Are There Good Geo Movies?

Having already discussed bad earth science movies (no shortage of those), one may ask, are there any good earth science movies?

Now somewhere out there is some imaginative filmmaker who can come up with a watchable movie about the extremely zen art of field mapping.  Field geology is kind of like a slow-motion CSI episode.  How do these two faults link up? Does that bed pinch out? Why are these fossils only found here? How will I ever get a strike and dip in this crud? Slowly reading the history of long-gone events is a different kind of experience. As a personal experience, GG recommends a stretch of field mapping as being good for the soul.  But so far, no takers on that movie….

While a bad geology movie says and does things so central to the plot that are simply impossible or stupid, to be good we need more than just avoiding those potholes.  We’d like to see something of the logic, the give and take, the hypothesis and refutation of science to share with a broader audience.

So far in GG’s experience, no movie pulls it off in entirety.

The closest in GG’s experience is probably Dante’s Peak.  The errors in the movie are ones of exuberance and exaggeration, not outright misrepresentation or fantasy (the acid lake wouldn’t eat away the boat–though burning human flesh is plausible, the earthquake experienced is larger and longer than the ones you usually find in volcanic areas, the swift lava flows and pyroclastic eruptions are not going to occur at the same time and place),  though driving across a fresh lava flow kind of jumps the shark (that would be hard to pull off, but maybe someone should pitch that to Mythbusters).  The USGS page on the movie is helpful in considering the science of the movie. A lot of the objections you find out there to the science in this movie are based on typical behavior, not possible behavior (and some are themselves representative of misunderstandings arguably greater than the moviemakers’: for instance, one post says that major element composition determines whether a flow is aa or pahoehoe; in fact you will find both in the same flow: it appears viscosity is the key player, possibly affected by the water content of the flow).

What makes this an interesting movie is that, rather unusually in these films, science is actually conducted (if you are wondering, science’s usual role is as a reference library).  The protagonist, Dr. Harry Dalton, is sent to check out a volcano, he sees signs he views as disturbing and wants to put the town on alert.  His superior (Dr. Paul Dreyfus) shows up and stops that from happening.  In a more typical film, Dreyfus would be a simple heavy, keeping the hero from doing anything until a crisis erupted, ignoring evidence.  But here, Dreyfus is basically saying that they need more data before moving forward: in essence, Dalton’s hypothesis that the volcano is now active makes some predictions, one of which would be seismic activity, another would be evidence of some primary magmatic gases. So they set out to test this hypothesis, deploying seismometers (and their seismometer deployment is indeed a very nice one), sampling gases (well, they wouldn’t be sending a robot down a crater wall, but its a cute idea and something like it has been tried). A lot of this part of their story was reflective of the USGS’s misadventures in Mammoth Lakes in the early 1980s when a survey decision to issue a volcano alert was scooped by the LA Times, blindsiding local officials and producing a major backlash against the agency. (And grandma’s attempt to stay at home is referring to Harry R. Truman and his 16 cats defying evacuation orders at Mt. St. Helens in 1980, one suspects). After monitoring awhile with no quakes, Dreyfus decides enough is enough as they haven’t seen anything and its time to pack up and monitor from home, which is a perfectly reasonable response.  It just feels like a likely set of actions and reactions (the desire to dope slap characters is relatively absent).  Of course, at this point everything goes nuts and we enter pure disaster action movie mode (Sparks fly! Buildings fall! Dog saved! Lava! Lahars! Death! Life!).

Another movie worth mentioning here is Jurassic Park. Why? Because unlike so many movies, there are different kinds of scientists with different backgrounds and modes of operating.  In many movies a “scientist” is as likely to know the details of the Drosophila genome as the magnetohydrodynamics of the earth’s core (think of all the stuff Spock seems to be expert in in Star Trek if you want the extreme example).  Here we have a couple of paleontologists and a mathematician with different backgrounds and different experiences, which was a nice change. And, you know, the little episode in the helicopter where Dr. Grant has to tie his seat belt together is in many ways the mark of a field scientist–if you can’t get things done by the book, you need them done well enough to get through and so necessity is the mother of invention.

Other movies? The Core? The Day After Tomorrow? Armageddon? Deep Impact? Volcano? Pompeii? Ice Age movies? One Million Years BC? Walt Disney’s Dinosaur? Journey to the Center of the Earth (either version)? Star Wars? Earthquake? Krakatoa East of Java? A View to a Kill? Tremors? The Day the Earth Stood Still? 10.5? Superman (the first one)? The Lone Ranger (the Johnny Depp one)? Avatar? Well, though some have a glimmer of redemption, none are good geoscience movies….

If you want, there are plenty of more in-depth discussions of geology in movies out there (though they are mostly poking fun at the gaps in movies); GG isn’t intending to get into regular movie reviews…:

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