The geology disaster movie review written by a geologist.

I just saw this:

Truthfully, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. In terms of the people-plot, it takes that usual disaster-movie cheesiness and ramps it up to a level that is painful but not quite true camp. So I could laugh at it, and so could my movie buddy, but most of the other people in the theater weren’t laughing. Kind of like Independence Day that way (unsurprisingly): you get the tired broken-divorced-family-reunited story, the stirringly-cheesetastic-speech-that-shows-goodness-prevails-over-greed bit, the necessary noble sacrifices (not just one, oh no). And the completely unnecessary, way over-the-top epilogue to show it’s a New World Of Great Hope. Those things were laughable but it kind of hurt, and not in that good-laughing-hurt sort of way, either. To give you some kind of perspective, this movie was waaaay more literal with the personal relationships and heavy-handed with the messages than The Day After Tomorrow, as Roland Emmerich movies go. Yeah, I know.

Before I get to the fun bits, this deserves a bit of social commentary. As my movie companion said on the way to the car, the disaster movie genre seems to exalt conservative values (and in a really exaggerated way), and by conservative I think he mostly meant racist: while this was a step up from Independence Day because we actually noticed some other countries exist (well, more than the token “About bloody time! What are they going to do?” line from some Brits in the desert), he pointed out that non-white-suburbanites were overall pretty shafted (“We’ll let the Chinese laborers die, but you have to save my white children!”). And I’ll add that the women in this movie were particularly helpless. At least Volcano and The Core have token women with agency (note: not Emmerich movies). We don’t even get tokens here: the women have children and puppies to protect, and they are plot devices that are pleasing to look at, but that’s it. It’s not like any of them go up the stairs to see what’s going on when the stepdad comes down to say, “You guys better come take a look at this.” They’re good at huddling with the children, though. And then there’s the whole reunite-the-divorced-parents bit, which… yeah.

But those things, though more exaggerated than in even most disaster movies these days, were all more or less expected. And aside from laughing at cheesily overdone Hollywood stories, frankly, the plot isn’t the reason I chose to drive out of my way to a big movie theater and pay $10 a ticket to sit for 2 1/2 hours eating popcorn for dinner last night. This movie was saved and made bearable purely by spectacular effects, hilariously bad science, and Woody Harrelson.

The video clip embedded at the top of the post, and the one I linked to that doesn’t embed (which is one of the higher res official trailer releases), should sufficiently capture the special effects part. There were awesome explosions, the literal sliding of continental crust into the ocean (what have we always been saying about California!), fantastic cracking and collapsing of parts of crust into bottomless pits, bridge collapses, stone building and monument collapses, glass building collapses, trains driving into insta-chasms, cement mixers and giant doughnuts rolling across streets, car chases (racing against the EARTH), RV chases with flaming fireballs, small plane fly-thrus, bigger plane fly-thrus and crashes, small- and big plane races against pyroclastic blasts (that were still pyroclastics in D.C. a few hours after Yellowstone erupted IN WYOMING PEOPLE), mega-cruise-ship roll-overs, tsunamis on the coasts, tsunamis in the Himalayas… I feel like I’m forgetting a few things. But there were a lot of things. And I’m leaving out most of Yellowstone because that goes in the science paragraph. Which is next. But the effects were so much fun that I felt like I should be on a simulator ride in Disney World with shaky seats and crappy seatbelts, even though this movie is 158 minutes long and I wouldn’t have been able to feel my legs anymore.

Okay, but this is a science blog (at least one in every 10 or 15 posts or so), and I feel I am not doing my readers or this masterful film justice if I don’t discuss the amazing science that went into its production and story. You see, all of this happens because of neutrinos. You may ask, “Volcanista, how is that possible?” And I would say, “It’s not.” But see, it’s possible if the planets in the solar system line up in a line, because their tides would then be SO STRONG that the SUN would go CRAZY. Really! It happens! In fact, it’s already starting. That SOLAR CRAZINESS causes big flares, or something, and those flares also put out NEUTRINOS. Which are super dangerous. Because they pass right through matter and have no mass, so they can’t touch anything or really affect anything in any way, and we have to build underground tanks the size of small towns just to detect that they even exist. That’s why they’re so dangerous. Because when they mutate into NEW ATOMIC PARTICLES THAT DON’T EXIST because the SUN IS CRAZY, they can make water boil, which is just nuts, and then the EARTH’S TECTONIC PLATES MIGHT BEGIN SHIFTING. Extra fast!!

Well. We all know that’s trouble. It makes massive cracks and chasms, plates drop off into the ocean, other plates just pop up to make new highlands, and all the volcanoes go off at once. Since Yellowstone is apparently the biggest most dangerous volcano on Earth (where did people get this idea?? Is it all the Discovery Channel specials?), that’s bad news. I mean, that volcano put out enough ash for ashfall to be detected as far east as… the Mississippi! Which is almost all the way to D.C., so it totally makes sense that a MEGA SUPERVOLCANO ERUPTION will blast DC with a pyroclastic cloud that will knock over stuff like whoa.

