Today: May 16, 2024

Weird Science

Films aren’t meant to be purely educational.  There’s nothing that says all scientific facts in the film must be 100% correct.  If the story and storytelling are good enough, then any minor errors scarcely matter, suspension of disbelief does the rest.  However there are moments when “scientific” concepts are included in films that you don’t need a PhD to realise are spectacularly, hilariously wrong.  They can be down to poorly thought through writing, the wrong assumption that the audience wouldn’t pick up on them, or genuine misunderstandings.  Here’s Ed Boff‘s tribute to just a few cases in films when even those failing their GCSE physics know better than the filmmakers.

The Fly (1958)
There’s a somewhat apocryphal story about the time a young David Cronenberg went to see this one.  The film was sold with a tagline of “$10,000 if you could prove it couldn’t happen!”  So he went to a member of cinema staff and said “if the scientist and fly have swapped molecules, shouldn’t he have a tiny fly head and it a full size human head?”.  To which the staff just said “f*** off kid”.  Probably not true, but it’s still a good point.  Actually, the original short story published in Playboy (they published articles in there?) had it even worse.  In that a cat got thrown into the mix too, giving the scientist-fly white fur and cat ears too.

Independence Day
You all know which part of this is being singled out; the way that Jeff Goldblum‘s 90s MacBook is perfectly compatible with an alien computer system.  In the film’s minor defence, there apparently was going to be a scene explaining that the microchip revolution came from back-engineering the crashed alien ship.  So the computer was compatible because both were made on the same principles.  OK, that makes a bit of sense.  Now ID4, explain how Jeff was able to write a devastating computer virus in that extra-terrestrial programming code in about an hour tops.

Fun fact, this film actually had a proper NASA technical advisor on its crew.  Presumably he wasn’t paid much attention too since this one features some real howlers.  Probably the most noticeable one is where the space shuttle experiences atmospheric turbulence while going around the Moon.  Also, Ben Affleck asked Michael Bay the reasonable question “Wouldn’t it be easier for NASA to train astronauts how to drill rather than training drillers to be astronauts?”  Bay didn’t have a good answer.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
There are a lot of reasons that the Star Wars prequels aren’t up to the standard of the original trilogy, but none have caused quite the scorn or ire of fans as Midichlorians.  In the originals, despite the Force’s origins being rather vague, we still got a good sense of how it worked and what it could do.  So why have it shown here that a Jedi’s power actually comes from some sort of microbes in their blood?  It’s very galling when it wasn’t even necessary for the story to have this revelation.  Whatever happened to just saying “The Force is strong with him”?  Star Wars is at heart fantasy in space, not hard sci-fi, so the moments when it tries to be the latter always stick out like a sore thumb.

Deep Blue Sea
Even for a late 90s Jaws pastiche, this is a very silly film.  There’s dodgy science everywhere in here, but it’s what these super-intelligent sharks do where the real laughs can be had.  Director Renny Harlin and the screenwriters seem to have confused super intelligent with super powered.  These sharks can somehow swim backwards, which isn’t a matter of learning how, it’s physically impossible for them to do so with their fins in that position.  They can also fit into tight metal corridors through doors thinner than they are, and submerge in water so shallow there should be no space for them.  They must also be psychic to find out what cameras, windows and helicopters are with no way of learning that naturally.  That’s not gene therapy they used on those sharks, that’s pixie dust.

The Matrix
In the original concept for this film, the purpose of the Matrix was to use human brains as processors for the machines’ network.  It’s a neat, scary, plausible concept.  However, the studio thought this would be just too complicated an idea for the audience to get, despite the fact it could be summed up in that first sentence.  Thus it was changed to human’s being a power supply for the machines; problem solved?  Nope, it just led to the rather large plot-hole in that it’s a ridiculously inefficient way to generate power, we’re pretty high maintenance as fuel sources go.  Whatever happened to just a big ol’ nuclear reactor or something?  It seems that knowing the laws of thermodynamics aren’t necessary to make it as a producer.

The Core
When the rotation of Earth’s core stopping is just the first of many issues with the suspension of disbelief, you’re in trouble.  There is a sense the filmmakers may be aware of how ludicrous this all is, like the fact that the material the drilling craft is made from is called Unobtanium.  (And you thought James Cameron came up with that, it’s actually been an engineering in-joke for years).  That doesn’t excuse moments like a character surviving temperatures of 9000 Kelvin (that’s hotter than the Sun’s surface) in a suit only rated for 4500K.  (Apparently it’s OK if you do it really fast.)

Batman Begins
This was the start of the darker, edgier take on Batman from Christopher Nolan, much more realistic, right?  Well, that really breaks down once the villain’s main weapon is revealed, a microwave transmitter capable of vaporising all the water around it instantly.  Thing is, you know what humans are about 70% made up of?  Water.  In reality, if you had such a machine, the second it got turned on things would have got very messy very fast, as everyone in Gotham would pop like… well, an egg in a microwave.  Including the villains standing right next to the thing.  Eww.  It actually makes Batman Returns‘ missile bearing penguin army seem more plausible. 

Eagle Eye (Main Picture)
This one’s going more than a bit into Spoiler Territory, but it’s worth mentioning.  In this film, it’s revealed the mysterious voice guiding Shia LaBeouf throughout this story belongs to a government created AI monitoring all surveillance feeds in the country.  That explains everything, right?  Well, no.  It doesn’t explain how a computer, no matter how advanced, could perfectly predict the outcome of things like car crashes or electricity surges.  Doesn’t matter how much computing power GLaDOS ARIIA has, there’s no way of being so precisely certain of things like LaBeouf surviving intact a several storey drop or a jump onto a moving train.  Also, it’s another film that, like Die Hard 4.0 seems to confuse “hacking into things” with “casting spells”.

Right at the start of this one, a character is told that the Earth’s core is heating up.  Why?  Because neutrinos from the Sun are giving it energy.  Fun fact about neutrinos.  Even though billions of them reach Earth every day, they are so low mass that virtually none interact with matter at all.  Hence the name, they are neutral and really, really small.  Actual neutrino detectors are vast devices in the middle of nowhere, isolated from all outside interference.  It’s remarkable if they actually record over a hundred clicks within a decade.  So when the characters say in the film “That’s impossible”, yes, it is at least six different sorts of impossible for neutrinos to do that, especially to the scale shown here.

To play us out, take it away Oingo Boingo!

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