Improbable Movie Technology

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Primitive Machines That Work Forever

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones snatches an idol but miscalculates the amount of sand it takes to replace its weight. (Ignore, for the moment, issues like how he knew what sort of defense mechanisms there would be, or that it would take a fairly large sandbag to match the weight of a gold idol.) Suddenly the altar starts to shift and all kinds of hidden defense mechanisms start to rumble into action. The finale is a huge stone ball that pursues him down a hill. (This sequence was marvelously parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, with Homer's change jar taking the place of the idol, and Homer rolling down the stairs in place of the stone ball.)

This is all in the jungle. So how come the mechanisms aren't all gummed up by tree roots and soil? The Indonesian temple of Borobudur was practically pulled apart in a few centuries by tree roots. These mechanisms, in contrast, remain aligned to within hundredths of an inch and sensitive to the slightest motions.

Organic Materials That Last Forever

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the traps en route to the idol is hidden blowguns that fire on unwary looters. Why aren't the bellows and the darts rotten, and the poison completely broken down? Why are the blowgun holes still clear when everything else is overhung with vegetation and cobwebs? 

Even better is the finale to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones cleverly figures out a trap in the nick of time. He ducks, then loops a loose rope around a toothed wooden wheel and stops the mechanism.

Even allowing for the dry climate (the finale is filmed at Petra in Jordan), the rope and wooden wheel have been sitting there since the Crusades. Why wouldn't they both have been so weakened by dehydration and decay that they simply broke?

Primitive Machines That Reset

While we're discussing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this trap has already decapitated two hapless soldiers before Indiana Jones is sent in. How does it reset itself? How do the blowguns in Raiders of the Lost Ark keep reloading and being fired?

One analogy might be a cuckoo clock, which is powered by a falling weight. We might imagine a giant version of such a device providing power for multiple cycles. But any way we slice it (bad pun), the mechanism can only repeat a finite number of times. Why not just keep tripping it from a safe location until it's harmless?

Weird Optics

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones locates the right place to dig for the Ark of the Covenant by holding an ancient lens in a sunbeam. Now ancient peoples did wonderful feats of astronomical alignment, so there's no problem with a portal admitting a precisely aimed beam of sunlight. I have a bit more trouble with the ancient Egyptians fabricating really precise lenses. But what I really can't swallow is the sunbeam hitting the lens and emitting a blindingly bright beam of light. Conservation of energy. The beam of light emitted from the lens can't contain more energy than the modest sunbeam that strikes it.

Trompe l'oeil (French for "fool the eye") is an art style that mimics real objects so faithfully that the viewer momentarily thinks the objects are real. Painting windows on a blank wall, for example. The ultimate example takes place in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones is faced with an impassible chasm and simply steps off the edge in faith. It turns out there is a narrow bridge, so cunningly painted it's indistinguishable from the rocks. He scatters sand onto it to make it visible for others.

I might buy that an ancient craftsman could paint the bridge so adroitly that it would appear indistinguishable from the rocks. I can't buy that he could match every possible combination of lighting and shadow, or match the different perspectives you'd get simply by moving your head from side to side. I can't buy that the paint wouldn't fade, be washed off by rain or be obscured by dust in 800 years.

The Ultimate Weird Optics

The all time worst article ever done by National Geographic was one on fabrics. Mostly the article was interviews with industry researchers who couldn't tell us what they were doing, but they assured us it was really amazing. Then there was a truly absurd segment on lighter-than air cloth that supposedly contained chemicals that reacted to form helium. But the piece de resistance was on invisible camouflage fabrics being developed by the military, complete with a computer-simulated photo of soldiers in Predator-like suits, barely visible.

The Invisible Man drank a potion, which for audiences of the time was enough scientific explanation. Predator is from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization and he presumably has technology unknown to us. But James Bond in Die Another Day drives a stealth car made by existing technology that becomes invisible on command.

Active camouflage that mimics ambient light and patterns is possible. Chameleons do it. Imagine a computer with camera eyes that generates colors on cloth or some other medium with suitable display devices. We might even imagine a soldier on the edge of the woods showing a leaf pattern to anyone at his front and open field colors to someone at his back. (Comedian Red Skelton once had such a costume in the 1948 film A Southern Yankee. During the Civil War, he marched between opposing lines in a uniform that was blue on one side and gray on the other, carrying a two-design flag. Unfortunately, he found himself in real trouble when the wind whipped the flag around and he turned to follow it! This gag is apparently based on one in Buster Keaton's silent classic The General.) The camouflage could change color to match the vegetation and lighting conditions. It might be much more effective than present camouflage since it could replicate fine nuances of color and texture.

