Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 8, 2011

Why Movies Need Scientist Advisors – Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Introduction

Never played with the toys, never watched the cartoons, never read the comics, never had any interest in them. But tonight I watched the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie. It was intriguing, impressive CGI, somewhat boring plot but it did have enough twists and good looking actors to keep me interested. I found it entertaining for what it was worth. I am perfectly happy suspending my disbelief to enjoy some mindless entertainment for a few hours, especially after a long work week that will continue after I wake up in the morning.

But that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially when they are stupid little things that the writers/directors/special effects people get just plain wrong. It’s stupid, really really stupid, to get these things wrong, especially when they wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. It shows pure laziness on the part of these people, and it demonstrates that they unfortunately don’t seem to care enough about the intelligence of their audience to worry about checking things.

I’ll warn you up-front, this post is a bit of a rant. This post is also why I’m part of the US National Academy of Sciences “Science and Entertainment Exchange” program that pairs real scientists with real writers and directors to act as advisors in these cases (I’ve already been tapped twice for some interesting projects!).

With that said, let’s see what Michael Bay got wrong. (Note: SPOILER ALERT.)

Opening Sequences

The movie opens with some pretty nice archival footage mixed with modern actors dealing with the Apollo 11 launch and landings. Unfortunately, there are a few things wrong with the sequence of Apollo 11 on the moon. I’m actually fine with Buzz and Neil losing contact with the public to start their whole secret mission thing (even though that didn’t happen in real life). Again, suspension of disbelief for the sake of the movie. My problem, though, is two-fold.

First, there are stars in the background. It seems that every movie* special effects director wants to put stars in the sky from the moon. After all, it’s black sky so it must be night so there must be stars, right? And they are on the “dark side” of the moon … but that’s later on and I’ll get back to it. As I cover in this post, no stars were easily visible to the naked eye because it was daytime. If Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, we would have a black sky during the day and still not be able to see stars.

The second issue I have with the sequence is that the astronauts are clearly on the moon early in the morning, as evidenced by long shadows cast (could be late evening, but they actually did land during early morning). At 5 minutes 45 seconds into the movie, they “lose contact” to go on their secret mission, and the movie has a Walter Cronkite impersonator state, “We now have had confirmation of loss of signal from the Apollo 11. The Apollo 11 is at the moment on the far side of the moon.”

This statement is insane. First, it’s wrong historically. Second, we would not be able to have any contact with Apollo if it were on the far side – the side facing away from us – because there would be no way to get the signal from them to Earth. We would never have sent people there without any way to contact them. Third, they claim they’re on the far side, but then they pan out and you can clearly see Earth bright and somewhat high in the lunar sky from the astronauts’ location. If they were on the far side, you know, that whole side facing away from Earth, you would not be able to see Earth. ‘Cause you’re facing away and you have the rest of the moon between you and the planet.

Then there’s the issue of equating this with the dark side, but I’ll get to that in the next section. I’m not even going to get into the fact they have sound on the moon where there isn’t any atmosphere to propagate the sound, for that would be a third point and I said I only had to big issues with this sequence.

These are things they could have easily gotten right and it would not have in any way detracted from the movie.

*Yes, I know there are a few that get it right, like 2001. But let’s be fair here — the VAST majority get it wrong.

More Missions

Another short WRONG statement was about how all the other NASA missions collected more stuff from the cybertronian ship that they found on the moon. Historically this is simply wrong because the Apollo sites landed in different places all on the near side of the Moon. We have had orbital photographs of all the Apollo landing sites now for over two years, we know where they landed, and they were not in the same place.

If you want to somehow argue that Apollo were just the public ones and there were secret missions, well, think of how much of a noise (literally and figuratively) it made when Apollo was launched. Or the basic fact that the soviets were spying on us just as much as we on them and would have raised hell if we had a launch we didn’t tell them about it.

Again, this was a statement that did not need to be made at all because it didn’t add to the movie, it just took away.

Dark Side ≠ Far Side

Apparently the writers of this movie never read my blog, for I addressed this issue in one of my very first posts. I also addressed it in my first podcast episode.

At 58 minutes in, Sam (our hero) states that an engineer “may have messed with the code preventing [the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] from mapping the far side of the moon, which is also the dark side.” Seriously? I mean, the movie was fine with the plot point that the guy was working for the Decepticons (yes, the bad guys are called “Decepticons”) and was killed after they didn’t need him and he did something to a satellite so that we couldn’t find the crashed spaceship. There was absolutely no need to add the WRONG clause about the dark side being the far side other than to show further willful ignorance.

Or a statement that we couldn’t map an entire half of the moon? I think someone would have figured out very early on that there was a problem with the software or hardware. This would not be a hidden thing. (And for the record, the Lunar Reconnaissance Oribter maps the entire lunar surface about once per month with its wide-angle camera.)

It’s also plainly wrong when we go back to that opening sequence where they (wrongly) state Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon, but they show the astronauts in sunlight and casting shadows. Obviously, the far side is not the dark side.

