10 Movies Based on Scientific Falsehoods

Of COURSE “Sharknado” makes an appearance on this list.  © Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Of COURSE “Sharknado” makes an appearance on this list. © Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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Hollywood is full of lies. Believe it or not, the movie-making industry isn't terribly concerned with truth telling. Instead, directors and producers pump their films full of over-the-top special effects, unrealistic dialogue and scientific flaws.

When it comes to science, Hollywood is notoriously fuzzy with details. Monsters and superheroes sprout from seeds of the thinnest of genetic reasoning. Widespread natural disasters appear out of nowhere. Action heroes, even those lacking super powers, somehow defy even the most basic laws of physics.

So perhaps it's no surprise that filmmakers sometimes base entire movies on a series of scientific falsehoods. After all, if you're going to break a few laws of the universe, you may as well go all the way. Action and disaster genres are generally the most notable offenders. They take a grain of scientific truth, snowball it into ridiculous proportions and then try to sell their ludicrous premises to the public as entertainment.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. As with all movies, the casting and acting matters, too, and when they're done well they provide cover for scientific illusions that would otherwise be too glaring to overlook. Other times, the science is so bad it makes you want to exit the theater in great haste.

Without further ado, let's review 10 movies that rely on scientific falsehoods as the underpinnings for their plots. You'll see that in Hollywood, science frequently takes a backseat to fun.

10

'Jurassic Park'

When the first “Jurassic Park” movie debuted, it blew audiences away … but not with reality based science. © Murray Close/Getty Images
When the first “Jurassic Park” movie debuted, it blew audiences away … but not with reality based science. © Murray Close/Getty Images

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Everyone wants a pet dinosaur. Thanks to "Jurassic Park," some people think we could feasibly extract preserved dino DNA, reconstitute it in a lab and then, presto, manufacture a velociraptor or tyrannosaurus rex.

It would be an expensive endeavor, of course, but the payoff would be amazing. After all a scaly, toothy ancient reptile friend would make you the life of every party. Sadly, this fantasy is an impossibility.

The recipe for rebuilding a dinosaur is long and complicated. You'd have to start by locating undamaged dinosaur DNA. That's not happening. No matter how well it's preserved, DNA begins degrading after a few hundred years. Then you would need to sequence the DNA into a complete genome for one species, essentially recreating a puzzle made of billions of tiny pieces.

Next, you'd use the genome to make chromosomes. The chromosomes would then be transferred into an egg from a modern species that's somehow compatible enough to carry genetic material from a long-extinct species. Good luck with all of those processes.

It's been 65 million years since dinosaurs roamed the world en masse. There's a reason for that. And even our most innovative geneticists won't be resurrecting dinosaurs anytime soon.

9

'Lucy'

So many people work to get a movie from the script phase to the big screen, but no one on the set of “Lucy” fact checked the notion that humans only use a fraction of their brains. © TPG/Getty Images
So many people work to get a movie from the script phase to the big screen, but no one on the set of “Lucy” fact checked the notion that humans only use a fraction of their brains. © TPG/Getty Images

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At some point in your school career, a teacher may have lectured about the fact that humans use only 10 percent of their brains. During those classes, you daydreamed about unlocking your whole brain and becoming a superhuman capable of almost anything. That's the premise behind, "Lucy," starring Scarlett Johansson.

In the film, Johansson ingests drugs that jimmy the locks in her brain, unleashing fantastic new capabilities. She masters languages with ease. She develops telepathy and telekinesis. She punches bad guys in the face.

No one is precisely sure where the 10 percent myth originated, but sadly, it's not true. You actually do use most your brain's capacity. Brain scans prove that your entire hunk of gray matter is continually pulsing with electrical activity.

Furthermore, if you had a lot of brain power to spare, your noggin would be able to absorb a lot more abuse. As it stands, just a minor blow in just the wrong way can cause debilitating brain damage.