But anything approximating true invisibility is a tall order indeed. We might imagine fiber optics that wrap around an object to channel the background from one side to another. However, if you're standing ten feet from a car, the fibers would have to direct light in different directions to your eyes depending on where they are. If you move, there will have to be other differently oriented fibers to match your new viewing angle. Underneath, there will have to be fibers directed skyward to eliminate shadows. In short, every point on the object will have to have fibers oriented in every possible direction. I'll believe it when I see it. (There have been some interesting prototypes of systems that project images onto the back sides of objects, creating the appearance of reduced visibility, but they only work in one chosen direction, and they are at best limited in effectiveness. There are also some nano-scale cases of light being diverted around objects. I'll believe it can be done on the macro scale when someone does it.)

More Weird Optics: Something from Nothing

A surveillance camera captures a car moving by on the street. Through the magic of computer enhancement, the cops zoom in to get the license number. This has become a staple on procedural crime dramas. I'll believe surveillance cameras can do this when I see a surveillance camera video that even shows a recognizable face.

The series NUMB3RS (title courtesy of the folks that brought you Se7en, apparently) attempted to address this problem a bit more knowledgeably than most. The show's math-genius hero acknowledged that the surveillance camera lacked the resolution to capture fine detail, but announced that he had been working on a "probability algorithm" to improve resolution. When he ran his program, the FBI could see what kind of weapon was used in a jewelry-store heist and even what kinds of watches were in the display case.

If you don't have the pixels, you don't have the information. Period. The only way a "probability algorithm" could show what kind of weapon was used in a holdup is if the program had data on every known make of weapon, calculated what each would look like under the lighting conditions at the time, and selected the best fit. It would have to have similar data for every object that might appear in the picture. Even then I seriously doubt it could be done with any confidence.

High Technology With No Infrastructure

Shortly after 1900, Greek sponge divers stumbled on a submerged ancient shipwreck. The wreck was excavated in the first underwater archeological salvage operation ever. One of the items recovered was a corroded mass of bronze that turned out to be part of a gear mechanism, probably part of a celestial clock display in a temple. This is the only complex machine known to survive from antiquity (about the first century AD). If it hadn't been found, we would have no idea the ancient world was capable of such technology.

On the other hand, the device, called the Antikythera Machine, is only about as complex as a wind-up alarm clock. So wonderful as it is from a historical perspective, it's not exactly a laser or supercomputer. The gears were filed by hand, have triangular teeth, and probably didn't mesh very smoothly. I wonder how well it would have worked in practice.

Alien artifacts like the Stargate of, well, Stargate, could be completely isolated. But it's hard to believe an ancient civilization could build super-machines like the one in Tomb Raider and not leave all sorts of other artifacts laying around. It's hard to believe a civilization capable of high technology could be created and supported by a small population rather than spreading over much of the planet.

Clean Machines

How exactly does James Bond clamber up cable car cables and get off with hands and clothes impeccably clean? Every cable car I've ever seen has cables slathered in grease for lubrication and rust protection. Even if the cables were dry, the wear particles and dust would make them totally filthy. Why is the inside of every air duct surgically clean? How do heroes and villains climb elevator cables without getting covered with crud? How can people chase each other through sewers and then go straight to a fine restaurant or the opera without grossing everyone out? In A Fish Called Wanda, one of the characters gets immersed in a 55-gallon drum of oil, then immediately afterward boards a plane. And the flight attendants don't bat an eye.

Humans and Lava Don't Mix

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a hapless sacrificial victim is lowered into a pit of white-hot lava. Then the metal frame that held him is hoisted back up, glowing red-hot. Interestingly enough, no lava is sticking to it.

