The Academy Awards are nearly upon us, and this year we've got three films nominated in multiple Academy categories, each of which also fits the bill for our own PopSci Movie Science Awards. These distinguished nominees consist of the 2008 blockbusters The Dark Knight, Ironman, and Wall-E. Each of these movies, enveloped in their superhero/science fiction-esque and/or computer graphic wrappings, give those of us so inclined a springboard into discussing and analyzing a little bit of Hollywood science.
Remember, kids, this is intended to be fun. We're not here to offend those who repeatedly remind me that "it's only a @&*#* movie!" We promise not to recklessly poke holes in some obvious fantasies -- I mean it would be pretty silly to criticize the physics of the computer animated Wall-E -- so our program will be to assess how each of these movies can be used as an educational tool. What relevant scientific ideas are brought up? How interestingly are these presented? Are there any particularly vivid or accurate representations of some fundamental scientific principle? And what are the standard Hollywood misrepresentations demonstrated by our three nominees?
First let's introduce the awards:
1) Most Interesting Scientific Idea Represented in a Big-Budget Hollywood Action-Packed Blockbuster.
2) Most Accurate Physics.
3) Most (Surprisingly) Educational.
4) Best Supporting Actor.
Now let's summarize each film for its salient features before awarding our hopeful nominees. Ready? Set. Here we go!
The Dark Knight
Before we talk science, let's just put this out there straight away. The award for Best Supporting Actor goes to ... Heath Ledger. In an incredibly nuanced, original, fascinatingly detailed, and entertaining performance, the late Mr. Ledger steals the movie. It is a performance well deserving of a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
As far as the science goes, we've discussed in a controversial previous article on this site a number of action sequences where we apply some "movie physics" analyses. The general conclusion is that the scenes are typical of the high-octane action/superhero genre and demonstrate the characteristic Hollywood extended unreality.
However, an interesting variation on the usual fare includes the use of actual Batmobile prototypes in the filming. These were designed for high performance and are used in many of the stunts, rather than being simulated with computer graphics technology.
Furthermore, although it would be an understatement to point out that there are some big explosions in The Dark Knight, it's kind of refreshing that these explosions don't occur every time a car crashes (not that there aren't a prodigious quantity of automobile collisions throughout the movie).
The exploding car has become a rather silly Hollywood cliché. Watch the Mission: Impossible movies or a James Bond film. Almost every time a car crashes or gets nicked by a bullet it explodes. It becomes rather irritating after a while. How hard is it for a car to really explode? Well, it's really hard. A specific ratio of gasoline vapor to liquid within a very small range is required -- and a spark. And if you think a bullet fired into the gas tank will do the job, check out Mythbusters. Anyway, congratulations to The Dark Knight for some restraint in this area at least.
Arguably the most interesting scientific application woven into the plot of the film involves the use of cell phone technology. While using these as radar-like imaging devices (as they do to map out the interior of Mr. Lau's office building) would have some serious technological difficulties, eavesdropping by intercepting cell phone transmissions and remotely activating cell phone microphones, even when the phone is turned off, is possible and in fact has been used by the FBI for surveillance purposes.
From what was said in the Ironman movie. I'd be willing to guess that the "fictional" Arc reactor would probably generate power by hydrogen fuel, not nuclear fusion. In the movie he says he needs palladium to construct the first one. When palladium is at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, it can absorb up to 900 times its own volume of hydrogen, which makes palladium an efficient and safe storage medium for hydrogen and hydrogen isotopes. This indicates that it is a good possibility the arc reactor uses hydrogen as a fuel. But the amount of energy that it stores and emits is massive. The first one that he constructed in the cave could generate 3 gigajoules per second, while the second, Stark stated could generate 4 times that. That'd be 12 gigawatts of power, or roughly 16 million horsepower.
As for Ironman,
I'm betting a 'Palladium' was just a word the writers found sufficiently exotic and 'sciency' sounding. As for the rocket effect instead of 'repulsor rays', rocket effects provide much better visuals for the screen then so called repulsors.