Hollywood’s Biggest Disaster Movies: Myths vs Facts

We love disaster movies, the bigger the disaster the better! However some movies take massive liberties with the science behind disasters while others are fairly scientifically accurate so let’s look at some of the best known.

San Andreas Tsunami
No no no no no. No. Just no.

San Andreas

The Dwayne Johnson blockbuster is a great popcorn film but there’s only really one thing in it that’s accurate and that is the earthquake in Nevada that leads to one in LA followed by another in San Francisco and the depictions of the aftershocks. When an earthquake happens on a fault line the tremor can cause ‘triggered earthquakes’ in other locations along the fault which are earthquakes of their own rather than being aftershocks; a good example being the 1906 earthquake which devastated San Francisco set off earthquakes in Oregon, Nevada and other locations. Many earthquake movies forget about aftershocks which are smaller tremors following a quake that can be just as fatal.

The massive earthquakes seen in the film are definitely not possible along the San Andreas Fault Line because of the way the tectonic plates move and the depth of the fault line. If you think back to GCSE geography you may remember that the earth is made up of ‘plates’, that the points where they move against each other is what leads to earthquakes and that there are different directions of movement. The plates along San Andreas move past each other in opposite directions which isn’t the type of fault that generates the most powerful quakes…don’t get us wrong, San Andreas can create very powerful magnitudes, but not that high. The way that the plates move also means that the giant fissures you generally see in disaster movies definitely wouldn’t happen here because that requires the plates to move away from each other.

San Andreas Earthquake
Absolutely happens, just not in California.

The devastation shown in the movie isn’t particularly likely either because most buildings now, especially skyscrapers, are designed to withstand earthquakes by swaying and moving with the tremors which means glass would shatter, buildings would crack but total collapses are unlikely. Older buildings are still prone to total collapse as we’ve seen from the earthquake in Italy this week which has nearly totally destroyed entire towns.

The last major problem with San Andreas is the tsunami as almost everything about it is wrong. A tsunami is caused by an earthquake at sea not inland where a plate moves upwards and therefore pushes the water above it upwards creating a surge of water that travels outwards until it hits and devastates the coast. The maximum height of a tsunami as it hits land will be around 100 feet because of complicated scientific formulas we won’t bore you with so a 300 foot high wave as shown in the film wouldn’t happen.

Trivia: The tsunami scene borrows very heavily from the South Korean disaster movie Tidal Wave.

Realistic Science Verdict: 1/5 bunsen burners

Impossible but looks ace!
Impossible but looks ace!

2012

Based around the ancient Mayan prophecy that the world would end in 2012, this disaster movie brought us plenty of spectacular effects as dormant volcanoes erupt, massive tsunamis tear through the Himalayas and California drops into the sea. Director Roland Emmerich is great at creating mass destruction movies like this one and the Independence Day movies but accuracy isn’t something that bothers him like in the image above where California breaks off and drops into the sea. Certain things are done well like Hawaii being turned into a range of active volcanoes and the little details like Yellowstone Park becoming hot at night but it mainly suffers from the same inaccuracies as San Andreas.

Trivia: One scene was intended to show Mecca being destroyed but it was scrapped over fears that a Fatwa would be issued against the production team.

Realistic Science Verdict: 2/5 bunsen burners just because it’s not intended to be remotely accurate.

Deep-Impact -comet

Deep Impact

The all star cast 1998 movie Deep Impact features an approaching meteor that will wipe out all life on earth and rather impressively, the science of it is actually fairly solid as NASA were involved in consulting on the film along with some of the world’s most noted experts on comets. There are quite a few nitpicks like the direction the tsunami travels from when it hits New York or that comets are actually dark instead of bright objects but these are artistic choices where the film wouldn’t look quite as good especially if you’re shooting a black object in space. Rather impressively the tsunami in the film features the water drawing back from the coast which wasn’t a widely known fact at the time as the film pre-dated the 2004 Tsunami which hit Thailand and led to the phenomenon being widely reported. While the effects have dated in this movie and one movie boss didn’t think it would be realistic to have a black President of the United States, Deep Impact still very much holds its own nearly 20 years on due to an amazing cast, a solid story and great accuracy.

Trivia: The only massive inaccuracy in the film is that when the tsunami hits New York the only buildings still visible over the water are the tops of The World Trade Centre towers. Ironically these were the first buildings to be destroyed in New York’s major catastrophe on September 11th 2001.

Realistic Science Verdict: 5/5 bunsen burners

You're not gonna believe this...
You’re not gonna believe this…

The Day After Tomorrow

Roland Emmerich appears on the list again for his earlier film which was released in 2004 so we can’t possibly expect the movie to be remotely accurate can we? Well bits of it are incredibly accurate. The effect of the shut down of the North Atlantic current would be seen over a period of ten years but for the sake of the movie Emmerich contracted it down to minutes to keep the action flowing and while he took liberties there’s a lot in the movie that’s dead on.

