Depictions of astronomy in movies4 min read

Space, the stars and planets have become so commonplace in movies and popular media that we barely even heed their presence. All the same, these elements are there exceedingly often, although their representation in shows is not always accurate. This article further elaborates upon the representation of different components of astronomy in movies, shows and media.

asteroid belt
I was first exposed to the fascinating entity that is astronomy by the show Magic School Bus—this is a show in which several, young students and a highly eccentric teacher go on a bus that can cater to their every need—whether it is turning into an airplane, the size of an ant, or even a butterfly. In one particularly memorable episode, the teacher turns the bus into a spacecraft, which then takes all the youngsters on a journey across the Solar System; their excursions include visiting the sun at an extremely close range, landing on the surfaces of the scorching Mercury and Venus, traveling through the atmosphere of all four gas giants, and finally reaching the wintry world of Pluto—all in less than a day. Although that episode was instrumental in introducing me to the nine planets, the sun, the Asteroid Belt and the Solar System as a whole, I hadn’t realized how warped and incorrect a majority of the information presented was. After all, it’s humanely impossible to travel the Solar System in the span of less than a day, and is even more impossible to observe the sun mere meters away. Space suits will never protect us from the intense heat of Mercury and Venus, or from the icy atmosphere of Pluto. And no one can emerge perfectly unharmed after traveling through the turbulent skies of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. So even though The Magic School Bus was helpful in some ways, it was extremely misleading in other aspects—an error I had not noticed until many years later. And yet, I enjoyed watching the show so much—regardless of how inaccurate its depictions of the Solar System and the sheer distances of space time were.

Another movie revolving around space—Gravity (with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney). Definitely, Gravity was incredibly realistic—the graphics and overall imaging were wonderful, and reviews state that this movie was a non-misleading portrayal of the satellites and other machines that revolve in close proximity around the globe. And naturally, I found the images and graphics wonderful—but not the movie as a whole. Held down by the obligation to make the movie appear as lifelike as possible, the directors seemed to have lost sight of the original aim of a movie—to entertain. And one of the few movies that makes astronomy and satellites appear extremely and admirably realistic invariably becomes rather repetitive… space is dangerous, and astronauts must be exceedingly brave—but watching the female protagonist endure catastrophe after catastrophe ended up becoming very monotonous, almost verging on dull.

On the other hand, the movie Interstellar really lives up to the aim of including astronomy in movies. It’s inclusion of time travel isn’t practical, as reported by critics and reviewers, but it’s an extremely intriguing movie to watch—it really makes our minds think and our imaginations fly. As said by astrophysicist Kip Thorne, “while wormholes are possible according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, such exotic voyages will likely remain in the realm of science fiction”. The black hole, wormhole, alien planets and the plot that revolves around the concepts of time travel is incredibly amazing, even though it departs from the traditional conventions of adhering to the rather dull, rather commonplace elements of realistic space—like those in the movie Gravity. And after watching all of these shows and movies, I realized—being realistic when it comes to depicting astronomy in movies is never the best thing to do. The universe is all about dreaming and thinking outside the box, and attempting to hinder this destroys the very purpose of portraying space and stars in the form of visual and aural effects—that is to let our imaginations run wild and our dreams expand by leaps and bounds. Sticking to the normalities of the earth and gravity are prudent, but they’re tedious and sometimes even boring. I enjoyed watching The Magic School Bus and Interstellar for precisely these reasons—after living in the banalities of everyday life, escaping them and entering the world of speculations is undoubtedly a liberating force.



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