Unfortunately, throughout the movie they make this mistake, compounding it by equating the two as opposed to just using them interchangeably. Using them interchangeably would still be wrong, it’s just less obvious and slightly more forgivable. For example, I could say at one time, “My favorite food is Doritos.” I could say another time, “My favorite food is ice cream.” Obviously one is not correct, but it’s somewhat forgivable hyperbole. Instead, the movie effectively says, “My favorite food is Doritos, which is ice cream.” Seriously, that’s what Sam’s statement is like.

Another time they equate these is during the meeting with the former Russian cosmonaut where he states that Luna 3 photographed the “dark side, the shadow side” and saw “nothing.” Duh. It’s in shadow. Night. Except the photos he’s holding up clearly show a late-afternoon or early-morning shot based on shadow lengths (morning/afternoon dependent upon which way is north). Then he said hat Lunar 4 did see the ship. It’s just … wrong! ANY astronomer would have told them to simply replace “dark” with “far.” Not that hard. Would not have taken away anything from the movie.

Final Thoughts

Okay, now that that rant is over, I feel a little better. The whole point of this post is that you can have a perfectly good movie that loses nothing by making sure that the basic science is right and not stupidly wrong. If you’re going to break science, do it intelligently and for a good reason. I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story (like in this case that we have intelligent, sentient machines locked in a long civil war that’s now playing out on Earth).

But when the writers show absolute laziness by making kindergarden mistakes with basic things like the dark versus far side of the moon, it detracts from the entire experience, shows that they are not being intelligent, and it shows that they don’t respect the intelligence of their audience. Even Leonard Nimoy’s voice could not overcome it.

To end with a quote of Isaac Asimov, “The most common mistake a science fiction writer makes is to downgrade science. Now, these days particularly, many science fiction writers have very little to do with science, and many science fiction stories have very little to do with science. But whether a science fiction story has science or not, it is impossible to write a good one if you are completely ignorant of science. You will make mistakes even when you think science isn’t involved. … There are other science fiction shows in which it is quite clear that the writers and the producer know nothing about science and don’t care and that shows, too, and it is impossible to be a self-respecting viewer and accept it.” (emphasis mine)

8 Comments »

  1. Would Asimov and von Neumann like the movie?

    How was the arkival footage nescient?

    The dark side of the moon is “away from us”? What “way”? It’s froward us.
    Waves can fare throuh the moon’s ground, however, and be “loud” at the other end if the broadcaster is in contact with the ground.
    Also, in the future all spaceship outfits will carry laser listeners and harken weapons and explosions even in the bareness of interplanetary vacvum.

    Comment by Autymn D. C. (@alysdexia) — October 10, 2011 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  2. Honestly, I’m hardly surprised. This is a movie series that has, in the first movie, shoehorned in an entire Los Angeles-sized city just twenty miles from Hoover Dam and in the second moved Egyptian geography around so much that, well, all I can deduce is that they think the Nile and the Suez Canal are the same thing.

    Comment by David Johnson — October 11, 2011 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

    • As I said, I can suspend disbelief and enjoy the movie to some extent for what it’s worth. But when they get stupid things wrong for no apparent reason (did the really need to have the Egyptian geography messed up?), it grates on me. It would not have been hard and would not have detracted to get these things right.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 11, 2011 @ 7:38 pm | Reply

  3. As bad as this is, it’s not as bad as the Moon gaffe In Apocalypto. In a day and a night it shows a Solar eclipse and a Full Moon. I am surprised that creepy prophetic girl did not mention that the Moon would be using its warp drive later that day. Of course, I would still watch Apocalypto over any Transformers movie, any time, hands down.

    Comment by Moewicus — October 19, 2011 @ 1:39 am | Reply

    • Haven’t seen it.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 19, 2011 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  4. Glad to find your post. I have been ranting about these moon issues to my astronomy classes since I saw the movie last summer. The explosions are fun, but the science is horrible. You would think they could pay someone a modest fee to check their basic facts. I think they play the audience for a fool. I was so mad at Michael Bay for this.

    Also, I am surprised you do not mention the bad scene at the end of the movie where they attempt to bring Cybertron to Earth. Two planets existing that close to each other should wreak havoc on both due to monster tidal forces. Yet, no mention of this. I would think even just a simple statement from Sentinal Prime stating that they have addressed the gravity issues would suffice. At least they are acknowledging it.

    My other rant is how I can’t show this movie to my 7 year old, who loves Transformers because of all the adult humor. These are Hasbro toys, for crying out loud. Don’t exclude your biggest fan base.

    Comment by Milton — February 24, 2012 @ 10:52 am | Reply

    • I didn’t rant about two planets coming together ’cause I figured there was some magic thing they were doing. And that part was just so outlandish. In this blog I generally aim for some of the more subtle misunderstandings, and this whole “dark side of the moon” is a pet peeve of mine.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — February 24, 2012 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

  5. You didn’t notice that the accent stage was still attached to the lander in the film… Which would mean they didn’t leave the moons surface.

    Comment by miceed — February 18, 2016 @ 2:13 am | Reply


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