90 movies, 19 days, 1 dissertation

Who likes data?

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Me. I like data.

I collected a fair amount of data (and made many an Excel spreadsheet) over the three weeks I watched all those movies for my Master’s project. This turned into my four-part video series Hollywood’s Outer Space, but I also had to write up a more formal-sounding review of that data. It had to go into an appendix because I would have gone over the 10,000 word limit if I hadn’t, so I don’t know if anyone other than my supervisor actually read it.

So, I’m putting it up on the internet in case someone out there wants to have a peak at the academic version. You never know…

Hollywood’s Outer Space: Film Review

Gravity

Unsurprisingly, a majority of the ninety reviewed films use artificial gravity at some point, if not the entire movie (see genre breakdown in Table 1). Six movies do not feature scenes inside spacecrafts (e.g. Transformers Dark of the Moon (2011)); fifty-three of the remaining eighty-four films use non-rotational artificial gravity – including one film that uses a “constant acceleration drive” (Lifeforce, 1985) – and eleven films use rotation (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)). One film – Supernova (2000) – appears to use both, as rotating sections are established in exterior shots but characters are shown with weight in the non-rotating cockpit. Armageddon (1998) and Enemy Mine (1985) feature spinning entire, ring-less space stations; Enemy Mine is also the only film to use rotation that does not also have a scene where a character is weightless. While the first occurrence of rotation appears in the oldest film reviewed (2001: A Space Odyssey, Figure 1), it takes another sixteen years – in the film’s sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) – until it is utilized again. Seven of the eleven films using rotation were released in the 21st century, and eight take place exclusively within our solar system. All films portraying artificial gravity using rotation do not acknowledge real-world challenges of balancing the size and rotation rate with the negative health effects due to the Coriolis Force or the structural integrity of the material used to build the spacecraft.

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Figure 1: Screencap from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), showing a space station that rotates to generate artificial gravity. Unlike later films with ringed stations, the entire station in 2001 spins together, rather than having only a portion rotate around a non-spinning section (e.g. The Martian (2015)).

Six films have (non-rotating) artificial gravity deactivated at some point to allow characters to float around. The reasons vary: to aid escape (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014), to carry out an assassination plot (Star Trek VI, 1991) or for amusement (Space Station 76, 2014), for example.

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Table 1: Genre breakdown for Gravity

Movies that exclusively portray characters as weightless in outer space (ten in total) usually either spend little screen time in space (e.g. Avatar (2009)) or keep characters strapped tightly into their seats during the journey (e.g. Countdown (1968)). Space Chimps (2008) falls into the latter category, but is also animated and thus removes the time/budget complications with filming accurate-looking live-action weightlessness. Three films fall into an ‘other’ category: Space Camp (1987), which uses tight shots and has actors move around slowly in order to appear as if floating, Gravity (2013), and Apollo 13 (1995). The last of these is the most notable exception, as cast and crew filmed many scenes while flying in NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft; the actors and film crew were actually weightless during filming (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Screencap from Apollo 13 (1995). Tom Hanks is actually weightless in this scene because it was filmed in NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft (aka the “Vomit Comet”). The plane’s flight path consists of a series of parabolic arcs; during each it undergoes approximately 25 seconds of freefall and gives passengers the sensation of weightlessness.

Films containing scenes that should be low-gravity environments (such as the surface of the Moon) usually inaccurately show characters walking around in Earth-like gravity, unless the length of time spent on the body is relatively short (e.g. Deep Impact (1998)). Twenty-two films represent characters on small rocky bodies1; only eight represent lower gravity at all, and four are inconsistent between scenes (e.g. Outland (1981), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)), showing both 1g (i.e. Earth-like gravity) or fractional-g scenes.

Gravity was also referenced when characters occasionally were caught in the gravitational pull of a large body (often falling to their deaths, see Figure 3) such as stars (Zathura, 2005; Green Lantern, 2011; Lost in Space, 1998), black holes (The Black Hole, 1979; Treasure Planet, 2002), or smaller bodies like planets (Star Trek: Into Darkness, 2013) or moons (The Last Starfighter, 1984).

