5 Disaster Movies Seen Through a Scientific Lens

    Armageddon? More like Armageddon't.

    I love disaster movies. They’re big and loud and fun, and the best of them, like 2014’s Interstellar, urge audiences to examine complex scientific concepts in a new light.

    However, disaster movies are often also so egregiously misinformed that they fly in the face of rational inquiry. Now, nobody expects movies to be 100 percent accurate, but the following five blockbusters violate some of the most fundamental scientific precepts.

    1. San Andreas


    San Andreas is a disaster flick about Los Angeles getting hit by an earthquake, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. There are plenty of minor scientific things San Andreas got wrong, but here are two of the big ones.

    Worst offenses:

    1. In one scene, a massive earthquake splits the ground open into a giant yawning chasm, which isn’t how plate tectonics actually work. Earthquakes are caused by two tectonic plates rubbing against each other with the ferocity of teenagers after a high school dance; that unholy friction is what causes the ground to rumble and buildings to shake. If a giant chasm opened up in the middle of Los Angeles, the plates wouldn’t be rubbing against each other any more. End of earthquake; end of movie.

    2. Early in the movie, Paul Giamatti’s character tries to detect earthquakes using magnets in the Hoover Dam. At least … I think that’s what’s going on? And I’m not the only one who’s confused. Buzzfeed assembled a team of earthquake experts to consult on this scene, and they, too, were baffled by Giamatti’s behavior. You can’t predict earthquakes. They’re not like weather patterns; at any given time there’s unfortunately no telling what they’re about to do or why, or what destruction is going to rain down as a result. Also, if you are trying to detect earthquakes using a magnet-related prediction system, a giant power station like the Hoover Dam probably isn’t the best place to do so.

    2. Armageddon


    Armageddon is a Michael Bay movie about an Earth-destroying asteroid the size of Texas, and the ragtag crew of deep-core drillers tasked with destroying it. Its target audience appears to have been people who thought Deep Impact was too cerebral.

    Worst Offenses:

    1. Armageddon‘s central conceit is that, in the face of impending global doom, NASA decides to train oil drillers to be astronauts in the span of one week. I actually think Armageddon star Ben Affleck explained this offense best (believe it or not, there is one person out there who hates this movie more than the scientific community does, and that person is Ben Affleck). This is verbatim from Affleck’s DVD commentary: “I asked Michael why it was easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than it was to train astronauts to be oil drillers. He told me to shut the fuck up. So that was the end of that discussion.”

    2. The film revolves around a plan to burrow into the giant asteroid, plant a nuclear warhead there, and then detonate it, which will ostensibly split the asteroid in two, sending both halves along a Y trajectory where neither one hits Earth. Astronomer Phil Plait crunched the numbers on the force that would be required to make an asteroid that size split in two and send both halves careening off into space so they narrowly miss Earth’s surface, and calculated that you’d need to produce roughly as much energy as the freaking Sun. In Bay’s universe, NASA seems incapable of doing the math on the yield of the nuclear devices it detonates.

    3. The Day After Tomorrow


    Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow was one of the first non-documentary movies that seriously addressed the massive impact Global Warming was about to have on the human race, so it’s a shame that the movie was completely disingenuous.

    Just how bad is The Day After Tomorrow? Well, as Climatesight.org points out, given that the plot revolves around Global Warming, it seems sort of strange that the film didn’t hire a climatologist as a science advisor. It’s almost as if Emmerich used one of the most devastating existential threats the human race has ever faced as an inciting incident, then cynically cashed it in as a carte blanche for whatever sort of absurd devastation his writer’s room could whip up.

    Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, went on the record as saying, “The Day After Tomorrow was so appallingly bad, it prompted me to become a more public scientist.” Roland Emmerich’s catastrophically shitty film forced Schmidt out of the lab and into the sunlight, because that’s how badly Emmerich misconstrued the science surrounding Climate Change.

    Worst Offenses:

    1. The film shows the ocean rising by 25 feet in a matter of seconds, which (while absurd all by itself) inexplicably causes the beginning of a new Ice Age. That’s not all: Once the Ice Age begins, the sea level doesn’t fall, because that’s not how volume works in Roland Emmerich’s world.

    2. I know this is a super specific regional pet peeve, but listen, I live in New York City. The Statue of Liberty faces southeast, more or less toward Brooklyn, so that means that the gigantic tsunami in the movie that sneaks up from behind and wrecks her like she’s a coach who just won the Super Bowl is coming from New Jersey. It’s not possible for New Jersey to create a Manhattan-destroying tidal wave, especially not one that strikes Manhattan from that direction and that height.

    4. The Core


    In The Core, Earth’s core stops rotating, which wreaks havoc. A team of geophysicists and space shuttle pilots are tasked with drilling to the center of the earth to plant a thermonuclear device and ‘jump-start’ the core.

    Worst Offenses:

    1. Earth’s center stops rotating because an experimental pulse weapon designed by Stanley Tucci’s character accidentally halts the core’s rotation. The Earth’s core possesses the equivalent energy of five trillion one-megaton bombs going off simultaneously, and yet we’re to believe (a) human interference brought it to a screeching halt, and (b) a nuclear bomb will get it right as rain again, because apparently the law of conservation of energy is on sabbatical.

    2. In one scene, the characters walk out of the ship and into the tunnel they’re digging despite temperatures averaging about 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

    3. The core of the Earth has bafflingly good reception, since the characters stay in constant contact with mission control for pretty much the entirety of the movie. Compare that to the last time you tried to get XM radio driving through any tunnel.

    5. Knowing


    Knowing stars Nicolas Cage as a widowed professor of astrophysics at MIT who starts recognizing a recurring numerical pattern in major cataclysms throughout world history. When his son brings home a series of prophetic digits that chart everything from 9/11 to plane crashes, he discovers an imminent extinction level event, and starts racing against the clock to save the planet.

    Worst Offenses:

    1. Portraying Nicolas Cage as a professor of Astrophysics at MIT.

    (via Buzzfeed; Cracked; LiveScience; BadAstronomy; ClimateSight)

    Feature still from “Armaggedon” via Buena Vista Pictures



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