Is Movie Science All Wet?
Tsunamis, global warming, and other film disasters
Sidney Perkowitz, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics

Vol. 9 No. 5
April 2007

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Purchasing Power
Managing Emory's endowment for the present and future

What is an endowment?

Asset allocation of Emory's endowment

“I tried to think of issues that the faculty might bring to the investment committee, and it's difficult to find one.”

“We want to spend today and benefit the students and faculty of today, but we don't want to do that at the expense of the next generation.”

Is Movie Science All Wet?
Tsunamis, global warming, and other film disasters

Unpopular Culture
Graduate students, risky topics, and professional cachet

Further reading

100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way
William M. Chace, President Emeritus and Professor of English


Ask a scientist what he or she thinks about science in the movies, and you’ll see some gnashing of teeth. “The science is always wrong!” you might hear, or, “Why are scientists invariably shown as geeks?” James Cameron, once a physics major at Cal State–Fullerton but now better known as the force behind the Terminator films and the Oscar-winning Titanic, agrees. Asked how well Hollywood portrays science, he answered: “They almost never get their facts right . . . they always show scientists as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains.”

After viewing and analyzing over 120 science-based films this past year, however, I’ve realized it’s not so simple. For one thing, not all science-based Hollywood films are pure fiction. Some describe real scientific events, like the Manhattan Project. Others treat real scientists, like A Beautiful Mind (2001), about Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash. Though fictionalized, such films usually try to present science and scientists well. There’s also the outpouring of science fiction films, over 1,400 since 1902, that has made science fiction a cultural force. Eight of the hundred best American movies chosen by the American Film Institute in 1998 come from the genre, as do sixteen of the top fifty all-time highest grossing films.

Since science-based films reach millions, what they say about science matters, especially as the U.S. can’t exactly brag about its scientifically literate citizens. The latest data show that U.S. elementary and high school students don’t stack up well internationally, and that half of U.S. adults typically can’t correctly answer basic scientific questions like “Which are smaller, electrons or atoms?” or “Tell me in your own words, what is DNA?”

So it’s good news that although many Hollywood features soar off into realms of pseudoscience, others follow the real science reasonably well, or at worst, overdramatize it. These varied approaches can be found within that favorite science-based plot, the disaster scenario, where the temptation is to hype the science so that Hollywood’s superb special effects can deliver really disastrous disasters.

Some disaster films, however, resist temptation and follow the science fairly closely, like Dante’s Peak (1997). The idyllic town of Dante’s Peak nestles on the slopes of an extinct volcano in Washington State’s Northern Cascades—except that Dr. Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) of the U.S. Geological Survey knows that the right word is “dormant,” not “extinct.” He finds signs that the volcano is waking: dead trees and animals, a temperature increase in the local hot springs, and sulfur in the water supply. Before Harry can mobilize the town, though, the volcano erupts. Panicked townspeople flee earth-shaking tremors, a heavy fall of ash, streams of lava, and a pyroclastic flow—an avalanche of hot rock, ash, and gas hurtling down the volcano’s side at incredible speed. But although the town is devastated, Harry manages to save himself and a family to which he’s become attached.
The film is accurate in its portrayal of the warning signs of volcanic eruption that geologists seek and in the behavior of the volcano, with some exceptions: for instance, Northern Cascade volcanoes wouldn’t simultaneously produce lava and a pyroclastic flow. Nevertheless, Dante’s Peak was sufficiently on target to earn a rating of B+ to A- from one professional geologist’s group.

Higher up the scale of scientific exaggeration is The Day After Tomorrow (2004), about climate change. After examining greenhouse gasses trapped in Antarctic ice, climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) has definitive evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is triggering global warming. As Jack explains to the UN, soon there will be massive upheavals including, paradoxically, an ice age.

Jack’s predictions come true as snow falls in New Delhi, huge hailstones rip into Tokyo, and tornadoes destroy the beloved “Hollywood” sign in Los Angeles. An enormous tsunami inundates Manhattan, trapping Jack’s teen-age son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the 42nd Street Library. At first Jack can’t convince the U.S. government, represented by Vice-President Becker (Kenneth Walsh, a Dick Cheney look-alike), to take climate change seriously. But as temperatures drop precipitously and New York’s harbor freezes, the government finally evacuates millions of people to Mexico. Meanwhile Jack heroically treks through brutal cold to rescue Sam and his companions.
The arrival of an ice age due to warming might seem pure fantasy, but it’s true science. Climate experts believe this happened eight thousand years ago, when a warming trend disrupted the heat-carrying ocean current that keeps much of the Northern Hemisphere temperate, causing a European ice age lasting two hundred years. In the serious documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice-President Al Gore exactly echoes Jack’s explanation of how global warming could make this happen. The Day After Tomorrow, however, presents the change as occurring in days and weeks rather than the decades it would actually take—if it happens at all, since analysis shows that it’s unlikely in this century, at least. So although the basic scientific ideas in the film are correct, The Day After Tomorrow fast-forwards events at an unrealistic pace and shows the least probable, worst-case outcomes.

The Day After Tomorrow is a banquet of science, though, compared to The Core (2003), which begins with mysterious incidents such as people with implanted pacemakers suddenly dropping dead and pigeons falling from the sky. Summoned to the Pentagon, geophysicist Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) describes the Earth’s internal structure and explains that its iron-based core has stopped rotating, which has turned off our “electromagnetic field of energy.” The consequences are dire, because without that field, electronic devices are going haywire, and microwaves from space are beginning to cook the whole planet.

The only answer is to drill though sixteen hundred miles of rock and magma to the core and explode a string of hydrogen bombs to restart the rotation. Josh and a scientific team set off in the Virgil, a craft that bores through the Earth using ultrasound and lasers. As it chews its way down, the scientists are dismayed to learn that a secret American weapon is the reason the core has screeched to a halt. Even worse, they encounter dangers such as pools of magma that take them out, one by one, except for Josh and the Virgil’s pilot, ex-astronaut Rebecca “Bec” Childs (Hilary Swank). But these two finally win through, restart the core, and make it back to the surface.

Sadly, Josh’s speech about the Earth’s structure (enlivened with a peach as a prop) is the only correct scientific bit in the film. Everything else is bad science: for instance, the Earth has a magnetic field, not an “electromagnetic field of energy;” this field has nothing to do with electronic gadgetry or with deflecting cosmic microwaves, which anyway are far too weak to melt the Golden Gate Bridge, as shown in the film; another scene where a team member survives a temperature of nine thousand degrees is laughably wrong, since he would vaporize instantly, and so would the Virgil; and using non-directional nuclear explosions to impart rotation is a complete non-starter.

Although The Core represents an extreme of movie science done badly, there’s still hope for films as vehicles to convey science and its impact. The Core bombed at the box office, whereas The Day After Tomorrow did well, and follow-up research shows that this film has perceptibly changed attitudes toward global warming among its viewers. Its exaggerations don’t represent the best in scientific truth, but placed in context with other, more factual sources, The Day After Tomorrow can become a component of education about climate change. That’s good, because it’ll be a long time, if ever, before films stop putting excitement before accuracy, and before we can be sure that we’re always taking in good science at the movies along with the popcorn.

This piece draws on the author’s book Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, to be published by Columbia University Press this fall.