Movie Science Gone Bad

Modern-day movies have, without a doubt, made a ferocious impact on our lives. They've entertained, helped and even inspired us, and all for just a few hours of time spent suspending our disbelief. However, there comes a point when we have to say, "I'm sorry; I just don't buy that!" These are the times when the movie creaters steal a page from Ed Wood's book and throw out continuity and factuality in order to make a scene more dramatic.

The following is a list of items that I and others have found while viewing movies and TV shows or other bits and pieces of popular media. These in no way are meant to attack the authors, directors, actors, caterers and dolly grips that worked tirelessly to bring a bit of joy into our hum-drum lives. Instead, it is meant to be a reference for writers and imaginers who just aren't aware of a few, niggling details that may drive the consumer to threaten the concession stand operator at the movie theater with an overcooked hot dog.

Modern Spoonerisms

The Matrix is without a doubt a marvel of modern storytelling that has no peer. Not only are there beautifully choreographed fights, massive explosions and graphical effects that make the head spin, there is also a plot! It's a nice little blend of eastern mysticism and government paranoia, combined with a healthy helping of anime styling makes for a unique offering that kept me engrossed for two hours. However, there was one little problem that kept tickling the back of my conscious and encouraged me to shout out, "I'm sorry, Keanu, but there is a spoon."

Okay, let me set things up. Keanu (aka Neo) and Carrie-Ann Fisher (aka Trinity) are going to free Laurence Fishbourne (aka Morpheus). After helping a bunch of security guards get some use out of their life/health insurance policies Neo and Trinity climb into an elevator. Once about halfway up they arm a bomb, climb on top of the elevator car and hang onto the cable for dear life. At this point Neo utters the famous line, "There is no spoon," and shoots out the cable attachment.

The problem I had at this point is that the elevator immediately plunged to the first floor. What the Wachowsky brothers failed to notice was that all elevators, almost since their inception, have tension brakes that, as soon as the tension on the cabling disappears the brakes shoot out and stop the car from falling more than a few inches. This means that Neo and Trinity's flight up the elevator shaft is extremely unrealistic.

I know, I know. We can make some argument that Neo was already using his virtual reality warping abilities to make things go his way, but, come on! That doesn't quite jive with me. I'd like to see a few more inexplicable things happening around him before this point before I accept the falling elevator trick.

Oh, and just as a point of curiosity, in Speed, another movie where Keanu must save some people from a really bad guy, there is an elevator that almost plunges to the ground because of a bomb. The bad guy in this movie, though, knew all about the brake thingies and set off separate charges for each brake assembly. I guess one out of two ain't bad there, Keanu.

Skinning the Hyde off of Dr. Jeckyll

You know those stories where our favorite character drinks some kind of elixir or imbibes a few nanites and is turned into some hideous beast or gorgeous woman? Yep, you guessed it; my disbelief gets unsuspended.

It's not so much the potion that annoys me. If it's a fantasy, I'm more likely to believe the resultant action because there is so much I don't know about the rules of that specific universe. When Belgarath turns into a great wolf, I'm fine. When Rupert Giles changes into a demonic beast, I don't work up a sweat. But when good old Dr. Jeckyll turns into Mrs. Hyde I start to cringe and look for the nearest exit.

So what is it that gives me the willies? It's when someone (usually a highly respected medical doctor) explains to the scared girlfriend that her boyfriend is now genetically a blue-furred, three-stomached pleasure marsupial that gets my goat (which is odd because I don't have any pets, unless you want to count the dust mites that I inadvertantly keep well-fed). They're supposed to know better; but I guess science interferes with a good plotline too much to keep it around too long.

Bubble, bubble toil and trouble…

Potions mixed by a mad scientist are a really handy thing to have around if you need to move a story long. Of course, they have to be made with something nice, like rare herbs from the center of the Amazon or the venom of a giant sea slug. Most of the time the problem with smoking potions is that they reek of magic, and a science fiction story that uses magic potions are fantasies. What's worse is when Ye Olde Doctor exclaims that the person's genetics have changed.

Okay let's, for a moment, assume that said potion can modify a human as advertised. This means that the DNA in every cell must change at the same time, because if they aren't the body's natural infection fighting system will identify these changed cells as the enemy and make one sick individual. Has anyone heard of HIV?

Now even if we get past the bacterial warfare aspect of transformation we still have to overcom the need for raw materials. Changing a pound of flesh into a pound of bone requires reactants, reactors, reagents and a ton of other things that I am not really all that familiar with. If the end product is more massive than the beginning product then we'll need lots of Snickers to satisfy us. If the end is smaller… I think you can figure things out.

Finally we must discuss heat dissipation. All the reactions required to convert DNA and flesh into something else release energy and we all know from the Three Laws of Thermodynamics that a system will lose energy during a reaction. (Now, I remember reading something about some physicists proving this wrong in certain cases, but I don't want to hear about that; I'm trying to prove a point here!) If the heat of the reaction is not dissipated fast enough we encounter a phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion. Kentucky Fried Human anyone?

I am iron man

In today's climate of rapid technological advancement we suddenly find ourselves confronted by incredible shrinking machines, or nanomachines as popular literature refers to them. While these have the same problems as potions — heat dissipation, immuno-deficiency, mass conversion — we also run into the fact that nanomachines are relatively slow. This means that the likelihood of illness in the subject is higher, the breakdown of genetic tissue is greater and pundits calling for the head of the science advisor arrive in greater numbers.

Nanomachines, as they are built today, all tend to be single-purpose. Not, "rewrite DNA", single-purpose, but "spin that gear" single-purpose. Today's mini-robots are distressingly simple and anything more complex will take years of research before their use in industry becomes even remotely practical.

It should also be noted that the numbers of nanomachines needed to effect even the smallest change in human physiology is absolutely astounding. A small syringe will not cover it; retro-viruses are at least able to use the body iteself to reproduce. Nanomachines don't have that option.

What worked

What worked for me (when I wasn't cowering beneath the sofa) was The Fly. Here a man gets his genetic code spliced with that of a fly. He doesn't immediately turn into a fly-like creature, though. Instead, over the course of days and weeks, his cells notice something wrong and start producing missing enzymes and stuff. After a while our hero — Jeff Goldblum in the remake — starts to spit acid, exude pheromones and turn his skin into chiton. Now, this is science! (Okay, there's still probably a few things wrong, but I can at least let my disbelief rest for a while.) There's no magical morphing, no sudden transformation; just a smooth regression from humanity.

And speaking of the loss of humanity, how about those matter transporter doo-hickies? I'll admit there's a bunch of fast and furious hand-waving behind the scenes, but if one already has an object in its energy form, I see no reason why that energy can't be resculpted when it's coalescing. You know, in goes Mr. Spock, out comes Nurse Chapel (or Lwaxana Troi or whoever Majel is playing that week)!


I know, I've probably ruined things for you, but you've got to admit that the relative quality of plots we see in the theaters and on the 'tube today have gone steadily downhill. The reason for this is that not only is our school system on cruise control for producing neanderthals but that we are less likely to be discriminating viewers. We don't pay attention; we just tune out without performing the requisite turning on. We need to prove that we are dedicated to improving our culture and won't accept trash instead of treasure.

Without a doubt I have missed some thoroughly bad scientific blunders perpetrated in media. If you have examples that would be excellent here, let me know and we can work to fight couch-potato-itis together. In the meantime, pass me the popcorn and don't you dare touch that remote!

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