Posthumous monolith of science fiction Philip K. Dick said that he wrote in that genre because there was “more latitude for the expression of truer ideas.” The focus on exploring ideas that serves as much of the appeal of science fiction means that, often, writers can get themselves into trouble. They can litter their stories with all sorts of logical lapses by focusing more on a metaphor than logical consistency, either in terms of the characters or the aspects of the technology.
Not that this is unique to science fiction at all, but when a storyteller is making up whole new technologies and worlds, there’s a lot more latitude to screw up in ways more literary fiction doesn’t usually have to worry about. Furthermore, none of these plot holes are in anyway ruinous for their stories. It’s just, well… it’s sometimes surprising what writers can get away with while the audience is distracted by the lasers and other wonders of the future.
As always, be ready for spoilers!
Avatar isn’t just the most successful science fiction story but the highest grossing film of all-time (worldwide–The Force Awakens bumped it from the top spot domestically), to the surprise of many. In 2009 it was as much the novelty of the gorgeously rendered environments as the story that drove it to gross $2.7 billion. The story, about how disabled soldier Jake Sully’s consciousness is connected to a bioengineered alien body to serve as ambassador for humanity to the Na’vi on Planet Pandora, seemed practically like an afterthought. Nowhere is this more obvious that in writer-director James Cameron’s blatantly slipshod plotting.
During the end of the second act of the movie, the Earth military destroys the main Na’vi habitat, the Home Tree. Pilot Trudy, played by Michelle Rodriguez, decides she doesn’t want to take part. So in dereliction of duty she conspicuously flies away from the bombing. And yet, she not only isn’t promptly arrested for disobeying a direct order in an environment where bombing a native population is the order of the day, but she’s able help Jake Sully and company escape from the brig with relatively little trouble. Seems as though few characters would be in a worse position to launch a rescue than conspicuous insubordinates.
Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty how interested audiences will be in Cameron’s upcoming sequels to his megahit. Hopefully, he’s had enough time to remove holes like these from his follow up scripts.
9. Blade Runner 2049
Although it failed at the box office during its 2017 theatrical run, the fact it was the 17th bestselling title on home video in 2018 indicated Blade Runner 2049 is gradually developing its own following. Serving as one of the most belated sequels in film history, it both attempted to have firm, direct connections to the 1982 original and go its own way. These dueling interests unsurprisingly got in each other’s way a bit.
The biggest hole in the plot concerns the villainous business mogul, Wallace, and his relationship with the bioengineered clones called Replicants. In 2049, it’s explicitly stated that they’ve been designed to all be infertile as well as being outlawed in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack that destroyed all digitally stored records around the world. Wallace is of the belief that bringing back replicants is the future of humanity’s spread through the stars, and to that end is both engineering some of his own and on the hunt for a replicant that supposedly reproduced in defiance of her genetic programming.
But as DenofGeek.com pointed out, Wallace himself says the inability of replicants to reproduce was one of the things that allowed people to reassure themselves that replicants were subhuman. He also explicitly says that humanity “lost its taste for slavery.” So if he holds those beliefs in his head, keeping replicants with the ability to reproduce around, as well as the humans that bred with them–and their offspring–is the exact opposite of what he would want: destroying anything that could point to the existence of a fertile replicant if he hopes to sell people on accepting replicant slaves again. It’s the sort of inconsistency that’s particularly frustrating in a movie starring an ostensibly grounded villain.
8. Star Trek (2009)
JJ Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek films was a smash hit, although the series it launched seems to have stalled in 2016. Shamelessly emotional nearly to the point of being operatic, it was kinetic and action-packed enough that audiences didn’t have time to question the mechanics of the plot. However, the villain Nero’s story made so little sense that it required more effort not to think about it in the theater seats.
The primary setting for the movie is during the time when James T. Kirk ascends to be captain of the starship Enterprise. In the future, it turns out that the planet Romulus is going to be destroyed by a supernova. Also in the future Spock, another crew member of the Enterprise and essentially Kirk’s right-hand man, tries to stop the supernova and fails. A Romulan from that same future named Nero acquires both a ship and time-traveling ability and goes back in time to get revenge. This includes destroying Vulcan (Spock’s home planet) and Earth.
