Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Outland Friday!

On Friday, I had some friends over at Дома Джейсон to play some video games and watch movies. We ended up watching Outland, a sci-fi film directed by Peter Hyams from 1981.  The film is about a federal marshal, played by Sean Connery who is assigned to provide law and order to a titanium mining facility on Io.  During his first few days there, he uncovers a series of mysterious deaths at the site that turns out to be connected to a meth smuggling ring.  The drugs are used to keep the workers productivity high, but have the side-affect of causing psychosis after 10-11 months of use.  What follows is a High Noon-esque set piece as the mine's administrator, played by Peter Boyle, uses hired goons to take out the marshal.

Now I have a confession to make.  I am not the biggest fan of sci-fi films.  I'm not.  I still haven't seen Avatar, and I likely never will (though actually that's because I don't like James Cameron, so bad example).  The main reason is that technical or scientific goofs pop out at me clear as day.  For example, in the latest Star Trek movie, when the Enterprise is rising out of Titan hazes to reveal Saturn in the background, I didn't think, "Wow, Titan is highlighted in a movie!  That's awesome!"  No, I thought about the fact you could clear see the rings of Saturn when they should be barely visible from Titan.  I normally don't like Star Trek.  Don't even get me started about movies like Armageddon (It's the size of Texas, seriously, what comet would be coming at us the size of Texas, and how did they keep such a thing a national secret for so long...) or The Core (the less thought about that stupid piece of non-sense, the better).  I prefer procedural shows like Law and Order and NCIS, espionage and counter-terrorism shows and movies like 24 and The Bourne Identity, or shows about mysterious islands...  In other words, topics I am a little more ignorant of where my brain won't start objecting to the content (though I also like historical epics, so go figure)

So on Friday night, I couldn't help myself, as we watched Outland, from pointing out many of the factual and scientific errors the movie made.  Now some of these are wrong because of knowledge we have gained in the 29 years since the movie premiered.  For example, the principal ore for the mine is titanium, which if you remember from my composition of Io post from a couple weeks ago, is only a minor constituent of Io's crust (or is modeled as one).  However, I will give them credit for not immediately going for the obvious sulfur, at the time considered the primary lava composition. 

However, I will not forgive what I see at right, which is just full of fail (I even paused the movie while we were watching it right here).  This screenshot taken from the movie of an establishing shot, shows the mining facility with Jupiter in the background.  First, why is Jupiter always shown so reddish?  Second, what is that on the right side of the image?  Yes, that!  That round moon between Jupiter and Io!  What moon is that?  Europa?  No, Europa's orbit is outside that of Io's.  Amalthea?  No, Amalthea is a bit smaller than that in Io's sky, and it certainly isn't round. Third, why can we see Jupiter's rings open?  See my complaint above about the Saturn scene in last summer's Star Trek.  Finally, why do the volcanoes in the distance erupt from distinct vents, strato-volcano shaped peaks?  Alright that last one I'll chalk up to knowledge gained since 1981, but still, the other non-sense was just aggravating.  And yes, that green-lit building on the right side of the facility is the mine's green house...how's you guess...

Out of the movies other errors (like how people are affected by exposure to a vacuum environment, seriously, people don't pop like balloons...), the other one that most bothered me was its depiction of Io's reduced gravitational field compared to Earth.  The facility itself had some sort of artificial gravity mechanism that allowed people to walk around and work under normal terrestrial gravity conditions.  It never explains how, but I am fine with that.  I don't need a sci-fi film to explain to me all the technology used in their vision of the future because the explanation will probably be goofed anyway.  In a couple of scenes, when O'Neil (the Marshal) is interrogating of drug smuggler in a jail cell and when he is walking around outside the station in order to get the drop on two of the hitman the administrator hires to kill the marshal.  In both cases, the lunar-like gravity of Io is depicted as being more akin to the "weightless" low gravity environments experienced by astronauts in low-Earth orbit.  For example, see the image at left.  The jail cells apparently did not have the artificial gravity the rest of the enjoys (as noted by the "No Artificial Gravity" signs), but the prisoner is floating there, in a space suit.  When the guy is later killed, his blood floats up, rather than down to ground.  So definitely in this case, the film makers equate no artificial gravity, back to the normal 1/6th G of the rest of Io, with no gravity at all...

I've always enjoyed Outland as a film as its plot does rely on science fiction tropes to drive the story, but still much of the science all wrong.  It does get a few things right about Io, like layered outcrops of old, stacked lava from inflated, compound flows.  However, the inaccuracies have been enough that here I am, actually posting a scientific criticism of a film online...  I'm feeling more and more like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory everyday...

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