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Hollywood on Trial


“When you go to the movies,check both your coat and your brain at the door.”

Xenocrates

Have you ever seen one of those movies where you saw something that just didn’t make sense?  I’m not talking about the obvious stuff that is the product of special effects like punching through a wall or making an impossible shot. Stuff like that is usually quaintly explained by the plot of the movie – such as the main characters being from another planet, or have superpowers that are the product of genetic mutation. We all know that suspension of belief is critical to most movies.

However, I’m talking about some of the things that are logically implausible or downright stupid. I’m talking about stuff that is the product of continuity mismanagement or lack of simple research. I will admit that it does seem hypocritical to assail Hollywood for breaking the laws of simple logic while allowing them to break the laws of physics on a regular basis. But the reason why this allegation has validity is that we expect them to defy the laws of physics. We however do not expect them to defy the laws of reason – or at the very least, not to defy the basis of the plot.

In this post, I cover some of the greatest, most common, most inexplicable, most stupid things that I’ve seen in movies that simply just don’t make sense. Put on your thinking caps for this one. I wax scientific about why the Millennium Falcon can’t possibly make the Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs and why Superman could never safely move faster than a speeding bullet – ever.

Stupid things you may have overlooked

Hollywood has a remarkable talent for making movies based on pretty stupid principles. Most people gloss over these things when they see them in a movie because, in a nutshell, they’ve come to expect them. The real problem here however, is that film is an art form and is a more visually demanding form of a stage play. Therefore, when it comes to the task of expressing ideas that wouldn’t translate well on film, getting the audience to connect with the story often requires them to do things in the film which are inherently illogical, but somehow work to sell the idea. Here is a listing of some of these things:

Bombs

Keanu Reeves vs. Bomb - Speed (1994)

Keanu Reeves disarms a Bomb with instructions - "Speed" (1994)

Movies like Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Die Hard 3 (1993), Speed (1994) and many other films of similar ilk cannot and will not resist the temptation to use a bomb of some kind in the plot. Bombs are, like damsels in distress, a plot device called a McGuffin. It gives our hero purpose and direction (as well as work as a clothesline for several action sequences). However, almost every movie with a bomb in the plot consistently makes several mistakes. Some of these are pretty obvious. Others, you may have missed:

  1. Timers – In many action movies, we often see our protagonists trying to disarm a bomb. The question is, why does almost every bomb in almost every movie (except where the movie is depicting real life events), have a red LED display showing the remaining time to detonation? Think about how silly this is. Wouldn’t that just clue the good guy into how much time he has left to disarm it? If I were a bad guy, I would wire a bomb and give no one any idea of how much time there is left for one simple reason: It is far more intimidating and it almost guarantees that it will be left alone, thus maximizing the probability that it will go off. You’d think that more bad guys would use a detonator. Morons.
  2. Last minute diffusion – Virtually every movie bomb will not be diffused outside of the last 1o seconds on the clock. This is nothing more than a cheap plot device designed explicitly for the purpose of ramping up the suspense (aaah… so that’s why movie bombs have timers… 🙄 ). In fact, if the bomb has one hour to detonation, our hero will either not get to the bomb until the clock has almost run out or will spend the last minute deliberating endlessly about which wire to cut. This particular plot sequence is so overused, that it even has its own name and a thorough write up about it. It’s called the “Wire Dilemma” and you can read up all about it here. You would think that after the first several hundred thousand times that Hollywood has concocted such sequences, they would figure that audiences would have developed the capacity to predict these things from the moment the plot is set up. The only way this would make the scene interesting is if the bomb actually went off and the hero died. THAT would be hilarious. eh
  3. Kill and Tell – Secondly, why do bad guys wire up a bomb and then TELL everyone about it? Wouldn’t that just mean that it will bring the bomb crews in to disarm it? Won’t that defeat the purpose of setting off the bomb in the first place? Furthermore, doesn’t it mean that the bad guys become a target? The Muslim Extremists have the right idea. Wire up the bomb, escape, detonate it and then tell everyone about it. Movies put the cart before the horse to make the plot more suspenseful. However, no real bad guy is that stupid.
  4. Invincible – Now if the bomb goes off near our good guy(s), even if it’s a car bomb, they are only thrown a good distance as seen in Mission Impossible 3 (2006) and suffer at most only a few soot marks on their face and some minor damage to their clothing as seen in Charlies Angels (2000) – despite the fact that real car bombs in Iraq dismember people standing dozens of yards away. I’m also annoyed at those explosions that happen as our hero is walking away. The effect is designed to make him/her look cool – as if they’re invincible. The explosion going off behind them (which could be throwing dangerous shrapnel their way) only serves to accentuate their “badassness”. But I don’t care how bad ass you are. Even if you’re not wearing body armour, even if you’re James frickin’ Bond, if you turn your back to an explosion and slowly walk away, you’re asking to get cut to shreds by flying debris moving at the speed of sound. Do not try this at home.

Vehicles

Civilian safety is moot. When you need to go after someone on a crowded highway, TEAR. IT. UP. - Bad Boys II (2002)

Civilian safety is moot. When you need to go after someone on a crowded highway, TEAR. IT. UP. - "Bad Boys II" (2002)

In almost any given action movie, there is going to inevitably be a sequence involving vehicular transport. Sequences in movies that involve motor vehicles almost always involve them being used to perform needless and dangerous stunts. This serves for nothing more than granting the mindless gratification of seeing vehicles pushed to their physical limits and ultimately wrecked beyond recognition.

Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Bad Boys II (2002) demonstrates that all too well. Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) took that to a whole other level, incorporating kung-fu with everything from crotch rockets to semis. At least these movies have some plot device that drives some of these ridiculous sequences. Never the less, there are certain illogical things about vehicles in movies that just cannot be ignored:

  1. Universal Handling Cars and trucks handle with the same level of efficiency in movies. So it doesn’t matter if you get behind an Aston Martin Vanquish, a semi or a Missile loader, it’ll all feel the same to you.
  2. Cars always flip over – If there is a sequence involving a car chase, there is a 99.99% probability that at least one of these cars is going to flip over. Just getting the tires shot out is enough to flip it over – even at low speed. Now these chase sequences almost always end were one speeding car smashes into a stationary car. But get this; Instead of smashing forward and spinning sideways, this car somehow runs up and over the stationary car, flipping onto its side, after which it promptly bursts into flames. It’s like every parked car in Hollywood has a ramp behind it and every car that crashes becomes flammable once it flips onto it’s side. Weird…
  3. The illogical nature of Car Chases – Car chases are pretty pointless and I’ll prove it: If bad guys chase each other through traffic, won’t that only bring on the attention of cops? If bad guys chase after good guys in traffic, how will the cops tell who’s who? Why would cops chase after bad guys if there is an increased probability of civilian casualty? Furthermore, if cops are spread out all over the metro area, why chase a bad guy in the first place? Finally, why don’t cops in movies use Helicopters to chase a bad guy like is done in real life? The answer to all these questions is simple: because car chases, while pointless, are fun to watch.
  4. Car Roll Survivors – For some strange reason, after a car flips and rolls several times, our protagonists are always able to get out of the vehicle almost immediately afterward and walk away, so long as the script demanded it. Most of the time their airbags haven’t been fired (especially when upside down) and they only suffer minor cuts and bruises. I don’t know about the cars in your universe, but in this one when a car rolls with your ass in it, you’re going to be pretty banged up. I don’t care how many safety features it’s got. I don’t care even if your seat belt held you in. You will at least be pretty dazed – too dazed to just walk away from it right afterward.

I imagine however, that car chase junkies will undoubtedly get off on a list of what is considered the Greatest Movie Car Chase Sequences of all time. I disagree with some of the items on that list, but that’s neither here nor there. These sequences are great because they are needlessly spectacular. You can’t have a really great car chase sequence without it being incongruous to the very plot of the film. I dare any of you to prove otherwise.

Incompetent Bad Guys

Bad guy got you tied up? No problem. Just wait 3 minutes - The World is Not Enough (1999)

Bad guy got you tied up? No problem. Just wait 3 minutes and all will be revealed - "The World is Not Enough" (1999)

I fail to have any respect for many Hollywood movies for one simple reason: Their bad guys SUCK. Everybody knows that a really good movie is defined by a really BAD guy who, (to make the plot even more interesting) dwarfs the capacity of the movie’s protagonist. That’s why movies like Star Wars (1977), The Matrix (1999), No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Dark Knight (2008) are so good. The bad guys in those films had a much more vicious resolve than their heroic counterparts. They are willing to do what the heroes won’t. Thus, their very existence in the film forces the hero to quite literally ‘step up’ their game in order to defeat them.

Now I know what you’re going to say. Clearly we can’t expect every movie to have a bad guy who is a world destroyer (Star Wars), a malevolent icon of authority (The Matrix), a serial killer (No Country for Old Men), or a mad man bent on bringing a city to its knees (The Dark Knight). I only mention those movies because they’re some of the best examples of a well written bad guy. You simply can’t enjoy a movie where you have bad guys being out thwarted by hapless kids, by his own incompetent or duplicitous hench men, his own incompetence or by a good guy who clearly out ranks him in brains and brawn. My point is simply that David vs. Goliath is a lot more interesting than David vs. a midget.

Then there are those villains who when they corner the hero, start monologuing about their nefarious plans, complete with the location of bombs, travel itineraries for their henchmen, hotel accommodations of the damsel in distress and the co-ordinates of the structural weaknesses of their secret underground lair. Every spy movie from James Bond films to the Mission Impossible franchise has this fatal flaw. This is a stupid idea for two very good reasons:

  1. If the villain has captured our hero, he should execute him right away. Monologuing only gives the hero time to think about an escape plan.
  2. If (when) the hero eventually gets away, he will use the details of the villain’s plan against him, thwarting the bad guys in the end.

Hollywood needs to figure out a new way to reveal the McGuffin in the third act without using this silly plot device. Real life villains are nowhere near that stupid and are almost always more interesting.

About Glass

In movies, you can break ANY glass into a million pieces - Wanted (2008)

In movies, you can break ANY glass into a million pieces - "Wanted" (2008)

Seeing stuff break seems to excite people. So as a rule of thumb, Hollywood engages in the wanton and indiscriminate destruction of property for no other reason other than to make a particularly drab sequence seem more exciting.

