Programming Goofs: ACCESS
Okay, producers. We get it: watching people type on computers is really boring. But do you have to create drama from the words on the screens?
Here’s a common Hollywood scenario: a hacker is desperately trying to hack into the mainframe. The screen is filled with a big red sign saying ACCESS DENIED.
Suddenly it works – and an equally huge green sign saying ACCESS GRANTED.
Just like your Gmail account does. Worst offender? Jurassic Park, when the characters are trying to get into the computer system. Another computer-related issue occurs in Bridget Jones’ Diary, where emails are seen appearing on the recipient’s screen as they are typed, one letter at a time. Riiiiight.
Magical Enhance Button
In the television world, there is almost always a magical enhance button. Shows like CSI and Law and Order seem to zoom in to see a pimple on someone’s forehead – and somehow everything remains perfectly clear at that resolution.
Worst offenders? Blade Runner – where Decker zooms in on a reflection in a cabinet door and recreates a face – and Enemy of the State, where they manage to rotate the image in 3D.
Databases with amazing interfaces
Anyone who has worked with databases can tell that sometimes, the interfaces are incredibly ugly and difficult to manipulate. But in television and movies, there is almost always a pretty screen screaming IT’S A MATCH, after rifling through all the possibilities in about ten seconds. No matter what sort of clue the Crime Scene lab has found – even if it’s a size eleven shoeprint -- somebody has manufactured a database designed to search through them all. Not only that, our heroes at the crime lab have purchased a copy of this software, the interface devices to input the data in question and have acquired the expertise to use this software with amazing accuracy on the first attempt. Come on! In real life, data mining takes an achingly long time and inevitably involves trying to get different programs or servers to talk to one another. Worst offenders? Procedural crime shows. All of them.
Things that Go Beep! In the Night
In television and movies, computer sure are loud. When someone gets tracked with GPS, there’s a specific beep! that notifies the watchers. Every single time a query is launched, a graph shown, the action is accompanied by all sort of beeps and chimes. Now I have been using all sort of computers, but I haven't heard any beeping like that since the time of DOS-based videogames where sounds came out of the PC speaker. It’s almost as if people think that computers aren’t functioning unless they’re constantly emitting noise. Fortunately, one of the best things about computers is that they are generally quiet (with the exception of fans and hard drives). Worst offenders? Ziggy, Al’s computer from Quantum Leap, and the new Knight Rider KITT.
Physics Mistakes: Sound in Space
From pew-pew to pow-pow to kaboom when the Death Star blows up, space is a noisy place. Unfortunately, Hollywood has to bend the rules of physics to make it so, because there’s no sound in space. Sound is a wave, and air molecules have to propogate the sound wave from its source to your ear. The same thing happens when you hear sounds underwater or through walls (liquids and solid propagate the sound waves as well). However, in the vacuum of space, there are no molecules to propagate sound waves and you don't hear anything.
Weird fact: The distinctive sound made by the TIE fighters in Star Wars is the bellow of an elephant mixed with a car driving on a wet road.
Worst offenders? Battlestar Galactica’s writers decided sound would be muffled in space, which is a bit of a cop-out. Star Wars has TWO Death Star explosions. Pretty much every movie breaks this rule.
Physics Mistakes: Bullets
When you’re shot by a bullet, you don’t actually get knocked backwards. You simply crumple on the ground. Hollywood wants us to associate guns with tremendous physical power – it’s as if being shot is akin to being punched hard, or shoved. A bullet is a streamlined, hard object which focuses a large amount of kinetic energy onto a small area, but has relatively little momentum due to its small size in comparison to a human, meaning it has little ability to drive an object back. A boxer's fist, on the other hand, has far more momentum and a much broader contact area. The much higher pressure will cause the bullet to impart massive stress to a tiny area, causing it to penetrate rather than shove backwards; conversely, you are unlikely to see a boxer put his fist through his opponent's torso because of the very low pressure caused by the large contact area. High-powered rifles just make the bullet still more likely to go through the target rather than be stopped and have to shove it back. Still, if someone is wearing body armor they might bounce backwards a bit.
Oh, and bullets don’t make a bright light when they’re fired.
Worst offenders: Terminator movies. John Woo films.
Physics Mistakes: Fire
Lighting puddles of gasoline with cigarettes in movies is a common device. The character takes a few puffs and tosses the glowing cigarette in the puddle. Immediately, the gasoline ignites. One group who has experimented with this phenomenon poured gasoline into a pie pan and flicked a cigarette into it. The cigarette paper wicked up gasoline and quenched the glowing tip without igniting anything. Even after soaking paper towels in the gas and puffing air onto the flames, there was still no flaming explosion. After about 200 tries, this group gave up.
