SAN DIEGO—Hollywood has a message for scientists: If you want something that's 100% accurate in every way, go watch a documentary. "Practically, sometimes, you can't abide by the science," said screenwriter Alex Tse at a session on the science of superheroes here this morning at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW).
The thing is, when it comes to movies, narrative wins. The writer's job is to get the characters right, not the science, says Tse, who cowrote Watchmen, one of last year’s most-anticipated superhero films. It annoys him, too, when things don't make sense. He spent a lot of time and energy trying to find a fix for a logical problem in Watchmen—that one character, Dan, uses a completely obvious password to hack into the computer of Adrian, who is supremely intelligent. "Adrian is the f***ing smartest guy in the world, and Dan goes in and types the password and he's in," says Tse. But for practical reasons, that kind of problem often just can't be fixed. Maybe it would take too long, in an already long movie, or distract too much from the narrative, or cost too much to shoot.
Writers have faced similar conundrums with the TV show Heroes. The series follows a group of characters that have acquired superpowers: one is invisible, one can walk through walls, and another can fly. One little boy can control electronics with his mind, which is "completely scientifically crazy," says Joe Pokaski, a writer who has worked on every one of the show's 76 episodes. But scientific sense isn't necessarily the point. As long as things make sense to the viewer, that's good enough, and it can leave the show open to carry out its real business: exploring the characters' struggle to figure out how to use their powers. "We try to have everything based in the emotion," says Pokaski.
And don’t even get Heroes writer Aron Coleite started on invisibility. In a scene from the first season of the show, two invisible men walked down a Manhattan street, bumping into people and things as they went; one steals a pretzel from a cart. "Hollywood is not very glamorous," says Coleite. "We spend hours in a stinking room arguing about invisibility." Questions such as: Does invisibility extend to clothes? Should the guys be walking down the street naked? Does the pretzel disappear? But there was no need to explain the solution they came up with. "We're demonstrating it visually. [We don't] bother people with saying, 'It's an invisible field around them that distorts light, and that's why Claude is wearing clothes,' " Coleite says.
All of this makes sense when you consider that most of these writers don’t have Ph.D.s in astrophysics. "You asked if we had a science background,” said Pokaski, referring to a question during the session. “No, we have a science fiction background. The more you try to explain, the sillier it sounds."