Stupid Movie Physics Tricks
June 19, 2002 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Stupid Movie Physics Tricks discusses bad physics in movies and even rates some movies (e.g., XP - physics not from this universe) based on their faithfulness to the laws of physics. Follow that up with bad astronomy and finish it off with bad science in general. (OK, so the last one is more about bad meteorology, but that sucks as a soundbite.)
posted by joaquim (26 comments total)
Suspension of disbelief is a key movie-making tool, and I think these people are going out of their way to find something wrong with it. If I want physics I'll dig out my high school textbook.
posted by tomorama at 10:38 AM on June 19, 2002

I would add Pulp Fiction to the their list of bad movie physics. I mean, everyone knows that time travel violates the laws of physics, yet the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time. stupid movie people.
posted by boltman at 10:51 AM on June 19, 2002

I agree with tomorama. While the physics may be stupid (especially in Armageddon), how boring would an action movie be without flashing bullets, smashing unharmed through windows, or surviving 6-meter falls unscathed? Or a science fiction movie without visible lasers? Suspension of disbelief, dammit!
posted by starvingartist at 10:53 AM on June 19, 2002

And hey, what about Babe? Everybody knows pigs can't talk. stupid movie people.
posted by billder at 11:01 AM on June 19, 2002

Did you see the slashdot article about the same site. Someone quoted one of the writers of Babylon 5, who pointed out that nobody ever complains about the presence of classical music in the vacuum of space.

I disagree with some of the sites criticisms of The Phantom Menace, sure the Gungans have primitive weapons, but the Japanese were still running around with swords a couple hundred years after guns had been introduced to them.

And sticking to correct physics can work well in a movie, I really liked that scene in Akira where Tetsuo destroys a space station in that it's done in total silence.
posted by bobo123 at 11:04 AM on June 19, 2002

Part of what made 2001 good Sci-Fi was the accuracy of some of the science. Note the scene when Dave Bowman makes his entry through the airlock - no sound until he gets the door closed and the air starts pumping in.

Sci-Fi doesn't have to be flashy to be enjoyable.
posted by jazon at 11:05 AM on June 19, 2002

Eh, physics is not the only area in which movies take liberties in order to create a product that's actually entertaining. The site is interesting and a useful educational tool, but if you're looking for reality, the movie theatre is not where you're going to find it.

sticking to correct physics can work well in a movie

Yes it can. See 2001 for another example.
posted by daveadams at 11:07 AM on June 19, 2002

The problem with reviewing a Star Wars movie on a site like that is that Star Wars doesn't even claim to be a plausible reality (like Star Trek). It's fantasy. Do these people get upset at the magic in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? Does the entire premise of Spider-Man disallow their enjoyment of the film?
posted by daveadams at 11:16 AM on June 19, 2002

suspension of disbelief != suspension of intelligence

Each instance has to be judged on its own merits (does it occur in an established fantasy or surreal environment? is it necessary for artistic reasons?), but certainly in many cases moviemakers are insulting our intelligence and pandering to the ignorance of the lowest common denominator. Or just being lazy or ignorant themselves. And in many cases, they end up mis-educating the public, adding to the general scientific illiteracy endemic in our society. So I don't agree that you can simply write off all such errors as "it's just the movies, it doesn't matter."
posted by rushmc at 11:22 AM on June 19, 2002

I third 2001: A Space Odyssey as a great example of sound science enhancing a great movie. Of course, 2001 was not what you would call an 'action movie', and in the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence, reality takes a long, well-deserved vacation. But this sequence is enriched by the careful attention to science in the rest of the film.

Personally, I'm bothered by directors who don't care enough to consider their decisions carefully. Most of the time, bad movie physics is not the result of a conscious decision, it's the result of laziness (or obliviousness) on the part of the picture-making staff.
posted by evanizer at 11:34 AM on June 19, 2002

Is the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence the part at the end in the big white room? Anyone want to take a crack at explaining that (a solid link would do just fine)? After seeing the movie again, I actually spent a while trying to find some satisfactorily detailed and comprehensible explanation and failed miserably.
posted by Sinner at 11:40 AM on June 19, 2002

And in many cases, they end up mis-educating the public, adding to the general scientific illiteracy endemic in our society

What errors, specifically, create these problems? Noisy explosions in space? Sparks flying from lead bullets? Are you trying to say that because Ahnuld was able to squeeze 20 bullets out of a 12-bullet mag or jump through a plate glass window and fall 20 stories without a scratch that the IQ of all Americans just dropped 10 points? Or that because Rick Moranis shrunk his kids down to insect-sized bugs and you could see the laser blasts in Star Wars, kids around the country are throwing out their biology textbooks and covering their ears during physics lectures?