What never, ever, for any reason gets addressed in this plot is why Nero doesn’t use the fact he traveled back in time to save Romulus himself if that’s his motivation. With time travel technology he could make numerous attempts to save his planet and offset Spock’s eventual failure. But no, vengeance for something which hasn’t happened and which is no doubt on some level preventable is only viewed as a reason for him to be a one dimensional villain–which unfortunately, at the end of the day, he is. This goes to show that time travel should be avoided unless absolutely necessary if a movie’s story is going to hold up to repeat viewings.
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
If you’ve been on YouTube for the past year, you probably had some video recommended to you insisting the storytelling of this hit didn’t match real world logic very well. There were even seemingly erroneous reports that Russian troll farms were used to spread negative sentiments about it online. Whatever your feelings about that, there’s a particular point that many have used as the centerpiece of their arguments. For the dedicated nitpicker, there’s very little arguing with it.
At the end of the second act, our heroes are escaping their main vessel, unaware that the villains in pursuit of them have their escape shuttles dead in their sights instead of being distracted by the decoy vessel. Admiral Holdo, in a suicidal last ditch effort, turns the decoy vessel around and sets the ship to travel at hyperdrive (previous movies in the Star Wars series had portrayed how carefully ships would pre-program a route to avoid colliding with all sorts of space hazards) and rammed the villains’ flagship with devastating results.
This begs a pretty obvious question: Why in eight Star Wars films was Holdo the first person to do this? If it allows such an outsized ship to take out its pursuer, why haven’t pilots in suicidal straits rammed the ships of the heros and villains time and again? We’ve been shown numerous pilots willing to give up their lives for the cause (the movie begins with a scene featuring a pilot doing just that). It seems as though screenwriter Rian Johnson thought he’d found a hole in the canon that he could cleverly exploit, but what many will do is insist he found a weakness in the design of the intellectual property that he should never have called attention to.
6. Star Wars: A New Hope/Return of the Jedi
Before a tag team of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron one-upped this film time and again, this 1977 smash hit was the most successful in world history. It made plot mechanics such as the mystical Force and the twist that its villain Darth Vader is the father of protagonist Luke Skywalker into household reference points.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Darth Vader takes Princess Leia captive and interrogates her at length over the hiding place of the main rebel stronghold. Later, long after Leia and Luke have learned that they’re siblings, Darth Vader uses the force to learn that his son Luke has a sister so that he can antagonize Luke by threatening to capture and convert her. Which opens up a gigantic inconsistency for the first film regarding why Vader wasn’t able to use the Force to discover Leia was his daughter; or, if he was too concerned about the rebel base to care about that, why he didn’t use the Force to learn where the base was. By Return of the Jedi Luke is quite attuned to the Force but Leia has no such stated defenses in the first film. The only explanation for this is depressingly simple: The Force was largely an afterthought for George Lucas while writing the film, and he had no consistency in what it could do while concocting it by the seat of his pants.
We’re not going to get on any high horse about what people devote YouTube channels to. But anyone who acts as if plot/logic lapses in Disney’s new Star Wars films are some kind of ruinous new occurrence is in for a nasty shock: Plot holes have been prominent features of the series from its conception.
5. The Thing
A critical punching bag and box office bomb when it was initially released, this adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 Who Goes There? is now one of the most beloved horror-science fiction works in cinema history. Its story of a team of American Antarctic researchers stuck in Outpost #31, who have to deal with an organism that can infect and turn any member of the team into a deadly monster, is as scary now as it was unpleasant at the time of its release. It’s helped immeasurably by how tightly and believably constructed it is for a movie about dealing with an alien, except for one big cheat.
The problem with this otherwise tight as a drum story is the need to have a device of some kind that can handily convince the survey team that they’ve conclusively beaten the the alien. So, Carpenter wrote that the Antarctic team has flamethrowers. As critic Scott Ashlin asked, why would a research team have flamethrowers? If there’s some piece of equipment that needs to be thawed in the extreme cold, setting it on fire is about the worst approach, and the fires a flamethrower shoots are much too difficult to control in a survival situation. Fortunately, the scene where the flamethrowers are introduced is so harrowing that the audience probably won’t be stopping to ask many questions.
4. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Avatar showed that James Cameron was able to hit pay dirt despite his films having plot holes, but back in 1984 he practically required it of his work with his groundbreaking variation on the trendy slasher film model. A film wherein an artificial intelligence network sends an android assassin back in time to prevent the existence of a resistance leader while another soldier from the future tries to stop him? That’s such a complicated setup that it all but demands paradoxes and inconsistencies to be woven into the fabric of the film, but this has a pretty clear hole in the basic setup.
In the first film, the reason the T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has organic skin on him is basic: the time machine doesn’t send inorganic, robotic matter through without a layer of organic material to effectively trick the machine. But in the 1991 sequel, the artificial intelligence network sends through a “liquid metal” robot called T-1000, which is stronger than the T-800 unit and has the ability to shapeshift. So how can this robot have the vitally important organic layer if it’s entirely liquid metal? It’s a good thing no one actually mentions that rule in the second film, or audiences probably would have been asking that from the premiere on.
3. “Time Enough at Last”
Stepping away from movies for a moment, let’s talk about one of the most influential pieces of science fiction ever created: The Twilight Zone. In particular, one of the two most famous and beloved episodes of the original run, tied only with To Serve Man with it’s “It’s a cookbook!” reveal. This 1959 episode follows compulsive reader Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) through his frustrating life, through the destruction of his known world and the rest of humanity, to the potential sanctum of a library, and then through a hydrogen bomb, and into the private hell of his glasses shattering just as he’s collected all the books he wants with all the time in the world to read them.
It’s one thing to not show the effects of radiation in a TV show shot in 1959, as the average person barely even understood what radiation was at the time (or you wouldn’t have models getting radioactive compounds applied to their face for makeup tests). But surely everyone knew how flammable paper is. So in a bombing powerful enough to kill everyone for untold miles except a man sheltered in a bank vault, how did a bunch of books–which were practically out in the open of a destroyed library–not get burned up?
2. Silent Running
It’s hard to imagine a less commercial idea for a movie than an environmentalist and his robot friends floating through space taking care of a biodome forest. Alright, so this 1971 sci-fi classic also features a sequence where said environmentalist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) saves that forest by killing his three crew mates aboard his spaceship Valley Forge, but there’s well over an hour of running time before that. While Silent Running is intellectually vigorous and honest in how this story plays out, it’s no surprise that today its most significant influence is inspiring the recently rebooted science fiction comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
A major conflict for the last third of the film is that as the forest in the biodome begins to die, illustrated by a number of plants wilting and losing their leaves. After a lot of fretting and impotent rage, Lowell has an epiphany: His forest is dying because it’s not getting enough light, as he had to drift away to break off radio contact with his superiors and claim the ship is grievously damaged. His solution is to post a bunch of lights throughout the dome, which begs the question of how an expert in environmental conservation could possibly fail to notice the importance of light in sustaining a forest for any period of time. It’s a bewildering lapse in environmental logic in a story so passionate about the environment.
This 1984 film is notorious for a contentious production and for its director, David Lynch, disowning it. With such popular source material and such striking production design, it couldn’t help but attract a substantial cult following anyway. Probably didn’t hurt that Frank Herbert had some nice words to say about how it was a “visual feast.”
Paul Atreides, the hero of the story, is driven from his home with only his mother Julia at his side into the horrible deserts of Arrakis when the Harkonnen effectively conquer the planet. There he trains and equips the Fremen, a race of extremely hardscrabble desert people, with laser guns (“weirding modules”) that are powered by the human voice. They’re instrumental in the final battle when House Atreides reconquers the planet.
The problem is where the hell Paul got these guns. He and his mother certainly weren’t carrying them or the raw materials to make them during their hasty escape! No one tells Paul how to build one, so even if the Fremen had the resources to make one he should have no better idea than them. It might as well be Lynch telling the audience “if you don’t get this, the problem isn’t on your end.”
Dustin Koski is the author of the fantasy horror novel Not Meant to Know. He might have left a plot hole somewhere in there, but it will be up to you to find it!