The Dangers of a Little Knowledge

December 3rd, 2007

This weekend I saw a 2006 movie called The Black Hole. It stars no one I have ever heard of, the acting was appalling, and it had one of the worst storylines I have ever had the misfortune to endure. The IMDB rating is 3.1, but despite all my negative comments I think they’re a little bit harsh on the poor flick: it was entertaining after all!

First, let’s go through some basic physics. A black hole is a point in space where the gravitational field is so dense that nothing can escape it. Not even electromagnetic radiation such as light. So far so good – the movie described black holes pretty well, and even fit in a nice comment about why they’re called black holes. (Hint: see the previous sentence.) But then things got worse. Let’s see if I can offer a brief synopsis of the movie.

An experiment in a particle accelerator in St. Louis results in the unfortunate creation of a microscopic black hole. From this black hole, an energy-eating creature emerges and starts to gobble up all our precious electricity. Meanwhile, the black hole starts to consume first the research facility, and then most of the city. For no apparent reason the President decides that a nuclear strike will make things better, despite what an expert on black holes says. Aforementioned expert presents his theory that the energy creature is connected to the black hole, and that if the creature is sent back through the hole, both of them will disappear. After some difficulty this is exactly what’s done…and all ends well.

Oookay. Now… Let’s see where to begin.

The movie mentions that in 1999 scientists foolishly disregarded the possibility of a black hole’s creation. This refers to the disaster scenarios presented before building the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, in which they summarize the threat with the following comment:

We conclude that there are no credible mechanisms for catastrophic scenarios at RHIC

Those foolish scientists! Don’t they see the dangers of microscopic black holes, prophecied by the movie?! Well, no. As far as I know, black holes aren’t stable while they’re small; it’s speculated that they leak Hawking radiation, and if the black hole is smaller than, say, a great mountain chances are it will evaporate with time.

Then we have the small detail of the energy creature emerging from the black hole. Dude. The movie’s plot would be completely acceptable if it just contained the black hole! It would have been a more decent disaster movie, and it wouldn’t have flaunted its ignorance like it does now. Why not leave it at a black hole? Why invent an energy creature that shouldn’t be able to travel through black holes (since…well…nothing escapes)? And why invent some story about closing the hole by shoving the creature back through it. What the hell? If we accept the idea that the creature consists of some Mystical Energy(TM) that’s unknown to us, and that the presence of that energy can neutralize the gravity field of a black hole, then why in the lower blazes didn’t the black hole get neutralized when the creature passed through the first time? I could have accepted some strange speculation about Mystical Energy, and how the creation of a black hole results in the creation of this Mystical Energy Creature and it’s gravity-neutralizing effects…but the scientist in the movie mentions how the creature travels through black holes to new parts of time and space in order to eat more energy.

(But of course, if we start to accept Mystical Energy creatures, we must start to accept other strange possibilities. Like, maybe they can be Mystically Positive or Mystically Negative, and when they’re positive they can generate black holes, and when they’re negative they close them. The act of travelling through the hole would then cause the Mystical Energy creature to switch polarity. So… Let’s just disregard the whole Mystical Energy idea completely.)

Watching The Black Hole is a little surreal. It not only contains (*cough*) questionable science, but the acting, the script, and the rest of the movie makes just as little sense. Why would anyone suggest deploying nuclear weapons against a black hole? What would they hope to achieve? I would assume that even a little kid knows what a black hole is – not to mention the President of the USA and his generals!

Still, despite all its bad points, the movie was strangely amusing and entertaining. And it does bring up some interesting things: the script writers were familiar with the debate about the RHIC, and when they designed a creature they chose an energy being…which is the only reasonable choice, since all matter would have gotten torn apart by the gravity of the black hole. Sure, energy can’t escape either, but given the choice between “look, a warrior serpent emerged intact from the black hole” and “look, a weird energy life form emerged” I choose the latter. Still, it would have been nice if the script writers had chosen a subject closer at hand. This is the dangers of possessing just a little knowledge: if you don’t know anything about a subject you probably wouldn’t take the task upon you, but if you have a little knowledge you arrogantly believe that you know enough to get the work done.

(Disclaimer: I’m a programmer, not a physicist. Nothing said above is guaranteed to contain a shred of truth. I hope the irony is quite visible for everyone.)

Stop Making Cool Movies (You Bastards)

October 18th, 2007

Here I am, sunburned and relaxed after a week of sun and White Russians on the magnificent island of Crete, and I’ve just come back home prepared to do some serious work. My day job features interesting problems to dig into (well, sort of at least), and my upcoming game Truth, Justice and Spandex is starting to look less awful every day. Not to mention that my new flat needs to be put into order. So there’s definitely things to do. Given all the things I should concentrate on, why oh why is Hollywood (and that ilk) starting to churn out interesting movies and TV series right now?

Granted, House isn’t exactly new but I haven’t gotten hooked on it until now. And hooked I am; I’ve watched 23 episodes, and I’ve started getting chills at the prospect of running out of episodes to devour soon. Trivia of the day: I know that I recognized the name Hugh Laurie (Greg House) from somewhere, but the realization didn’t strike me until I’d watched a few episodes… Hugh Laurie was in Blackadder as well! My dog, he’s absolutely brilliant at portraying different types of characters; not in the least due to his excellent adoption of an American accent. (Trivia number two: during the casting of House producer Bryan Singer didn’t know that Hugh Laurie was British and held his accent as an example of how a good American accent should sound.)

