravity Made Him Laugh the Most
Neil deGrasse Tyson admitted that he had a good laugh when he watched the movie Gravity, especially the zero-gravity scenes. Despite the film production’s meticulous efforts to make everything float in each shot, for some reason, Sandra Bullock’s bangs miraculously stayed put. They sat neatly on her head – just as if she were on planet Earth.
“Come on now…” Tyson commented on Twitter. “Must be using really good astronaut mousse.” He also pointed out that it was “interesting” how Bullock’s character, a medical doctor, was the one chosen to service the Hubble Space Telescope. But the astronaut, played by George Clooney, informs her what happens medically during oxygen deprivation.
Superman and X-Ray Vision
As you know, in Superman, Clark Kent famously uses his X-ray vision to tell his dear Lois Lane what the color of her underwear is. Of course, that’s after he checks her lungs for cancer as she smokes a cigarette. Enter Tyson: “If he has X-rays, it’s not going to see the color of her panties. The X-rays would go right through the panties.”
The fact that Tyson even uses the word “panties” is something I’m going to ignore for now since everything he’s saying is correct. So, just as he purposely ignores some of the more distracting features of these types of movies, I’m going to ignore the types of words he chooses to use… like “panties.”
Dwayne Johnson’s Baywatch
If you ask Tyson, “Who doesn’t love them some Dwayne Johnson?” Apparently, he’s a big fan of The Rock. “Put him in a movie, I’ll go watch it. Even if it’s Baywatch.” But there’s a scene in the movie that Tyson had to comment on. There’s a scene where Johnson and Zac Efron engage in a feat of strength, carrying two refrigerators across their shoulders.
Tyson’s comment on that: a refrigerator is mostly empty space. His point is that if Johnson can throw a wrestler out of a ring, carrying two empty refrigerators shouldn’t look like it’s all that difficult for him. “I bet they’re not even fake. Why wasn’t it three?” At the end of the day, Tyson wasn’t impressed.
Zombies: They Can’t Exist
Sorry to burst your zombie bubble, but zombies simply cannot exist, at least, according to Tyson. While zombie legends of the past described zombies as human corpses controlled by witchcraft or voodoo, today’s zombies often are created by infectious viruses. For cinematic effect, of course, this type of plotline lives on the idea of contagion through zombie bites.
But if you want to know the science behind such a concept, Tyson notes how diseases like rabies, for instance, can be passed through bites. But, “When something bites you, you don’t turn into that thing. If that were remotely possible, Evander Holyfield would have turned into Mike Tyson long ago.” The man does have a point.
The Star Wars Franchise
If you ask Tyson, lightsabers simply don’t make any sense scientifically. According to astrophysicist Phil Plait, “Maybe the name is just wrong. Maybe they just call it a lightsaber. That doesn’t mean it’s made of light.” If that were the case, as Tyson tweeted online, they would just pass through each other. George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, describes the lightsaber as basically a heavy sword with a laser beam.
For years, Tyson has scrutinized the films for not adhering to scientific rules. His critiques of Star Wars have all been fair, like how BB-8 rolls over sand on Jakku without any treads, and how Starkiller Base harnesses the energy from a star without vaporizing the planet it’s on. Tyson did, however, reveal the one scientifically accurate thing in the whole Star Wars movie franchise…
The One Thing Star Wars Got Right
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke sees a double sunset. According to Tyson, that’s the only scientifically accurate thing in all the Star Wars movies. In fact, more than half of the stars you see in the night sky are actually double and multiple star systems. “So, the fact this was portrayed in Star Wars, I’ll just give a shout-out to that exercise in bringing the rest of the star family into the storytelling that unfolded.”
It is pretty refreshing to see the famed debunker finally give credit to a series where credit is due. While he’s often the first to point out errors in popular films, he’s also “man enough” to openly praise them if and when they get something right.
The Martian Movie
Most scientists have actually praised The Martian for its attempt at scientific accuracy and realism. Tyson liked the movie, but the question was if Matt Damon’s astronaut character could really grow enough potatoes to live months by himself on Mars. In Tyson’s eyes, it’s a big maybe. Enough water and light makes the theory plausible, but Tyson says essential soil nutrients for potato growth would be lacking, even if he were to use fertilizer.
In the movie, NASA displays a lot of autonomy, and scientists were calling all of the shots. But this isn’t always the case in the real world. Tyson’s first tweet: “Evidence that the @MartianMovie is fantasy: All who make important decisions are scientifically literate.” His second tweet: “Evidence that the @MartianMovie is fantasy: The USA & China cooperate with one another in Space.”
Jurassic Park: Why Not?
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (pop culture’s former “cool nerd”) joined forces for a high-energy discussion about what would happen if people created new dinosaurs, particularly the massive ones we saw in Jurassic World. “I don’t know why people fear the invention of new animals because nature is doing that all the time,” Tyson stated.
