Movie Review of Armageddon (and Deep Impact)
from a Scientific Viewpoint

Lots of Action but Asteroid Nonsense

Sparks, noise, vibrations and explosions!
Shouting, running, screaming, fighting!
Fire, tremors, crashes and collisions!

     These are the words that describe the movie Armageddon, an action-packed adventure in which a space-aged version of the "Dirty Dozen" saves the world from an extinction brought on by an errant asteroid.

     But right from the start, the film gets the facts wrong. It is correctly pointed out that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But the explosive power is stated as a miserly 10,000 atomic bombs. This is wrong. That asteroid created a blast of 100,000,000 atomic bombs! The figure is off by four zeroes.

     Nor could the producers even get the biblical facts correct. "Armageddon" is said to be the final day when good and evil meet. Not true. Check out Revelation 16 of the Holy Bible. "Armageddon" is the PLACE where these two forces will fight.

     In the movie Armageddon, who are the evil ones? They are thousands of rocks led by an asteroid the size of Texas that threatens to extinguish life on Earth? And who are the good ones? They are a motley makeshift group of old-drillers who will risk their lives in a daring rocket journey to save the world. A few NASA astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut are also thrown in to help steer the two shuttle spacecrafts. So these are the heroes of the movie. But, except for rig owner and drilling expert Harry Stamper (played excellently by Bruce Willis), the oil workers are moonlighting criminals. Mobsters as saviors? Is this any way to improve the moral fabric of our country?

     You would think that a movie about the extinction of life on Earth would be serious. Not so. The best description of Armageddon is an action-adventure film sprinkled with comedy. Every effort is made to excite and entertain. No effort is made to educate or inform. Scientific accuracy is tossed out the window. The laws of physics are continually violated in order to maximize the drama. What happened to the good old movie classics that tried to teach us something about life?

     It is amazing that the asteroid is able days in advance to send warning signals consisting of deadly meteor showers. The first one strikes a space station orbiting the Earth. The craft is drilled with holes before exploding. The next attack is on New York City. It is pelted with huge meteorites. The Chrysler Building is decapitated, while the City is decimated. Several days later, Shanghai falls victim. And near the end of the movie, Paris is destroyed by an asteroid fragment. This is one of the few places where a realistic image of an impact is portrayed. The explosion produces a cloud of dust that surges outward. Paris is totaled. Only a huge crater and the bottom halves of the Arc de Triumph and other buildings are left. It is curious how well directed that these strikes are. Of all the places on Earth, why is it that three of the world's biggest cities are singled out? New York seems to be on every movie-producer's hit list. In Deep Impact, it was overwhelmed by a giant wave. And to think that poor Mayor Giuliana is trying to make the Big Apple a safer place to live.

     Despite the unrealistic nature of the movie, it is entertaining and full of action. The frame time is usually no longer than 3 seconds as one image after another flashes on the screen in an effort to maximize the tension. Such rapid-fire images also limit a viewer's ability to notice the many scientific flaws.

     A love story between Grace Stamper, Harry's daughter played by Liv Tyler, and A. J. Frost, a young oil rig worker played by Ben Affleck, adds a romantic element to the movie.

     Of course, everyone knows that these space-age, spaced out oil drillers will in the end save us from destruction. There is, however, one not-necessarily-expected event at the end of the film, which won't be revealed here so as not to spoil the outcome for movie-action fans.

     In the film, NASA officials meet to discuss proposals to avert the asteroid catastrophe. The suggestions are laughable: Destroy it with lasers? Americans have clearly been watching too many Star Trek episodes. Attach sails to it? This is ludicrous. What's going to provide the drag? Outer space is virtually empty. There is no wind out there except for the "solar wind," which can only blow dust and particles and certainly cannot change the direction of a heavy asteriod in a matter of days. Destroy it with nuclear weapons? As correctly stated in the movie, 150 nukes would hardly be sufficient. Although such bombs would produce 150 craters, the asteroid would remain intact. So what plan do they come up with? They propose to drill a hole about 800 feet deep, insert a hydrogen bomb, explode it and split the asteroid in two pieces that will fly past Earth on either side. If 150 nukes won't do the job, certainly one will not either, even if it is inserted in the asteroid. Can one hydrogen bomb create a crack that stretches across the state of Texas?

     To put this in perspective, consider the following analogy. An 800-foot hole in a 300-mile-sized asteroid is like a pin-sized hole no deeper than a scratch in a ten-foot rock. Scaling things down to life size, the explosion of a hydrogen bomb would roughly be like lighting a match. Can the ignition of such a match split a ten-foot rock?

     And later, Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) redefines solid state physics by drilling through yards and yards of solid steel rock.

     So a science-action film turns into a science-fiction thriller.

     When it comes to man versus Nature in life-threatening battles, can man always win? When a tornado touches down, can we stop it? When a tsunami or giant wave, speeds across the ocean, can we diminish it? When a volcano is about to erupt, can we extinguish its hot temper? When a hurricane heads towards a populated coastal region, can we divert it? When lightning strikes, can we reflect its flash? The answers to these questions are no. But we can take measures. In most instances, our only recourse is evacuation. In these battles of man versus Nature, Nature is supreme.

