Monday, January 18, 2010

Hollywood astronomy: Fiction vs. fact

A while ago, I had the misfortune to rent the Nick Cage movie Knowing. Of course, if I had any knowing of what a turkey this thing would be, I might have made alternative arrangements…like shaving my legs or plucking out my fingernails with pliers. Those are a couple of hours I’m not ever going to get back again.

Spoiler alert: If you missed it, alien “signals” to the mind of a girl in the 1950s lead her to write a long list of numbers that turn out to be the dates, times and locations of major disasters leading to one final cataclysm. That cataclysm, in all its absurdity, is a giant solar “superflare” that destroys the Earth.

Never mind that the aliens leave our rescued kids on an alien planet! Alone! Or that they could somehow “know” the future. How about the idea that a giant solar flare could incinerate Earth?! Barring the sun inexplicably blowing up – and it’s unlikely to since it is in a very stable point in its evolution – when was the last time you saw someone burst into flame because they stepped through someone else’s cigarette smoke? Because that would be the equivalent of this scenario.

Yup, from time to time, those of us who know something about astronomy can’t help but shake our heads whenever we see Hollywood play fast and loose with the science. There have been a few real stinkers over the last while. For instance, there are two movies I’ve done my best to avoid. One is called Earthstorm starring Alan Baldwin and pretty much nobody else of note, either.

Plot: giant asteroid impacts moon, causes moon to become unstable, bad things happen on Earth for no apparent reason and someone goes up in a hastily built spaceship with a lot of explosives that somehow saves the day.

So many weaknesses to this but, of the main ones, any idea how big an object has to be in order to impact the moon enough to be a problem? Or how much damage your average asteroid can do to the moon? Throw a baseball at a very large cinderblock building. Anything happen? No? It would be the same thing for the moon.

Last summer was the mini-series Impact starring Natasha Henstridge and, again, pretty much no one else of note.

Plot: A “piece” of a brown dwarf impacts the moon, changing it’s mass and causing it to shift in its orbit around Earth. Again, send up hastily built spaceship with explosives. Except….a “piece” of a brown dwarf? Brown dwarves are essentially “failed stars.” Giant balls of gas like Jupiter. Certainly not something we’re going to miss were it buzzing around our solar system. But a “piece” of a brown dwarf? So basically…the moon was hit by a puff of gas. Note to NASA: don’t let astronauts pass gas when they land on the moon!

Yeah, I could go on, but why? Such is the nature of the beast. Why let facts and physics get in the way of a “good” story, even if it buries the implausibility meter. Still, it would be nice if someone in Hollywood actually asked an astronomer.

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