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October 09, 2013


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Kevin Johnson


While I definitely understand your point here, especially when it comes to more aesthetics and stylistic decisions (and, to be fair to Tyson, he's always had a tongue-in-cheek approach to criticizing science in pop culture), I don't know if you can utterly dismiss "realism" or "accuracy" concerns, especially when it tosses aside serious concerns related to socioeconomic issues and stereotypes. I get the sense you partly dismissed that with the New Inquiry piece.

If someone wrote "12 Things Avatar Gets Wrong about Native American culture," (just off the top of my head as a broad example) dismissing it can easily come off as justification to allow James Cameron and future filmmamkers to produce whatever-type of material in order to produce "art". In a way, that's fine; it's still problematic, and ought to be pointed out. Sure, many bloggers go overboard, but there's a legitimacy in pointing out the bull that various filmmakers gotten away, get away, and continue to get away with.

The question then becomes, per your example re: Parks and Recs, if P&R is simply exaggerating small town life for comic purposes or mishandling small town life stereotypes with no regards to how they really live for comic purposes (for the record, I believe P&R takes the former approach). Let's not get too caught up in allowing every creative to do whatever under the guise of artistic purposes.


Though of course, there are two categories of this kind of criticism. One is practiced by bad critics who can't enter into the imaginary fictional world. But the other is practiced by non-critics who, seeing that a certain thing related to the area of expertise is a hot topic, are trying to catch some attention themselves. I don't know how bad that is. If you know something about meth distribution or physics, and this is your chance to get your Slate essay before people move on to the next thing, I say go for it. Though it would be nice to admit within the essay that liberties with reality don't equal artistic or moral failure.

In that sense, I also get Tyson's frustration that people in space still thrills people's imagination, but there's not funding or the will to actually let people do it. Though the fact that Gravity is a tale of death and destruction may answer his "mystery" of why we prefer the fictional story over the reality.

Travis McClain

Just a couple days ago, I listened to former President George H.W. Bush's 1988 nomination acceptance speech. In it, he had the following to say:

"Some say this isn't an election about ideology, it's an election about competence. Well, it's nice of them to want to play on our field. But this election isn't only about competence, for competence is a narrow ideal. Competence makes the trains run on time but doesn't know where they're going. Competence is the creed of the technocrat who makes sure the gears mesh but doesn't for a second understand the magic of the machine."

The "What X gets wrong about Y" critics are little more than creative technocrats, overseeing the meshing of gears without bothering to even consider the magic of the machine.

I can, however, appreciate being taken out of a film by a glaring deviation from our world as we know it. The trains do need to run on time, after all. But not knowing where they're going makes nitpicking a five minute delay not just petty and unhelpful, but an insult to criticism.


Kevin Johnson, with all due respect what are you talking about? I see that you're taking the 'Naavi = Indians' thing and using it to create an absurd phony blog post, but seriously what are you referring to when you talk about the 'bull that various filmmakers gotten away, get away, and continue to get away with'?

It's called suspension of disbelief. If you have a problem with it, you should avoid fiction. If you're nitpicking James Cameron, of all people, a filmmaker whose CV includes time travel, alien races, robots, super spies and ghosts, what kind of 'realism' are you really looking for?

Your reductive mode of thinking is exactly the problem that Isaac is talking about in this brilliant piece.


I totally see your point, but I don't find that these sorts of posts diminish from my enjoyment of the fiction in question at all. Granted, I'm only going to click on one about a topic that interests me, so I don't feel overwhelmed by them, but I loved Gravity and I also found Tyson's tweets very interesting and informative. (It helped that he made clear that he liked the movie and wasn't being a pill about it all.) I mean, I work in theater and I loved Smash. I don't need realism in my art. But I could see how for someone else, watching Smash could spark an interest in theater (or that's why they're watching in the first place) and they'd get curious about the reality. As long as that's the approach of "What X Gets Wrong About Y," and not "Can you *believe* these idiots?" I don't see a problem with it.

Kevin Johnson


Just so we're clear, I watch and write about cartoons all the time. I love them - Archer, The Legend of Korra, TMNT. I love Demolition Man, Starship Troopers, and all sorts of ridiculous entertainment, so please, don't play that card. My post wasn't about the suspension of disbelief, and you know it.

The concern I was voicing was filmmakers using realism or creative license as an excuse to showcase their vision that also make mistakes that harm social/historical/economic perspectives. Sure, the Gravity nit-picking is useless. But fact-checking something like the The Help or Dances With Wolves, I would think, is more culturally important and somewhat necessary.

Noah Berlatsky

I think you maybe downplay the extent to which protestations of realism are central to a lot of art. They're absolutely central to Breaking Bad; it's supposed to be morally serious, and one of the ways that's put across is through viciousness and unpleasantness, which are markers of the real in that show and many others.


I agree with you in terms of fantastic entertainment; where the only real standard is well thought out or poorly thought out since it's inherently unrealistic. The problem is that so much of our experience of the world is filtered through media, so story truth comes to be believed as real truth. If the truth presented in a story is a lie, that can have consequences. Lies presented in media run the gamut from propaganda for the military in movies and TV to get access to military equipment and settings helping set the stage for wars, to CSI making it harder to get juries think forensic evidence is infallible, or propaganda like Birth of A Nation or The Outlaw Josey Wales, promoting the myth of southern victim-hood and the righteousness of violence in response to reconstruction. It's important that stories be scrutinized for accuracy because we need to be able to separate narrative truths from the way things actually work and are. I understand it's annoying for someone looking at a story qua story to have some horrible pedant point out that the sets are cardboard and the clothes are all wrong and by the way the person that character was based on was 4 at the time this was supposed to happen. But I prefer it to having my understanding of the real world be a pastiche of other people's lies.

Max Udargo

Here's the thing: the problems scientists like Tyson have pointed out with Gravity are relevant to the story, because the story is about people struggling to survive in low-Earth orbit and find a way to return to Earth safely using today's technology (mostly).

Looking at it from another angle, the biggest factual inconsistency in Gravity is hardly mentioned by critics. The US Space Shuttle program has ended. We aren't going to be sending any shuttles into orbit in the future. Yet Gravity depicts a shuttle mission taking place at the same time a large, multi-module TianGong space station is in orbit. As of now, the Space Shuttle program is already finished and yet the Chinese have only placed one small module in orbit in preparation for its expansion into the full station in the coming years.

So there never was and never will be a moment in time when the skies above will contain both TianGong and a US Space Shuttle.

But nobody complains about that, because it's not relevant to the story. It's one of the things you have to accept as part of the fictional reality that the movie establishes with its audience. In the universe of Gravity, the US Space Shuttle program continues into the near future and coexists with the TianGong program. Ok, that's counter-factual, but who cares? We suspend our disbelief and accept it.

But some of us complain about the fact that it's impossible for Matt and Ryan to transition from a Hubble Telescope orbit to an ISS orbit. Why can't we accept that too? Well, because the movie is constantly telling us that the physics of free-fall are central to the story. The story, on one level, is about finding a way to survive given the harsh, unforgiving rules that apply beyond the loving embrace of Earth. The movie argues that it is illustrating that hostile environment accurately, and that an accurate understanding will ultimately edify us with a new appreciation of how grateful we should be that a place like Earth exists with rules that make sense for us and allow us to breathe freely and stand tall on solid ground.

So orbital dynamics are relevant to the story because an accurate depiction of the physics of space is relevant to the story. The history of the Shuttle Program is not.

Complaining about orbital dynamics when watching Star Wars would be silly, of course, but Gravity negotiates a different deal with its audience.

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