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The Science of the Movies: Could That Really Happen?

Ever watched a movie and thought, “I wonder if I could use my foe’s guts as a rope?” If so, please seek help immediately. But also check out what our experts have to say about the realism (or complete lack thereof) in these 10 classic movie scenes.

JAWS, 1975: Could a shark really sink a boat?


 
The Scene: Aggravated by having barrels repeatedly harpooned into him, the shark leaps out of the water and crushes the back of the boat, sinking it. Take that, puny land dwellers!
The Science: Frighteningly, it’s possible, but it is highly unlikely. “The shark in the movie was supposed to be 25 feet long. Are there really sharks that big out there? I personally believe yes,” says marine biologist and creator of the first protective “sharksuit,” Jeremiah Sullivan. “I’ve swum with sharks about 18 feet, and on Guadalupe Island in the '80s, a group of professional shark guys and I saw a great white that we conservatively guessed to be just over 20 feet. The bigger they are, the more cautious they are—they don’t come around people much. But if a shark that big jumped onto a boat that size—which sharks sometimes do, especially if people are trying to fish them and they’re in distress—it could sink it.” You really are going to need a bigger boat.
Believability Factor: Kinda, sorta possible!

Pulp Fiction, 1994: What would an adrenaline shot to the heart do?


The Scene: John Travolta revives a heroin-overdosed Uma Thurman by stabbing her in the heart with a shot of adrenaline.
The Science: Turns out we should not take medical advice from Quentin Tarantino. First, injecting anything into someone’s heart is a no-no, according to Eric Newman, M.D., of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “An intracardiac injection is very dangerous and can result in severe bleeding in and around the heart, which can be fatal.” That’s mistake number one. Mistake number two: Adrenaline isn’t even used to treat heroin overdoses—a drug called Narcan (a.k.a. Naloxone) is, and it’s typically administered through the vein and should never, ever be shot through the heart. Why? Because (a) you’d kill your buddy, and (b) you’d give love a bad name, which, surely, is even worse.
Believability Factor: No chance in hell.

Die Hard, 1988: Will an electromagnetic safe open if the power goes off?

The Scene: Having reached the final, impregnable level of the safecracking process—the electromagnetic lock—the crooks are delighted when the Feds cut the power, opening the vault. Good work, FBI guys!
The Science: This is about as likely as Al Powell buying only one armload of Twinkies. “Electromagnetic locks are used just for access control,” says Lynel Berryhill, vice president at Brown Safe Manufacturing. “Never as the final lock. The most secure thing would be a mechanical lock, because there’s no way to hack it the way you could with, say, a biometric one. All the high-tech locks would be in the early stages, and a mechanical one would be last. The vault in Die Hard isn’t even close to anything I’ve seen on a real vault, but even if you had a situation like in the movie, it still wouldn’t have worked, because they would have had to wait four or five hours for the battery backup to turn off.” Maybe we’ll see that in the seven-hour director’s cut one day.
Believability Factor: Pretty impossible.

Office Space, 1999: Could a penny-shaving virus make you money?

The Scene: Peter, Samir, and Michael Bolton nearly wind up in a federal prison after infecting their company’s accounting system with a computer virus that makes them suddenly rich.
The Science: According to Scott Shellady, CEO of Bradford Capital Management, penny-shaving schemes are ridiculously easy. Let’s say you have a dollar in the bank with an interest rate of 2.25 percent. Over time that dollar will grow into a less and less round number. “At some point you’ll have, say, $11.32, but it’s actually $11.32486598,” says Shellady. That’s where crooks “shave the penny,” which in this case means using a computer virus to discreetly snatch the 8 off that fraction and redirect it to another bank account. With enough accounts, those little fractions can add up to millions.
Believability Factor: Uh-oh, this could totally happen!

Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974: Can you chop someone up with a chain saw?


The Scene: A deranged redneck hacks up a bunch of people with a chain saw and feeds them to his family. Hooray for chili night!
The Science: The short answer is yes, but some appendages are easier to lop off with a chain saw than others. “If you were going to cut someone’s head off, their carotid artery would be severed immediately,” declares professional lumber­jack and Timbersports competitor Dave Jewett. “They’d be spraying all over. And it will go through muscle easy.” OK, got it. But what about sawing off bony human limbs? “I don’t think it’s going to go through bone. Maybe through one of the smaller bones—the wrist—but the chain would be fried after the first appendage.” And if the victim is wearing clothes? Well, that’s going to be a problem, too. “If they hit somebody’s clothing, it will just go around and get up in the sprocket and stop the saw.” As with most things in life, the key to defeating a chain-saw-wielding maniac is to remember to put your pants on.
Believability Factor: Definitely possible!

The Breakfast Club, 1985: Can the human voice shatter glass?