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Figure 3: Screencap from Green Lantern (2011) showing Parallax and Hal Hordan falling toward the Sun. Earlier in the film, a character exposes Jordan to “the gravitational pull of your average sun” and warns him that “the bigger you are, the faster you burn.” The latter line is re-quoted by Jordan during this scene, when he tricks Parallax into getting close enough to fall into the Sun and burn up.

Scale

By nature of the size of a galaxy – our own being 100,000 lightyears in diameter – any film that involves interstellar travel requires either the use of an intergenerational ship (shown only in Battle for Terra (2009)), a wormhole, or faster-than-light (a.k.a. “FTL”) travel. Fifty-nine2 films show interstellar travel (see Table 2 for genre breakdown), however only thirty-three explicitly make reference to FTL technology e.g. “warp drive”, “hyperdrive”, or show a distinct visual effect (usually starlight streaking, see Figure 4). This number is perhaps misleading, as many movies that fall into this category belong to multi-film franchises where the so-called ‘rules’ of FTL travel are the same across all movies. Of sixty-seven franchises3 in total, thirteen elect to explicitly use FTL technology. Some movies within these thirteen franchises can, however, forget that ships without FTL capability cannot feasibly travel the same distances. For example, in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive breaks down and the crew flies between star systems (in astronomically no time at all) to reach a repair station.

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Table 2 (top): Genre Breakdown for Scale, Table 3: Objects visited in intrastellar-only films

Five franchises place characters in some sort of suspended animation explicitly for the purposes of interstellar travel (e.g. Avatar (2009), Alien (1979)). However, for all but one film4 the distances traversed are still too far for the characters to have traveled without also achieving FTL speeds or using a wormhole to cut across space. Suspended animation is slightly more likely to be used in intrastellar films, with a count of six franchises. Interstellar (2014), notably, uses suspended animation for characters to travel to Saturn, and they wake before entering a wormhole to travel to another star system; thus, the film is counted in the latter category.

Of thirty-two movies that take place exclusively in intrastellar space, only one (Serenity, 2005) takes place in a solar system other than ours. Nine films take place in orbit around or very near Earth (including Armageddon (1998), which visits an asteroid after slingshoting around the Moon). Table 3 shows where the remaining films visit.5 Event Horizon (1997) is an interesting outlier in terms of intrastellar travel time; the characters travel to Neptune in fifty-six days and reportedly would experience 30 g’s of acceleration if they did not travel inside protective “grav couches”. Assuming a direct trajectory, the ship would need to travel approximately 0.3% the speed of light (900,000 m/s) to reach Neptune in that amount of time.

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Figure 4: Screencap from Star Wars (1977), showing the common star-streak visual effect indicating a ship is using some form of FTL technology (In the Star Wars franchise, it is known as “hyperdrive”). Other movies will also warp the shape of the spaceship itself during an exterior shot, e.g. those in the Star Trek franchise.

Holes

The first appearance of a black hole on screen (within the movies sampled) is in Disney’s The Black Hole (1979, see Figure 5a); the second is in Event Horizon (1997). Over the last twenty years, eight films show at least one black hole6. In the Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek (2009), the same singularity is used as both. In Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) a black hole is mentioned (and is used as a wormhole) but is not shown on screen.

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Table 4: Genre Breakdown for ‘Holes’

The black hole in Interstellar (2014, see Figure 5b) is the exception to this, as it serves to create a time dilation effect for the protagonists relative to Earth. This film also portrays the most realistic black hole; theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne helped the film’s visual effects team develop a new program to simulate the black hole. What appears in the movie is a simplified version of the program’s simulation; shifts in brightness and color were removed because Nolan didn’t want to add unnecessary confusion, and computer-generated lens flare was added because audiences are used to seeing objects filmed through a camera lens that would scatter incoming light.

Wormholes only make appearances in seven films. Thus, of the fifteen movies that visually feature either type of astronomical ‘hole’, twelve use them to cut across space. Also, in general, black holes are naturally-occurring phenomena (the only exceptions: Star Trek (2009) and Event Horizon (1997)), whereas wormholes are more frequently man-made.7

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Figure 5: Screencaps from a) The Black Hole (1979) and b) Interstellar (2014), showing the oldest and newest visual representations of black holes amongst the ninety reviewed movies. Interstellar‘s black hole, nicknamed “Gargantua” in the film, is the only representation amongst all nine with a three-dimensional accretion disk (i.e. the matter spiraling into the black hole does not appear as a flat circle or resemble water spiraling down a drain). More information regarding the creation of Gargantua can be found in James et al. 2015 (coauthored by Kip Thorne), including images showing the color and brightness differences between the simulated black hole and the one that ended up on screen.