In the movie, humans created gigantic, intelligent dinosaurs. Tyson noted that the dinosaurs couldn’t do very much with such intelligence because they don’t have opposable thumbs. It’s basically why he doesn’t find them to be a real threat. “If you can’t build stuff, you’re just a really smart, useless animal.” And apparently, Tyson isn’t worried about “smart animals that can’t build stuff, on an island somewhere.”
He Appreciates the Star Trek Franchise
Tyson happens to love Star Trek because of the way the franchise’s writers think of science in their storytelling. “They knew because of Einstein’s laws of relativity, that you cannot move faster than light,” is one thing Tyson pointed out. “So they had to come up with a way that didn’t violate laws of physics, but was allowed.”
That’s essentially why the writers came up with “warp drive.” NASA has actually gone on record stating that there’s no evidence that a warp drive can exist, at least, not yet. But Tyson has gone on the record himself, showing his appreciation for how Star Trek writers made an effort to include physics in their plotlines. In other sci-fi space franchises, like Star Wars for example, Tyson says there’s no such investment in “keeping it real.”
He Can’t Find Anything Wrong in This Movie
There’s at least one sci-fi film that Tyson can sit back and watch without getting flustered, and it’s Deep Impact. According to Tyson, the 1998 disaster movie is error-free. To many, Deep Impact is known as Armageddon’s less successful cousin. But while Armageddon made more at the box office, one thing Deep Impact has going for it is that it’s more scientifically accurate.
Tyson simply said it “had really good science going,” including the comet’s gravity levels that the team of astronauts attempt to destroy. When they arrived to the comet, “you see that the gravity is very low,” Tyson said. “You need grappling hooks just to pull yourself down and to stay connected.”
Deep Impact Gets a Thumbs Up
Tyson also praised the impact the comet had when a fragment hit the Atlantic Ocean and created a tsunami. He explained: “Most of Earth’s surface is water, so chances are, if we’re going to get hit, we’re going to get hit in the water.” But cities will still be destroyed. In Deep Impact, they did it with tsunamis. In Armageddon, however, it was as though the comets had aim.
Tyson noted how one comet hit near the Eiffel tower (if he remembers it correctly). But, “the cosmos doesn’t have that good aim.” In that case, he would give Armageddon a thumbs down and give Deep Impact a thumbs up (if he were to pull a Roger Ebert).
The Matrix Messed Up One Thing
So, apparently, The Matrix is Tyson’s single favorite film of all time. However, it does get one thing wrong, and it has to do with physics. But Tyson will forgive it, he said, “because it did so much else so well.” Remember the part where Laurence Fishburne holds up the battery and says that the machines are breeding humans as a source of energy for their civilization?
Tyson likened it to humans being merely a battery. “That’s a weak point in the storytelling because you don’t make a human and use the energy of that human since you have to put energy in a human to begin with. “Whatever energy that you’re putting in the human – use that to drive your civilization.” But he knows that if they used his definition, they wouldn’t have a story. “So, I gotta give them something.”
Interstellar Passed His Test
Tyson fact-checked Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar on Twitter, and it looks like he didn’t have many objections. His first tweet: “In #Interstellar: And in the real universe, strong gravitational fields measurably slow passage of time relative to others.” His second tweet read: “In #Interstellar: Experience Einstein’s Relativity of Time as no other feature film has shown.”
He also mentioned that the scientific renderings of life in space in black holes seemed possible, at least plausible. His tweet: “In #Interstellar: The producers knew exactly how, why, & when you’d achieve zero-G in space.” Tyson can get pretty technical sometimes, making it hard to follow, but just know that Interstellar is on his “thumbs up” list.
The Cryogenics Plotlines
From Futurama to Captain America to Demolition Man, cryogenics is a popular concept in movie and TV plotlines. It’s how they explain how characters wake up hundreds of years in the future, after having thawed out, of course. Tyson doesn’t buy it, though, when it comes to being used as a way to avoid aging or traveling through time. “Human biological tissue is probably too fragile to survive being frozen for very long.”
He put it nicely in an interview with Larry King when he spoke about his lack of fear of death: “If you live forever, why get out of bed in the morning because you always have tomorrow. And even if we managed to live forever — what would we do with all that time, anyway?” He then quoted novelist Susan Ertz, who said: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Quidditch in Space
Ever played Quidditch? It may be one of the greatest fiction games (invented by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling) that humans have tried to replicate in real life. But, even Syracuse University’s Quidditch team runs into those annoying gravitational downers without magic. Tyson says, however, that the chasers, beaters, keepers, and seekers could all make the game work in space – as long as they used space suits and rocket packs.
They would need them to move around in zero gravity, you know, rather than with capes and magic broomsticks. The Golden Snitch, he explains, doesn’t have broom powers. It’s actually aerodynamically supporting itself with flapping wings, “like a hummingbird,” Tyson remarked. “Wings are useless in zero gravity. A bird on an airless planet is a brick. So they’d have to redesign the Snitch for that one.”