The Scene: Emilio Estevez shatters a window with a powerful banshee scream. See that, Dad?
The Science: According to Jean-Baptiste Blanc, senior noise and vibration engineer at the Dyson company, no amount of teenage angst, marijuana, or '80s guitar rock can enable someone to perform such an extraordinary feat. While the human voice can, indeed, shatter glass, it has to be very thin and brittle, and the singer has to match the resonant frequency of the glass, which is easier said than done. “In order to break a crystal glass, one would have to produce a sound in excess of 100 decibels. Assuming we’re considering a fairly thin, brittle glass window, we would have to reach amplitudes of 130 to 140 decibels to shatter it. Such a high sound level would cause serious injury to someone’s ears and is way beyond what a singer could produce with their voice.” So while Emilio’s wrestling takedowns are strong (just ask Judd Nelson), his vocal cords aren’t powerful enough to bust glass.
Believability Factor: No chance in hell.

Superman: The Movie, 1978: What would happen if the Earth's rotation were reversed?


The Scene: Aghast at Lois Lane’s death, Superman rage-flies around the world so fast, it rotates the wrong way, reversing time. Because that’s how physics works, right?
The Science: We all know that reversing the rotation of the planet wouldn’t turn back time (not even Cher can do that). But what would happen? We asked Aleksey Smirnovgeophysics professor at Michigan Technological University, and his reply was terrifying. “Any object on the surface—you, for example, and the building you’re in—will continue to rotate in the initial direction due to conservation of momentum. This effectively means that everything will be launched in the horizontal direction at 1,000 mph, which is an ultrasonic speed.” Doesn’t sound too good, but wait—it gets worse. “Think what happens to the water in a glass if you’re driving and hit the brakes suddenly. That’s pretty much what would happen with the oceans. Large tidal waves would produce mega-tsunamis that would reach hundreds of miles inland. There would also be global fires due to all the broken oil and gas pipelines, and mega-earthquakes from the strain on the Earth’s crust and upper shell.” So, any good news? No. “It would be a super-mass-extinction event, dwarfing all pre­vious ones, including the end of the dinosaurs. Everything living on land would be killed, including all of humanity—some things in the ocean might survive, and microorganisms, of course, but it would set evolution back by half a billion years.”
Believability Factor: No chance in hell.

Back To The Future Part III, 1989: Will we ever see a real-life hoverboard?


The Scene: Marty McFly time-travels to October 21, 2015, kicks a guy in the nuts, and then flees on a hot pink hoverboard.
The Science: Sorry, would-be hoverboarders, but the concept of antigravity is bullshit. “When we talk about antigravity, what I have in mind is weird mathematical models, where if you have negative masses, you could produce negative gravitational fields,” says Pablo A. Rosado of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics. “That is mathematically possible, not physically: Mass is always positive.” Rosado says superconductors could possibly float a hoverboard, as they levitate atop other magnets. But superconductors function at around -150°F, and the discovery of a superconductive material at inhabitable temps is a long way off. For those unwilling to wait for this important breakthrough, we recommend getting some plutonium, a flux capacitor, and a DeLorean
Believability Factor: No chance in hell.

Commando, 1985: Can one man kill a whole army?


The Scene: Arnold Schwarzenegger arms up and takes out an entire private army by himself—with the help of a few gardening tools.
The Science: “This scene is so terrible, it’s good,” says former U.S. Navy SEAL Brandon Webb. “He kills a guy by stabbing him in the gut, which is not even a kill shot. He sets up three Claymore mines—which are a pound and a half of C4 packed with metal pellets—and it looks like 50 pounds of fucking C4 going off. There’s a complete disregard for magazine capacity. I counted 50 shots out of a 30-round AK magazine! When he does switch to the belt-fed M60, they leave in a close-up where you can see the blanks in the belt.” So what did Webb think about Arnie taking out five guys from inside a toolshed? “That was my favorite. He pitchforked a dude, took off a guy’s head at a 30-degree angle with a saw blade, lopped a dude’s arm off. But that’s Spec Ops rule number one: Never bring a pitchfork to a gunfight.” 
Believability Factor: No chance in hell.

Machete, 2010: Can you swing on human intestines?


The Scene: Danny Trejo slices a man open and uses his intestine as a bungee cord to swing out the window to the floor below. 
The Science: Surprise! This is completely impossible, due to the extensive amount of connective tissue keeping the intestine connected to itself and the abdominal cavity. “It isn’t very strong, but it would take a bit more effort to pull it out like a fire hose,” according to Richard Desi, M.D., gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “You also wouldn’t get very far, since the small intestine is only about 20 feet in length and has neither the elasticity nor the tensile strength to pull off this stunt. If you attempted it, the intestine would most likely tear free from the rest of the bowel.” In other words, you’d probably end up drenched in another man’s poop and digestive juices, which is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from trying this stunt—so long as you’ve got the guts. 
Believability Factor: Never gonna happen!