They're just movies. It's best to focus our energy on making sure kids and adults understand that movies are fake in general. Like I said, physics is only a very easily quantified measurement of how fake movies are. The situations, characters, and dialogue in movies is equally unrealistic and just as potentially damaging (read: not very) as the physics are.

Is the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence the part at the end in the big white room? Anyone want to take a crack at explaining that (a solid link would do just fine)?

I think evanizer means everything following when Dave enters the stargate/monolith. There's no good explanation. The book itself explains the scene a little differently: he's being kept in what some alien civilization (the ones who sent the monoliths) believes is a realistic human domicile, but of course it's obviously not (they don't understand the context of the materials and styles they use) while they prepare him for the next stage of human evolution (the Star Child) much like they pushed the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence into learning to use tools to avoid extinction. Presumeably mankind has reached the limit of its present evolutionary course and this benevolent alien race is helping us along a bit. But Kubrick wouldn't commit to any particular meaning, he wanted the viewer to interpret it for themselves (maybe he didn't know have a good explanation either).

Even with that explanation, I think it plays a bit odd. Search for "kubrick 2001 explanation" if you want more theories. There are tons.
posted by daveadams at 11:47 AM on June 19, 2002

What errors, specifically, create these problems?

The article points out two common physics errors that can cause people serious harm or death if believed:

1- Flaming cars "Even though it's actually quite rare, exploding cars are a common excuse for not wearing seat belts. Onlookers at crash sites are often so concerned about explosions that they unnecessarily jeopardize a person with a spinal injury by pulling them out of a wrecked car. The common Hollywood depiction fuels these harmful misconceptions."

2- Diving through windows. Since it seems there are quite a few unsupervised kids emulating things they see on TV and movies (think professional wrestling moves), it seems logical to think that the more they see people crashing through plate glass windows unharmed, the more they will believe they can do it themselves - or do it to a friend.

Overall I thought this article was hilarious and particularly enjoyed their review of Armageddon. I think the authors meant it to be read with tongue in cheek anyway. Thanks for the link joaquim :-)
posted by cakeman at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2002

_Seven Years in Tibet_ judged on the merits of its physics. Come on! Let's tackle the tough ones! How about Mary Poppins? Quantum handbag my ass!
posted by Dick Paris at 12:39 PM on June 19, 2002

They didn't mention the action-movie staple of people outrunning explosions. You know, a bomb will explode in a room and the hero will run down a hallway as the ball of flame inches closer and closer, until the hero runs through a plate-glass window, falls six meters, lands on his feet and continues running. In real life, no way you're outrunning a ball of fire from an explosion.
posted by Holden at 12:56 PM on June 19, 2002

They're just movies.

And many of them purport to represent our known reality, and do so very poorly.
posted by rushmc at 12:58 PM on June 19, 2002

1- Flaming cars ...Even though it's actually quite rare, exploding cars are a common excuse for not wearing seat belts. ."

Two words: Ford Pinto

posted by boltman at 1:10 PM on June 19, 2002

Holden--check out the Independence Day review. It also covers asphyxiation issues concerned with fire's oxygen consumption and radiant heat emissions.
posted by LionIndex at 1:14 PM on June 19, 2002

How about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? And more specifically the "Bamboo Dance" scene? I think the more important question is, what [and who] is this movie aimed at/for? Was the director vigilant in his/her balance of reality with story with action with etc?

