Starship Troopers, Nightfall, Spider Man

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Starship Troopers

The future as depicted in Robert Heinlein's famous novel Starship Troopers is a joyless neofascist society where only veterans can vote. A literal depiction of the novel on film would be a grim filmgoing experience indeed. Fortunately, the producers held only loosely to the novel. The film was described as a "send-up" of the novel, and most of the ideology is presented in the form of rah-rah news bulletins and recruiting ads that are more irritating than humorous.

I found myself wondering whether the film was originally conceived as a send-up or whether that was a cover story to explain away some of the most incredibly bad acting ever seen on film. The good news is the acting is better than Space Precinct or Plan Nine from Outer Space. The bad news: not by much. The acting makes Melrose Place look like a Shakespeare festival.

The film's worst errors aren't so much scientific as military. Indeed, the film repeats most of the standard cinematic military bloopers. Trainees have an astonishing amount of free time. Real military trainees spend most of their "free" time getting ready for inspections and sleeping (and that's true in the novel as well). The Earth forces constantly present the enemy with target-rich environments. Infantry units are tightly bunched (I saw only one scene where the troops were marching in a proper tactical formation). Starships are so close together they can't evade enemy fire, and when hit they collide with other ships. It makes for dazzling fireworks, but it's militarily ridiculous.

This future force is fully co-ed, right down to the shower rooms. This is the most famous scene in the film. Apparently this is one of the recruiting tools of the future. Actually, this is probably more realistic than we might imagine: sleeping quarters in the Gulf War were often co-ed, and people got dressed in their sleeping bags. There was no privacy for hanky-panky. I could see a no-frills future coed force saying "If you don't have the discipline to keep your hands to yourself and make your own mature decisions about sex, you don't have the discipline to handle a weapon."

The plot revolves around a war between humans and a race of intelligent arachnids. Although they apparently lack technology of any kind, the warrior caste of this race is hard to kill and limitless in numbers. The Earth forces are armed with automatic weapons which they spray prolifically rather than aiming for the arachnids' vulnerable spots. The most absurd moment in the film comes when one trooper, after firing about 9.7 million rounds, declares she's out of ammunition. Her squad leader tosses her a clip and says "make them count." Apparently this force of the future has never heard of artillery, close air support, cluster bombs, chemical weapons or grenade launchers (except nuclear - they have nuclear missiles but not conventional ones!)

These arachnids apparently can launch their "spores" across space to colonize other planets. Whenever I hear of organisms that travel across space without spacecraft (the starseeds of Larry Niven's novels come to mind) I wonder how that mode of reproduction evolved. How does natural selection operate? How do you evolve a biological mechanism capable of reaching that kind of velocity? What do the intermediate stages look like? Half an eye will still detect light and motion; half a wing will still allow short glides. What does launching your eggs at half of escape velocity accomplish?

But there's good news. The special effects in this film are excellent. Anyone who thinks future combat will be an antiseptic "zap, you're dead" sort of thing ought to view this film. The combat injuries are at least as graphic as in Saving Private Ryan. The battle scenes on land and in space are simply awesome. Recommendation: fast forward through the sappy dialogue, pause at the shower room scene if you must, and enjoy the action and marvel at the animation.

One thing I didn't appreciate at the time was that this film was scored by Basil Poledouris, a prolific composer (died 2006) who also did Conan the Barbarian, Robocop, Les Miserables, Red Dawn and Hunt for Red October. I'm sorry to say I didn't appreciate this guy until I saw some posthumous tributes to him, but his music can make even a mediocre picture at least worth listening to.

Nightfall

Isaac Asimov's classic tale Nightfall has been rated, by a number of groups, the best science fiction story ever written, so when I saw this on the shelf at my local video store, I was intrigued. It hadn't been in theaters, which meant it was a straight video release, which meant it could be pretty awful. Still, it was based on the Asimov story. The jacket lists one of the producers as Roger Corman, in the words of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, "a name you can trust." Well, there's a buck I'll never have again. 

The good news is it isn't utterly dreadful. The bad news is it isn't really all that good. It achieves a nice unsubstantial mediocrity. The story takes place on a planet in a multiple star system, where night never falls, except, it turns out, once every thousand years when a particular alignment of the suns, plus the appearance of an unknown planet, result in a planetwide eclipse. The inhabitants, who have never known darkness, go insane with fear and the civilization collapses. The story and the film both deal with the conflict between scientists and a religious cult over how to approach the coming disaster. Asimov later wrote a novel that explored the story in more depth, and the film mixes elements of the original story and the novel haphazardly.