A Kid from the Bronx
An astrophysicist, researcher, TV star, science speaker and educator, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has led a pretty amazing life. He started out as an astronomy-obsessed kid in the Bronx. He made it all the way to becoming the lead astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium and the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This show won several Emmys and a Peabody Award.
Tyson was nine years old when he visited the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The experience transformed him, who later said that imprint of the night sky was “so strong that I’m certain that I had no choice in the matter, that in fact, the universe called me.”
A Love Affair with Stars
Tyson started a lifelong love affair with stars. He later took classes in astronomy at the Hayden Planetarium, going on to become the director of the Hayden Planetarium in 1996 — a post he held for 20 years. During his physics studies as an undergraduate degree at Harvard, Tyson was active in sports.
At first, he was a member of the rowing team in his freshman year. Then, he switched to wrestling (a sport he played in high school). Tyson went to the University of Texas for his graduate studies in astronomy. There, he became active in wrestling again, but he was also involved in the school’s dance program. He competed with the college team in ballet, jazz, Afro-Caribbean, and Latin ballroom.
Almost a Chippendale
In 1985, Tyson won a gold medal with his team at a national tournament, dancing in the Latin ballroom style. In fact, Tyson even considered exotic, Chippendale-style dancing. You know, for the extra cash. Apparently, he got the idea after a few of his fellow dancers began doing so. “They invited me because I needed more money. I was broke.”
He entertained the idea at first and went to a club to see if it was something he could do. What did he see? “They came out with jockstraps having been soaked in lighter fluid — asbestos jockstraps, ignited —coming out dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire.” He said to himself, “Nope. Not for me.”
His Doctorate Didn’t Really Work Out
Tyson admitted, as embarrassing as it was for him to say, that it wasn’t until that moment that he said to himself, “Maybe I should be a math tutor,” adding, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that first.” After graduating with an MA from the University of Texas, Tyson pursued a doctorate in astronomy at Columbia University. But things didn’t go as planned.
He faced a fair amount of racial discrimination, getting stopped and searched by campus police on several occasions (seven to be exact) as he entered the physics building. He had hardly any support from his advisers since he wasn’t progressing in the lab and was involved in the school’s sports and extracurricular programs.
Eventually, Tyson’s dissertation advisers dissolved their committee. According to the University of Texas professor Craig Wheeler, “Research was not his strength. He was never going to solve any major scientific problems. But I knew he was going to do something big because he had charisma.”
Tyson actually agrees with the assessment and doesn’t hold a grudge against them either, but his experience at UT left him with a bad taste in his mouth: “When I look at my life, the tracks of my success take a detour around Texas… It’s the only place where I didn’t succeed, and I’m still figuring out what that means.”
On Account of Bad Behavior
Many people have only good things to say about the Rockstar scientist, but that doesn’t mean that a few negative stories haven’t surfaced. During the Star Talk series he participated in, Tyson received some flak from fans for his tendency to interrupt and talk over his fellow presenters. In one segment, he railed against “soft sciences,” bashing his co-presenter Richard Dawkins.
During a Q&A session, Tyson called out an audience member for beginning her question with “Um.” In another incident, a Redditor claimed that his college spent $85,000 to get the famed astrophysicist to do a lecture at his school. The Redditor claimed that during his lecture, he insulted the students that he felt were pursuing “worthless” degrees.
He Felt the Wrath of Social Media
Tyson has gone above and beyond in using social media to spread scientific knowledge. But the problem with instant communication platforms is that they always carry the risk of incorrect or insensitive statements – and the backlash that comes with it. Regardless of how smart you are, to err is only human.
August 2019 was a harsh month for Tyson as he compared the death toll from a spate of mass shootings to how many people lost their lives in a variety of other accidents or ailments in 48 hours. “Often,” he wrote, “our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.” His tweet sparked a major outcry and he quickly apologized: “My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die.”
Helping Superman See Krypton
Tyson and the Hayden Planetarium played a pivotal role in the plot of Action Comics 14. DC Comics had approached Tyson to get permission to use the planetarium and Tyson himself in the comic. The plot involved Superman visiting Hayden to witness the destruction of his home planet. Tyson appeared on the pages of the comic book in one of his trademark vests.
Tyson helped the comic developers pick a real star — LHS 2520 — to be the doomed location of Krypton’s solar system. In the comic book, Tyson and other astronomers help Superman watch the end of Krypton. If Superman comes to you for help, it shows you’re doing something right.
Disturbing the Force
Tyson stirred up a few Star Wars fans after some Twitter comments criticizing the “science” in The Force Awakens. Tyson has been known to anger Star Wars fans as he once claimed that Star Trek’s Enterprise would “wipe its a**” with the Millennium Falcon. This time, Tyson doubled down on his Star Wars criticism after The Force Awakens was released.
His criticisms revolved around the sound TIE fighters make in space versus the sound they make in an atmosphere, the slower aging displayed by Wookiees compared to humans, and the unlikelihood of Starkiller Base. He basically ignored the fact that Star Wars is based on fantasy and not our current state of physics. But that’s Neil deGrasse Tyson for you – he likes to cause a stir.