Worst offenders: Breaking Bad this season, when Walt dropped a lit cigarette into a trail of gasoline to blow up a car. Plus every action movie ever.
Physics Mistakes: Slow-Moving Lasers
Laser sights on guns show up immediately, so shouldn’t laser weapons do the same? Yep, according to the laws of physics. Laser beams move at the speed of light – so there should never be a slow-moving laser.
Weird fact: There are also electrolasers under development, which ionize the air so that electric current can be sent along the beam's path. Ironically, all of these characteristics make lasers far more effective as weapons than their portrayal in most fiction, which is in fact the main reason that the military is developing them in the first place. It's also probably the main reason we're not likely to see realistic laser weapons in children's shows.
Worst offenders: Austin Powers
Physics Mistakes: Invisible Force Field
So, as we figured out in the previous page, lasers are visible light. Anything that stops visible light will stop them – anything visible light can pass through, they can pass through. So how on Earth do they get stopped by invisible fields?
Worst offenders: Star Wars. Over and over.
Replace Your DNA
The bad guys need a way to escape detection, so they decide to have risky gene therapy to replace their DNA and change their looks. Of course, in real life you cannot replace your DNA. It’s in all your cells and is what makes you you. It is considerably more ridiculous than having a brain transplant, which is very ridiculous indeed.
Worst offender: 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day
Clones with Genetic Memory
Okay, so clones do exist, and Hollywood takes certain liberties with scientific and technological facts. But clones with flashbacks to memories their original parent had? That’s not real. In movies like Alien: Resurrection and TV shows like Jeckyll, the clone is able to access memories and abilities from its ancestor. This usually involves sudden flashbacks or amazing abilities that are far beyond the clone's experiences and training. It also means that the clone doesn't have to go through things like English lessons, driving lessons, or martial arts training. In reality, genetic memory is junk science. There's absolutely no scientific evidence that any living organism can store its experiences in its genetic code and pass it on to its offspring. The problem is that memories are stored in the brain, not the DNA.
Rapidly Dying Clones
One of the most common and scientifically inaccurate cliches in sci-fi cloning is that, once created, they degrade quickly. Clones in movies (like Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis) suffer the same fate as a wet cookie: they fall apart quickly over time. This is usually explained by some flaw in the cloning process. This allows them to get rid of the clone quickly, so things can go back to normal. Once again, we go back to the fundamental fact of cloning: a clone is a twin. When twins are born in the real world, there's no threat of them suddenly falling apart. Although Dolly the cloned sheep did suffer from some premature aging, it's not the same thing as dying early.
In the closing moments of Independence Day Earth is losing badly, despite our freedom fighters having very nice hair and swaggering a great deal. Earth needs more than good hair and sexy flight suits to get us through this one. The answer comes in the form of a virus that Jeff Goldblum simply unloads on the alien mother ship’s computer system. Moments later the war is over. The problem? Viruses created for PCs don’t work for Macs, much less for a binary or trinary computing system. Even if he could write such a virus, he wouldn’t be able to transmit it with such ease.
In addition to the immense font used for "Access Denied" messages, most computer screens in the movies feature BIG, easily readable text. In real life, users often suffer under tiny text and websites that add insult to injury by not letting users resize the words. Large text is an obvious concession to the viewing experience: moviegoers must be able to see what's on the screen. Still, enlarging the information that much makes for an unrealistic user interface.
Worst offenders: all screens, from cars to computers to cell phones. No squinting involved.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, James Bond drives his BMW from the back seat with an Ericsson mobile phone that works as the car's remote control. And 007 drives fast, while also evading bad guys. In practice, there's a reason we use steering wheels to drive cars instead of joysticks, touchpads, or push-buttons. The steering wheel is an excellent input device for fast and accurate specification of directionality.
Many other films feature other types of remote control, which always work with high speed and accuracy despite input devices that are suboptimal for the task. Designing good input devices is a tricky human factors problem, and you can't substitute devices willy-nilly and retain the same performance. A foot pedal, for example, is not as good as a mouse for text editing, because you can't move your legs as accurately as your hands and fingers.
Everyone Knows Every Language
In the film Jurassic Park, a 12-year-old girl has to use the park's security system to keep everyone from being eaten by dinosaurs. She walks up to the control terminal and utters the immortal words, "This is a Unix system. I know this." And proceeds to save the day – for a short time. Leaving aside the plausibility of a 12-year-old knowing Unix, simply knowing Unix is not enough to immediately use any application running on the system. Yes, she could probably have used vi on the security terminal. But the specialized security system would have required some learning time — significant learning time if it were built on Unix, which has notoriously inconsistent user interface design and thus makes it harder to transfer skills from one application to the next.