There are three reasons why filmmakers distort science and technology: 1) to make things look cooler, 2) to make a story work, and 3) because they have no clue what they’re talking about.
Although Stealth a hypersonically paced Top Gun update about an unmanned air combat vehicle (UCAV) gone amok gets correct some of the futuristic air-combat technology it depicts, much of it is dead wrong, and the film commits all three of the aforementioned sins. Set in the near future, Stealth follows three young Navy pilots played by Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx who are, evidently, the only pilots capable of handling the Navy’s newest weapon: the ultrafast, ultra-deadly, ultra-sleek Talon fighter jet. The fourth star is Extreme Deep Invader, or EDI, a fully autonomous UCAV. As EDI returns from its first mission, things go downhill fast. It gets blasted by a lightening bolt, which rewires its artificial intelligence, contained in a very cool-looking but highly unlikely glowing sphere inside the cockpit. (Cockpit in an unmanned vehicle? We’ll get to that in a minute.) Now the vehicle suddenly has an alarming propensity to play indie-rock bootlegs illegally pirated from the Internet. Yes, moviegoers, the plane has turned evil so evil that it illegally downloads music.
I won’t bother with that particular idiocy; there are plenty of other ways to complain about the science and technology depicted in this movie. While its basic premise a future Air Force equipped abundantly with autonomous aircraft is absolutely true, the various deviations from valid military air-combat future trajectories are rampant. In no particular order:
The title: The movie is called Stealth, but there’s virtually no discussion of anything remotely stealth-related. This despite the fact that stealth both visual stealth, to conceal aircraft against a variety of backgrounds, and radar stealth, to hide them from missile batteries and other aircraft will be a vital part of most combat-aircraft designs in the future. In fact, the Soviet-era fighter jets sent up to intercept EDI and co. as they streak across Eurasia have no trouble at all finding them and getting a few good shots in before, predictably, they’re waxed by the high-tech adversaries.
The Talon’s cockpits are excessively complex. Lucas, Foxx and Biel are surrounded by hundreds of switches, lights and controls in giant, sprawling instrument panels. In reality, fighter-jet cockpits are getting simpler and simpler. Modern aircraft, both civilian and military, are increasingly using a single, dominant LCD screen that selectively displays information they need, but only when they need it. Most controls are multifunction and located on the joystick.
Speaking of cockpits, why does EDI have one? No UCAV in test now or being planned in the future has a place for someone to sit. The reason EDI has one, of course, is so that later in the film, Lucas can climb aboard and save the world.
The airplanes fly at hypersonic velocities, which is fine at high altitudes. But they also fly obscenely fast through mountain canyons and 20 feet off the ground. No human pilot, now or in the future, could withstand the G-forces that the Talon pilots are subjected to as they make hard lefts and rights at more than 1,000 knots. Nor could they actually do any of the flying at those speeds and altitudes only a computer could steer that quickly through the mountains.
The Talons and EDI have aeroelastic wings, which merely sweep back and forth based on how fast the craft is flying. Those have been around for decades, in the F-14 Tomcat and the B-1 bomber. A more imaginative designer would have given the aircraft actual morphing wings and fuselages, which could change shape to any number of configurations based on the type of flying needed.