Filmmakers often consult scientists while scriptwriting. A film too grounded in science can turn viewers away, while a film that does not abide by scientific principles and laws can compromise its legitimacy. Those making science-based films thus consult experts to make a creative yet plausible plot.
The 2014 film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, follows NASA pilot Joseph Cooper and his team as they leave Earth, which is becoming uninhabitable. Their journey to fictional black hole Gargantua takes them through a wormhole, where they explore new planets.
Because of the complicated nature of the physics in this film, like black holes and wormholes, Nolan consulted Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist and now a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on gravitational waves. Thorne provided scientific basis. In fact, he partly inspired the film.
Generally, a consultant brought to a film project will provide factual or scientific basis for a director’s vision. While the process relies on scientific expertise, filmmakers typically have the final say in how they portray a scientific phenomenon. Because of this, scientists who consult on films can only offer a general understanding of scientific principles.
While writing the film, Nolan would propose a situation he would want to take place in the story, and Thorne would provide necessary equations and current theory that could make the situation a reality.
Interstellar was immensely successful at the box office and in demonstrating black holes and time dilation. Thanks to the collaborative effort between filmmakers and experts, it didn’t compromise the film’s scientific basis or Nolan’s creative vision.
In fact, Nolan said the film could serve as potential teaching material for students understanding that realm of physics. While Interstellar is not perfect, it still inspires many to look toward the stars in search of habitable planets and extraterrestrial lifeforms.
Looking further back in time, Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, consulted astrophysicist Carl Sagan to create a story that speaks of the transformation of man and man’s destiny through artificial intelligence, space travel, and extraterrestrial lifeforms. Kubrick is a master in the world of filmmaking, but to truly understand space — something that had not been visually witnessed at the time — he needed expertise.
The 2016 film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes audiences on a journey through language and communication with extraterrestrial lifeforms who land on Earth. Villeneuve consulted linguistics professor Jessica Coon at McGill University on the deciphering and creation of languages.
Filmmakers want to send their messages to the world, and in order to effectively accomplish this, their projects must be as accurate as possible. The US National Academy of Sciences saw the need for legitimacy in science-based films and developed the Science and Entertainment Exchange to foster relationships between film directors and scientists.
Films like Arrival and Interstellar are grounded in science, but the guarantee of accuracy cannot come from filmmakers alone. Only through conscientious collaboration with scientists can movies truly become masterpieces on the big screens.