House is one thing that’s stealing away my spare time right now…but I fear that there’s even more! Let me ask you one thing: what’s with all the cool movies coming out recently or soonish? I’m not talking about good movies per se; I mean the cool ones you like to watch after you’ve had a beer and feel like some light entertainment. The ones with supernatural/fantasy/sci-fi elements that are instantly appealing to geeks and nerds. Let’s see what’s out right now:

The King of Kong
Dead or Alive
Resident Evil: Extinction

Okay, Transformers actually was good and I have high hopes for Stardust as well. But the rest fit in with the light/geek genre. That’s 10 hours worth of movies that I’ll just have to see! But the fun doesn’t stop there… I had a quick look at Apple’s trailers, and check this out:

The Dark Knight – More Batman goodness!
Iron Man – Jesus tapdancing Christ, it looks cheesy…but cool!
Beowulf – Mmm… Fantasy… Old fantasy…
Dragon Wars – Mmm.. Fantasy… New fantasy…
Hitman – Never played the game, but it looks pretty spiffy.
Underdog – This is just so awesome!
Enchanted – Some fantasy or other.
The Golden Compass – More fantasy.
The Water Horse – Bloody hell, even more fantasy.

How am I going to have time to do some work? Or read books? Or play Guitar Hero?

Did I miss any good movies? Let me know so that I can procrastinate even more.

Comics, Movies, Frank Miller, 300 and Thermopylae

April 11th, 2007

I just have to get it out of my system: I love 300! You know, the gory movie about the Spartans who stood up to the Persian empire, based on a comic by Frank Miller. I’ve seen the movie twice so far – once as a DVD rip (Shhh! Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and yesterday I saw it again at the movies. While I love it, the other geeks I saw it with were divided: some thought it was a beautiful action flick, and some were quite disappointed. Personally I’m not sure why I love it; given my loathing for Kill Bill and similar action-only movies I really shouldn’t approve of this two-dimensional fantastical portrait of a slaughter. Induction really isn’t applicable in real life, it seems.

But what differs between Kill Bill and 300? Why do I approve of the latter but not the former. Well, one obvious thing is aesthetics. Kill Bill is essentially a mix of a gangster flick and a samurai flick (or something like that), while there’s no missing the fact that 300 is an animated comic. Every detail in the movie breathes comics – from the way they almost exclusively utilized blue/green screens rather than real environments, to the over-the-top one-liner-based dialogue. Not to mention the constant posing. I think this is a prime example of how cliches can be used to create something grand – and probably grander than what would have been created with more restraint. Movie critics apparently aren’t too fond of the movie, and that’s understandable: I would hazard a guess that the movie’s simplistic script and cliches are poison to a reviewer schooled in film theory. Maybe it takes a layman to appreciate this kind of entertainment; after all, it has performed marvellously at the box offices.

Another thing that struck me is that Kill Bill is the story of one person, compared to – say – 300 persons. 300 persons fighting for a greater cause than their personal revenge. The epic quality of 300 is most definitely something that appeals to me much more than the down-to-earth feeling of Kill Bill: there’s no sense of greater cause in the latter. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the Spartans are doomed from the very beginning; I have a very nasty addiction to tragedy, and people giving up their lives almost always send shivers up my spine. I’m quite aware that my Goth tendencies are at fault, but I prefer it that way, thank you!

A third thing that separates Kill Bill and 300 is the gender of the protagonists. Male chauvinist pig that I am, I probably have a bias against female warriors. Or – more realistically – I probably can’t identify with Kill Bill’s main character in the same way that I can identify with Leonidas of Sparta. And to tie things up with the previous paragraph: I also find it easier to identify with the driving force of the Spartans than with whatever-she’s-called in Kill Bill. Epic sacrifice is much more appealing than personal revenge.

Okay, I’ve established some of my reasons for liking 300. But there’s more. For instance, the movie is extremely – and I mean extremely – close to the original comic, visually. This worked wonders in Sin City, just as it does in this movie. I also love tiny details like how Thermopylae is translated into Hot Gates. It makes sense – since they are speaking English it makes sense to translate the names of the places as well. It’s especially effective in this case, since Hot Gates has an undertone of Hell that – probably – wouldn’t have been very obvious if the Greek name was kept. Speaking of original Greek names, I had to refresh my memory on the battle of Thermopylae after seeing this movie, and I might as well sum up some important things I noted. All so that you don’t have to bother with it.

  • The Spartans didn’t face Xerxes with only Arcadians at their side. Rather, there were also 400 Corinthians, 1,000 Phocians, and many many more. In total, the estimate lies at 7,000 people holding Thermopylae against the Persians.
  • The Persians supposedly numbered millions, but modern estimates suggest “just” 200,000 land-based troops.
  • In the movie there’s a lot of talk of Sparta’s freedom against Persia’s slavery. I think they forgot to mention the fact that the Helots were slaves to Sparta, and 1,000 Helots were with the Spartans at Thermopylae.
  • The oracle’s prophecy isn’t elaborated upon in the film, but according to Herodotus the original prophecy was that Sparta will be destroyed unless one of their two (yes, two) kings give up his life. It’s speculated that this is a reason why Leonidas decided to stand at Thermopylae.
  • And much much more. This is all rather fascinating, actually, but I can’t be arsed to write more.

Finally, I just have to mention two things:

  1. If you haven’t seen 300 yet, do it!
  2. And… Since 300 and Sin City were successfull, please please please please God let them make a properly dark and gruesome version of Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as well!