Explainer: The accuracy of 10 disaster flicks

  • 20Th Century Fox

    Film director M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" terrified movie audiences with the tale of a mysterious toxin that causes loss of speech, physical disorientation and death. But if anyone is worried that plants will suddenly evolve a defense mechanism that allows them to communicate with each other and target despoilers of the environment, biologists say you can rest easy. "The Happening" is just one example showing how science can be twisted for the sake of a story well told. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn how science fared in nine other disaster movies.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • 1974: 'Earthquake' shakes audiences

    Universal Pictures

    Movie fans who flocked to see Los Angeles destroyed in 1974's "Earthquake" got to feel the temblor themselves. Theaters were equipped with giant speakers that pumped out sound waves designed to give viewers a sensation of being in the disaster. According to critics, the special effect was a moderate success. And the quake scenes earned some respect from geologists as well. The film's faults include the notion that earthquakes can be predicted 24 hours in advance — they can't. And when earthquakes strike, they shake violently for a few minutes at most, not nine minutes as depicted on the big screen.

  • 1995: 'Outbreak' virus-stopper unlikely

    Warner Bros.

    In "Outbreak," an escaped African monkey unleashes a deadly, Ebola-style virus in a northern California town, and scientists race to contain the rapid spread. The plot thickens when a covert plan is uncovered to firebomb the town to keep the wraps on a secretly developed serum to fight an earlier version of the virus in Africa. This serum works on the monkey, but not people who are infected with the new mutant strain. The scientists in the movie hit on the idea that if they captured the monkey, they could obtain the new antibodies and save the world. In real life, experts say, transferring the monkey's antibodies to humans is unlikely to work.

  • 1996: 'Twister' adds new spin to tornado science

    Warner Bros.

    The National Severe Storms Laboratory proudly notes that "Twister" is based on their 1980s attempt to put a 55-gallon drum-sized instrument full of meteorological sensors — called TOTO — in the path of an oncoming tornado. In the movie, two competing teams of storm chasers race around to put their own storm-measuring contraptions in the path of deadly twisters. One is called Dorothy. In contrast with the movie's depiction, TOTO's instruments were not designed to fly up into a twister, and the contraption achieved only minimal success.

  • 1997: 'Dante's Peak' erupts with accuracy -- and faults

    Pacific Western

    Volcanologists consider "Dante's Peak" one of the most accurate scientific disaster movies to hit the big screen, despite a few glaring errors. The tale is inspired by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state and is driven by a debate between a town's safety and economic livelihood. The movie earned kudos for its accurate portrayal of the composite volcano eruption, but was also criticized for including fast-flowing lava. Composite volcanoes have thick, slow-moving lava that rebuilds volcano domes after major eruptions. Other faults in the film include overly acidic lake waters and an excessively large earthquake linked to the eruption.

  • 1998: 'Deep Impact' more realistic than 'Armageddon'

    In the year that Hollywood hurled a comet and asteroid at planet Earth, only the rocky snowball had a credible scientific spin. The comet movie, "Deep Impact," was particularly lauded for the depiction of the comet's energy and consequences of a direct hit. Astronomers took issue with characters who observed the night sky with their lights on and determined the comet's doomsday orbit from a single data point. "Armageddon," the asteroid movie, fared better at the box office but is considered far less scientifically accurate.

  • 2002: '28 Days Later' haunts psyche, not scientists

    In the haunting "28 Days Later," a bicycle courier wakes from a coma, alone, in a hospital bed in a nearly deserted London. Uncaged chimpanzees have liberated the "rage virus" that passes from person to person with a single drop of bodily fluid and rapidly transforms the infected into indiscriminate killers. While it's a frightening prospect, scientists say no virus can spread and produce such symptoms so quickly, and no virus causes disease in everyone it infects. Nevertheless, the film was a huge success and spawned a 2007 sequel, "28 Weeks Later."

  • 2003: 'The Core' attracts interest in Earth's magnetic field

    Paramount Pictures

    In "The Core," Earth's magnetic field rapidly deteriorates, and chaos ensues: Birds crash into buildings, the Golden Gate Bridge collapses, and lightning bolts zap city streets. All could get much worse unless "terranauts" journey to the depths of the planet and jump-start the core with a nuclear bomb. The premise of the movie is grounded in fact: Earth's magnetic field does fluctuate and even reverses every 100,000 years or so. But no human can withstand the crushing pressures 1,700 miles beneath the surface, and scientists say the movie exaggerates the importance of the magnetic field to daily life. Nevertheless, the flick did jack up interest in a controversial theory, published at the time of the movie's release, that says the core is powered by a natural nuclear reactor that could give out in as little as 100 years.

  • 2004: 'Day After Tomorrow' hypes climate science

    20th Century Fox via AP

    Hollywood's doomsday movie "The Day After Tomorrow" used a kernel of climate science to hype awareness about global warming two years before former Vice President Al Gore sobered audiences with "An Inconvenient Truth." Yes, Hollywood's tale is way over the top — but the ocean current that is halted in the movie to trigger the sudden freeze is slowing due to the rapid melt of Arctic ice, studies suggest. The current probably won't completely shut down, and it won't send a tsunami into the streets of New York. However, scientists do say that subtler and slower changes such as melting ice sheets, rising sea levels and stronger storms could wreak similarly catastrophic damage in the long run.

  • 2004: '10.5' causes scientists to guffaw


    Not all scientific disasters happen on the big screen, as illustrated by the implausibly devastating earthquake in the TV miniseries "10.5." The magnitude-10.5 earthquake that splits California in two is pure fiction, experts say, because the faults that underlie the state are too small. Lucy Jones, an earthquake expert at the U.S. Geological Survey, told The Associated Press that "the production is blatantly inconsistent with everything we know about earthquakes." No need to worry, for example, about the earth opening up in an earthquake as shown in this scene from the miniseries.


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