  1. Must. Break. Glass – One of the key rules of movies is that if there is a conspicuously displayed pane of glass, someone will either throw something, dive, get thrown or shoot through that pane of glass, shattering it into a billion pieces within 3 minutes of it being displayed.
  2. All Glass Shatters – Do you notice that anytime glass breaks in a movie, it literally shatters? This is despite the fact that glass does not shatter into so many tiny pieces, or so easily – no matter what breaks it. It breaks into large and often very dangerous shards. But since these shards are not relevant to the plot of the film, most times, the person breaking the glass does not get hurt, unless the plot explicitly calls for them getting cut or someone making a weapon out of a shard.
  3. All Transparencies are made of glass – Anytime you see a translucent or transparent object in movies, it’s almost always glass. It’s never plastic, or carbon-fibre or anything else that could possibly be transparent. It’s always glass – plexiglass from the looks of it.
  4. All Glass is Breakable – Hollywood also tends to ignore the structural integrity of glass. This is particularly obvious in sequences involving cars and tall buildings – which don’t actually use glass as much as they use a very hard type of plastic. Never-the-less, too often you will see a person shooting through the glass of a car or a tall building using a standard hand gun even though the bullets from these small weapons are more likely to ‘dent’ the glass (even if it penetrates) – but never completely break or shatter it.
  5. Flesh is more durable than glass – In movies, we always see people breaking glass with their hands or busting through it with their bodies. But rest assured, if you try to break a car window or wind screen with your fist, there’s a very good chance that you will either break or severely injure your hand – even if you wrap it in some cloth before attempting the near impossible deed. The glass that makes up a car’s windscreen or a building’s window offices is extremely tough. You cannot jump through it and break it (Wanted, 2008) and you most certainly cannot shatter it. Any such attempt would be the equivalent of throwing a water balloon into a brick wall. Most of these types of glass are being made with a rather tough polycarbonate that doesn’t splinter for safety reasons. However, Hollywood patently ignores all of these things, because apparently, flesh is more durable than glass – any glass.

Chick Flicks

You don't need to be a prophet like Nostradamus to foresee how this farce will end. - "Maid in Manhattan" (2002)
You don’t need to be a prophet like Nostradamus to foresee how this farce will end. – “Maid in Manhattan” (2002)

I would never spend a red cent of my own money to go watch a chick flick – I don’t care how hot my date is. This is for the simple reason that all Romantic Comedies (no exceptions) have exactly the same plot; Guy meets girl under unlikely circumstances, guy pursues girl, girl plays hard to get, then comes a problem that could ruin the prospects for the relationship, then one of them says sorry, guy gets girl, they marry, the end. See one and you’ve seen ’em all. bored

The second reason is that chick flicks are designed explicitly for one reason: To prey upon the right brained succeptibility of women (who make up 60% of the movie going audience) to make a quick buck. Chick flicks are also designed as vehicles for an actor’s career so that he/she doesn’t get typecast as a person befitting a particular role type – especially if that actor/actress is well known for appearing in action movies. Chick flicks are a cheap, quick way for balancing out their resumé. They cost under 10 million to make and always turn a profit because women lap them up like cheap romance novels soaked in chocolate.

Guns

Stop and think about how utterly stupid this scene is... -  "Face/Off" (1997)

Stop and think about how utterly stupid this scene is... - "Face/Off" (1997)

Action movies feature a lot of gun play. That is their bread and butter. However, to truly sell the validity of a gun fight, not only do movie producers have to employ some nifty special effects, they also have to think creatively about how they’re going to sell the credibility of a scene. Unfortunately, with the exception of war movies, most action films which attempt to sell a particularly spectacular gun fight make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Here are some of the more potent ones. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these before:

  1. The Improbable Stand Off – Many action films like Face/Off (1997) feature scenes where two or more people put a gun to each other’s head and… talk! BOTH people have a gun to each other’s head, but nobody is firing! Instead they stand and stare each other in the face as if they’re daring the other person to pull the trigger first! While this plot device is designed to drive up the level of suspense in the scene, it but fails in the credibility test because nobody pulls a weapon without the intention of using it – unless they’re aiming at an unarmed individual. Also if one person pulls a weapon, there’s a very good chance that even if the second one is armed, they won’t risk pulling their weapon as they certainly aren’t fast enough to avoid getting shot. If it’s a melee situation where even more people have weapons, then you can count on someone firing first. There will be no standoff.
  2. Empty Threats – Why hold a gun to someone’s head threatening them to give up some information? Think about this: If you kill the person, then you can’t get the information you want. So what’s the point of putting a gun to their head in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better aimed at a non-lethal part of their body? Even more shocking is that people in movies regularly put a gun to someone’s head without cocking it first. We see this in The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) where Trinity is in a room filled with people armed to the teeth, with her weapon pointed at the Merovingian. She only cocks her weapon after some lengthy dialog. Apparently, movie characters only cock their weapons after they’ve made a threatening point – clearly giving the person who is being threatened the opportunity to disarm them before they finish talking.
  3. Lousy Aim – What’s even more interesting is that in gun fights, the good guys are usually outnumbered or outgunned. Yet, no matter how many more henchmen there are, even if they’re firing at near point blank range (like that sequence in Star Wars (1977) where they make a bid to rescue Princess Leia) almost none of them can get in a single good shot and they never seem to run out of ammo. The same thing happens in The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) during the highway chase sequence. An albino twin empties an entire UZI clip at Trinity and company, sometimes at near point blank range, and the only thing that gets damaged is the car!  If you don’t see the obvious stupidity of plot sequences like that, then there’s a very good chance you’d get killed in a real gunfight. Again, this is just Hollywood overly dramatizing a sequence to make it more interesting.
  4. Two Gun Aim – John Woo is a fan of developing action movies where the star wields two weapons simultaneously. Admittedly it looks pretty damn cool and it does add to the bad ass quality of our star. However, most gun professionals will tell you that your likelihood of missing your target increases exponentially when using two guns simultaneously instead of one. The human brain doesn’t have the capacity to maintain two aims at once. It’s a neurologically impossible feat. Therefore, that second gun is only wasting ammo.
  5. No Kick – I don’t care how strong you are, nobody can hold a gun so steady that there isn’t a kick when it fires. Somebody forget this tiny detail in many of the gun fights in The Matrix (1999) and others where women are shown holding the weapons. In some cases, the chamber doesn’t even recoil. It’s so obvious that the bullet flares and ejecting canisters were added later by the special effects department after the dailies came in. Gun training anyone?

