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Saturday, January 04, 2003

Rotten to The Core

This is an extremely geeky post (no, no Tolkien).

Meryl Yourish gives the second of her "Sucky Movie Reports", this time savaging Reign of Fire (which Steven Den Beste also commented on extensively). Has Meryl never seen Mystery Science Theater 3000?

The other day Niles and I went to see Star Trek: Nemesis. Here is my micro-review: Too many notes. There are at least two plot elements stolen from the TV series (one revolves around the vast importance of Picard to the Federation---phooey). The actions and motives of the Romulans are absolutely bewildering, not just in this one crisis, but apparently over a period of years (the upbringing of Shinzon). This goes for Shinzon as well---the motives for his actions are extremely flimsy. Shinzon apparently had a great deal of support from people who were kept in the most abject slavery---where did they get all the resources to help him out? What is the significance of the allusion of twin-dom in the name "Remans"? Are they supposed to be the "twins" of the Romulans? They look nothing like the Romulans, who are, in any case, transplanted Vulcans. (Why is Romulus called Romulus, Mum?)

On, and the effects of their sooper-dooper weapon are just dumb, although it looks very, very cool.

In the end there is a major event which leaves the crew devastated, but it affected me not at all. "Why's everyone so stunned and mournful? Oh, that's right. Yawn."

The movie shows every sign of having been cut down from a much longer movie in which some of these problems were addressed. Niles said that the best part of it was when they only showed Wesley Crusher for about three seconds.

Anyhow, between Nemesis on Monday and The Two Towers the previous Friday, we've seen a number of movie trailers. I'm sorry to report that there wasn't one movie previewed that I was at all anxious to see; and there were only a couple that, if I were strapped down and forced to watch, Clockwork Orange style, would not make me insane. Those were redeemed only by wisecracks and car chases, and since I'm not a big fan of car chases, you might imagine how bad the others were.

One movie that we actually looked forward to seeing on video is The Core. Meryl mentions this movie at the end of her post, saying she, too, can't wait to mock it.

And this is where you who would conceivably want to watch this movie for non-mocking purposes might want to bail, because it's just possible that somehow the supposed "surprise ending" was given away, since the websites promoting the movie were a bit different from the trailer we saw. Here, I'll add a little spoiler space.

OK, onward.

When you're advertising a drama movie, it's a bad sign when the very first line induces laughter:

Unseen character: "We can induce a localized seismic event anywhere on the planet. It's the perfect, untraceable, weapon."

Me: Ha ha!

Character 1: "The core of the earth has stopped spinning."
Character 2: "The spinning core protects us from cosmic radiation."
Character 1: "Without it, radiation will create superstorms. Microwaves will literally cook our planet.

Me: Microwaves?
Niles: Ha ha!

(The characters decide to send a special "ship" into the center of the earth, and set off a nuke. That'll fix it.)

Character 2: "Can't wait to go to the center of the earth, detonate a thousand megatons of nucular weapon..."

Me: Nucular?

Char 2: This is molten iron at 9000 degrees Farenheit...we're talking about something the size of Mars...

Me: Mars?

It's hard to watch bad science fiction when you're a scientist.

Firstly, if the core of the earth had really stopped spinning suddenly, we'd have more to worry about than a few storms. All that rotational energy has to go somewhere, probably into heating up the interior of the planet. And into earthquakes. That might be bad.

It's true that the spinning core does protect us from some radiation---not by itself, but by producing the earth's magnetic field, which deflects many charged particles (which come either from the solar wind, or from various sources outside the solar system).

The magnetic field doesn't do a thing for microwaves, though, since they are photons, and hence uncharged.

The charged particles that do get through are absorbed by the atmosphere, although sometimes the absorption creates more charged particles, which eventually reach the ground. The sudden loss of the magnetic field would result in an increased flux of charged particles getting to the atmosphere (and hence to the ground). It would probably heat up the outer layers of the atmosphere, which would mean the outer layers would evaporate into space faster. It might mean a thinning of the ozone layer, but maybe not, since the ozone layer is about 70 km deep (i.e. 20km in altitude). The increased flux of charged particles (and, if the ozone layer thins, ultraviolet light) would lead to an increased cancer rate. The heating of the atmosphere at its top is unlikely to lead to massive storms right away, as forecast in the movie, since weather is formed only in the atmospheric layer very near the earth.

(Niles and I couldn't decide whether there was any chance that an increased flux of charged particles would result in a net increase in ozone, rather than its destruction.)

There would certainly be increased auroral activity, as the trailer shows, and probably disruption of long-range communications.

On the other hand, there's this article from the Sunday Wanker:

'These solar particles can have profound effects,' said Dr Paul Murdin, of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge. 'On Mars, when its magnetic field failed permanently billions of years ago, it led to its atmosphere being boiled off.
[Mars's weaker gravity just might have something to do with it, too. -- A.S.] On Earth, it will heat up the upper atmosphere and send ripples round the world with enormous, unpredictable effects on the climate.'

Yeah, maybe. But not necessarily prompt effects.

I thought it was unlikely that the earth's core was as large as Mars, but apparently it's not far off, if you include the outer core.

Now, the most interesting thing about this movie is that the trailer we saw is not the trailer on the movie's web site. That trailer doesn't mention anything about a weapon; it suggests that the vanishing of the magnetic field is a natural, periodic effect. (Certainly the magnetic field does swap poles every once in a while, as mentioned in the Observer article.)

(The trailer on the website didn't mention Mars, either, but the one in the theater did.)

I wonder why the change? This movie fan site has periodic updates, and points to this interview with the screenwriter, John Gage. He says:

"The problem that affects the earth is based on a real periodic phenomena - the 'nuclear waste' story that's been reported in the trades is based on an old draft."

(He also says, in effect. "It's gonna be real science. But it's just a movie, y'know? So chill. But it's not going to be stupid, no! Wait till you see it before you write thousands of snotty hateful letters and contemptuous blog posts, 'K?")

A fellow who saw an early version of the script says:

...the earth's core...has mysteriously stopped spinning (the reason why is revealed during the last act but I won't blow it).

That might be the "nuclear waste" phenomenon mentioned above.

(Note that the movie was due to be released in November, but was moved back to "first quarter" of 2003 (other sites say March 28). ) which is more accurate? Web sites, or the trailer?

There are a gazillion fan sites in the Naked Net, and one of them probably has the scoop on this, but I've searched as much as I'm gonna. I can only say that I wish I had a dime for every time a producer has said, "Oh, this movie's going to be accurate. We've researched, we've got Real Scientists working on it. Everything is going to be absolute correct."---and then produced a scientific turkey. Grand prize winner goes to a made-for-TV movie, NBC's Asteroid. (Or maybe it was the Family Channel's Doomsday Rock. They were very similar. I can't remember which producer really hyped it up.)

You can bet Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy will be on the scene.

At the end of the trailer, I leaned over to Niles and said, "Rm core." Ha. I make geek joke.