This relevant scene appears in an uncountable number of movies. What happens when you plunge head first through a glass window? Anybody? That’s right. You die. It’s you that starts the jump, but it’s a shredded, bloody mass that finishes it. You will not stand up and brush shards of glass from your jacket. Instead, the mortician will politely aver to your widow that “Closed caskets are in this season.”
The accuracy of physics in movies is just barely above that portrayed in cartoons. While it’s funny to see Wile E. Coyote run past the cliff and only fall when he realizes there’s nothing but thin atmosphere between him and destiny, it boggles the mind to see essential plot points of movies and television shows revolve not just around unlikelihoods but impossibilities, especially when it’s so easy to correct the mistakes.
To prove it, I’ll first dissect the new Star Trek, then I’ll offer my solution to the dilemma.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The new Star Trek begins with a Romulan ship slowly poking through a black hold, time shifting itself into the past. Do you know what happens when anything passes into—but never through—a black hole? The gravitational potential is so intense that everything is stretched into a quark-thin spaghetti. There wouldn’t be enough left of the Romulans to even form a grease spot.
But let that pass.
This isn’t bad physics but screwy psychology: after the Romulans dust a Federation ship, nobody thinks to go looking for them. For twenty-three years. Well, people get busy. Let that pass, too.
The reason the Romulans had their adventure is that their sun had just gone supernova and wiped out their homeworld. Turns out Spock was on his way to that star to slip in some red matter (whatever that is) which would have turned the petulant sun into a black hole before it had the chance to explode—and thus he would have saved the planet (accepting the unlikely assumption the planet also couldn’t wander into the black hole’s gravity well) . He dithered, apparently, and only got there after the explosion.
Now, it is true that many stars end their lives by going super nova. But there are indications, subtle hints that can be gleaned that allow one to predict the cataclysm in advance—usually by at least a few million years. So it must be that Spock was substantially delayed. A woman, no doubt. Let that pass.
The advanced-time Spock also comes through the black hole and is easily captured by the Romulans. Later, the younger Spock pops in the cockpit of old Spock’s ship and trivially blasts his way free. Which only tells us that the advanced-time Spock was still distracted when he forgot his weapons. Sigh. I’ll let that pass.
Again not physics, but do you recall several months back when I said that every movie which features a monster has the beast not pounce and eat its human prey, but has it stop short, crane its neck, open its mouth, shake its head and roar. It’s the creature-feature version of monologuing, I guess.
Kirk was marooned with such a monologuing monster but was rescued when the elder Spock scared off the beast with a fire stick. Then Scottie transported himself and Kirk off their isolated rock using a new transporter formulation that allowed them to appear on a ship moving at warp speed half-way across the galaxy. All are amazed by this. Wow! That’s a long way!
Then everybody instantly forgets. Or else it would have occurred to them to use the same technology to transport a photon torpedo aboard the Romulan ship, thus saving everybody the hassle of tracking down the bad guys and face possible injury and property damage. But then we wouldn’t have got to see a score of panicked humans scurrying from a building in downtown San Francisco when the Romulans appeared out of nowhere! at the exact moment when every other ship in the galaxy were out of commission for tune ups.
And we would have also missed the climatic scene where Kirk and young Spock bond while watching the Romulan ship disintegrate. It was imploding because a medicine-ball sized chuck of red matter had spilled out onto its floor. Earlier, it took just a drop of the crimson goo to destroy a single planet or star. But when a keg of it goes off, it does so slowly, which allowed time for Kirk to diss the bad guy. And it made him forget that a black hole would soon suck in his ship (a lot of failing memories in the future) and he barely got out in time.
Anyway, I still recommend the movie and rate it at $6 (via the Briggs Movie Rating System).
A lot of bad physics in Star Trek. But it didn’t have to be that way. All of it was fixable because there were scores of us geeks who would have served as physics advisors for the movie—and most of us would have done it for free!
Thus, I hereby make the offer that I will, for no charge, give any Hollywood studio one hour of fact-based, solid physics critiquing. I don’t have to meet any actors, I don’t need to be introduced to the director, and I can do it all from my desk. You don’t even have to put my name in the credits. I will be satisfied to play a small part in the education of movie audiences.
You’ll (I’m speaking to you Hollywood) be gaining more than just better movies. You’ll keep annoying people like me quiet in theaters. We won’t have to stage-whisper to our seat-mates, “Let me tell you exactly why that can’t happen…”