Earlier this week, filmmaker, undersea adventuring exaggerator, and former king of the world James Cameron copped to a scientific inaccuracy in Titanic, a movie known for its obsessive amount of detail. Remember that moment when Kate Winslet’s Rose is floating in the middle of the ocean, staring up at night sky, as the ship and her true love finally sink to the bottom of the sea? As it turns out, that emotional dénouement was a sort of lie. The star field in that night sky was all wrong, and we know this because my future best friend Neil deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t shut up about it. And he knows this because astrophysicists like him can track the movement of the universe around us both forward and backward in time using math and computer models.
That’s one of the great things about the cosmos: the timescales are so huge that most observable phenomena function like very precise clockwork that we can easily see. But do the wrong stars and galaxies seen in fleeting glimpses really matter to the drama unfolding before our eyes?
To those in the know, like Dr. Tyson and his fellow stargazers, the answer is clearly a resounding hell yes. The fastidious James Cameron relented, wishing to protect the film’s smorgasbord of technically accurate details, and corrected his celestial FUBAR for this week’s re-release of the movie. So now, when Rose gazes up at the stars on April 15, 1912, she’ll actually be looking at the right ones. And now that scene will be so much more emotional and meaningful than it ever was before. Or, not. I get the change, and I don’t hold anything against Tyson for harping on it as though an injustice to science itself had occurred, or for Cameron to want to quiet his critics and make his film more accurate. It’s surely a better, less intrusive change than a CGI Jabba the Hut in the middle of A New Hope. But that alone, regardless of your opinion on the movie, doesn’t suddenly make Titanic a markedly, or even marginally, better film.
Does the fact that the real Marcus Aurelius entrusted his army and his empire to his not-actually-crazy son Commodus even before his death, and that Commodus was killed by a disgruntled bodyguard in his sleep, make Gladiator an unaffecting movie? Is it really important that so much of Star Trek is complete and utter fantasy because the prospects of going nine times the speed of light is likely a physical impossibility? Does knowing that Iron Man’s propulsion boots would break Tony Stark’s legs, or that the Rocketeer’s jetpack would torch everything below his waist make their flights of fancy less fun and exciting to watch on screen? “Mythbusters” proved that there’s no way the Family Truckster or the Griswolds would have survived careening underneath that tractor-trailer in Christmas Vacation, but it’s still a pretty damn memorable way to open up a movie. Regardless of how grounded or realistic it is, or is meant to be, a work of fiction is still fantasy, and so each one must work under its own set of rules, which may or may not match the ones we follow in our daily lives.
It’s when the fictions suddenly stop following those rules that we start to get problems. Maximus can’t return from the dead in Gladiator 2: This Time It’s Personaler, that shit will only fly in The Immortals or Clash of the Titans. If Tony Stark can pick up Thor’s hammer in The Avengers, the cast and crew better go into hiding lest they want to suffer a terrible fate at the hands of millions of irate fans. Should Cousin Eddie come into a ton of money by virtue of his talent and skill, you’ll know the Vacation movies have nuked the fridge once and for all. Speaking of which, the impossibility of that phrase is a key symbol for why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is considered a bigger failure than even Temple of Doom. Surviving plane crashes is one thing, surviving the ground zero detonation of an atomic bomb, as well as the proceeding fall-out, is just plain stupid. As awesome as he is, Indy ain’t Superman. Though he could have been Batman if he were rich - rich as Nazis.
For that reason alone, the Titanic fix, and pointing out the error, is a net good because painstaking detail was sort of the whole point of that movie. (Why else would Jack and Rose utter each others’ names in every line of dialogue, unless that’s exactly how teenagers back then spoke?) Still, it was never necessary for the film or the scene to have meaning, and only pedants would let that disturb their enjoyment of the movie. Some pedantry can be excused when the stickler has a sense of humor about themselves and the pop culture ephemera stuck in their craw, at least Dr. Tyson is honest in the limitations of his scientific hang-ups. But, surely, only those who are educated in a particular subject matter will dwell on the inaccuracies on display, while the rest of the presumed audience will enjoy or despise the fiction based on the subjective merits of “good” art. Like whether or not characters feel “real” and actions feel “grounded” in a recognizable reality where consequences are paid.
Most audiences just want to be entertained. That isn’t to say that true science can’t be compelling when used appropriately. Take, for instance, the short film C that we’ve talked about before, which concerns itself with the inherent drama surrounding the severe limitations of actual interstellar light-speed travel that the Star Trek series takes for granted. The cast and crew just recently finished principal photography, so it will still be awhile before we know if they execute their idea well enough, but the premise alone is exciting for the sheer epic-ness of the idea. If humanity really must abandon Earth, and likely without taking the necessary preparations beforehand (because that’s just how we do), the story of how we survive is so much more interesting at the outset when utilizing real physics instead of space magic. But that’s the world of C, not the universe of Star Trek, or Star Wars, or Mass Effect, or “Battlestar Galactica,” or myriad other titles in as many genres.
There are many paths a storyteller can take to get their message across in the clearest and most engaging fashion, and some prove more malleable while others remain strict, but neither is right nor wrong. Generally, both types are, have been, and hopefully always will be, merely different, but not exactly divergent, aspects of fiction. Human stories can be told both ways, without virtue of one way necessarily being truer than the other on an emotional level. More realistic, perhaps, but not better just for the sake of it. Our lizard brains don’t care about reality, as long as the internal logic withstands the barest scrutiny. In the end, whether we’re looking at the correct star pattern or calculating the exact number of years to reach our closest neighboring star, the only thing that really matters is an answer to a simple question: Are we not entertained?
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). He prefers good science over bad, but it depends on the story first.