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How Accurate Are Black Holes in Film?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

This article will examine how black holes have been depicted in movies and how they compare to what we currently know about them today. In an effort to be concise and true to the aims of this article, as well as maintain a tight focus, we will examine only the portions of the films that relate to black holes. This is not an extensive list of every movie to have a black hole as a part of the plot. These are the main ones I have seen—as of now. It is my intention to have more listed here as I see more and more, so let me know what I am missing!

The Black Hole (1979)

The crew of the USS Palomino finds the USS Cygnus adrift around a black hole but free of its effects because of a null gravity field being generated by the mystery ship. After becoming damaged by the gravity around the black hole, the Palomino crew board the Cygnus. Long story short, the captain of the Cygnus is a nut who wants to fly his ship into the black hole. The crew of the Palomino attempt to escape but in the process are forced to go into the black hole along with the Cygnus but in a separate craft. In the case of the Cygnus, it is destroyed, but its captain merges with his main robot and is sent to hell, ruling over its denizens (a Disney movie, I kid you not!). The remaining survivors of the Palomino find themselves leaving a white hole with a new world before them.

Oh boy. Where to begin? For starters, the black hole acts like a kitchen drain letting the water out, spiraling inward and not showing any of the brilliance that we would see from material surrounding the event horizon, which heats up matter to extreme temperatures. The black hole is depicted as red when the crew enters it, which would be possible with gravitational redshifting but again the high energy around the event horizon would create brilliance instead of a red color. And the whole trip into the black hole has no time dilation like Einstein's relativity states would happen. Instead, things gets metaphysical with cathedrals and hell and is topped off with the white hole at the end. While the first two are artistic licensing, white holes may actually exist and explain where the matter goes once past the event horizon but none have been found yet.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

A black hole was mentioned briefly in this movie but still merits inclusion here. The Enterprise crew after traveling deep inside V'ger discover that the ship is actually Voyager 6, a probe from NASA. According to readings from Decker, Voyager 6 travelled through what was called a black hole and sent to a distant galaxy where it encountered a race of "living machines" which modified it and allowed it to complete its mission of recording data and returning it to Earth.

The black hole in this movie seems to act similar to the previous film. For our audiences we know the best approximation to this behavior would actually be a wormhole. If white holes exist then it might be possible to have the properties stated, but the extreme gravity of a black hole makes the possibility of survival slim.


Star Trek (2009)

After a star goes supernova, the only way to stop its path of destruction is to create a black hole from red matter. Upon falling into the very same black hole created to stop the carnage, Nero finds himself in the past and uses the red matter to terrorize the Federation by destroying Vulcan. With the aid of the Enterprise and Spock Prime (also sent to this time via the same mechanism), Nero and his ship are destroyed, releasing the hoard of red matter and causing a new black hole to form. After launching all of its warp cores and detonating them, the Enterprise destroys the black hole and escapes its grasp.

As good as these movies were in introducing a new generation of audiences to Star Trek, what they are certainly deficient in is good science. Red matter is purely a plot device, having no basis in reality. A black hole can only form from the collapse of an extremely massive star, a rather violent event. And on top of that, nothing is capable of destroying a black hole (that we know of) but certainly a matter/antimatter explosion would not be it. All that does is release a hoard of energy, something the black hole loves. If you want to kill a black hole, starve it. Eventually, through combination of no intake of matter and the quantum event known as Hawking radiation, the black hole will eventually disappear. Finally, as already discussed, black holes are not wormholes.

Interstellar (2014)

After travelling through a wormhole in hopes of finding a future location for a human colony, Cooper and his team encounter the supermassive black hole Gargantua, which is 100 million solar masses, is 10 billion light years away, and rotates at 99.8% the speed of light. Several planets orbit it, and each one has a different time dilatation because of the immense gravity of the black hole. Eventually, Cooper goes beyond the event horizon and finds himself inside a tesseract, or a 5-D place. He uses the properties of this space to accomplish his mission.

Yes, that was a very cliff notes version of the plot points of Interstellar, a movie whose physics is astoundingly accurate. Space is silent, objects rotate correctly, and black hole physics is amazing. Kip Thorne, a physicist, was a consultant for the film and made sure that as much was accurate as was possible. Even the visualization of the black hole follows physics. Of course, the interior of Gargantua was subject to artistic licensing, but I think we can let that one go for all the science that Interstellar got right.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are black holes in movies depicted as "childish" and "inaccurate" in comparison to those that we have observed and our current knowledge?

Answer: Inaccurate would be the word for sure. Like many aspects of science, our understanding of the material changes over time and so a movie captures the then-current knowledge of the universe. I am sure that someday our descendants will find our current depiction to be most inadequate!

© 2015 Leonard Kelley