Computers

Umm... dude, WTF are you doing? - "Swordfish" (2001)

Umm... dude, WTF are you doing? - "Swordfish" (2001)

Despite the fact that computers are such an ubiquitous element of modern society, Hollywood almost never gets the depiction of computers right. There are several highly conspicuous examples of this. One particularly silly and obvious depiction is the act of…

  1. Bashing Keyboard – Whenever they’re typing, actors relentlessly bash the keyboard, obviously typing gibberish. You’d think that the actors would at least try to make it look like they’re typing actual text – but no. They literally slam the keyboard with all 10 digits simultaneously and always only the middle row (a,s,d,f,g,h,j,k,l.;’). This is evident in movies like Perfect Stranger (2007) where Halle Berry and Bruce Willis pound their keyboards into oblivion while playing online cat and mouse. One wonders how they’re able to type out such perfect sentences using only this row. Speaking of which, I’ve always wondered how come their screens have…
  2. Huge Fonts – And this seems to be consistent right across the board. This is particularly obvious in movies that depict instant messaging. It’s like Hollywood is trying to say that its characters are inherently blind as seems to be the case in Something’s Gotta Give (2003). Strangely enough, their computers also appear to have…
  3. No Mouse – Even though every modern desktop computer out there has a graphical user interface, and thus, has a mouse, we are still being treated with computers in movies that are exclusively driven by a keyboard. This is despite the fact that these computers have highly sophisticated GUIs which even advanced users have trouble navigating without a point plotting device of some kind. This is especially obvious in movies depicting computers that…
  4. Don’t Use any Standard Operating Systems – Have you ever seen movie characters use the MacOS or Windows? Very rarely, right? Movies like Transformers (2007) regularly show computers using a graphical display that is either eons ahead of anything that exists on today’s market or was (obviously) custom built for the movie. Even though I know these are all non functional interfaces designed for the movie, it’s sad because it says a great deal about the ignorance of movie producers, especially when it comes to their knowledge of…
  5. Hacking – This is the single worst depiction of anything computer related in movies, ever. Everybody who has ever been a hacker cringes whenever they see Hollywood’s depiction of what passes for hacking. When these actors are ‘hacking’, there are high definition screens, 3D objects, lattices, vertices and bunch of video game looking crap that looks like it came right out of Tron (1982). This travesty of a depiction was obvious in Hackers (1985) which received harsh criticism from the hacking community. This was even more painfully obvious in Swordfish (2001) where Hugh Jackman’s character goes ballistic on a poor laptop under the premise that he’s hacking. Somebody needs to tell Hollywood that hacking is done using raw code and a console screen. There’s no 3D graphics involved. Period. Speaking of hacking…
  6. Anything is hackable – In movies where a critical point in the plot is to get behind some computerised security password, all you need is three guesses and you’re in. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how great their defense is. Just guess three times and you’ll always get in. None of these mechanisms use anything else other than a password to get in. No username – just a password will do. It doesn’t even matter what you’re hacking. Whether you’re hacking a government database (Bourne Supremacy, 2004), an AI controlled reality (The Matrix, 1999) or an alien mothership from half way across the frickin’ galaxy (Independence Day, 1996), anything – and I do mean anything is hackable. Nevermind cross-platform incompatibilities, or multiple layers of firewall security. Apparently, in the movies, everybody, including aliens from another galaxy, is using EXACTLY the same computing platform. Yeah.

Sequelitis

A demonstration of a criminal waste of 35mm film. These movies should never have been made. The writer/director teams should be sued and spanked with a boom stick.

A demonstration of a criminal waste of 35mm film. These movies should never have been made. The writer/director teams for these should be sued into oblivion.

Hollywood never learns. They will make a huge blockbuster movie that gains fantastic critical recognition and blows up at the box office. Then because of their inherently greedy nature, they make parts 2, 3 (and sometimes 4) just to make sure that they milk the plot element for all that it is worth. The problem is that these sequels tend to SUCK because they are designed to milk a franchise. Sometimes, they feel more like TV episodes of a miniseries with the progressively weaker budget each time around. Hollywood producers, If you’re going to make a sequel, here are a few tips:

