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My Role on Star Trek 2009: Take It or Leave It
By Carolyn Porco
May 9, 2009
As the official 'science consultant' for the 2009 Paramount Pictures 'Star Trek', I find it necessary to respond to the criticisms made on the web about the scientific inaccuracies of the film, especially those directed at the scene I was responsible for.
First, realize that I was brought on to answer questions here and there, when the crew had them, but mostly to help with a particular plot/visualization dilemma as posed to me by the director, Abrams: How to hide the Enterprise when it re-enters the solar system, so that the Romulans don't know it's in the vicinity until too late.
It was my suggestion to have it come out of warp drive in the atmosphere of Titan, and rise up through the haze, submarine style, since I knew it could be made into a very dramatic scene. To my delight and astonishment, Abrams thought the idea was 'brilliant' and immediately used it. I was expecting to be asked at some point how to get around the obvious problem that any respectable starship, Federation or Romulan, would have no trouble picking up the presence of an alien ship by other than visual means, but I never was. I didn't realize until seeing the final result for the first time myself in the movie theater that they imagined it could be made invisible by the magnetic field of Saturn's rings. Of course, the rings don't have a magnetic field, and even Saturn's is not very strong -- certainly not as strong as Jupiter's -- and I would gladly have informed them of such had I known.
The diminution of the haze in Titan's uppermost atmosphere would be gradual with increasing altitude, but a sharper boundary makes for a more dramatic scene. And while we're nit-picking, there is yet another matter that's not technically right as far as we know: the upper haze would be horizontally uniform, and at some 200 km above the surface you wouldn't see the effects of convection, like the hummocky, clouds that are depicted in the movie.
Finally, in seeing intermediate stages of the Saturn scene, I noted that Titan was too far above the rings, and suggested that the special effects artists at ILM add in the drama of seeing Saturn and its rings in the background by pulling back and far above Titan, with the camera following the Enterprise as it rises. However, I was told that it was too far a camera move to execute and would take more time than they wanted to allot for this scene.
In the end, even I have to remind myself that this is a movie, and movies need to have visual as well as human drama. And not unlike spaceflight missions, they are big projects that must live within other, far more mundane constraints. It would be a great thing if sufficient will, time and resources could be brought to bear in film-making to make all representations of the world, natural or otherwise, precisely accurate. But then, that is asking the impossible: Remember, if you were physically in the Saturn system, it would be as dark as twilight on Earth. So, even putting a representation of Saturn on the screen so that we could see it with ease is already a violation.
Also, this particular movie is based on a well-established set of futuristic capabilities (warp drive, phasers, transporters, etc) that are certainly, at present, physically impossible and are likely not to be available even 200 years from now. So, we can't all joyously accept one collection of impossibilities, and complain bitterly about another.
From my point of view, it was a wonderful thing that Abrams cared enough about getting things right that he asked for the opinions of a scientist. I've encountered others in Hollywood in the past who did't feel any obligation whatsoever to honor the truth, so the heart of this particular production was exactly in the right place. And I felt gratifed, even triumphant, to see some of our spectacular findings at Saturn depicted on the big screen. Remember: Stanley Kubrick put the monolith in the movie '2001' on a moon of Jupiter, instead of on the Saturnian moon Iapetus where it originally belonged, because he couldn't figure out a way to get Saturn's rings looking right. Well, we don't have that problem anymore, now do we?
On a different note, I have to say that I have fallen in love with this movie. The special effects have finally risen to a level of sophistication befitting the saga, there are humorous moments that made me laugh so hard I cried, and the new cast did an outstanding job capturing the essence of each of the original, oh-so-memorable characters.
As one of the fans from way back in 60's, it warms me to know that with the success of this film, we are looking at the possibility of a new dawn in this beloved epic.
Or put another way ... Star Trek Lives! And I, for one, am grateful for that.