I did enjoy the eruption itself. It was quite a nice 3-ring blast (oo, like a binder!), and they managed to throw in some real volcanic plume-type structures, briefly (like some nice rooster tails) before they went totally nuts blowing stuff up. I’m not entirely sure how volcanic bombs the size of houses can have trees on them, or (alternatively) how house-sized chunks of crust hurled out of a volcanic crater can be glowing with hot lava action, but that was there, and it made for some exciting volcanic bomb-dodging action (which is two kinds of action!). (Obviously they haven’t watched Volcano. The correct way to dodge a bomb is clearly outlined by Anne Heche in that quality film. First you need to determine WHERE IT WILL LAND, and THEN you move! Volcanologists are trained to know this.)

So there was some seriously and literally hot science in this movie. And there were some fantastic, dramatic lines about how the tectonic plates have begun shifting O NOEZ. I was very excited.

And now I’ve seen it, so you don’t have to.

Excellent reviews also available from Slate and Roger Ebert.

8 Responses

  1. My favorite bit of Anne Heche Volcanology Wisdom Awesome from Volcano was that lava will tend to flow, wait for it, in a downhill sort of direction. I’m still parsing the implications.

  2. This is true until it hits the end of a subway tunnel, at which point it can destroy your video camera and shoot up out of the ground!

  3. […] happen so quickly which as a geology major (in another life time) I found annoying.  There is a review by a real geologist here and another good one by the folks at the Slate Magazine.    My hope from the movie is that when […]

  4. I have a science undergrad and have taken a few geography/geology courses. Oh, and I’m not an idiot. The special effects were fun in the sit back and eat popcorn way. I’ve since spent more time talking about the movie trying to figure out how on earth things worked out the way they told/showed us they did.

    Like, if these new super neutrinos could boil water inside the earth’s crust and super heat the core why didn’t they just boil us humans/animals from the inside out as well. We’re mostly water.

    Or the fact that the ash clouds from the volcanic eruptions would have still been in the atmosphere 27 days after the disaster and yet in the last scene things are free and clear.

    How on earth did a tsunami get into the highest point of the himalayas? If the plate shifted/tilted that much, why didn’t its impact the monk or the people in the arks. Gravity still exists regardless of the orientation of a plate, so people should have been impacted.

    And if plates were tilting up/down like the movie implied, wouldn’t there have been giant trenches (think mid-atlantic trench only instantaneously) that opened up. Meaning that water would have poured in and vapourized. So would the entire world have been covered in tsunamis?

    I guess in my case the utter lack of science (or for that matter cohesive logic) made it impossible to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the explosions.

  5. Jana, this is a post about enjoying bad movies because they’re bad movies. Many people do not like bad movies, so this post is not really for them.

  6. Sometimes I wonder whether Emmerich takes all his business the least bit serious. I mean, he brings lots of things to ridiculous extremes, including this apparent American patriotism thing (as already seen in “Independence Day”), in such a shameless manner that I think he must be ironic about it. Let’s not forget the guy’s of German origin after all, like myself, so I might surmise I look a bit into that psychology. But yes, that film is so totally packed with junk that it’s actually great fun to see it. AND the special effects ARE well done, they’ve been performed with the latest hi-tech available so you won’t feel there’s been too little of it. It’s really, really the complete full spectrum of whatever disatrous geological event may (but most likely will not) happen, shown in remarkably realistic detail.
    Certainly you don’t have to ask what about Yellowstone’s tephra and aerosol plume and where it’s ended up at the end of the movie, and what about global cooling and all. You don’t have to ponder why the gigantic chasms opening in poor disintegrating California seem to reach all the way down into the Upper Mantle but we don’t see any decompression of the material there (like, transforming from hot, but solid rock into fluid magma due to the removal of the overlying lithostatic pressure). And let’s not wonder how realistic those burning chunks of rock are that we see flying through the air, like a good decade ago in “Dante’s Peak” – look at it, they’re exactly flaming, like combustible material, which is not what you’d find in great amounts in any active volcano on this planet.

    What left me somewhat without words is that after all is over and our modern Noah’s Ark is getting the first hi-res satellite imagery of what has become of Earth (good thing the technology is still working after all), it is discovered that Africa, out of all places, has survived virtually unscathed. So what else is there to do than become modern pioneers and settle in Africa. No word that there are some people living in that place, and that it also has a few little social and other problems. Africa is the future. I wonder whether that has to be taken as encouragement or the contrary.

  7. hi,
    If fissures were opening up all over the American continent, wouldnt that have reduced the chance of yellowstone erupting ie magma moving into the fissures?

    Wouldnt we have seen many tsunamis earlier than the 2 ridiculously impossible ones towards the end?
    And wouldnt it take a very long time 10,000 – 100,000s (more) years for the earth to cool down and crust to resettle?

    I think someone just wanted to make the biggest special effects earth destruction movie that could possibly ever be made. It was, frankly, stupid

  8. Folks, if you don’t like bad disaster movies, I’m not sure why you’re reading this post and commenting on it.

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