Suspension of Disbelief: Science In Film

Ok, a giant planet is about to hit the Earth and there’s no gravitational or orbital issues, earthquakes, etc. Yeah, sure.

By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

Editor’s Note: We are re-running this article because it touches on science and movies, always a slippery slope.

When you write a story or screenplay that involves some heavy duty science, it’s usually a good idea to do a little research before you just start putting words onto a page. Audiences don’t expect you to get everything right, in fact, there is a term for this: suspension of disbelief.

It’s when you ignore certain scientific or sociological problems in favor of appreciating a good and engaging story. Suspension of disbelief is a slippery, but necessary slope for many writers. You hope your story is strong enough to support it, but if you go too far then you lose the audience.

I recently watched the movie Melancholia by the controversial Lars Von Trier and can honestly say that I have never been happier to see the world end. Perhaps, my intellect isn’t advanced enough to appreciate the nuances of the story, but when the movie ended, I was left with more questions than answers…and not the good kind of questions.

Lars asks a lot of people in the suspension of disbelief department. A large planet that has been hiding behind the sun for eons suddenly plays peek-a-boo and then collides into the planet ending all life. The goal is for you to see this impending planetary doom as a footnote in the story. The movie is really about the characters Justine, a perpetually melancholy woman, and her sister, Claire.

Sadly, the planet, and the preposterous reasons for it being there, overshadowed the story for me. The completely unrealistic way it impacted the planet, the planet’s unnatural path of destruction and how no one figured it out before about five days before it happened all left me shaking my head.

These may seems like minor points to some, but to someone with scientific knowledge, it becomes the white elephant in the room. Art and non-science fiction movies are generally given a bit more leeway with suspension of disbelief. People will nitpick the science of the newest Star Trek movie for hours on end, but movies where science is used in the background and sparingly can get away with more.

For example, we know that there is no way Wyatt and Gary could actually create a woman in “Weird Science,” but we ignore this because we know the movie is tongue-and-cheek and that’s not what the story is about. It’s simply a small plot point.

Suspension of disbelief is a necessary part of writing. We can’t always accurately portray the science or make the explanation fit with what’s going on, so we…fudge it a bit. We hope the audience will continue in the journey despite this, but if you go too far, your story or movie will get derailed. No one will concentrate on the story because they are too busy being annoyed by the implausible scenarios.