  1. DON’T rehash the original plot. Bigger action sequences, louder explosions and more expensive special effects don’t make a better movie unless it continues the story. A good example is Jurassic Park 2 (1997), which uses a weak sub-plot to relocate the dinosaurs to the city. All this does is give the same story (i.e. dinosaurs gone wild) much bigger room to play out, cars to smash,  louder more violent action sequences with many more extras to feed the T-Rex. I still haven’t figured out how Stephen Spielburg could’ve made such a terrible mistake. Needless to say, Jurassic Park 3 (2001) made exactly the same mistake, using exactly the same plot, but only on a different, smaller island. This is basically two steps backward. At least Spielburg had the good sense to avoid that one. Yeech.
  2. DON’T make a sequel if the story ends. If they lived happily ever after, or the main character dies, then don’t go back and dredge up the story just to make a sequel. E.g. The Nostromo crew met and were wiped out by an Alien (1979) leaving Ripley to lead a search and destroy mission to take out all the Aliens (1986) after which she crashed and burned in Alien³ (1992). Nevermind that the third installment was poorly written, Alien: Resurrection (1997) took one of the many cheap sci-fi sequel plots (of time travel and cloning, they picked the latter) just to give Ripley another opportunity to mount a search and destroy mission. This time, she leads a team of badasses to kill the hive, only to have them picked off one by one until she single handedly kills the last one trapped in their ship – wait, we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Oh right, Alien: Resurrection = (Alien + Aliens) – Alien³. 🙄
  3. DON’T make a sequel without the original cast. Only James Bond movies can get away with this, because the tradition is understood. It’s a baton that is passed along from generation to generation. However, audiences absolutely hate this in every other instance. Here’s a clue Hollywood; if a major star from the original doesn’t sign on for the sequel, chances are, it’s going to FLOP. An example of this is Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) where Keanu Reeves smartly opted out (since the story ended in the 1994 original) and the plot got wet. Another is The Mummy 3 (2008), where Rachel Weisz’s character (Evie) was replaced with a new actress (Maria Bello) and no plot explanation is made. Rachel wisely opted out of a third installment, since the story effectively ended when The Mummy Returned in 2001. It goes to show that actors are eminently smarter than producers.
  4. DON’T make a sequel if it’s not a part of a larger continuous story. Almost every movie sequel from Hollywood falls into this trap. It’s nothing more than a cheap money making tactic to multi-dip at the box office. For example, Star Wars (1977 – 2005), is one story told in 2 trilogies. However movies like Basic Instinct 2 (2006), Revenge of the Nerds 2 (1984) and every Friday the 13th sequel can be burned. They’re nothing more than lame attempts at telling the same original story over and over again.
  5. DO expand the plot and evolve the main characters. There’s a reason why Superman II (1980), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Godfather II (1974) and The Return of the King (2003) were all epic sequels. Superman II actually pit the man of steel up against worthy adversaries, showing off his human side. The second Godfather outing showed Michael’s evolution to becoming the new Don Corleone. Vigo Mortenssen’s King Aragorn united the entire Kingdom of men while Hobbits learned the value of sacrifice and heroism against insurmountable odds. These stories were great because they either filled the gaps in the originals with an epic story or evolved the characters from the original story to becoming greater than they originally were. That’s how you make a good sequel. Even though The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) effectively did the same thing, they made another type of FUBAR:
  6. DON’T make a sequel that veers inexplicably off course from the original story. Any sequel that tries to be too ambitious, completely forgetting the original premise of the movie in an exploit to achieve other gains is going to flop. That’s the rule. This is the reason why The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was an abysmal failure of epic proportions. I say epic, because the movie exploded in terms of casting and budget and scale and plotwise mumbo-jumbo. The same can be said of The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) which deviated from the plot of the original movie to get back at all those other movies which were parodying the ‘Bullet-Time’ sequences of the first. The Wachowski brothers did continue the story and they did evolve their characters. However, the plotting of the movie became so unnecessarily convoluted, that it felt like they wrote themselves into a corner, then when they realised this, they bumped up their special effects budget by 200 million to make some truly jaw dropping action sequences in hopes their audience wouldn’t notice. However, when the credits rolled, everybody was thinking the same thing:

What the heck just happened?

Physics Gone Wild

Now we know that movies in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre regularly break the rules of physics for entertainment. Technically, nothing is wrong with that, so long as the plot provides a logical premise for this to happen. A good example is the Matrix Trilogy. People regularly and outrightly break the laws of physics inside the Matrix, because it is nothing more than a sophisticated life emulation program. Since the people in the Matrix are also programs, it would be logically plausible for them to do what they can by hacking the Matrix. That makes sense.

However, when a character does or says something that is inconsistent with simple physics and is not provisioned by the plot of the film, you don’t need to be a physics professor to know that somebody dropped the ball when doing their homework here. Here are a few high conspicuous examples:

Faster than a speeding dummy

Superman, en routeI’m ok with Superman being alien, and thus having super powers because of our red sun. However, I don’t care if that makes him faster than a speeding bullet. If Superman is that fast, then every time he moves at super speed, he is breaking the sound barrier. If he were to break the sound barrier trying to stop a bullet from killing someone, can you imagine the sonic boom he’d create, moving through the air around us? The boom alone will probably kill the person he’s trying to save as the blast of air would be equivalent to a bomb going off right next to them. There’s no point in being faster than a speeding bullet if the amount of air you displace as you move would do more harm than good, now is it?

