BEST bad physics movie EVER. (Laughingly bad science in “The Core”)

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 6, 2009

I’ve had a set of “bad science movies” on my Netflix queue for a while, and every once in a while I dip into it.  Each time it feels a bit risky, like trying some weird new combination, like cherry dip on my mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.  Sometimes it’s OK.  Sometimes it’s not the best use of my money, so I cut my losses and go surf the internet.  But this time, it all worked out, it all worked out great. On the other hand, my brain was rather fried from a long day slogging through snow covered peaks (see picture below). 

Climbing Mt. Neva.  Photo by Brian Moore.

Climbing Mt. Neva. Photo by Brian Moore.

So, after a day like this, this kind of dumb was just what I wanted. Of course I knew that the whole premise of “The Core” would be laughingly stupid.  (The earth’s magnetic field has stopped!  We have to drill down to the center of the earth and jump-start it!).  But, even allowing for the whole “flawed premise” (after all, being a writer is about being creative, so we can cut them some slack to create the storyline, I guess).

But I was still giggling here and there.  Even simple stuff — the pigeons go beserk and start crashing through storefront windows (c’mon, birds fly into windows all the time and don’t smash them to smithereens), was just silly.  And while the movie writers were careful to provide at least pseudoscientific explanations of how most things worked, I guess they knew that it was going to be beyond their ability to come up with a decent explanation of how Mission Control could manage to communicate (instantaneously!) with the ship as it burrowed through hundreds of miles of molten metal.  So they didn’t even try.

But I needn’t bother to spend the time to roast this movie in the pan that it so richly deserves, it’s been done far beyond my ability on Intuitor’s Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.  (They have a bunch of other wonderful reviews of popular movies).

Here’s a zinger from that site:

Keyes proceeds to demonstrate the effects of losing the magnetic field by lighting the aerosol from a can of hair spray and flaming a peach representing Earth. He makes his explanation simplistic since he’s talking to military brass who can’t grasp complexity, even though they lead one of the most complex and high tech organizations in the world.

Whether Earth did or didn’t have a magnetic field would make no difference….

Not only does Keyes not know the difference between forces and energy but he apparently believes that electromagnetic radiation such as microwaves can be deflected by a magnetic field. Here’s a quick experiment, try using a magnet to deflect the electromagnetic (EM) radiation emitted by a flashlight. The EM radiation is a beam of visible light and, although we hate to spoil the experiment, nothing will happen.

Whether Earth did or didn’t have a magnetic field would make no difference as far as microwave radiation is concerned. First, the magnetic field doesn’t affect it, and second, there’s very little of it in the first place. The Sun emits lots of electromagnetic radiation but most of it is visible light. It sends very little microwave radiation. At its worst, the Sun’s microwave radiation can cause interference with radio or cellphone transmissions but poses no significant health hazard.

Ouch.  Of course, the plot also has plenty of loopholes, scientific or not:

The cast is rounded out by DJ Qualls who plays a stereotypical convicted computer hacker called Rat. He is brought on board for the critical task of preventing anyone on the Internet from precipitating a worldwide panic by posting theories about the impending disaster. Apparently, dead pacemaker patients, berserk window-smashing pigeons, bizarre space shuttle crash landings, monstrously powerful thunderstorms, the Golden Gate bridge collapse, unexpected nightly displays of the aurora borealis, and the total destruction of Rome, all in around three months, aren’t enough to generate concern.

Besides, no TV, newspaper or radio news organization would ever speculate on such matters, let alone ask reporters or high-priced consultants to find answers. No televangelist would see anything Biblical in these signs of impending judgment nor would any private citizen be panicked without input from a webpage.

Bottom line:  rent “The Core.”  Go, do it now.  If you’re a science teacher, assign your students to watch it, and then come up with 5 examples of “what’s wrong with this picture.”  What a fun assignment.

Incidentally, I got much of my list of bad (and good) science movies from Sidney Perkowitz’s Hollywood Science book, which reviews early to recent movies and explains the good, bad, and ugly in the science in these films.  It also has a list of the all-time best (and the all-time worst) science movies.  Worth a look.

One good outcome of this movie (which really is a hoot, and not a terrible movie if you like this sort of thing, which I do), is that it was purportedly the impetus to start the Science and Entertainment Exchange (run partly by Cocktail Party Physics blogger Jennifer Ouellette), which connects scientists with the folks in the entertainment industry so that stuff like this won’t happen again.  They have a blog too.

You can also see Blick on Flicks at the National Science Teachers Association for some more blogging on movie science (and how to use it in your classroom).


Brion June 7, 2009 at 1:07 am

You think that’s funny, check out DJ Qualls with a mullet. Hilarious clip.

You can vote for it too…five stars all the way!!!

Ben June 8, 2009 at 7:25 am

Any of the “center of the earth” genre have pretty much tossed reality out the window from the get-go. I get more annoyed with stealth bad science in stuff like Battlestar Galactica, which carries more of a presumption that somebody was paying attention to the basics.

Matt Kriebel June 9, 2009 at 11:22 pm

I remember when I though they couldn’t do any worse than in ‘Armageddon’. Thank you Hollywood, for proving me wrong.

Stich June 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm

So you are saying this is not quite as realistic as “Journey to the Center of the Earth?” James Mason was so convincing. “Sunshine” has a pretty weak premise about the Sun dying, yet it’s one of the best sci-fi films I have ever seen. The ending is sublimely beautiful.

Bob Kat January 26, 2015 at 1:48 am

Not necessarily an example of a pseudo-physics faux pas, but in the scene where the shuttle crash lands in the Houston aquaduct, the commander deploys, then retracts the landing gear of the shuttle, which is impossible. The shuttle landing gear was designed to only deploy, and had to be manually retracted upon landing. The mechanics of retracting the landing gear were left out as a weight saving measure.

This of course was the only detail to made that scene unbelievable.

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