Intuitor's Recommendations for Movies With Good Movie Physics

Movies and physics have a lot in common: neither are completely realistic, both are simulations of reality.
Physics not completely realistic? Shocking! But consider a simple classroom example: measuring the depth of a well by dropping in a pebble and timing how long it takes to hit the water. For the calculation we would typically write a simple equation that says the Earth is flat and has no atmosphere.  (in other words, the gravity field is constant and there is no air resistance.) Furthermore, we'd assume that the speed of the sound produced by the pebble hitting water is infinitely high and ignore all sorts of effects like the gravitational attraction force of Jupiter.
Why would we digress so far from reality? If all possible influences were somehow miraculously accounted for, we'd be unable to measure the difference. Hence, the physics model used for measuring depth, while not absolutely realistic, is operationally realistic. It accounts for the major effect and yields predictions well within our measurement accuracy.
There's a big difference between operationally correct movie physics and the ridiculously spectacular marketing-driven special effects designed to boost box-office take. We're periodically told that realistic movie physics are too boring, so we've put together a list of highly-acclaimed movies with physics that we consider, if not perfect, then at least operationally realistic. Note, that this list is neither exhaustive nor in any special order. It includes a wide variety of movies with everything from historic accounts to science fiction. All the listed movies were either box office successes and/or cult classics with steady DVD sales.
Apollo 13 (1995) - Dramatizes the near disastrous Apollo 13 moon shot. Has sometimes been criticized for unrealistic and overly dramatic dialog . Our impression (based on some very intense personal experiences in the chemical industry in which careers, millions of dollars and even lives were at stake): much of the emotion and dialog rings true. The parts that do not are generally parts contrived to make the movie more exciting for marketing purposes. This includes the contrived adolescent conflict aboard the spacecraft.

While not perfect, the filmmakers paid attention to physics details. For example, they went to the bother of simulating many of the movie's low gravity scenes aboard NASA's Vomit Comet aircraft during parabolic dives. About the only way the movie physics could have been significantly improved would have been to actually make a moon shot while filming.

  • Oscars (2): Best Film Editing, Best Sound,
  • Oscar Nominations (7): Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Effects, Visual Effects, Best Music-Original Dramatic Score, Best Picture, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
  • AFI List of 100 Most Inspiring Movies # 12
The Right Stuff (1983) - Details the early days of supersonic aircraft and Mercury space flights. Unlike the more balanced Apollo 13The Right Stuff focuses mostly on the astronauts and test pilots rather than the nerds who made the flights possible.  Still the movie has a lot to say about the drama of a high tech project. The movie is based on Tom Wolfe's best selling book, considered a classic example of how a nonfiction book can be written to read like a novel.
  • Oscars (4): Best Effects, Sound Editing; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score; Best Sound.
  • Oscar Nominations (4): Best Actor in a Supporting Role; Best Art Direction-set Decoration; Best Cinematography; and Best Picture.
  • AFI List of 100 Most Inspiring Movies # 19
Saving Private Ryan (1998) - A D-Day tale that makes you feel like you've hit the beach. Includes realistic bullet noises as well as grenades and high explosive shells that do not contain gasoline.
  • Oscars (5): Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Effects-Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Sound.
  • Nominations (6) Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, Best Music-Original Dramatic Score, Best Picture, Best Writing,-Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
  • AFI List of 100: Most Thrilling Movies # 45,  Most Inspiring Movies # 10
Unforgiven (1992) - Simply the best western ever made. It explores many of the dime-novel/Hollywood myths created around both bad guys and lawmen, including their use of firearms.
  • Oscars (4): Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture.
  • Oscar Nominations (5): Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
  • AFI List of 100 Greatest American Movies # 98
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - This movie has an almost incomprehensible story line (you have to read the book to understand it) and is mind numbingly long (unless, of course you're tripping on LSD--a popular enhancement for hippy-type viewers). If you do eventually decipher the story, you'll find it has some fairly bizarre elements which are beyond known science. Still, the movie has an almost mythic status among techno-nerds because it got many of the aspects of space flight right, including: no sound in space and artificial gravity.
  • Oscars (1): Best Effects - Special Visual Effects.
  • Oscar Nominations (4): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen
  • AFI List of 100: Greatest American Movies # 22, Most Thrilling Movies: # 40, Most Inspiring Movies : # 41
Blade Runner (1982) - A dark, highly stylized tale about a future in which artificial humans (called replicants) are manufactured for performing the dirty tasks that real humans wish to avoid. The movie includes clichéd futuristic flying cars which do not appear to use any principles of aerodynamics to keep them aloft. Still the film avoids common movie nonsense in its portrayal of artificial humans.

The replicants are biologically, not mechanically, based--an important feature. While mechanically based humanoids may eventually equal or exceed biologically based types, the truth is that its hard to beat hundreds of millions of years worth of evolutionary design. Replicants are perfected for their designated tasks and are more athletic than garden variety humans, yet still within the range of biological possibility. Unlike many of Hollywood's artificial humans, replicants do not violate the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics and are not capable of making ridiculous jumps or performing absurd feats of strength, like tearing open steel doors with their bare hands.

  • Oscars Nominations for (2): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Effects-Visual Effects
  • AFI List of 100 Most Thrilling Movies # 74



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