The Faster Than Light quandary

Millennium Falcon in hyperspaceWhen a particle of mass is accelerated towards light speed, it gets so heavy that it requires exponentially more energy to push it to light speed, thus never actually attaining light speed. It required most of the power in the entire continent of Europe to push a single atom of mass to within several hundredths of light speed. Can you imagine the amount of energy it would then require to push an entire starship like the Millennium Falcon to that speed? Even if you didn’t have that problem, there’s the energy to mass relationship to consider. Transposed for mass, E=MC² tells us that if mass (any mass) should somehow achieve light speed, its atomic structure would disintegrate to produce raw (mostly light) energy and dissipate into space. Therefore, irrespective of how advanced it is, the Millennium Falcon could never have reached light speed – ever – not without killing everyone on board.

To solve this problem, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry co-opted the theoretical physics theory of Warp Space, where space is immensely compressed in front of the ship, and rapidly decompressed behind the ship, thus “thrusting it forward” while it sits inside a bubble of normal space. The problem with this theory is the same with virtually every faster than light travel theory: It’s grossly impractical because of the energy consumption requirements. It would take the entire mass of a planet like Jupiter to produce enough energy to warp (or fold) space to wrap around a ship the size of the USS Enterprise. Heck, it would take all of the energy contained in our planet to create an artificial wormhole big enough to fold space to thrust an object as big as a car through. Clearly, an alternative power source (perhaps one that hasn’t been harnessed yet) is in order. At least Star Trek got the basic physics correct.

Han Solo’s Bluff

Millennium Falcon - Docked

In George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Han Solo brags that his ship, the Millennium Falcon, can fly the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Dear George, ‘parsecs’ are units of distance, not time. Lucky for Solo, Luke Skywalker didn’t know this either, and the bluff worked. No wonder Guido and Jabba wanted to kill this master bluffer. However, I suspect that 90% of audiences (including the cast and crew) probably didn’t care that our intrepid team of heroes were travelling with a space captain who not only got there in a “bucket of bolts”, but couldn’t even get his space units right (let alone his failing hyperdrive). I guess desperate times called for desperate measures.

Fights in Tights

General Zod vs. SupermanIn Superman II (1980), we see Superman facing off against General Zod and his henchmen. They are just as strong as Superman since they’re also from Krypton. Yet, when they lock fisticuffs, we see them flying in every which way. This defies every law of inertia. If two super people have super strength, the effects of them hitting each other would have the same effect as two ordinary people fighting. Having people being punched over great distances and through walls implies that their super strength does not come from their being super dense, as the plot would have us believe.

The only way Zod could punch Superman through a wall is if Superman were as light weight as an ordinary man, which would mean that he is not as dense, which means he wouldn’t have super strength in the first place, which means his head would explode once Zod’s fist made contact with his face. Every movie depicting two people of super strength makes this error. They take their cues from the similarly flawed comic books. But admittedly, fights between super people would be less fun to watch otherwise. I mean, who doesn’t like to see a super hero getting punched clear across town?

In Space, no one can hear you explode

Episode III

In every Star Wars epic, we have loud, dramatic sounds of space ships locked in deadly dogfights in space, complete with fiery explosions. This is all great stuff, but there are several problems with this very idea. First of all, sound is produced by air and fire needs air to burn. Space is a perfect vacuum. Therefore there is no air in space. If there is no air, there can be no sound and fire will never burn. Therefore, no matter how dramatic those space battles look and sound, in the real world, they would all be perfectly silent and explosions would be very brief and fire free.

Every space opera makes the same mistake. The same thing happens in Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space Above and Beyond and virtually every other science fiction epic which demonstrates space warfare. However, we also do admit, these sequences would be less interesting without the fire and sound that we’ve traditionally come to associate with war – even if it’s in space.

Set Course for Anus IV

Starship EnterpriseWe regularly see spaceships in Star Trek traversing the various corners of the cosmos and returning to earth a few short hours later, finding it just the way they left it. Now even if mankind manages to travel faster than light, space is vast. So vast it is, that if you manage to travel faster than light to reach one corner of the galaxy, on your return, it is very likely that all your kids would have now been long dead as several hundred years would have passed on earth in the few hours you spent space travelling. This is because at the speed of light, time becomes relative to the object travelling at that speed. This is known as the theory of relativity. So even if we figured out how to bend space and time to pass ships through a wormhole, this makes space travel to far corners of the universe highly impractical. This is another reason why Star Trek, however fun, is full of crock.

Coolest. Weapon. Evar.

Lightsaber DuelThe lightsabers of Star Wars fame are one of the most recognizable science fiction weapons of all time. However, even if we manage to figure out how a lightsaber could actually be made, there are several problems. First of all, Light energy is not solid and has no weight. Yet, we see our Jedi Knights and Sith Lords twirling these things around by the hilt, or using it to support their weight as if the energy blade had weight to counter balance the hilt. The light saber would fall right out of their hands (and lob off a limb in the process) if they did this for real since the center of gravity is in the hilt and not the blade.

Secondly, it is highly improbable that clashing two of them together in a fight would have the same effect as two swords. The blade is pure energy, so wouldn’t two light sabers pass through each other? Personally, I don’t buy the forcefield argument, since that forcefield will prevent the saber from cutting through solid objects. Speaking of which, for a light saber to cut through anything, it would probably be super hot – which makes me wonder how the hilt of the weapon remains cool enough for the wielder to handle it in the first place. The best explanation George Lucas could come up with is that lightsaber combatants “use the force”. In a way, this is a neat cop out from an otherwise very interesting quandary. I guess that means people with whom the force is not strong, simply cannot use a light saber. All of this is a pity, since in all of Science Fiction, the light saber is easily the coolest weapon ever conceived.

