Bad Movies, Earth Science Edition

With the release of Godzilla, we are in the summer movie season.  And we already have some of the fun chuckles for GG like monsters that can suck the radiation out of things and hearing that they used to get the radiation coming from the core. [And why did they set a railroad scene in Lone Pine, when there hasn’t been a rail line there for a really long time, where lots of filmmakers have actually been, but of course this time they didn’t film in Lone Pine, so it doesn’t look anything like the place? They could have said Mojave or Tehachapi, or if they really wanted some interesting scenery never on the screen before they could have chosen Caliente, NV, and its classic rail station.  But GG digresses….]. So this brings to mind the occasionally fabulously bad geoscience that shows up in the movies.

For how little earth science shows up in standard K-12 curricula or, for that matter, most college requirements, it is surprising how many times you see it appear in movies. Maybe the earth isn’t worth study, but it makes a decent movie star. Anyways, with any of these movies there is an accompanying outcry from scientists that “it just isn’t that way.” [Kind of like lawyers complaining about law movies and doctors about medical shows]. We won’t try to list all the offenders here (others have done that); instead, what makes a bad geology movie bad? 

It is funny how movie makers go to huge lengths to reproduce some things while utterly disregarding others. You will hear a costume designer brag about studying vintage photographs to reproduce exactly the right look, or a production designer getting the precisely correct telephone in a room. The whole idea is to make the viewer buy in to what is being seen. If a character tried to use a 1920s telephone as a telegraph, banging the ear piece against the microphone, everybody might laugh as we’d know that was wrong, but show a character using, say, a Betsy seismic source with a GPR imaging setup (Jurassic Park is where you find that) and the audience, save for a few geophysicists, raptly watches as this impossible setup yields an impossible image. Does this alone make a movie a bad geology movie? Well, it depends.

We can throw out a few obvious chestnuts as irrelevant. Movies are notorious for hopping all over the real world and pretending that this is a simple linear journey; geologists are probably more familiar with landscapes than most and so can be distracted (or amused) at, for instance, the real world path that Maverick takes in the movie of the same name from the early 1990s. Or be puzzled (along with history buffs) that the Transcontinental Railroad was realigned through a relocated Monument Valley, now moved to Texas (wouldn’t do to have the Lone Ranger not be a Texas Ranger) and adjacent to (nonexistent) mines in 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Or that Afghanistan looks precisely like the Alabama Hills and the Sierra Nevada in Iron Man. You get the idea. So this isn’t enough to make a bad geology movie.

Turning professional lingo into bafflegab? You know, like doing the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? Lazy and unnecessarily annoying, but usually innocent.

Can a fantasy movie be bad geology? Hmm. Superman is clearly fantasy but is placed otherwise in our real world (as much as a real world exists in escapist movies), so complaining about him flying or defying bullets and all that is pointless, but if he misunderstand the San Andreas Fault, say, then maybe it becomes bad geology. But a wholly fantastic world? Are we going to knock Lord of the Rings for an improbably located active volcano? No.

How about science fiction? This depends on how hard the science fiction wants to be; nearly every movie with science in it is some form of science fiction. So you could say that things like Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Jurassic Park, The Day After Tomorrow, etc., are all trying to be set in the “real world” and so if the geology is bad, it is a bad geology movie. How far do you go? Do you knock Revenge of the Sith for a volcanic planet that has no hope of having a breathable atmosphere? Can you challenge Pandora as geologically implausible in Avatar?

Making a terrifically dull movie about geology? No, that is making a bad movie, not a bad geology movie. We need to separate the dramatic success from the intellectual failings.

How about showing something that violates geology as we understand it? So, for instance, at the time Jurassic Park was filmed, the largest Velociraptor was the size of a medium dog and some felt that making them bigger was cheating. Of course, shortly after that Utahraptor was found and we were all good as far as big raptor-ish dinosaurs were concerned. Or the big explosive eruption in Dante’s Peak coinciding with eruption of nice fluid (basaltic) lava flows? Well, this is one of those gimmes to drama; they just couldn’t resist having characters chased by lava. (Does anybody recognize that lava is molten rock and not just hot red water? When Gollum falls into the lava in Mt. Doom in Return of the King, he shouldn’t have sunk in—he is less dense; more likely he would writhe in pain from burns before he burst into flames on top of the lava).

No, the thing that transforms a movie with some earth science into a truly bad earth science movie is when the premise relies on science and screws it up, sometimes so horribly that people walk away from the movie knowing less than when they walked in. The scariest example of this might well be The Day After Tomorrow, which left European audiences believing less in climate change than before they saw the movie because, well, they knew enough to know that what they were seeing made no sense. (Americans were on the opposite side, as they believed in climate change more after seeing the movie, but Americans probably also feared sharks more after Sharknado).

For laughably bad, though, it is hard to exceed The Core, which screws up so many things so intensely and in such an essential manner that no earth scientist can really get involved in the movie. The list is so long—gaps in the magnetic field allowing the Sun to kill things instantly and demolish structures on the ground? Really? Wow, those space probes and astronauts must be made of something really incredible. Flow in the core just stops? You can restart it with explosions? Varying fields cause birds to collide with things? Hello, they have eyes for a reason. Stopping pacemakers? Really? In a tiny area? Giant geodes at nice cold temperatures in the mantle? Mega diamonds? Erupting from the core to a volcano in Italy—no wait, that was another movie journeying to the center of the earth. The problem with The Core isn’t that it promises an impossible trek to the core—that silliness is simply the addition of a miracle machine—it is that it so destroys any resemblance to reality that anything goes. 

So when a movie depends on earth science and just absolutely mangles it so that a geologically literate viewer cannot suspend disbelief, it is a really bad geology movie.  When a movie shows science being done wrong or gratuitously mangles some science that could be correct without damaging the story arc, that makes GG get more grumpy, but the magnitude of ‘badness’ depends on how much of this goes on. 

However, even bad geology movies are kind of cool in that it means somebody is noticing some science being done.  Obvious ones like Dante’s Peak and Volcano and Earthquake come from earth science disasters, though they gain dramatic tension from the possibility that scientists can provide meaningful warnings, while Armageddon and Deep Impact owe their origins directly to research on the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.  The Day After Tomorrow is kind of a misreading of a 1989 hypothesis by Wally Broecker and others on how the Younger Dryas episode (when Northern Hemisphere temperatures briefly returned to Ice Age cold) was spawned.  Maybe Hollywood should be funding some science; they had nearly a billion dollars on receipts from Armageddon and Deep Impact, but the original research that turned up this meteorite-wiping-out-the-dinosaurs cost under $24,000. Or, maybe, the next time the NSF Director testifies on the reason why NSF should get more money, he should ask to move to a movie theater and just show some movies that were inspired by research NSF funded…


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