That's not to discourage you from trying to tap into your brain's full potential. You can always learn new skills and master old ones. Just don't expect to overhaul your mind with a miracle drug.

8

'Looper'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and writer/director Rian Johnson promoting “Looper” at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival  © Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and writer/director Rian Johnson promoting “Looper” at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival © Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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If you're a criminal and you want to whack someone, why not just send an assassin into the past and kill them before they become a problem? That's especially true in 2074, when ultra-modern forensics make it just about impossible to hide dead bodies. That's the two-sentence synopsis of Rian Johnson's "Looper," which relies heavily on imaginary elements of time travel. It's also a pretty unlikely story.

It's not that every physicist believes that time travel is impossible. Based in Einstein's theories of the nature of our universe, time allows for some pretty bizarre twists and turns, and with the right insights, maybe humans could jump around in history, visiting ancient Aztecs and saddling up the dinosaurs (which as you already know, you'll never be able to recreate "Jurassic Park"-style).

However, even if we somehow figure out a way to zoom back into the past, we may not be able to interact with or alter anything or anyone there. That's because of the so-called "grandfather paradox." This idea based on the argument that if you traveled into the past and killed your grandfather, you simply would never exist. That's a pretty profound paradox.

There's also the notion of a causal loop. If a person travels back in time to effect an event, the time traveler eventually reaches a point in the timeline where she originally fired up the time machine ... resulting in a cycle that repeats itself endlessly. So although "Looper" makes for some fun banter, it's by no means a realistic portrayal of our multi-dimensional universe.

7

'The Day After Tomorrow'

Cast and crew of “The Day After Tomorrow” are all smiles at a press event; they’re not worried about the science. © Dagmar Scherf/Getty Images
Cast and crew of “The Day After Tomorrow” are all smiles at a press event; they’re not worried about the science. © Dagmar Scherf/Getty Images

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Climate change scaremongering is a popular pastime these days. Some of the terrifying scenarios are believable; others, like those in "The Day After Tomorrow," are downright goofy.

This movie's plot hinges on global warming that causes abrupt changes in weather patterns. Enormous tornadoes whip cities. Gigantic hail crushes others. Huge hurricanes and tsunamis and violent temperature swings cause widespread misery. And all of it happens in the span of a few days.

Although our planet's weather may be changing due to global warming, you won't have to worry about spontaneous sub-zero blizzards occurring during summer anytime soon. Our planet's climate is actually pretty stable, and as such, extreme weather events happen in a creeping fashion, not in one burst of frenetic atmospheric activity.

What's more, the movie takes its premise to extremes. In order to see waves hundreds of feet high in New York City, the winds would have to blow more than 1,000 miles per hour. The hurricane-like thunderstorms that happen are only possible over the ocean ... not over land, as in the script.

There are a lot of other flaws in the meteorology and physics in this flick. But suffice it to say, "The Day After Tomorrow" isn't going to happen tomorrow, or any other day, for that matter.

6

'Iron Man'

Even Tony Stark’s charisma and ego can’t bend the rules of science. But that suit sure does look cool. © Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Even Tony Stark’s charisma and ego can’t bend the rules of science. But that suit sure does look cool. © Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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In "Iron Man," the wealthy genius Tony Stark cavorts in a fancy exoskeleton powered by a so-called arc reactor. This reactor provides his superhero suit with endless clean power for flight, advanced weaponry and all sorts of other fantastic capabilities. It's also more than a little on the hokey side.

There's a reason that the movie never really delves into the specifics of the arc reactor. There's just no way to explain how one man-sized body suit could seamlessly create so much power without byproducts like heat and radioactive waste. In other words, the reactor crumbles our known principles of physics and thermodynamics and tosses them into the scientific wastebasket.

To add to scientific insult, the suit is purportedly powered by palladium, which is slowly but surely trickling into Stark's circulatory system. Rather than killing him promptly, he somehow manages to not only survive — but thrive — flying around the globe and foiling the nefarious plots of various evildoers. And the idea of integrating such a high-level power system of this level into the human body without injuring it? That premise alone seems hazardous, at best.

