Reality and its Depictions

12 04 2011

It’s of interest to me that film makers, largely of the Hollywood persuasion, are inclined to modify reality in order to conform to our expectations of reality rather than, well, real reality.

In the pseudo-reality of the blockbuster grenades disgorge great plumes of flame and cause provocateurs to hurtle through the air, slowly. In reality grenades evince a short, sharp BANG and emit a cloud of smoke along with supersonic compression wave that crushes rather than pushes. And that’s not to mention the shrapnel. They rarely produce flame, nor drama. Only noise and tragedy.

What’s interesting about this is that if a blockbuster offered an accurate representation of a grenade, the audience would quite likely be thrown into confusion, jolting them out of the fantasy. “What was the puff and bang? It couldn’t have been a grenade.”

You can almost hear the effects department advising the director: “Grenades don’t look like grenades on film. You gotta use pyrotechnics.”

And it’s not just that fireballs are more dramatic than real grenade explosions. I fully appreciate artistic licence. But artistic license is intended to remove the undramatic elements of reality and replace them with dramatic alternatives. However, grenades are, in my opinion, intrinsically dramatic, at least as dramatic as a fireball. It’s just that puff-and-bang is not what people expect when a grenade goes off on screen. They do expect a fireball.

So what we have is an interesting barometer of what people find realistic, even if it is intentionally deviating from reality. Another way to phrase this is that films engender the implicit stereotypes and schemas adopted by their audience to categorise, represent and shape what they consider to be reality.

Teasing out the differences between cinematic depictions of the world from real descriptions of the world, and filtering out the artistic license, leaves us with an insight into the error that flavours our perception of the world as it is. As such, good film makers are a potentially wonderful resource for revealing how people think the world is rather than to find out the way it really is.

I believe this would be something film studies practitioners would be excellent at. However, no-one I know who studies media looks at it this way. I blame postmodernism.

Anyway, what I want to talk about here is science fiction. Because in science fiction you have a genre that is automatically meddling with reality. It, by definition, distorts or speculates about some aspect of reality and adds a layer of narrative assuming that this is the way the world really is.

But it can be done well, and it can be done poorly.

Do it well and you take an aspect of reality about which we don’t have all the answers and you ask “what if it was like this?” What if we could travel through time, or fly faster than the speed of light, or had intelligence robots, or an alien microbe arrived on Earth?

Do it poorly and you take an aspect of reality about which we’re fairly knowledgeable and you change it for no apparent reason – except perhaps ignorance.

For example, space-based films and computer games are riddled with inaccuracies. Planets are often shown being orders of magnitude smaller than they should be. Spaceships orbit with them with the planets hanging in the background like painted basketballs, with surface details like mountains and the lights of civilisation grossly oversized. Space is often filled with colourful nebulae or riddled with asteroids. Distances are shrunk. People are sucked into a vacuum and their eyes bulge.

These kinds of distortions of reality are unnecessary. They’re totally unlike things like sound in a vacuum, or artificial gravity, or breathable atmospheres on almost every planet. These are matters of artistic license. But the distortions above would have no impact on drama if they were represented accurately. Reality might even make things more dramatic.

And that’s what annoys me. Because – according to my media theory above – it suggests that people are not only woefully ignorant about some aspects of our world, such as space, but film and television makers are only perpetuating these misrepresentations of the world for no good dramatic reason.

And the lazier we get and more forgiving we are of sloppy science fiction, the more entrenched a sloppy view of reality will become.

Sure, there are plenty of websites that debunk bad science in films, but they fail to make the distinction between artistic licence and bad science for no appreciable reason.

So yeah, wouldn’t it be nice is the world was depicted more accurately in fiction. So yeah, make a noise. But if you do, make sure you’re criticising the right thing.

And would someone please embark on a research programme – or point me at one if it already exists – that seeks to uncover how people think the world is, and how that perception departs from reality, using film as a foil, and without resorting to postmodern explanations of subjectivity, narrative and constructionism?

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One response

13 06 2011
Ms Prue

Hi Tim. While I share your exasperation with the stupidity of realism in media, I’m afraid the criticisms you’ve made of science in science fiction can also be levelled at the depictions of law in legal dramas, policing in crime shows, medicine in hospital dramas, love in pop songs and so on. And it’s arguably more important to make stories about medicine and law as realistic as possible, given that, unlike science (sadly), most people will be dealing with those institutions directly and intimately at some point in their lives.
Thing is, entertainment media isn’t trying to depict reality, it’s trying to tell stories. Stories that are competing with each other for viewers’ attention. The real world is just a source of original material and other stories. There is no good dramatic reason for sloppy depictions of reality, but there’s an excellent pragmatic one – capturing attention.

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