Now what I want to know is, who dug the pit? Even granted the clandestine Thug cult in the movie is using slave labor, long before the pit reached the lava it would be impossible to dig. Slaves would drop dead before they could lift a shovel. How did the cult know there was lava underground here? Why isn't the temple floor too hot to walk on? Why does the sacrificial victim burst into flames before even reaching floor level, but Kate Capshaw (a.k.a. Mrs. Steven Spielberg) gets much closer to the lava without so much as being singed? For that matter, it's only been ten minutes since the rack was dipped into the lava. Why isn't it still too hot to touch?

As Indiana Jones and his sidekicks escape on a mine car, they roll through tunnels with molten lava running through them. Why isn't it too hot to breathe in there? Why hasn't the heat from the lava softened or burned the supports for the rails? Or the mine timbers? I presume the lava invaded the tunnels after they were dug. Where is it going? Why doesn't it come out into the gorge at the end of the tunnel that Indy follows?

In the animated film Atlantis, the explorers cross a swinging bridge over a river of molten lava. Who built the bridge? Why doesn't it burn? Why hasn't the lava heated its surroundings until they're as hot as the lava?

Bionic and Biological Parts

It doesn't matter how strong the bionic parts are. If they're connected to normal bone or muscle, the result is only as strong as the weakest component. So when the bionically altered villain in Spider Man 2 stands on his human legs and uses his bionic arms to rip a bank vault door off its hinges, I wonder what steroids he used to beef up his leg muscles, and what's anchoring the bionic parts to his body.

Fun With Leverage

Speaking of Spider Man 2, how can someone weighing at most a few hundred pounds (even with bionic attachments) stand on a normal floor and rip off a bank vault door weighing tons? As he pulls on the door, why doesn't he simply slide toward it? Those have got to be some non-slip soles! And when he lifts the door, why doesn't the weight pull him over? What's counteracting the leverage exerted by the door?

Loved Superman Returns. But a human (or Kryptonian) weighing 200 pounds is not going to be able to grasp an airplane by the nose and tilt it safely to the ground. Not without falling over.

While channel surfing recently, I stumbled onto some weird sci-fi flick where a ghoulish creature confronted a bar bouncer. After the bouncer smashed the ghoul over the head to no effect, and threw an equally ineffectual punch, the ghoul seized his arm. Then he yanked it completely off. The bouncer looked down in astonishment at the blood coming out of his shoulder.

I don't care how strong you are or how quickly you pull, you are just not going to rip an arm off while a person just stands there immobile. It takes way more force than the weight of a human body and inertia is just not going to make it happen.

(Interesting cultural note: the above takes place in a topless bar. The dancers' breasts were smudged out, but the spurting arterial blood from the severed arm was sharp and clear, presumably less traumatic for family viewing.)

Movie Eclipses

Whenever any eclipse of the sun happens in a movie:

No movie that I have seen, ever, has done a realistic solar eclipse. Apocalypto did a better than average job, but the eclipse itself was out of focus - one of the most dramatic things in a real total eclipse is the incredible sharpness and blackness of the Moon - and the darkness was just not dark enough. Apocalypto did, however, correctly show the yellow light around the horizon from areas not in the Moon's shadow.

But that same night, we see a nearly full Moon in the sky! Since solar eclipses always take place at new moon, the Moon would not be visible at all for at least a day or so and would not be full for two weeks.

Fun With Helicopters

Ever notice, when a helicopter is pursuing someone, and it's hit with a missile, it stops dead and falls straight down? This is a variation on Road Runner Physics, where Wiley Coyote keeps running until he realizes he's in mid-air, then plummets.


When someone is in a falling object, he only experiences the effects of falling relative to the object. When Anakin and Obi-Wan are fighting on the station on Mustaffar, and the section they're on plummets into molten lava, they fall hundreds of feet, but since they're falling with a section of the station, they don't feel the impact. In real life, if you're in a falling object, you feel the same impact as the object. Oh, by the way, since metals are denser than rock, still more so molten rock, that section should sink in the lava. Gollum, on the other hand, should float.

Improbable Linkages

In The Core, the crew can't jettison the rear section of their vessel because only damaged sections could be separated. In 2012, the engines of the ark can't be started until the doors close.

We expect Ralph Nader to demand something stupid like being unable to start your car as long as the glove compartment is open, and we all have to restart our lawn mowers every time we let go of the handle because a few idiots reach under the mower with the blade spinning, but who designs a huge ship to stop functioning when some completely peripheral function doesn't work?

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Created 20 May, 2004, Last Update 02 June, 2010

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