"Iron Man" is chock full of amazing comic book ideas. But if this amazing power source were possible, we'd have put it to work on our energy crisis a long time ago.

5

'Ant-Man'

“Ant-Man” is a fun superhero heist film, but it’s not so solid when it comes to how shrinking actually works. Even a Pym particle has to be governed by some consistent scientific laws.  © Andrew Toth/FilmMagic
“Ant-Man” is a fun superhero heist film, but it’s not so solid when it comes to how shrinking actually works. Even a Pym particle has to be governed by some consistent scientific laws. © Andrew Toth/FilmMagic

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In "Ant-Man," an expert thief dons a special suit that shrinks him to ant size while maintaining his human-size strength. Then he sets off to stop other people from putting the suit's incredibly powerful technology to evil uses.

The actual science propelling the story is, shall we say, rather minuscule. There is a whole script's worth of plot loopholes drawing the noose on the reality of an actual tiny superhero.

Atomic principles make Ant-Man impossible. In order to make a person so small, you'd have to either remove bunches of their atoms or push those atoms closer to together. Start taking atoms out of the human body, though, and there's no telling what you'll end up with — perhaps just a pile of squishy goo. And there's no way to force atoms into closer proximity to each other. Doing so would violate the laws of physics.

There's also the fact that a large biological systems don't necessarily translate into smaller ones. That is, shrinking our brains and limbs to a smaller proportional size doesn't guarantee that those pieces and parts will all work properly. Everything from respiration to blood circulation changes on a smaller scale, and the human body certainly isn't designed to work in the space of a small insect's form.

That means teensy superheroes are impossible. Perhaps you need to set your sights on a larger bug ... like a spider. Like the guy on the next page.

4

'The Amazing Spider-Man'

That’s right, Peter Parker, we’re onto you and the way your premise plays fast and loose with biology and physics. © Mark Mainz/Getty Images
That’s right, Peter Parker, we’re onto you and the way your premise plays fast and loose with biology and physics. © Mark Mainz/Getty Images

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When Peter Parker transforms into the Amazing Spider-Man, he instantly develops incredible powers. He shoots spider webs from his wrist, sticking the ropy ends to skyscrapers as he swings through the metropolis battling evil and saving the day.

Let's start with Spider-Man's origins. He didn't create his superpowers in a secret lab. Instead, a radioactive spider chomped on him, permanently altering his DNA and making him an athletic freak of nature.

Then there are those long strands of webs that seemingly emerge from his wrists. Those dozens of feet of web have to come from somewhere, because matter doesn't just spontaneously materialize. Even if those webs were fashioned from his own body's cells, he'd run out of mass after just a few long swings. That's particularly true of the fantastically strong web material, which has a tensile strength of about 120 pounds per square millimeter.

Then there's all that swinging and jumping. As Spider-Man hurdles off of tall buildings and into a downward swinging arc, his body remains remarkably intact, with nary a shredded limb or broken neck. That's in spite of the incredible acceleration and deceleration he'd have to withstand. Those forces are entirely too much for a normal human body, and possibly too much even for a superhero like Spider-Man.

3

'Into the Storm'

Real-life storm chaser Reed Timmer might just be clowning for the cameras at the movie’s premier, or he might be calling out the makers of “Into the Storm” on their sloppy application of how tornadoes work. © Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Real-life storm chaser Reed Timmer might just be clowning for the cameras at the movie’s premier, or he might be calling out the makers of “Into the Storm” on their sloppy application of how tornadoes work. © Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

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Disaster movies based on weather events often stretch the science nearly to a breaking point. In "Into the Storm," a flick about a massive attack of giant tornadoes, the filmmakers definitely took more than a few liberties with their portrayal of funnel clouds.

The story centers on an exceedingly unlucky Oklahoma town that is battered by four tornadoes in only 12 hours. It's not entirely impossible for four twisters to strike the same area in a short time, but it isn't likely.

