Take a sci-fi movie and strip away the science and you get “The Notebook.” For the true sci-fi fan, that movie would have been so much better with a neuro-transfer machine, allowing the husband to enter his Alzheimer-afflicted wife’s mind to remind her who he was. The tears and sappy message are still the same but the fun of a little science (that can really happen) is what makes a good fiction movie into a great sci-fi movie.
In James Cameron’s 1989 underwater thriller “The Abyss,” platform foreman Bud, played by Ed Harris, needs to dive deeper than any human ever has to deactivate a nuclear bomb. He accomplishes this by using space-age breathable fluids. Remember the scene where they demonstrate how the fluid works? There was no fiction to that scene. Cameron actually used the oxygenated fluorocarbon liquid on a real rat, earning the ire of the American Humane Society. Because of their lack of compressibility and resistance to temperature changes, fluorocarbons are used in everything from manufacturing gaskets to creating breathable liquids. They act as the perfect medium to carry other constituents, including oxygen, electronics and nanotechnology.
Humans can live about three days without water which is a fact that Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, seems to know all too well. “The Martian“ was in post-production when NASA announced the discovery of liquid water on Mars, so Watney had to use a different approach to quench his thirst. He uses the rocket’s fuel, hydrazine (N2H4), to whip up a batch of water. Hydrazine is extremely flammable, liberating diatomic nitrogen and diatomic hydrogen as a byproduct of its burning. Once you grab the hydrogen and throw in some oxygen, all you need is a lot of heat or some electricity to get the two elements to bond into H2O. Do it right and Watney gets a sip of water. Do it wrong and he blows up, which would have made for a short and dull movie.
Peter Hyams’s sequel to Kubrick’s classic 2001 “A Space Odyssey” is riddled with some great science. The way that they move through the ships, using rotational dynamics to create gravity put more physicists on the edge of their seats than the plot. Since Arthur C. Clarke, the book’s author, was an engineer by training, it makes sense that the movie would be scientifically accurate. Just look at the scene where John Lithgow’s character needs to EVA between the two ships. There is no up, no down. He just looks at the center of rotation which, from a science perspective, would reduce his peripheral vision and fixes his gaze on the target.
The science of the mind is explored in the 1980 classic sci-fi film “Altered States” in which William Hurt’s Harvard scientist Eddie Jessup uses drugs and a Samadhi tank to tap into the mind-body connection with some unnerving effects. Whether the mind can change your DNA, like in the movie, is still yet to be tested but we do know that trance states can seriously alter a person’s brain activity, blood pressure, white blood count and hormone levels. A good sensory deprivation tank may not turn you into a goat-eating Neanderthal but it can make you think that you are one.