The Moon en Plein Aire

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One of the key conclusions in my book is that scientist/filmmaker collaborations work best when the scientists and entertainment professionals clearly respect each other’s expertise. This means that the scientists, in particular, need to keep in mind that they know very little about making movies. This same advice applies to scientifically literate audiences. We need to remember that just as scientists are scientific experts, filmmakers are entertainment experts who make decisions about science based on their specialist knowledge of the way film operates and what makes a film enjoyable.

There are a multitude of books and websites that discuss scientific inaccuracies in movies. This kind of “spot the inaccuracy” activity can be a fun part of going to the movies for science buffs. Inaccuracies can also be frustrating to some people who refer to these depictions as “bad science.” What we really mean when we call something in a movie “bad science” is that we find that these depictions do not match our real-world knowledge of science. But, this phrase ignores the fact that there are many legitimate filmmaking reasons to explain why the filmmakers depicted scientific content in a particular way. Filmmakers must constantly make determinations based on their own expertise as to whether adhering to scientific accuracy would seriously hinder their film’s entertainment value or if it is even technologically possible to depict accurately.

Before jumping to conclusions that filmmakers are scientific barbarians, we should always first explore why filmmakers depicted the science in the way they did. To illustrate this, I will examine one example of a glaring scientific inaccuracy in an early, highly regarded film about space travel.

Bringing scientists in as consultants was certainly not a routine practice before 1930. For example, two early space films, the Danish Das Himmelskibet [The Sky Ship] (1918) and the Soviet film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), were made without the assistance of scientists. One major exception was the film Frau im Mond [Woman in the Moon] (1929) directed by the famous German director Fritz Lang as a follow-up to his science-fiction classic Metropolis (1926).

Lang was adamant that his space travel film would be more scientifically accurate than any previous space film, especially Aelita and The Sky Ship. So, he hired several science consultants, including the pioneering Romanian rocket scientist Hermann Oberth whose 1923 book The Rocket into Space was cited as a scientific source for the film’s script by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou. Lang also hired popular science writer Willy Ley. Ley had helped found the famous German Rocket Society in 1927 whose members included a young Wernher von Braun. (Urban legend has it that von Braun played a major role in making the film, but archival evidence shows that he undertook a single task on the film: he picked Oberth up from the train station in Berlin.)

Given Lang’s commitment to scientific accuracy and the presence of these scientific experts on the set you might think that the film was as close to scientifically accurate as possible. Yet, there are several inaccuracies in the film that even the least scientifically literate modern audience can easily spot. When I give public talks I like to show a clip from Woman in the Moon that involves the scientist character disembarking from the spaceship to look for water on the moon. This clip always elicits laughter from the audience when the character begins to light matches and, once he is convinced there is enough oxygen on the moon for him to breathe, takes off his helmet. Characters walking around the moon without space suits would seem to be the ultimate in bad movie science.

Was this a situation where Lang was just not aware of scientific facts about the moon? According to Ley this was not the case. He states that he and Oberth constantly argued with Lang about the need for the characters to wear space suits once they left the spaceship. In fact, Oberth nearly quit the production over this issue. Does this mean that Lang did not value the expertise of his science consultants or that he routinely ignored their advice? Evidence from Ley’s correspondence and letters actually indicate that Lang highly valued his scientists’ consul. To film scenes of the rocket takeoff and flight, Lang basically gave Oberth and Ley a film crew and told them to shoot these scenes themselves. For Oberth and Ley this control over the depiction of the rocket outweighed any concern they had about characters without space suits, as they wanted the film to convince potential funders of the need to support their rocket research. Because of Lang’s trust in his science consultants the rocket in Woman in the Moon was the most accurate (for its time) movie rocket until Destination Moon in 1950.

Lang made the decision for his characters not to wear space suits because he understood that in 1929, portraying the moon without an atmosphere was not possible from a filmmaking perspective. For one, as a successful filmmaker Lang was well aware of the dramatic elements that sold movies in the late 1920s. Therefore, box office concerns dictated that the film was first and foremost a love story. Lang believed that space suits were not really conducive to a love story, saying “How could one present a love story taking place on the moon and have the lead characters talk to each other and hold hands through space suits?”

More importantly, Lang understood from a technical perspective that this was a silent movie, which made it essential for audiences to see actors’ facial expressions. His expert knowledge of how silent film operated told him that space suits would have obscured the actors’ faces and prevented audiences from understanding the characters’ emotional states. This was the case of a technological limitation. No matter how much his scientists complained, Lang knew that the technology of 1929 would not allow him to depict the moon without an atmosphere. Ultimately, Lang decided that it was worth having characters walk on the moon without space suits in order to visualize a love story taking place amid the excitement of space travel. 

Today, it would be box office suicide to make a space film where characters did not wear space suits. Fortunately, movie-making technology has advanced since Fritz Lang’s time, so filmmakers do not have to worry about putting their characters in space suits. But, this does not mean that today’s filmmakers do not face their own technological obstacles when they try to depict science in movies. Whenever we see movie science that does not match real-world science our first question should be: why is this science inaccurate? If the reason is because the filmmakers did not bring in scientists to act as consultants or if they arbitrarily ignored their science consultants then we can legitimately call these movie depictions “bad science.” But, if the filmmakers were conscientious in their dealings with their science consultants and we discover that the scientific inaccuracies were actually the results of technological limitations or other major filmmaking constraints, then we should trust that the filmmakers believed that their decisions led to a more entertaining film. Which is what we really want from our time at the movies.

David A. Kirby was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before leaving the lab to become Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester. His research on the collaboration between scientists and the entertainment industry can be found in his recent book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema published by MIT Press. He is currently working on a book titled Playing God: Science, Religion, and Cinema, which examines how cinema served as a battleground over science’s role in influencing morality.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.