16 November 2009

Microwaving the Earth

A Review of the Movie 2012

The movie 2012 was interesting. It was not the sort of movie that I would have sought on my own particular volition, this is true. Nevertheless, it was quite well done. It does require a certain degree of suspicion, as well as a major act of suspension of disbelief. That said, such a suspension is by no means peculiar for most moviegoers, especially given the sorts of things that we are asked to believe on a regular basis by Hollywood's cameras. If we can feel comfortable with sentient, mechanical aliens who have a surprisingly human outlook on the universe, as well as the ability to transform into technological objects a la Terminator 3; surely we can choose to believe in the destruction of Earth for no really apparent reason. Other than that the sun suddenly decided to microwave the Earth like some sort of cosmic potato, without poking the skin first, that is. This is all fine and good, really. I mean, I'd like to do that sort of thing myself someday when I'm rich and can afford to throw out perfectly good potatoes and unscathed microwaves. Sadly, at present, I have need both of my potatoes and my microwaves.

That being said, though, there are points when the writers stretch the boundaries of willing belief so far that they test the meaning of the very concept. It is interesting, too, to consider just where the science advisor for the movie might have been during the writing and filming of the picture. Tahiti, Nepal, Delhi, Hawai'i or even Washington, D.C. These would all make perfect sense, really, as it was more than apparent that he or she was never really on set. Or that he had never actually read the script in the first place. A last-minute replacement hire? Do science advisors even have understudies?

Anyway, back to stretching the bounds of suspended incredulity. They made efforts to make the movie at least feel vaguely like hard sci-fi. It was hard at times to know whether or not they took themselves seriously. I am content to allow them the benefit of the doubt, but there were moments when I felt the ghost of the Day After Tomorrow creeping up behind me. Or into me. Through my optic nerves. The problem was, Day After Tomorrow took itself quite seriously indeed, and their epic failure at even the basics of proper scientific writing only made the movie that much more painful.

There were similar moments in 2012. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with things like neutrinos, geology, tsunami physics, seismology, astronomy, astrophysics, aircraft, vulcanology, and a host of other branches of the scientific spectrum would likely have found 2012 to be unbearably painful to watch. Indeed, I too, felt this pain, though my scientific acumen is limited at best. There are some things I do know however, and that was most of what the movie either deliberately, or unintentionally, got horrifically wrong.

I know, as do many others, that Neutrinos are exotic, subatomic particles that have such a small size and high energy level that they don't really interact with normal matter. They are also extremely rare. Hence the reason we build the detectors at the bottom mine shafts in antartica and fill them with water. That way, there will be matter to watch the neutrinos not interact with, and if they do interact, we'll be able to pick out their infinitesimal energy emission from the background radiation of the universe. Let's be honest, a sudden spike in solar neutrino emissions is not going to cook the planet. If the planet gets cooked that way, the first thing we notice will most certainly not be the rolling boil of the water in our neutrino detectors.
The science started worse than that with the whole mayan calendar thing, but that's a thing I'm not going to get into. The gravitational disturbance of the alignment of our solar system and the galactic core happens, according to the movie, every 640,000 years or so. These things have happened before, therefore, and while there were no real people to record the event, and the geological record makes no mention of the planet cooking like a potato, or perhaps a marshmallow, in a microwave, we are assured that it has happened several hundred thousand times over the life of the Earth. Colour me...unconvinced.

There is also, by way of unconvincing, enough water on the planet Earth, to cover everything completely in water, with the exceptions of the summits of Everest, and perhaps K2. This, we all know from the movie Waterworld, is how the world ends anyway. Here we find a prequel to that movie whether you want it or not. So there.

Okay, final summary: The movie sucked as hard science fiction. There wasn't enough hard science in 2012 to pass a high school physics class.

That said, it had many good moments, when it got at intensely human issues, like saying goodbye to family, saying goodbye to friends, saying goodbye to perfect strangers... You get the idea. Mortality goes a long way toward tearjerking, and this movie does a fabulous job of those moments when it gets far enough away from the science to let feel the heartache. And that's what's most valuable about the movie, I think. The Lama in the movie gets it right, I think, the little bit he speaks. It is his example more than anything that is valuable. The time comes to choose, and he chooses to stay, knowing that the end is inevitable anyway for him, and that he has done what he could to aid the future. His example is the one most worthy of emulation, I think. He makes simple gestures that have a great impact on the unfolding of the future. Sometimes it does take grand gestures to save the world. But sometimes, the little ones make the big ones worthy of the grandeur. Big heroism, the movie says, revolves on the fulcrum of little heroes. Little heroes that loom large in their example and their impact on those that matter to them.

I didn't check my watch during the movie at all, and that's more than I expected out of it. I am quite pleased with it, though I'm not really sure it's worth more than one, maybe two watchings. It's possible, I suppose, but it needs to be said that my standards for worthwhile movies starts at 1 watch-check, and any more checks than that makes a movie a failure for my system. No watch checks simply indicates good story and engagement, so it's a pretty broad brush. This was not Dark Knight, or Star Trek, which, in addition to being no-watch-check movies, were genuinely thrilling to watch. My overall rating, after the watch check test, is around e stars.

And the science people know what I'm talking about.

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