Back to the Tutor

Delorean 2015The Back to the Future trilogy is one of my favourite science fiction franchises of all time. Back then, the whole premise of time travel and transforming hover cars really proved to be thorough entertainment for my budding left brain. Unfortunately, because of String Theory and the mathematics to support it, we now know that Time Travel is impossible – at least, as how it is presented in the movies anyway. However, we didn’t know that when Back to the Future (1985) came out. Time Travel as depicted in this movie is impossible for a number of very good reasons:

  1. The Grandfather paradox. If you traveled back in time and killed your parents, you would never have been born, in which case you would cease to exist in the future, in which case the time travel event would never have occurred, in which case your parents would never have been killed, in which case you’d still have been born… Lost? That’s because it’s a paradox. A paradox is a form of circular logic that cancels itself. If it does, then the premise that the paradox describes is impossible.
  2. The Predestination Paradox. Time is not a physical force of the universe that can be manipulated. Therefore even if one could travel backwards in time to change their past to change the future, it would have no effect, since the act of time travel is an event in and of itself that is recorded in time. Thus, the act of time travel would have created the same results in the future, since the chain of cause and effect that leads to the future also includes traveling through time.
  3. The Transdimensional Paradox. Once you travel to another space in the 4th dimension (i.e. Time), you are automatically travelling to a parallel timeline. This is because the “past” and the “future” are spaces that do not exist in your original timeline (which you call the present). They exist in some parallel timeline (which you would call the past or the future). So if you are traveling to a parallel timeline, then nothing you do in that timeline will affect the time line you’re coming from. Therefore Marty McFly and Doc Brown were basically wasting their time just for our entertainment.
  4. The only plausible Time Travel is a one way trip. Even if you managed to travel forwards in time using time dilation though faster-than-light travel (thus remaining in this universe), you can’t go backwards. This is because traveling forward in time through time dilation involves allowing space / time to warp normally while time become relative to you at light speed. This gives the illusion of time travel. Once an object attains light speed, 5 minutes to that object could be 5 days to normal space all around it.

Robert Zemekis needs to brush up on his quantum physics before he does something like this again.

Conclusively…

I don’t mind movies taking a few liberties with scientific fact to entertain us. However, I am always put off when they insult the intelligence of their audience. To me, that’s just in bad taste. That’s the sort of thing that’d make me go to the ticket counter and demand a refund. This is part of the reason why so many people pirate movies as much these days. On one side, it’s a demonstration that people are not willing to pay for something that is not worth seeing on the big screen – especially when it appears that Hollywood has run out of ideas. On the other hand it’s no less illegal than when Hollywood puts out garbage and uses false advertising to mine the public for cash.

Admittedly, it’s hard to watch many movies when your IQ is over 150. Having too much brain power prevents such a one from being entertained by anything else but the stuff that makes sense through and through. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time watching the History Channel and National Geographic. They should put a warning on cinemas that read: “When you go to the movies, check your coat and your brain at the door“. This way, people (like me) are warned of the wanton and indiscriminate nonsense they are about to partake of that could turn their brain to mush. This is not to say that entertainment is collectively a bad thing. More aptly, it proves the point that ignorance truly is indeed bliss.

Can you think of any other movie quirks or oddities that I may have missed here? I’d love for you to share them.

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  1. Jim Bean
    August 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm

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    He was totally right. This post truly made my day. You cann’t imagine simply how much time I had spent for this info! Thanks!

  2. August 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I agree completely.

    Every science fiction reader knows that to enjoy the story you must accept the premise (FTL travel, intelligent robots, transporter beams, etc). But why can’t the writers accept their OWN premises?

    In Star Wars our heroes routinely have shoot-out-at-the-OK-Corral gunfights. In one movie they had one with high-tech robot soldiers. Don’t you think that in a galaxy with the ultra-high-technology we see in Star Wars the robots might have a TEENSY bit better aim and faster reflexes than humans? I think such a gunfight would be over in a fraction of a second and our heroes would never get a shot off.

    And then there are those armored storm troopers. What’s the point of the armor if it can’t stop a hand-weapon?

    And why light saber fights? If it were just a matter of personal “honor” between two testosterone-drunk males it would be one thing. But often the whole outcome depends on the result of the fight. If the survival of the planet or success of the mission depends on the fight then why not just SHOOT the other guy?

    And open-field pitched battles (e.g., Naboo) are more suited to Japanese feudal history. They are too costly with modern weapons – your whole army can be taken out with small tactical nuke.

  3. January 1, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Hey Al!

    This, and the paradoxes raised by many of his unusual powers, suggests to me that Superman’s real source is not a yellow sun, but magic itself…If Superman’s powers are based on magic and not science, all the contradictions can be resolved.

    I concur. In fact, DC now wantonly and indiscriminately uses magic as the basis for many of the plot points of the stories featured in its comics. It’s just that stories that revolve less around magic and more around science make otherwise fantastic adventures such as these so much more appealing. Magic means that we can make up any old story that doesn’t have to logically make sense. That takes away from the entertainment value of the whole franchise.

    As for the Millenium Falcon completing the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs, this is obviously slang for some system of measuring speed in a manner that depends more on distance than time.