We can essentially split the movie into two parts – pre disaster and post disaster with everything post disaster being nonsense. The surge of water that hits New York is eerily similar to how that year’s tsunami occurred although the shots of characters outrunning the wave are ridiculous considering that the water would be travelling at over 500 miles per hour. By Emmerich’s own admission he simply took freakish weather events like tornados, hail storms and so on and just threw amped up version of them into the film to look visually impressive.

However in the pre-disaster section of the film the science is very much on point down to the talk that main character Jack Hall gives on climate change. In fact Jack Hall seems to be very loosely based on climate expert Professor Stefan Rahmstorf in that they work for the same organisation and both gave the same talk to the UN on the cooling of the North Atlantic current (the diagram shown in the movie is even the same one that Professor Rahmstorf used). The Professor even commented that was “quite impressed how well-informed about the science and politics of global climate change” scriptwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff was after they met and discussed the movie.

The collapse of the the Larsen B ice shelf shown at the beginning of the movie actually happened too in 2002 although the film’s production team say that the event was already in the script before it happened in real life. Hmmmmm.

While TDAT is a blockbuster action movie it raised awareness of climate charge in a large audience and much of the pre-release publicity concentrated on separating the fact from fiction while highlighting the very real threat of climate change and global warming.

Trivia: NASA refused to consult on the film for the shots involving the International Space Station after reading the script because the film was so far fetched and banned all staff from aiding the production.

Realistic Science Verdict: 4/5 bunsen burners because it was a well researched vehicle for a very serious message.

Sharknado

Sharknado

I can’t believe I’m about to seriously approach this.

  • Yes a water spout could suck up a shark.
  • Great White Sharks don’t travel in large packs, they usually travel alone so a quantity above 1 is unlikely to get sucked up.
  • The shark would probably die in the funnel because sharks need to move through water to breathe.
  • Great Whites rarely attack people anyway but them attacking people after being traumatised so massively is unlikely.

But then you all knew that anyway. Sharknado isn’t about being possible it’s about being ridiculous as possible which it succeeds in and in creating a fun film.

Trivia: 80’s star Steve Guttenberg turned down the lead role and regretted it when the movie became a huge hit. He did appear in Sharknado 4 though.

Realistic Science Verdict: 0/5 bunsen burners

Twister

Twister

Our last entrant is 1996’s movie about tornadoes featuring another all star line up of cast. Twister is a classic and 20 years later it still looks great but how does it fare when it comes to tornado science? A lot of the movie uses creative license where it shows blades of grass sticking out of telegraph poles but yet the characters seem immune to these miniature darts and there are an awful lot of factual errors. The terminology used throughout the movie is spot on and quite a lot of the tornado behaviour is realistic as tornadoes can change size dramatically in seconds and also change direction very suddenly with the massive tornado at the end of the film being eerily similar to the 2.3 mile wide 2013 El Reno tornado which killed 4 storm chasers and injured a weather channel team.

The most impressive part of the film’s adherence to science is possibly the system that is being used in the film to try and map the tornado – DOROTHY. While the name seems to be a play on The Wizard of Oz as there are a few references in the film, the name and device is based on TOTO, a project by the National Severe Storms Laboratory which attempted to use the same method but was unsuccessful.

It’s worth noting that there’s a major error in the film when a tornado drops down into a ditch – in reality tornadoes will move straight across them and not drop down, which is why people are advised to take cover in ditches if there is a tornado coming.

Trivia: The sound of the tornado was created by slowing down the moan of a camel.

Realistic Science Verdict: 3/5 bunsen burners

Volcano

Volcano

Twister may have stood the test of time but the Tommy Lee Jones disaster movie about a volcano popping up in the middle of LA was never going to as it was dire in the first place. It’s an entertaining movie and a personal favourite but it is also complete and utter nonsense.

Volcanoes form when plates move away from each other, so you couldn’t have a volcano along the San Andreas Fault because it’s the wrong kind of plate movement. Plus the San Andreas Fault doesn’t run through the middle of LA, it’s actually 35 miles away.

Volcanoes generate mainly three things – lava, gases and ash. Lava’s heat is between 600 and 1,300 degrees so it’s safe to say that no one would be getting as close to the lava as they do in the movie, plus ash is actually tiny shards of glass so everyone without an oxygen mask would be dead from their lungs being sliced to pieces. Helicopters can’t fly near volcanoes because of updrafts plus the ash would clog the engines plus the idea of water being dropped on a volcano is daft because the water would evaporate before you got close.

Trivia: The transit worker wouldn’t sink into lava as lava is incredibly dense. He would stay on the suface but burn to death very quickly.

Realistic Science Verdict: 1/5 bunsen burners


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Posts by the Gear4Geeks account are by authors who don’t wish to have their own identity on the blog or are being trialled as writers by us.

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