By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

An American physicist is calling for Hollywood producers to tone down the fanciful science in movies – and restrict themselves to just one scientific flaw per film. But which are the worst offenders when it comes to bad science films?

Film characters disappear into thin air, travel through time, and know how to fly. They’re all scientific impossibilities, but since they take place on the silver screen, we suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride.

But one scientist has had enough and is calling on filmmakers to temper their creativity by obeying the rules of science.

At a recent meeting of American scientists, physicist Professor Sidney Perkowitz suggested a new rule: every film should be allowed just one major suspension of belief for the sake of the story.

In other words, films shouldn’t repeatedly violate scientific laws. And they definitely should avoid internal inconsistencies – breaking scientific rules established in earlier scenes.

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“If it’s scene after scene, it becomes greater than I can stand,” says Prof Perkowitz. “I understand the dramatic impulse behind it. The natural tendency is to hype things up.”

Others in the scientific community agree.

In order to emphasise a sense of “impending doom”, filmmakers often ignore realities like time, says Dr David Kirby, a lecturer in science communications at University of Manchester. After all, if the asteroid in Armageddon was spotted years before it threatened to hit Earth, the story would lack tension.

“Errors of time scale are often done for narrative purposes,” says Dr Kirby.

And for those who think the rules of the laboratory have no place in cinemas, Dr Kirby points out movies often tap into contemporary attitudes towards science and can shape people’s thoughts. That’s why recent films have focused on things like genetic engineering, the environment, epidemics, and the end of the world.

But Dr Steven Le Comber, an evolutionary biologist at Queen Mary college, University of London, is at pains to point out scientists don’t always make bad movie-going partners. While he does notice “bad science” in films, particularly when it’s in his own subject area, it doesn’t necessarily ruin his film-going experience.

“If it’s a good enough movie, I’ll let them do it,” he says. “Science is ruined by bad science, not bad movies.”