Director James “King of the World” Cameron may be the king of moviemaking technology this year with the release of his long-awaited science fiction epic, Avatar. To make the lavish movie he envisioned, Cameron helped invent a 3-D stereoscopic camera system called Fusion. Using two lenses placed close together to mimic the way the human eyes capture depth, the system created the stunning imagery of Avatar’s fictional moon, Pandora, where native humanoids called the Na’vi battle war-hungry Marines in the 22nd century. Cameron’s digital filmmaking process encompassed more than 1,600 live-action and photorealistic computer-generated images. Avatar also employed two other amazing bits of technology: Skullcaps worn by the actors had tiny cameras capturing their facial performances, which allowed for more detailed and realistic animation of their characters without the burden of dozens of miniature sensors placed on their faces. And the performance-capture stage was six times as big as those used before, which let Cameron direct scenes as he would on a real set.
This critically acclaimed drama from director Neill Blomkamp—which spun an alien action movie into a compelling analysis of species xenophobia—was based on his experience growing up in South Africa. Turning sci-fi conventions upside down, Blomkamp’s aliens arrive at Johannesburg and are forced to live in a slum called District 9. One highlight (spoiler alert) is when a splash of alien DNA that lands on a human’s face causes his body to morph, over time, into a human-alien hybrid. Of course there is no reason to think our DNA would be compatible with an alien’s, notes Michael Wach of Biotechnology Industry Organization, and genetic manipulation requires sophisticated lab procedures. That said, he still liked the movie.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Anyone addicted to logical thinking may have had trouble with this Michael Bay blockbuster—how do those giant robots reduce to the weight of a car when they fold up—but popcorn-film fans loved it. CGI buffs had much to savor too. The film’s digital master file is 160 terabytes, which is “160 billion things,” Bay joked to DISCOVER. “Effects of that high a resolution have never been done before.”
The plotting may be a bit awkward in this mashup of AI, sci-fi, and crime procedural (based on Robert Venditti’s comic of the same name), but the movie has an intriguing and timely premise. It extrapolates from today’s primitive virtual worlds, like Second Life, to look at a future society in which humans live vicariously through their robotic doppelgängers. How likely is that? We already know how to use brain signals to direct robots as they perform simple tasks, says University of California at Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni. But we are a long way from the movie’s version of comprehensive virtual living. (See Science Not Fiction's interview with Venditti.)
Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 postapocalyptic, Pulitzer-winning tale stripped humanity of its technology and its morality. Director John Hillcoat’s film adaptation is equally bleak, downplaying the science and personalizing the human struggle. Viggo Mortensen, star of The Road, insists its dystopian possibility is closer than we think: “Fly over this country or any other in the world, and you can become quite alarmed and sad at the sight of so much deforestation, scarring of the land, and toxic contamination.”
Director Zack Snyder’s epic drew mixed reviews from fans of the graphic novel. We also had reservations about its attitude toward science. Doctor Manhattan uses his atomic insights to clean up the world but loses his humanity; Watchmen’s brilliant researcher, Ozymandias, performs a dark utilitarian exercise, plotting to kill millions in the service of an alleged greater good.
COMING ATTRACTIONS: 2010
Oceans (April 2010) A documentary-style film looks into the blue abyss.
Tron Legacy (Dec. 2010) The son of a computer whiz finds himself pulled into intense programs in the search for his father..
The Book of Eli (Jan. 2010) A postapocalyptic quest to protect a sacred tome.
Legion (Jan. 2010) The apocalypse has occurred, and a waitress is pregnant with the Messiah.
Iron Man 2 (May 2010) The genius industrialist-playboy is well suited for more adventure.
Alice in Wonderland (March 2010) Mathematician Lewis Carroll’s Alice, no longer a little girl, returns to the rabbit hole, unaware she has been there once before.
The legendary sci-fi franchise that changed pop culture—and inspired two generations of scientists—was rusting in space dock. So Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams rebooted it with young actors, mind-melding action, and loyalist-approved continuity. The result recaptured much of the original show’s loopy sense of adventure. Coolest moment? Watching Kirk (Chris Pine) and Sulu (John Cho) execute an orbital dive to a drilling platform on planet Vulcan. It’s just fiction for now, but a company called Orbital Outfitters is working on the technology for a real space-dive suit.
Sure, Star Trek was also filled with some not-great science: an exploding supernova that wiped out planet Romulus (too far away), a floating mining drill boring into the planetary core of Vulcan (too hard or soft, depending on the mantle), and most egregiously, a “red matter” bomb that created a black hole that destroyed Vulcan altogether. Of red matter, Phil Plait complained in Bad Astronomy, “The red matter black hole would be incredibly small, probably smaller than an atom, and that would make it hard to gobble down enough mass to grow rapidly.”
But plenty of other Star Trek goofs (like the holodek, the phaser, and the transporter) have inspired real research. “[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was a good friend,” says celebrated MIT cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky. “In the end, no other person ever had such a positive pro-science influence on the TV audience.”