As the film opens, Allyra (Jennifer Burns) and Sheerin, two scientists, sneak into an archeological dig on the property of the cult, called the Watchers. They are afraid the cult will bury the site. Question: if the cult is afraid of what the dig might turn up, why allow it in the first place? Allyra's father (David Carradine) forbids her to risk more confrontations with the cult, but she sneaks back anyway and is only rescued from discovery by a Watcher named Metron. Metron eventually agrees to take Allyra into the desert to a cave full of artifacts, where they have a couple of narrow escapes from desert tribesmen and insane cave dwellers. Question: the cave is lined with lit torches. Why are they surprised it's inhabited?

After escaping, they pause to rest and the inevitable happens. We see the two in each others' arms as they awake. Allyra gets up and hastily pulls a robe in front of her. Question: why? They just made love, they're in the middle of the desert. Who's to see?

As the eclipse draws near, the scientists plan observations and the Watchers plan the destruction of the University to avert the wrath of God. The cult leader and his assistant deliver good, chilling performances, all the more so because you know they're going to win. As the eclipse begins, the populace goes insane and starts burning anything in sight to create light. The cult storms the university, massacring everyone they can. Carradine, who has evidently forgotten all his kung fu skills, goes down in the slaughter. Metron and Allyra escape and watch the burning city as the eclipse ends.

Why this film was rated R is beyond me. The love scene is tepid and the violence, despite lots of fake blood, isn't as graphic as many other films. And the film departs from the Asimov tale in pointless ways. Metron has psychic powers that come in handy but serve no real purpose in advancing the story. In the original story, the people are utterly paralyzed by fear of the dark, and so unfamiliar with it that even a crude torch is a revolutionary advance. In the film, they're just not affected enough by fear to make their actions credible. The film would have been a lot better if it had tried to tell the original story instead of trying to jazz it up with hokey action. Still, Jennifer Burns is awfully cute in the film.

Spider Man

Easily the best comic book adaptation in recent years, very faithful to the original. Plus Kirsten Dunst - grrrrowr. Ignoring the genetic improbabilities of mixing human and spider DNA, the scientific problems boil down to surface to volume ratio. Spider Man is about 100 times the size of a spider. Mass increases as the cube of size but surface area only as the square. So Spider Man weighs a million times as much as a spider but his finger tips have only 10,000 times the surface area of a spider's foot. That means his tissues have to be 100 times as strong as the spider's to do what a spider does.

If Spider Man clings upside down to something (as he does at several points in the film), the mechanical problems get interesting. If Spider Man weighs 125 pounds and his finger tips have an area of 5 square inches, then the tensile force between his skin and what he's clinging to is 25 pounds per square inch. Imagine covering a square inch of your hand with Crazy Glue, sticking your hand to a 25 pound object, then lifting it.

World-class rock climbers support their entire body weight from their finger tips at times, but their finger tips are on top of a hold and the forces are compressional. I find it hard to believe human tissue, even augmented with spider tissue, could support the sorts of purely tensional forces Spider Man does. And when we think of dynamic forces, such as falling a long way and then suddenly clinging to a wall, the physics becomes even more unlikely.

Then there's the Web. High-test fishing line can support the weight of a human, so the web isn't wholly implausible in a static situation, but the dynamic forces of swinging, bouncing, or stopping falling objects are too implausibly great. And what does the Web stick to? Assuming there's an adhesive that can stand the tensional forces, we have to assume that all the surfaces Spider Man sticks his web to are completely clean and free of dust, grease, flaking paint, crumbling masonry, etc. On Spider Man's end, if the web is simply coming out of the spinneret on his wrist, which we'll assume is a tenth of an inch wide, the tensional force is 125/(0.1 x 0.1) or 12,500 pounds per square inch, enough to rip the gland right out of his arm. If he's gripping the web, that's about like someone supporting himself by hanging on to a piece of string. If he wraps it around his hand - well, wrap high-test fishing line around your hand and then use it to hang from the ceiling.

The most absurd moment comes when the villain sends a cable car plummeting to its doom, and Spider Man hangs by his web to save it. Every cable car I know of greases the cables, and I have problems picturing even Spider Man being able to hang on to a greasy cable with several tons of weight attached. But we'll assume he can do it. And we'll also assume his Web can stand the stresses. In between the two there's nothing but Spider Man! Somehow his arms, joints and tendons can withstand tons of tensile force!

Concerning Green Goblin's rocket platform, as Will Smith said in Independence Day, I have got to get me one of them!


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Created 5 February 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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