    LOL! That’s a good one Al. I’ve never heard that explanation before. George Lucas would do well to include you on his Hyperspace team. 😀

    …we don’t know how this “hyperdrive” works, so we can’t say for sure.

    Hyperdrives were based a theoretical physics proposal for faster than light travel that was made during the late 1950’s. The idea is simply to fold space/time around a ship, thus transporting that ship into an area of space called Hyperspace. Hyperspace is a non-visible portion of space (much like the non-visible spectrum of light) that exists between the “ethers” (so to speak) of points in space.

    If a ship traveled into hyperspace, it would not be subject to the physical mass limitations imposed upon objects in normal space. This allows a ship to easily attain what equates to light speed in normal space by traveling at normal speed in Hyperspace. Also, in hyperspace an object can take up the same physical space as another in normal space since objects in hyperspace exist at a different “frequency” of matter so to speak. Now as hyper space exists between the layers of normal space, the distance traveled in hyperspace would translate to exponentially greater distances in normal space.

    This is why when they jumped into hyperspace, they could travel in what appears to be a straight line from Tatooine to Alderaan, without having to worry about colliding with objects along the way such as other ships, asteroids, stars and planets. As they jumped out of hyperspace and into normal space, you will note that the Millennium Falcon wasn’t immediately destroyed by the remains of the planet Alderaan which was just previously destroyed by the Death Star. The Falcon and crew existed in Hyperspace and occupied the same space as those flying debris. You will remember Captain Solo saying that the computer was calculating a safe place for them to jump out of Hyperspace into normal space such that they didn’t collide with anything.

    Lightsabers obviously are not controlled by the force, because Han used a lightsaber to cut open Luke’s tauntaun in Empire Strikes Back.

    You don’t need to use the force to use a lightsaber like a knife. But you DO need to use the force to wield the light saber as a weapon during combat with another person. You can’t twirl it around or throw it at someone with any useful effect without controlling the weighted hilt using the force. It would be easily knocked out of your hand by the forceful impact of two saber blades clashing during a duel or miss its target if you threw it at someone with the intention of having the blade cut into them. The weapon would most likely spin based on the center of gravity in the hilt, and thus miss its target.

    We also can’t assume that the center of mass for a lightsaber is in the hilt; we don’t know how the thing works.

    We don’t need to know how it produces the blade. We just need to know that the blade is not weighted. Does plasma energy have mass?

    It might create (through a means far beyond our present understanding) a non-material locus of mass at the blade tip.

    Lucas has yet to answer this question.

    This might be what limits the blade length, and it would also put an activated lightsaber’s center of mass somewhere near the middle of the blade.

    According to StarWars.com, the blade’s length is limited by three beams of plasma energy which emanate from the hilt which very tightly arc back into the hilt. The beams are actually not a straight line. This is why the light saber doesn’t appear to have a sharp tip. They are arc beams which have a very tiny angle of displacement from the origin.

    Marvel Comics figured out early on that there is great entertainment value in finding loopholes in what appear to be story errors. They used to give (maybe they still do) no-prizes to readers who wrote in to explain why an apparent mistake in a comic was not, upon further analysis, a mistake.

    They still do it actually – but only some of the older editors. The younger ones don’t do it unless readers remember to ask. Ever since Stan Lee took a more background role at the company as Chairman, the no-prize gimmick has become less placed.

  4. December 26, 2008 at 9:00 am

    We all know Superman is vulnerable to krypotonite. As it happens, he is also vulnerable to magic. (True. Look it up.) This, and the paradoxes raised by many of his unusual powers, suggests to me that Superman’s real source is not a yellow sun, but magic itself. He doesn’t know this; he misunderstands and thinks he is how he is because of radiation from a yellow sun. If Superman’s powers are based on magic and not science, all the contradictions can be resolved.

    Further research into Superman: http://www.rawbw.com/~svw/superman.html

    As for the Millenium Falcon completing the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs, this is obviously slang for some system of measuring speed in a manner that depends more on distance than time. The mass of the Millenium Falcon is (presumably) constant, and perhaps the force exerted on it during something like the Kessel run is constant as well– we don’t know how this “hyperdrive” works, so we can’t say for sure. But if mass and force are constant, then there is a leftover variable of length that will affect time. I don’t know what exactly this length would correspond to, again because I don’t know how hyperdrive works. But the shorter the length the shorter the time, and presumably “less than twelve parsecs” corresponds to a very short amount of time indeed. Han Solo’s understanding of physics is ordered differently from our own, but his physics is consistent and– to the extent we can speculate on it– plausible.

    http://alamanach.com/2008/12/26/on-time-part-three-the-physics-of-becoming/

    Lightsabers obviously are not controlled by the force, because Han used a lightsaber to cut open Luke’s tauntaun in Empire Strikes Back. We also can’t assume that the center of mass for a lightsaber is in the hilt; we don’t know how the thing works. It might create (through a means far beyond our present understanding) a non-material locus of mass at the blade tip. This might be what limits the blade length, and it would also put an activated lightsaber’s center of mass somewhere near the middle of the blade. Meditate on the design of a kukuri knife, and you will realize that a sword with its center of mass in the hilt has distinct disadvantages.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukri

    Marvel Comics figured out early on that there is great entertainment value in finding loopholes in what appear to be story errors. They used to give (maybe they still do) no-prizes to readers who wrote in to explain why an apparent mistake in a comic was not, upon further analysis, a mistake.

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