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Plotonium
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PLOTONIUM

          To date, science fiction consistently manages to find it way into the top ranking box office films – but why doesn’t it gain the respect? There are certain aspects of films produced that tend to stop audiences and critics from serious consideration. Science fiction is often defined as a story where the science is integral to the story; remove the science and it does not work. Yet there are a number of films where the science is bad enough that the film doesn’t work. Stereotypes are another issue. The thought that a film cannot succeed without blondes, bombs and the boy genius is used ad nauseum. Then there is plotonium. When the film starts to founder science fiction filmmakers love to prop up the whole with plotonium, a made up element that allows the impossible to occur.

          From the recent reboot of Star Trek, an easy obvious example: red matter. There are many strange and new forms of matter that are being discovered and theorized about that might be able to create some of the effects that are attributed to ‘red matter’. But the filmmakers here took the low road. Instead of positing anti-solitons or finding a way to use strangelets or quark matter they decided to slap a band-aid on the situation. The creators stepped outside of the science of the situation and pulled a piece of plotonium out of the box as a cure all solution. Now everything in the movie is made up, so conceivably one could defend the thought of just making up the necessary missing element. But this defeats the purpose of using science effectively in the film. Was it done to ensure that the film was accessible to more audiences? It is the Star Trek franchise here; there has been plenty of technobabble in the past, why change now? Pure plotonium must be accepted at face value without explanation to be effective. Consider a unit of plotonium as a ‘nimoy’ – since this is science. Red matter is at least three quarters of a full nimoy since the film does not work without it. The two climactic scenes of movie do not occur without the presence of red matter.

          Avatar at least gave a humorous wink at its plotonium deposit by naming it “unobtainium”. Certainly only a fraction of a nimoy, since the desire for the element causes the action, but it in no way aids the action in the film. Conversely, the spice in Dune, while integral to the film is explained away in a believable fashion. Hyperspace is a commonly used piece of plotonium that goes both ways. Sometimes it’s explained, some times it’s a given and forged of pure plotonium. But in Event Horizon it takes on a whole new level of abuse, because here without any explanation hyperspace makes space ships evil. It doesn’t possess the crew or the ship, it simply makes it evil all thanks to the auspices of plotonium. For a full nimoy of plotonium look at the Blob, it’s never explained what it is and the film is completely lost without its central element.

Certain plotonium elements have spread the way a virus does. Insidiously infiltrating most space opera is the concept of “shields”. This is so familiar that the “force” has been dropped as a prefix. What is at issue here is that the science behind what makes the shield work is never mentioned nor hinted at. It becomes the sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic – in fact it becomes magic. Not unlike magic that simply works, without a cost or backing system; the shield simply deflects whatever is thrown at it and is therefore plotonium. The issue is not whether or not the element in question is completely explained but rather whether or not it has value as a scientific element. If the plotonium does not, then it might as well be magic and therefore the film has become fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Jeff Young

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Why doesn't it get respect? It's a question of who runs the establishments that are considered "respectable". I genuinely believe that as the baby boomer generation retires and moves away from positions of power, the "respectability" factor will go up. I know more than one of my parents' generation that *still* don't believe that gaming is a legit industry or that you can make any money with "that stupid kids stuff".

Having said that, I'm not trying to dismiss plotonium as a factor, because it is. I think solid story telling with believable science - or at least something that makes suspending your disbelief a little easier - is still the key to the whole thing.

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