I saw the Bourne Identity this last week, and though it wasn't 2001, it was entertaining and wholly believable. Even Matt Damon as a super spy. The only part that wasn't believable, and took me back to reality, was a room that was lit as daylight when it was night time in the movie. That being said, I have to agree with those above, I think this is a fun resource, but come on. They are movies. Some are films, which I think we can all agree are better than mere movies, which [as film/cinematography] balance all of the competing forces in the film and generally allow us to suspend disbelief.
posted by plemeljr at 5:50 PM on June 19, 2002

Aw, but their review of Titanic was so much fun:

Human stuff aside, the big screen portrayal of the sinking was awesome. It had it all: linear and rotational velocity, acceleration, and inertia with torque, forces, Archimedes principle, and fluid dynamics included on a, well, titanic scale. We resorted to the right-hand thumb rule no less than three times in order to determine the direction of rotational vectors: first as the ship's stern rotated upward, then as it rotated downward when it broke off, and finally as it rotated upward again just before sinking--a three right-hand thumb movie, wow!
posted by jokeefe at 6:25 PM on June 19, 2002

I liked this Web site. It's probably the work of some professor or teacher who uses film to illustrate physics. Very cool idea.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:51 PM on June 19, 2002

As a prof (well, not a physics prof, but still), I agree with ParisParamus. It's not impossible to a) enjoy a movie while b) also finding some really screwball errors that might lead into great classroom discussion.

Even so, if you know that something is wrong, you do tend to get...distracted. (I had to see Mrs. Brown twice before I could enjoy it, since the first time around I kept thinking things like "Disraeli was only Chancellor of the Exchequer during that year" and "since when did Tennyson become a peer in the 1860s?!") In that sense, I don't read the site as bad-tempered; more like "gut response."

Incidentally, I don't think the producers of either Star Wars or Star Trek consider what they're doing "fantasy," although I agree that's what SW is, at least. (They certainly aren't hard science fiction.) Perhaps they fall into the subcategory loosely known as "science fantasy," which includes things like Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:16 PM on June 19, 2002

thomas j wise: The whole point of Star Wars beginning with "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" is to establish it as a fantasy. We are not seeing the future, we're seeing the past, and the characters may not even be human.
posted by bingo at 1:25 AM on June 20, 2002

daveadams - regarding the collective intelligence of Americans and movie science:

After September 11, my wife recounted to me a conversation with one of her coworkers. This woman wanted to know how this could have possibly happened when we have the surveillance capacity to track individuals by satellite in real time - "like they did with Will Smith in Enemy of the State".

Later that week my wife was forced to explain the concepts of modern air defense and air traffic control to another woman in her office who refused to believe that we couldn't "just shoot them down" in the space of 10 minutes. She cited "the movies" to my wife as the source of her convictions that this was possible.

Having said this, I think that your solution of educating people about the basic fantasy involved in film-making (hell, storytelling in general) is a good one.


(on review - this sounds like I'm dogging women. I am NOT - it's just that those are two specific examples that sprang to mind)
posted by Irontom at 5:51 AM on June 20, 2002

I liked this Web site. It's probably the work of some professor or teacher who uses film to illustrate physics. Very cool idea.

I like the concept as well, and like I said, I think it's a fantastic way to teach physics concepts. I also think this particular page is pretty mean spirited, and I get the feeling that the authors would rather all movies be totally realistic.

I don't think movies should have to conform to reality. I think it's a sad fact that there are people who believe everything they see, but I don't think movies and the false realities they present are to blame for their ignorance.
posted by daveadams at 9:56 AM on June 20, 2002

'Really good movies like Casablanca don't need visual clichés to build excitement. They depend on less glitzy techniques like good plot, character development, and sparkling dialog.'

not sure if that will convince everyone that their hearts are in the right place, but hey. it is surprising how many people are able to blur everyday (cold physical) reality with television/film. i am sure i do it.
true story - blood bank in major city runs out of type-o (i think, anyway it's the one size fits all flavour) blood, a serious situation. the emergency meeting revealed that one of the staff had been using it all the time, not just in emergencies. when asked why, he replied 'it's what they do on er'. medical profession.

plemeljr - 'How about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? And more specifically the "Bamboo Dance" scene?'

it's a fanasy, afaik. chow yung fat and zhang zyiyi are using their wudan powers or something.
posted by asok at 3:14 PM on June 20, 2002

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