Movie Answers

by Deb on March 27, 2012


Sorry about the delay, we were without power for a couple of days last week, apparently a bird took out a whole transformer. The girls enjoyed the extra excuse to have takeaway 🙂 While I catch up and rearrange, here are last week’s answers in place of this week’s quiz.

1.    The Kessel Run is right up there with Daleks and stairs as one of the most well-known on-screen mistakes. Although it possibly has a logical reason behind it. The problem is that a parsec is a distance, not a time, so it’s like Han is saying he made the Kessel run in less than 30 kilometres. Huh?

parsec calculationA parsec is defined as the distance from the sun to a theoretical astronomical object with a parallax of one arc-second, which works out around 3.26 light years. In English, one of the earliest ways of measuring how far away stars are was to observe them then compare that to where they appear 6 months later, when the earth is on the other side of the sun.

Hold your finger up and look at it against a background with one eye, then close that and look with the other. Your finger will move compared to the distant background, this is called parallax. An arc-second is just a way of measuring angles. Unfortunately this really only works well for close stars because they have the biggest angles, but it has been used to calibrate other ways of working out how far away stars are.

As for Han, there is a possible way it makes sense, but I don’t know if Lucas had it in mind from the beginning or if it was a fix when people complained! One of the common problems in science fiction is the nature of hyper-space. Is it full of exotic energy currents? Does it have particles? What impact do massive objects such as stars in normal space have on it? In Lucas’ world, you can’t go directly from A to B in hyperspace but have to go around the disturbances caused by stars and black holes. So Han is boasting that between his skill in plotting the course and piloting and the ship’s ability to cut close to objects, he got the Kessel run down to less than 12 parsecs.

2.     Reconstructing dinosaurs from DNA is a fun idea to play with, but definitely no frogs please. Frogs are not some generalised primitive animal just because they are amphibians, they are specialists who’ve been adapting and evolving as long as everyone else on the planet. If you were going to ‘fill in the gaps’ with something, you would use bird DNA because they are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs.

Then there is the problem that DNA isn’t really a blueprint, it is more like an enormous computer program full of instructions saying ‘IF this THEN this.’  A lot of those IF conditions aren’t part of the DNA – they might come from other chemicals in the cell as epigenetic information or from outside the cell as something like temperature. This is how crocodiles determine sex. And genes work as networks, turning each other on and off in exquisite timing. Filling in the gaps is based on the idea that there is mapping between genes and body parts, as if ‘we’re missing the genes that form the mouth,’ but unfortunately that just isn’t how it works.

Say we somehow found complete DNA, would it work then? We can clone other animals. Unfortunately the baby is only half of the equation, there is also the mother or in this case egg to consider. Everything needed to build a baby dinosaur would need to be packed into the egg in exactly the right amounts. How much yolk did they need? What proteins were in it in what proportions? What about the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats? How about vitamin levels?  We could probably make a guess by analysing a wide range of bird and reptile eggs, but that’s a lifetime’s work right there. Then you need to examine the dinosaur pelvis to work out how large the eggs could be – that makes a difference too.

Surprisingly, finding DNA might turn out to be the easiest bit. In one of the most exciting findings in palaentology since we realised fossils aren’t cosmic jokes, dinosaur soft tissue has been found. This is making scientists re-think everything from the basics of how fossils are formed to what we should be looking for. It might not be as cool as cloning, but finding dinosaur parasites might tell us a lot more about how ecosystems work and it’s do-able now.


Gratuitous dinosaur reconstruction picture, courtesy of Killdevil.

3.     Independence Day is one of those films that could only be that bad on purpose, so I’ll just stick with one tiny detail. In the opening minutes as the enormous motherships advance on earth, they destroy the footprints left by astronauts in moon dust by shaking them. Unfortunately vibrations can’t travel through nothing, which is what exists in space (near enough). They need particles to bounce off each other to pass the movement on, otherwise known as sound. Which sadly means that TIE fighters are silent. Sorry.

4.     Ice Age 2 – yes and no. The idea of enormous lakes held back by ice plugs that melted and caused catastrophic floods is actually well known and accepted, although it wasn’t always. The story of how it was proposed, ridiculed and finally vindicated by a geologist called J Harlen Bretz is fascinating in its own right as it tells us a lot about how science is done.

He had the observations of the Channeled Scablands in Washington state to show what looked like flood formations. He had measured them to work out how much water had gone through there. But he hadn’t found where the water came from. Even though the heroic myth of science is all about observation of facts leading to breakthroughs, in reality we need mechanisms to be convincing. Science isn’t just interested in the what, it wants the how and why as well. These are the theories – the mechanisms and explanations – that make up scientific thought.

Eventually J.T. Pardee identified Lake Missoula, an enormous lake dammed by glacial ice. When the ice melted it flooded the channeled scablands and created Bretz’s landscape, just like the flood in Ice Age 2.

Frozen then melted animals, on the other hand, do not survive to chase you. At least not large complex ones – there are some microscopic animals and insects that do it. But those animals have special chemicals that control where and how their inner water freezes, protecting their cells. Most frozen animals die from the extreme cold, and freezing generally creates large ice crystals that damage cells. Several frozen mammoth carcasses have been found, but they are certainly not in good condition.


Photo courtesy of Matt Howry

5.     Animals, yeeeeeah, no. I’m not even going to complain about the obvious ‘animals don’t talk/walk/socialise with other species’ because it’s a movie. I get that. But can we have a nod to ecological relationships? I’m really tired of carnivores being evil or treated like immoral cannibals. They aren’t. They’re necessary and the world would be pretty unpleasant without them, probably overrun with starving rabbits or mice. Most of us are omnivores, and by the time they’re watching children’s movies kids have asked where meat comes from. I think they can deal with carnivores without treating them like murderers – what do they think of pet cats?

And how about a social relationship that approximates reality rather than a neat little nuclear family? Kids are fascinated with nature documentaries, do you really think they can’t cope with animals being a little bit like animals rather than a 1950s TV family? And yes, I know all about anthropomorphism and that they are really stories about people just being re-told in an interesting way. But stop and have a look at the way these pretend people are presented. Nuclear families, no divorce or single parents (except for the wicked step-mothers), Mummy and Daddy with two kids and a job.

And on a larger scale, look at the societies that are being represented. Bee Movie – worker bees are female. I’m reasonable, I’ll make a concession that it was a guy driving the film. But couldn’t we at least have had female pollen jocks? Why were all the minor bees male except for the Mum and the receptionist? Ice Age 3 – can you watch that female squirrel without shuddering? And once Ellie is taken out of the equation there are lots of males around to do all the protecting and actual rescuing. The hyaenas in Lion King played by African Americans? The list goes on and on.

The sad thing is that entertainment is capable of better. Think back to the dim dark past and remember Bambi. Dad was implied, he didn’t live with them. The young males raced as a herd. They fought over females. Bambi’s mother was killed. That is known as one of the classic tear-jerker moments of cinema, even 70 years after it was released. Interestingly the movie was panned by critics, but has more than justified itself since. Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s cinema could try that.

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