Death

While it is technically not outer space itself that kills the character, the most abundant cause of death – observable in 41/90 films – is spacecrafts exploding. This is most frequent in films classified as action (61%) and adventure (53%)8 (Genre percentages can be found in Table 5).

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Table 5: Genre Breakdown for Death

Twenty-two films show deaths due to exposure to the vacuum of space. Exposure usually comes as a result of two sources: a large hull breach or getting shot out of an airlock. Only two deaths come from a relatively slow leak (both some sort of tear in a spacesuit) – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Marooned (1969) – whose characters die from anoxia. In most movies, no real cause of death is shown – the characters are simply flung out into the void and never seen again. In the four9 that do, characters explode (Outland (1981)) or freeze near-instantly (Mission to Mars (2000, Figure 6), Sunshine (2007), and Gravity (2013)). One movie’s death is a dream sequence (Apollo 13, 1995). Two movies (Alien: Resurrection (1997) and Jason X (2002)) have one character die not due to the human body’s response to the vacuum, but by getting (scientifically inaccurately) sucked through a hole much smaller than their overall body size. Horrors and thrillers – at 70% and 58%, respectively – are more likely to kill characters by sudden vacuum exposure (i.e. “explosive decompression”) than other genres.

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Figure 6: Screencap from Mission to Mars (2000) showing an astronaut who has just removed his helmet while in orbit of Mars. Three of the four movies that showed a specific cause of death when a character was exposed to the vacuum of space involved freezing relatively instantaneously. Mission to Mars was quickest; Sunshine‘s (2007) character took about ten seconds. In reality, the vacuum of space serves as an insulator, so it takes a human body hours to reach freezing temperatures.

Of the eight films whose characters survive explosive decompression, ease of survival depends on genre. For example, in comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) the characters suffer absolutely no ill-effects. In the action/adventure Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), a character starts growing frost on his skin and eyes, and capillaries in his eyes burst, but as soon as he is moved into a ship he merely coughs and gasps for breath. In the horror Event Horizon (1997), a character vomits blood, and blood squirts out from his eyes.

The next most common cause of death – represented in eleven films – is to kill characters by having them float away (inside a spacesuit) and run out of oxygen, with mysteries/thrillers (tied 33%) and dramas (23%) most likely to do so. Alternative methods of death include events such as micrometeorite/debris strikes (e.g. Pitch Black (2000), Gravity (2013)) burning up upon entering a planet’s atmosphere (e.g. Dark Star (1974), Jason X (2002)), and falling into a black hole (e.g. Treasure Planet (2002)), but each had at most a few representations. No genre analysis was therefore conducted.


1. In reality, given its represented size, the rogue planet known as Starkiller Base in Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2015) should not possess an atmosphere or be able to sustain humanoid life, but since it does it is excluded from this count. 
2. Mission to Mars (2000) ends with a protagonist leaving on an interstellar trip but the movie is not counted. 
3. Here I define “franchise” to include single-movie properties as well. For example, 2001 and 2010 are in the same franchise, as the latter is a sequel. A film with no sequel, e.g. Interstellar, counts as its own franchise. 
4. In Lost in Space (1998), the protagonists plan to travel ten years to the nearest habitable planet; although it is never stated how far away the planet is, there have been extra-solar planets located within ten lightyears from Earth. 
5. Mars Attacks! (1996) is not counted, as all travel takes place in the opening credits when the alien armada travels from Mars to Earth. 
6. Fifty-nine movies from the past two decades were reviewed in total. 
7. The wormhole in Space Chimps (2008) is the only clearly natural wormhole. The one in Green Lantern (2011) may or may not be generated by the Green Lantern Ring.
8. I am not counting fantasy, as seven of nine films in the category are from the Star Wars franchise, and all fantasy movies that kill characters this way are Star Wars films.
9. Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and Event Horizon (1997) make reference to a human freezing or exploding when exposed to the vacuum of space, but no character actually dies by either of these methods. After being shot out of an airlock, the moment of a character’s death in Supernova (2000) is shown but she is too small on screen to determine cause of death.

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