Hollywood Science & Disaster Cinema
Hollywood Science & Disaster Cinema
To some extent, all fiction attempts to bend factual truths in the service of the narrative. In some cases, this is done for purposes of pure function, such as heightening the stakes of narrative or preventing the dramatic momentum from grinding to a complete halt. In other cases, it is done to express a particular authorial viewpoint – perhaps a political perspective or an observation about society – which is more often than not, contingent on the thematic integrity of the narrative.
In the case of cinematic fiction, Hollywood has always had a special affinity for a liberal interpretation of the truth. In the 90s disaster classic, Armageddon, screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and J. J. Abrams presuppose that it is impossible to communicate drilling experience to well-trained astronauts in order to justify sending up an oil rig crew with no astronautical experience to save the world by dropping hydrogen bombs into a geologic mass the size of Texas – which is roughly analogous to trying to split an apple with a needle.
The 2003 film, The Core operates from a complete non-premise in which an inactive magnetic field puts Earth at risk from incineration by space-based microwaves – which more accurately, pose no threat and are affected little by magnetic forces let alone the Earth’s magnetic field. One could say that Hollywood does not merely bend the truth. Rather, truth is made to stretch, contort and mold itself into incredulous shapes as if it were so much Play-Doh.
The film The Day After Tomorrow, which had been marketed heavily as an ostensibly cautionary tale about the potential perils of climate change, is certainly no exception to this Hollywood tradition. Directed by German-born Roland Emmerich, the apocalypse porn auteur of such films as Independence Day and Godzilla decides to unleash his cathartic urges on a larger, planetary scale (with New York remaining his primary canvas of destruction).
The Day After Tomorrow focuses on one paleoclimatologist – an eight-syllable term for ‘guy who studies prehistoric weather conditions’ – and his futile attempts to convince world leaders of the disastrous implications of climate change. While many of the scientific premises he puts forth are true, it is when they reach their tipping point and send the Earth into an Ice Age far sooner than he had predicted that the film enters the realm of fantasy. At the very least, The Day After Tomorrow does the honorable thing to scientists and tries not to make them look like idiots to viewers who know a thing or two about science.
Jack Hall, the aforementioned paleoclimatologist played by Dennis Quaid, maintains a coherent view of science that is above par for most Hollywood scientists. He articulates the film’s core premise, which is that melting polar ice will have a negative effect on the Gulf Stream that will severely disrupt the natural thermal flows causing severe weather changes. However, he projects that this will happen over the course of decades or centuries. Therefore, the mechanics of climate change articulated by Hall are sound.
(Duke University, 2004; McKibben, 2004) It is the rate at which climate change occurs within the film that is unrealistic, as well as the near-mystical forecasting abilities of Hall’s computer simulations. The notion that no one other than Hall can transplant present day meteorological data, as gathered by his colleague Terry Rapson, played by Ian Holm, and his co-workers at the Hedland Climate Center, into a paleoclimatological scenario is utterly discombobulating, as if to suggest they are the only experts who could foresee this.
To screenwriters’ Jerry Rachmanoff and Roland Emmerich credit, they remain fully aware of the level to which they have exaggerated these matters. The climate tipping point sends the Global North into a series of weather disasters: Tornados wreak havoc on the Hollywood sign (as if to foreshadow the film’s ultimate rejection of a Hollywood ending solution), hurricanes sending automobiles flying all over Los Angeles, and sub-zero temperatures freezing airborne helicopters over Scotland.
All the while, the hero-scientists, such as hurricane specialist Janet Tokada, point out plainly how nigh-impossible this accelerated pace of disaster is. It’s almost as if their secondary role was to remind viewers that these are all the exaggerations of fictional conceit. Unlike The Core, The Day After Tomorrow does not disrespect the professional integrity of the science professions by presenting a fabricated non-problem. Furthermore, The Day After Tomorrow does not propose that blue-collar derring do, when equipped with enough magical high technology can combine to form the “silver bullet” solutions which undo everything.
However, by presenting the climate change problem on such incredulous terms, The Day After Tomorrow risks undermining the very message it is attempting to get across, despite the fact that it has the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director telling a dismissive Vice President who vaguely resembles Dick Cheney, that if policy makers “had listened to the scientists, you would have had a different policy to begin with! ”
While popular culture may have a limited influence on policy making, it most definitely affects popular perceptions of key issues such as nuclear weaponry and bioterrorism. (Schollmeyer, 2005) The filmmakers of The Day After Tomorrow have often stated that one of their goals to draw increased attention and spur greater action towards addressing the threats of climate change. However, because many scientists on both sides of the climate change debate have taken issue with the scientific accuracy of the events depicted in the film, it risks muddying this goal further.
This means that The Day After Tomorrow’s lack of scientific accuracy makes it easier for climate change skeptics to continue to dismiss the threat of climate change by suggesting that the film is built on the foundations of propagandist and alarmist science, while the climate change Cassandras will remains Cassandras as they become forced to debunk a film that represents their own concerns. REFERENCES McKibben, B. (2004, May 4) “The Big Picture. ” Grist. Retrieved online on December 6, 2008 from: http://www.
grist. org/comments/soapbox/2004/05/04/mckibben-climate/ Duke University (2004, May 13). “Disaster Flick Exaggerates Speed Of Ice Age. ” ScienceDaily. Retrieved online on December 6, 2008, from: http://www. sciencedaily. com¬ /releases/2004/05/040512044611. htm Schollmeyer, J. (2005, May-June) “Lights, camera, Armageddon. ” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, volume 61. Retrieved online on December 6, 2008 from: http://www. illinoiswaters. net/heartland/phpBB2/viewtopic. php? t=9007