Suspending Disbelief: The Line

This is another article I wrote for Uproar Comics.

Suspend Disbelief

When it comes to films, games, and even books, we’re often expected – and required – to suspend our disbelief concerning certain things. Giant, transforming, alien robots…okay. Scientist turns into a big green monster when he gets miffed…fine. Peter Quill floats in space for a minute and survives?! Absolutely unacceptable!

That was the complaint about Guardians of the Galaxy (a year ago now) that sparked in me the question: where is the line? And why is it there? I don’t expect to be able to answer the question, or make a coherent argument with whatever it is I’m about to write, but that’s not going to stop me from diving in.

So let’s start with that complaint. Guardians of the Galaxy: a superhero film (kind of – I’d argue about that, but it’s irrelevant) about a group of criminals coming together in a distant part of the galaxy to prevent an already-powerful blue person from using an alien artefact to wipe all life from the surface of the planet Xandar. Yep, all good so far; why there’s barely any disbelief to suspend.

The aforementioned group consists of a human kidnapped by aliens as a child, an artificially enhanced green assassin, a big red angry man who takes everything literally, a bipedal talking raccoon, and a talking tree monster. All fine. Nothing untoward there.

However – and here is where the film apparently crosses that line – what GOTG seems to have drawn the most criticism for is a scene where Gamora the green assassin finds herself floating in space. Quill, the human, gets out of his ship and puts his breathing mask on her. A minute later, they’re picked up by another ship and they’re both fine.

‘How unrealistic’, people said. Unlike the talking raccoon arguing with the talking tree.

First off, let’s look at what happened in the film versus what would happen in real life.


Guardians of the Galaxy

Gamora’s ship is destroyed, leaving her floating, unconscious, in open space just outside the atmosphere of where they’ve come from. Quill, in his leather jacket and t-shirt, gets out of his own ship and floats over to her. He takes off his mask, which allows him to breathe, and puts it on her. As he watches her, his eyes and face begin to freeze over and he loses consciousness. Shortly after, they are picked up by another ship, and as they tumble into the cargo bay – or whatever – he wakes up. Seconds later, so does Gamora.


Let’s assume that Quill was a real person, floating just outside the atmosphere of Earth, without a spacesuit. What would happen to him? That’s rhetorical; I’ll tell you:

  • Ebullism – The low pressure of a vacuum means the boiling point of Quill’s body fluids drops below his body temperature, causing the formation of gas bubbles in said fluids. His blood won’t boil, but he will swell up to twice his normal size. Which will hurt.
  • Within about 15 seconds, the lack of oxygen will cause him to lose consciousness. He’d then die a couple of minutes later. If he tried to hold his breath to extend that time, that air would expand rapidly, rupturing his lungs.
  • Although it’s a touch chilly, he wouldn’t freeze to death, because the vacuum means the transfer of heat would be so slow, the lack of oxygen would get him first.
  • The sun’s UV would burn him quite unpleasantly, then it would join other things such as gamma radiation and X-rays to damage his DNA. In turn, this would cause mutations and probably cancer.
  • He would, however, have about one or two minutes to be rescued.

Going by memory alone, I think Quill is exposed to space for between thirty seconds to a minute. After removing his mask, he did indeed lose consciousness pretty quickly. So the most unrealistic part of that scene seems to be that he didn’t swell up, he didn’t burn, and he froze over. We could argue that he only froze on the surface and that this might happen (I’m not a scienceer). How fast he would swell and burn, I don’t know; perhaps it would take longer than he was actually out there.

So that leaves the DNA mutations and cancer. But where are they?

AstronautNot here, in our solar system. Are they being exposed to the same things as they would just outside Earth’s atmosphere? In the same quantities? I don’t know. Do you? Do the complainers? Would so much time travelling in space, on different planets, etc, have changed the way his body would react to things? Someone probably knows, but it’s not me. Perhaps the NASA advisor they used for the film knows.

So these people can deal with a talking raccoon (in the same universe as a god of thunder, teleporting mutants, and gargantuan ‘celestial beings’ whose skulls are used as cities floating in space), but the fact that the rest of the film after this scene didn’t deal with the tragic loss of Peter Quill to cancer is too far over the line. Interesting.

What if it was Superman in space? Would the same people be annoyed that he survives rather than dying horrifically?

The line is different for everyone, of course. My grandmother would never watch something like Guardians of the Galaxy – or indeed Superman – because they have ‘weird aliens’. There’s plenty of things I’ve watched that made me roll my eyes, though I can’t think of any now.

Beyond the Guardians

Shadow of the Wraith, Kindle coverI’ve complai…uh…mentioned before a 3-star review I’ve had on my first book. According to the review, it lost a star due to taking ‘an unexpected turn into fantasy territory’. I won’t bother mentioning the inane nature of complaining about a science-fantasy novel having fantasy elements (oops, I just did), but this is perhaps her line. When sci-fi becomes science-fantasy, she can’t suspend her disbelief any more, perhaps. Star Wars is fine until the Force comes into play. Likewise, mine was fine until telekinesis came into play. Or, as she called it, ‘use his “special powers”’. Not that I’m bitter.

And what about within the book? If someone went into it, open to the inevitable fantastic elements of a science-fantasy novel, where might their line be then? The telekinesis, telepathy, etc, that are possessed by one of my alien races? The not strictly realistic space battles? The androids? The dragons? I suspect the last one might be a line for a lot of people. Until they open book two and discover immortal ‘gods’, angels and zombies. Technically not zombies actually. But the dragons are alien animals, not creatures of myth. Does that help? It might help person A but not person B.

What about CSI? ‘Enhance!’ ‘Enhance more!’ ‘Enhance again and zoom in on that reflection in the reflection and enhance!’ Most people can’t quite suspend their disbelief enough for that, but others can. Perhaps it depends simply on how much you know – or think you know – about the subject in question.

I hope you don’t think I’m going anywhere with this, or making any kind of point. Because…I’m not. Maybe I should. But I won’t. Don’t be annoyed – I told you at the start this wasn’t going to go anywhere! It’s simply a question that can’t be answered. Not by me, anyway.

So, what’s the line for you? What was the last thing that made you roll your eyes and groan?


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