History has seen multiple large-scale tornado outbreaks when the weather conditions are ripe. In those cases the twisters are generally spread over a wide area, such as the 1999 outbreak that sent around 50 funnel clouds spinning over Oklahoma and Kansas.

The movie also shows tornadoes with multiple funnel clouds in one small area. In reality, funnel clouds do occasionally have multiple vertices surrounding a primary focal point. These are rare, though, and in situations where they merge they don't actually form ever-larger and more destructive storms, as in the movie.

Finally, destruction in the film is sometimes silly and sometimes way, way over the top. One of the most dangerous aspects of tornadoes is flying debris, but somehow no one onscreen ever suffers any real injuries from airborne lumber or metal. Yet the same storms grab entire plane fleets and launches them into the stratosphere.

Then again, for all of the hokey science of "Into the Storm," that aspect may have been least worrying part of the movie. The acting was more artificial than the weather.

2

'Volcano'

Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, covered in fake volcanic ash … and faux science. ©Getty Images
Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, covered in fake volcanic ash … and faux science. ©Getty Images

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In 1997's "Volcano," Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche scramble as a huge volcano spontaneously appears from under Los Angeles, California spewing fireballs and lava that devastate the city.

Never mind that volcanos don't generally emerge abruptly and without warning. The movie would have you believe that these enormous geologic events can happen practically overnight.

The bigger issue is that there is no geological basis at all for volcanoes to occur in L.A. Volcanoes form only in subduction zones, that is, where one tectonic plate is slipping beneath another, subsequently unleashing hot magma that flows to the surface of the Earth's crust.

As it turns out, there is no subduction zone anywhere near California. The infamous San Andreas Fault is what's called a strike-slip fault. Here, the plates merely slide horizontally, rubbing against each other in way that doesn't allow for magma flow or volcano formation.

In cases where volcanos do from along strike-slip faults, they are typically smaller and less destructive. That means a horrifyingly huge magma monsters aren't going to upend West Coast cities anytime soon.

1

'Sharknado'

The plus side of the “Sharknado” series of films is that it’s campy — it really isn’t trying to pretend that there’s any sort of actual science in the mix. ©Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
The plus side of the “Sharknado” series of films is that it’s campy — it really isn’t trying to pretend that there’s any sort of actual science in the mix. ©Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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The cult hit "Sharknado" illogically (and hilariously) combines two primal fears — sharks and tornados. The idea is completely nuts, but that's beside the point. Absurdity is the order of the day in this B film.

Once again, it's poor, beleaguered Los Angeles that's at the center of this disaster flick. But the city has never seen a catastrophe quite like this one. Huge waterspouts form off of the coast, causing enormous waves and flooding. More ominously, the spouts suck hundreds of sharks into their funnels. The toothy fish are then spewed all over the metro area, lacerating the locals and essentially spreading chaos of the most bizarre kind.

We probably don't need to spend much of your time reviewing the inconsistencies and unrealities of a flying shark infestation. But in the unlikely occurrence that such a powerful storm struck a major city, you'd have much more to fear from the hurricane-like power of the weather than you would any toothy, flying fish.

Whether it's sharks, volcanos or superheroes Hollywood is always going to take more than a little theatrical license with its products. While the more literal of us will roll our eyes at the silly and egregious scientific mistakes in these movies, it's these exaggerations and outright fantasies that make films so much fun.

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Author's Note: 10 Movies Based on Scientific Falsehoods

"Kingdom of the Spiders" was one of the first scary disaster-type movies to really grab my imagination. In this '70s-era movie, William Shatner runs around a small town that's being invaded by an army of aggressive tarantulas. There were no computer-generated effects. These were real spiders running amok, scaring the life out of everyone they could grab onto with their hairy legs. It didn't matter that the premise was ludicrous — I was traumatized for years after seeing the movie, proving that sometimes scary stories have more lasting power than science.

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