Monday, May 09, 2011

Movies distort reality

Scene 1. "Hacker" is breaking into the computer systems. He struggles for a while, and then finds the giant "password over-ride" button. Phew. He's through.

Scene 2. The big hero is being chased by some crooks. He enters a department store, and he's still being followed. He finally evades them by crashing through a giant glass window, which smashes into tiny bits, and he runs away, unharmed.

Scene 3. Car chase. Two good guys are in the car being chased. Around a bend, the driver hints to the passenger, and the passenger opens his door, and tumbles out of the car. Unhurt.

Scene 4. Mathematician is so smart, he can add ten-digit numbers mentally. He has a giant blackboard filled with arcane mathematics. His personal life is a disaster (if he is married). He often talks about stuff nobody understands. He knows whom the serial killer is going to murder next.

Scene 5. Chinese fighter Mr. Lee is fighting Mr. Yan. They've got sharp knives, and swords. They're punching madly. They're waving these sharp swords wildly. Sometimes they're flying on bamboo trees. Nobody gets hurt. There are two possible consequences: 1. Person will die a quick, painless death. 2. Person will run away unhurt, to fight another day.

Scene 6. Hero gets shot on his hand. His fingers are hurt, but with a simple cloth bandage, he is fine. He feels no pain, and in a few scenes his bandaged hand is good enough to hold a shotgun.  A scene later it is good enough to fire the shotgun, accurately.

You know it is false

Of course we know movies aren't real. We know that if your fingers get shot, the mangled hand is going to swell up like a balloon. It will hurt like mad, and even for people who can ignore pain, the hand is not structurally sound to hold anything. Definitely not a heavy shotgun. That's because shotguns are heavy. And it takes some pressure to squeeze the trigger, the kind that a mangled hand cannot physically provide. If human fingers take a bullet hit, head on, there is bound to be grotesque damage to the bone.

There is some artistic license that film-makers get, and I don't deny that. Films would be boring if they didn't enhance life, or inject some well-meaning lie. Goldilocks is fun because there are three giant bears, eating porridge. Take away the porridge, their house, and the family structure of the bear household, and all you have is a hungry girl with questionable ethics. But nobody would use Goldilocks to shape their notion of truth.

Being a computer scientist, I'm doubly hit. Movies portray computer science and scientists as socially awkward geniuses. Most people, having never seen a computer scientist in the wild, know no better. To the uninformed human, I'm either a character from the Matrix: a hacker capable of superhuman feats who wears all black leather, or a chump lacking social graces. But I probably know whom the serial killer is going to murder next, right?

Physicists are often portrayed wearing lab coats, for no apparent reason. They usually have white hair too, and are nearly always white men. People studying Chemistry are shown causing explosions, when most of Chemistry has nothing to do with explosions.  Studying Chemistry generally leads to sedate, non-explosive jobs. There can be real characters, but what we get are distorted, single-dimensional caricatures.

Harm to Society

There is definite harm in keeping such fantasies in our head. I am reminded of a statement by John Keegan, where he talks of the damage a single bullet causes. He is a military historian, and he was talking about how we perceive guns as fairly surgical weapons, when in reality they are hideously brutal.
In his book, "A History of Warfare", Keegan said that he was shocked when he first saw the extent of damage a single bullet can create. Not knowing the carnage a gun can cause is bad enough, but having fanciful ideas about the bullet wound being a surgical hole is even worse. This is the main problem: If we aren't careful, films distort our view of reality.

The case of people jumping out of a moving car is even worse. People seem to believe that they can casually tumble out of a moving car (sometimes at speeds higher than 60kmph) and walk away unhurt. On one episode of World's Wildest Police Videos, I saw something incredible. In this show, actual TV footage from police cameras is shown, to persuade the viewers that crime doesn't pay. On the video that I watched, the cops were in hot pursuit of some criminals.  During the chase, the suspect leapt out of the car, while the car was going at some neck-breaking speed. Needless to say, he suffered multiple fractures, and had to be rushed to emergency medical care. Looking at the footage, it was clear he wanted to leap out: he was not pushed. Why would any sane person tumble out of a car going 80kmph? Either he was clinically insane, or had watched a movie too many. This is also the case with trying to crash through glass. It is difficult to break a glass door just by running through it, and if you do, you are likely to cut yourself in many places rather than calmly running away.  The material used in movie special effects is not glass and is designed to shatter into little bits.

Luckily, Indian action scenes have gone full circle, and are in the domain of the laughable.

If the only perception of Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry is what you get from the films, then clearly you aren't going to enter one of them. The hero isn't the guy in the lab coat. Clearly, if you want to be surrounded by  attractive girls, you're better off without the lab coat. You'd never want to be a Mathematician, since these are shown as losers who cannot get a date, cannot even dress well, and have all the social graces of a lamp-post. I'm glad my ideas about Math came from books about real mathematicians rather than washed out actors with poor dress sense.