Friday, November 04, 2005

Bad Batman Science

Let me start off by saying that I think Batman Begins is a really good movie. In fact, it is the best Batman movie ever made. It has good characterizations, a reasonably good plotline, suspense, action, a bit of drama… all good movie making.

It does not have good science. Oh, there are good bits here and there. The Batmobile, for instance, is a real vehicle built specifically for the movie, and it really can jump a short distance without a ramp (I’m sure you can look up details online if you’re interested).

It’s the villain’s master plan that’s the real culprit. If you haven’t seen the movie yet (where have you been hiding?) and you don’t want to know the details, you should stop reading this article right now.

The dastardly villain, Ra’s Al-Ghul, has teamed with the corrupt Dr. Crane (aka the Scarecrow) to poison Gotham City’s water supply with a drug that causes irrational fear. The plan is to destroy Gotham by driving the citizens mad with fear and letting them tear the city apart.

There’s a major plot point in the way, though: the fear drug only works when inhaled. That’s why the population hasn’t already gone mad from drinking the tainted water. To complete their evil plan, the villains have stolen a high-powered microwave generator to rapidly boil the city water supply into cloud of toxic steam.

Herein lie two problems. First, why hasn’t Gotham City been overrun by cases of people who have gone crazy after taking a hot shower, boiling a pot of spaghetti, making a pot of tea, etc. There are numerous mundane situations that would expose a person to tainted water vapor, so keeping this evil plan a secret wouldn’t be feasible.

The second and more obvious problem is the microwave machine that they plan to use to vaporize the water. They stand right next to it when they turn it on, causing water in nearby pipes to boil into steam, bringing madness to a portion of the city. Note that human bodies are roughly 80% water: anyone standing next to this machine when it was activated would promptly explode! Nonetheless, intact human bodies remain in close proximity to the microwave machine as the villains try to transport it – running all the time – to the central hub of Gotham City’s water distribution system.

So there are two huge realism issues that you’re going to have to ignore when watching Batman Begins. That’s not so bad really, as long as you know that you’re deliberately suspending disbelief on these issues and not accepting this chain of events as scientifically plausible.


wee said...

So, the other day I am sitting in the lobby to my Japanese sensei's office with a bunch of other student waiting to take an oral exam. I had thought ahead and brought my laptop and am sitting and playing WoW. (Yes this does have something to do with your post) One of the kids comes up to me and says, "whatcha playing?"

I answer. "WoW"

He says. "I play wow." WE then have the typical what server conversation.

He says, "I don't like how unrealistic wow is." I blink my eyes at him in disbelieve and the next words out of my mouth I couldn't have stopped for anything.

"You mean you think that magic, swordplay, wizards and healing priest are unrealistic?" The other kids laughed.

He says, “No I mean I think its unrealistic that spells follow you and you can’t dodge.” At this point I can’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him with my aluminum laptop.

“Oh you mean, it’s unrealistic how the spells are affected by physics, in a computer game?”

“Yeah, I mean in AC I was able to dodge out of the way of spells and arrows.” I just looked at him blankly.

“So your saying, that in real life you can dodge out of the way of arrows?”

“Well yeah.” Again blank stare.

“So, your main issue with World of Warcraft is that its physics are based in fantasy?”

“Yeah, it should be more realistic.” I ended the conversation right there it was obvious that this person had no idea what I was trying to get at.

Ted however is much more intelligent than this 18 year old boy. Ted, I love ya man, but it's a move based off of a comic book… pages where they draw men with superhuman powers and unrealistic views of the world… it’s fantasy man. :P

Lord Runolfr said...

Like I said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie, but I still can't resist ripping into the silliness later. That's part of the fun.

Besides, the sad thing is that the writer probably doesn't even realize that his plot point is scientifically implausible.

As for WoW, I don't really have a problem with spells chasing me. It might be amusing, though, if the system automatically "led" targets that were moving, so you could avoid some attacks by turning and jumping rapidly to throw off the aim.

An unrealism that does get me was that some jackass shot me through a wall with an arrow, even though he didn't have a line of sight to me; he just still had me targeted from earlier (this is PVP mind you, I was helping defend Xroads). Shouldn't solid barriers stop shots? Shouldn't you need to at least be able to see the target to shoot? I know the game has refused to let me cast spells or shoot at times because I didn't have a line of sight, so what was up with that?

It's also a bit outrageous that my dwarf paladin can easily swim across a lake while dressed neck to toe in chainmail armor. Aren't there a few laws of physcis that should work even in a fantasy world?

wee said...

that would be a lot of dead warroirs...

Lord Runolfr said...

Not necessarily. You don't have to try to swim in chainmail.

You could also make success dependent on the character's total armor value versus strength score.

You could also supply potions, spells, or other magic items to make swimming easier. Lots of opportunities, there.

miken said...

Good call on the bad science! IMHO, though it may have been the best Batman movie, it wasn't a very good movie. Hey, it was still fun.

Kyle said...

Yes the microwave device was pretty amusing. If it's okay with you I'll expand on what you wrote a bit.

First off, the term "microwave" is used to refer to an extremely wide band. What frequency the device is operating at inside that band makes a huge difference on the effects it produces; this is why when humans are exposed to home microwaves they have their genitals and eyeballs damaged, but when exposed to military crowd control microwave devices they feel their skin burn (and we'll surely find out about other effects as time goes by).

It's probably safe to assume the microwave in the movie is meant to be in the same band range as a typical home microwave, meaning 915mhz or (more likely) 2450 mhz. These frequencies are chosen because they produce an effective electric current in many liquids which, due to resistance, heat them. (Note that the common explanation given - usually by physicists - that 2450mhz is chosen as it is a rotational mode of water is not true).

The first problem with trying to boil everyone's water supply with a 900-3000mhz microwave is finding one strong enough to do it. Even if they are focused down a waveguide when produced, the microwave energy will expand hemispherically from then on, reducing its energy density by twice the inverse distance from the source. This drops off fast. Microwave power supplies can be bought in 100kW and 150kW easily, and can be found a few times stronger in you look closely - but that's about it. You'll need a roughly continuous energy supply to boil water, and continuous microwave power supplies have a technical limit they rarely pass. This alone would keep them from affecting a significant area.

Of course, the microwaves wouldn't reach most of the water anyways. Metal shields microwaves effectively due to its conductivity, and while the arcing might eventually damage the pipes, you won't see the steamy explosions we got to view on film.

And then there's the problem of the bystanders. As Lord Runolfr points out, microwaves in that band damage human tissue. This is especially true for the soft stuff, like genitals, eyes and internal organs - the things we'd really like to keep around. Forget boiling the water supply, just zap bystanders and watch them freak.

So in essence, finding a microwave supply strong enough would be difficult, but actually boiling a large quantity of water would be impossible. Since even trying is likely to leave you sterile and blind, real life villains might try a more reasonable tactic.

Of course, I still enjoyed the movie >:)

RobinHood3000 said...

Ordinarily, I'd agree with wee about the importance of "suspension of disbelief," were it not for the fact that fans and filmmakers alike, right down to director Christopher Nolan, have blathered to no end about how Begins would be a realistic Batman movie. For their hubris, they must be held to a higher standard. Mwahaha.

All of the effort put into explaining Batman's gadgetry logically and realistically, only to flush it all away in a giant explosion of urban-legend science. So close to achieving it, but just short.