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The Catastrophist's Dilemma

boom.jpgThe DVD of The Day After Tomorrow is out and, despite it being neither a terribly edifying spectacle nor subtle work of art, I felt compelled to pick it up. It's the first big climate change disaster movie, but it won't be the last; in it's own way, it's a historical document. When it came out last year, it generated a lot of buzz (something we played a tiny role in helping to create) and even more debate about its scientific veracity. TDAT was not meant as public education, but many (both global warming activists and denialists) thought it should be, and criticized its many scientific flaws.

Having spent a bit of time in the late 1990s working in Hollywood on science fiction television production, I felt some sympathy for both the critics and the filmmakers. I've been in the position of arguing with a director over scientific realism (in my case, he wanted to make the moons of Mars appear as big in the Martian night sky as an Earthly full moon); I've also seen where worrying too much over a scientific detail can get in the way of telling a story (can the super-advanced alien race interbreed with humans? On the surface of course not, but then you start thinking about what super-advanced biotechnology might enable, and how it might work...). This tension is particularly acute when the story being told involves a natural or human-caused disaster: the structure of movies requires that you have a lead heroic character throughout, so disasters that take decades to unfold end up being compressed into a few days or weeks; the limited time of a motion picture and the dictum that you "show, not tell," make complex cause-and-effect confusing at best for viewers, so events with multiple causes and second/third-order, non-obvious effects get turned into simple (if big) explosions; and big budget movie audiences are conditioned to expect a relatively happy conclusion, so the heroic character must be able to eke out a victory, no matter how dire the straits.

If you're a moviemaker, and you want to destroy much of the planet, you'd better make sure that (a) your hero is attractive, (b) the disaster is easy to understand, and (c) your ending is still happy. Now make that scientifically accurate.

Josh Schollmeyer, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explores this dilemma in an essay entitled, "Lights, Camera, Armageddon." In it, he looks at different examples of movies telling stories about historical or speculative events concerning nuclear and biological weapons, and raises an important additional point: how filmmakers present disasters (or potential disasters) involving nuclear explosions or bioweapon releases reflects the culture's zeitgeist. In the Cold War era, the use of nuclear weapons implied planetary-scale destruction, as the US and the USSR went toe-to-toe. However...

Today, we've entered the era of the friendly, functional cinematic nukes. These nuclear weapons aren't the proverbial "destroyer of worlds," but saviors of humanity. They possess utility and a higher purpose. Twice they've thwarted a giant asteroid from slamming into the Earth (Deep Impact and Armageddon); and once they helped reset the rotation of its core (The Core).

...to the extent that nukes remain a source of concern, they have perversely morphed into a "localized threat"--not something that can lay waste to a continent, but to a single city unlucky enough to be targeted by terrorists. In The Sum of All Fears, a nuclear detonation is reduced to a plot point. Little attention is paid to the thousands of people who would have been incinerated. While Cold War-era films like Testament and The Day After depicted, in sometimes agonizing detail, the slow deaths resulting from radioactive fallout, Sum of All Fears super-agent Jack Ryan stands on the outskirts of ground zero shouting into his (miraculously working) cell phone.

Schollmeyer also discusses efforts to craft movies about bioterror and "dirty bombs" in ways that would be both compelling and accurate. Smallpox failed in both counts, while Dirty War -- by the same filmmaker, Daniel Percival -- was far more successful as both art and education. But it's one of very few films able to make that claim.

People don't go to blockbuster movies to learn nuclear physics, biology or environmental science; they go to be entertained. The dilemma, then, is how to craft stories which are as entertaining as possible without making those who know something about the subject matter wince. Neither Deep Impact or Armageddon could make any claims of scientific accuracy, but of the two, Deep Impact was sufficiently less egregious that many people with scientific training could watch it without feeling insulted. A fully realistic movie about an asteroid or comet threat would either be fairly dull -- the asteroid/comet is discovered in time, so a fleet of automated craft is launched to attach to the body and give it a slow but steady shove for ten to twenty years, so that it eventually misses the Earth -- or painfully tragic -- the asteroid/comet is not discovered in time, and there's nothing we can do to prevent it from hitting. The end.

Similarly, a realistic version of The Day After Tomorrow would have had the whiplash ice age happening over the course of several decades or more, with a couple of generations of scientists working on mitigation, politicians debating solutions, and (eventually) long-planned evacuation efforts well before the temperature dropped too much. That's not Hollywood, that's C-SPAN.

It's likely that future global warming epic movies will use climate disruption not as the focal issue, but as the backdrop against which the more narrow, more immediate story gets told. Just as 1960s James Bond movies didn't have to explain the Cold War and the KGB every time, we will undoubtedly soon see a day when movies have global warming as something the filmmakers can assume the audience already gets, with the heroes saving people from wildfires, surviving mega-hurricanes, or fighting the goons of oil industry villains.

Don't forget to recycle your popcorn bag on the way out of the theater.

Comments (2)

As a software engineer, I wince similarly at some of the magical capabilities of computers in movies, and occasionally have a hard time suspending disbelief when the laws of physics aren't just bent but are completely ignored. At least good sci-fi tries to explain away the stuff that's really out there.

Get used to the inaccuracies (and bald lies) coming out of Hollywood -- I wouldn't even watch movies where you're an expert on the subject matter. It will just be disappointing.


Really. Films are made by professional directors, using scripts by professional writers and working with professional actors; and the writing, acting and directing are usually (>50%) terrible. Why should the science be any different?

The balance required to get a film made is what makes great film both rare and impressive. Balancing good science with good storytelling is no easier. Some can do it, most can't. Why do you think Jared Diamond sells so many books?


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