If you’re a lover of science fiction movies and find they leave you desperate to dissect them afterwards, then the Royal Observatory’s monthly Silver Screen Science Fiction series is worth having on your radar, writes Holly O’Mahony…
The offering is formulaic: each month, a cult blockbuster sci-fi movie is screened in the observatory’s planetarium, followed by a short talk on the science behind the fiction delivered by one of the Royal Observatory’s astronomers.
Next up, on December 1, is Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the eighth and most recent film in the main Star Wars franchise. The plot follows Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is undergoing Jedi training from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in the hope of turning the tide for the Resistance in the fight against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), meanwhile, are attempting to escape a First Order attack on the Resistance fleet. In true Silver Screen Science Fiction form, the screening will be followed by a talk on the physics of space dogfights, remote projections and how to build a lightsaber.
“Silver Screen Science Fiction is a great, non-academic forum for chatting about things in what we hope is an entertaining way,” says Dr Edward Bloomer, an Astronomer at the Royal Observatory. “The flight of imagination in any new Star Wars film gives us the chance to discuss new worlds, new technologies and new creatures; there’s a lot for us to chew on.”
For Dr Bloomer, the screenings are also an important tool for reminding people that the observatory is somewhere you can go and talk to astronomers. “Questions from the audience are part of the fun, and sometimes they produce a fresh set of things to discuss – more science to talk about, or ideas on which films to add to our lists,” he says.
The sci-fi screenings fit with the Royal Observatory’s primary focus on public engagement and education. The institution is keen to make astronomy exciting and accessible to the public, and the movie nights are one of several ways the astronomers look to achieve this aim. “We’ve been doing one-off talks about the science behind popular culture for quite a while, but a couple of years ago we decided to make it a regular event in our planetarium,” explains Dr Bloomer. “Screening sci-fi movies (occasionally straying into other genres, too), and following these up with short talks about the ‘science behind the fiction’ is a relaxed way to get a dose of entertainment mixed up with some facts and discussion,” he says.
The decision as to which films to screen often come about as the result of “rambling chats” between the astronomers in the office. “Sometimes we think a film will tie in nicely with something else happening on-site, so we can approach a similar topic from a different angle, and sometimes we choose a film that is relevant because of a development in astronomy or another area of science,” says Dr Bloomer. “Other times, we look at films that let us talk about what has changed since they were made, and there have been quite a few that are hopeless from a scientific point of view, but give us a launching pad to discuss interesting ideas,” he admits. So, why go with The Last Jedi for this month’s screening? “As we head towards the holidays, watching an action-packed blockbuster in the planetarium is a pretty enjoyable way to spend an evening, we think!” Dr Bloomer laughs.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is showing at the Royal Observatory, Blackheath Ave, London SE10 8XJ. December 1, from 6:45pm – 9:45pm. Admission: £10.30/£7.20 concessions/£8.20 children.