Real science in 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

Hollywood and extraterrestrials have long enjoyed a love affair, from Plan 9 From Outer Space to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial to Contact. The unrequited part of that romance, between movie-making and science, gets a little attention in the just released remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. And the encounter of alien cultures may be a sign of things to come.

"It's very important for science fiction to respect science if it's going to work," says Scott Derrickson, director of the remake of the 1951 classic. In the updated movie, Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, the enigmatic alien come to judge humanity from the depths of space. Hijinx ensue, involving Giants Stadium getting a severe renovation, but for fans of science, the movie offers up Jennifer Connelly as a scientist and the hero of the story. Astrobiology, climatology and cosmology all get respectable nods in the movie. "We really decided that when people see the film, there has to be a real attempt to give the science some validity," Derrickson says.

So, the filmmakers turned to the SETI Institute, the private non-profit that aims to "explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe," best known for radio signal searches for messages from aliens. Senior astronomer Seth Shostak consulted with the script-writers, and the effects show.

"I liked the movie, I really had only the slightest criticism," says Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, who spoke on a panel with Derrickson and others last week after a preview of the film — although he confessed to preferring the 1951 original "a tiny bit better."

In the movie, Klaatu meets the Nobel-prize winning physicist, Professor Barnhardt, who "specializes in the study of the evolutionary basis of altruism," as the movie's production notes put it, played by John Cleese. Barnhardt (spoiler alert) tries to persuade the alien to give humanity another chance to fix things on Earth.

"I had to slightly criticize them for having a theoretical physicist win the Nobel for a biological discovery," Carroll says. "Still, I thought it was very intriguing that they held up a scientist as the exemplar of what's right about humanity. I mean, it's an interesting party question isn't it, who would you introduce an alien to in order to convince them to spare Earth?"

Klaatu and Barnhardt also get down to some serious equation-scribbling, with the Nobel winner looking to get some answers about the mysterious Dark Energy that astronomers see pulling apart galaxies at an accelerating rate throughout the universe. "The equations were right," Carroll says. "Unfortunately the chalkboard is turned at an angle in the film where they solve everything. I craned my neck to see but couldn't make it out. I could have gotten some real answers there," he jokes. (NASA has announced it will release some Dark Energy news this Tuesday, by the way.)

If aliens are out there, they can take some comfort from The Day The Earth Stood Still, as 20th Century Fox says it has asked the Cape Canaveral-based Deep Space Communications Network to broadcast the film at Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system at little more than 4 light-years away (one light year is about 5.9 trillion miles). Not clear if cable television satellites will also get the transmission, but only four years hence Alpha Centaurians (if they exist) can curl up on their g'zurbs and stuff their gullet-pouches with popcorn while enjoying Keaunu Reeves's performance.

Collaborations between scientists and filmmakers might be the order of the day, if a new National Academies of Science effort, The Science & Entertainment Exchange, takes hold. Endorsed by the Directors Guild of America, the exchange aims to hook up scientists with movie-makers to contribute expertise during the development of films. Jennifer Ouellette who runs a noted science blog (and is Carroll's wife) heads the effort.

Carroll, a science blogger himself, says he was a little surprised to meet filmmakers who expect to be criticized by scientists. "They come into the room saying please don't yell at me," he says. "It's clear scientists have done a certain job getting a certain reputation, something we need to work on." The one thing he would really like to see is movies predicting how often things don't work in science, "trial and error, that's reality for most scientists." Other than that, scientists really don't expect fictional stories to take a backseat to scientific verisimilitude, Carroll says. "Accurate or at least true to the spirit-of-science entertainment shouldn't be impossible."

"At least we have a sexy and smart scientist in our movie," Derrickson says. Scientists will likely, at least, appreciate that.