     The above disasters involve tremendous energies, those approaching the equivalent power of dozens of atomic bombs. But when it comes to a sizeable asteroid descending from the heavens, the explosive power dwarfs all earthly sources. If the object is detected too late, all we can do is pray. In Hollywood, however, nothing is impossible. Action heroes are always there to "save the day."

     Bruce Willis is the only serious character among the subpoenaed crew. Our world is about to be blown up, yet these oil-drillers are goofing around and cracking jokes. Just before they enter the shuttle, one by one they begin singing the song "I'm leaving on a jet plane. Don't know when I'll be back again." But don't be mistaken. There are a lot of good one-liners in the movie. When, on the asteroid, things turn from bad to worse, one crewmember blurts out, "Oh God, it sucks up here!" And Rockhound, who is a nutty genius of a geologist, has to be tied up after he refuses to stop shooting laser guns. Another hero crawls on top of the nuclear bomb and rides it like a huge motorcycle. When asked to stop, he replies, "Just wanted to feel the power between my legs." Armageddon is quite funny in a number of places. But do not get the impression that the movie is a spoof. Between the humorous moments, it's action, action, action!

     NASA was duped into helping the producers of Armageddon. The organization provided some equipment, facilities and advice. Yet, in the movie, NASA officials are portrayed as idiots. The oilrig owner Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) is much more knowledgeable about planetary science and rocket technology than any of the organization's employees. During the space mission, there is pandemonium in NASA's headquarters as workers frantically push buttons and watch display panels fail. Before assisting another movie project, NASA will probably request to read the full movie script in advance.

     NASA was not the only government organization humiliated in the film. The members of the Defense Department are also portrayed as dimwits. And, of course, it is the President of the United States who must make the decision when to detonate "the nuclear device." After all, only he is permitted to "give the command" and "push the button." He, of course, does so at the wrong moment, creating a "time bomb" that threatens to sabotage the mission.

     Supposedly writer Jonathan Hensleigh and director Michael Bay asked Ivan Bekey, an ex-NASA administrator and governmental space advisor, whether the story obeyed the laws of physics. Either Bekey's calculator was on the blink or Hensleigh and Bay had cotton in their ears because the movie creates one impossible situation after another. Mother Nature would have a heart attack if she saw this movie, and Isaac Newton is probably tossing and turning in his grave right now.

     Armageddon used the same silly idea as in NBC's TV movie Asteroid to explain how the object is knocked out of orbit toward the Earth. The answer is a collision with a comet. There is virtually zero probability that an object randomly struck by another will head directly at our planet.

     The Armageddon asteroid is the size of Texas, rending it one of the three biggest in our solar system. In fact, it must be Pallas or Vesta. Ceres, the largest asteroid, is about twice the size of Texas. These objects orbit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. If any of these were to head toward Earth, astronomers would know years in advance, not in 18 days as in the movie. An excuse for this is made in Armageddon through a dialog that tells us that only 3% of the sky is under observation. This may be true, but if something happens to one of the larger asteroids, planetary astronomers will know about it right away.

     The producers of Armageddon seem unaware of the truly incredible energy that would be released if a Texas-sized asteroid struck Earth. The destruction would be mind boggling -- 100,000 times more powerful than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and 90% of animal life at the end of the Cretaceous Period. [For a vivid account of this impact see The Bible According to Einstein's chapter entitled "Nature's Holocaust."] It would create a crater larger than the size of the continental United States and leave a geological structure about 25 times taller than Mount Everest! Probably, all life except microbes and deep-ocean dwelling forms would die. [In the movie, it is incorrectly stated that all bacteria would be killed.] Even on the opposite side of Earth, the ground would shake. The explosive power would be equivalent to ten trillion atomic bombs! Every plant on Earth would either burn up in fire or die from lack of Sun due to a black cloud that would engulf our planet for years and years.

     Could NASA and scientists prevent such a disaster? While it is possible to deflect a smaller asteroid through a space mission if detected years in advance, there is nothing that we could do to stop the giant Armageddon asteroid. For more on asteroid and comet impacts see Jupiter Scientific's report on this subject, which is available here.

     Solar system scientists classify asteroids with letters such as S, C, M and E. The makers of Armageddon have discovered a truly remarkable object that will revolutionize planetary science. From a distance, it appears to be almost comet-like and engulfed in a blue-green cloud. While most asteroids have a topography not so different from the Moon's, the Armageddon asteroid has a treacherous terrain of jagged knife-like rocks, steep crevices and pointed mountain peaks. Its surface is as intricate as a crystal chandelier. It is almost as though its stalagmites threaten to stab Earth's heart. But, of course, in reality the danger to Earth is created by the asteroid's tremendous kinetic energy, which gets translated into heat, pressure and pounding power upon impact. The Armageddon asteroid is also the first to have a significant atmosphere and rock storms. Yes, the efforts of our heroes are impeded when dozens of rocks start raining down upon them. Obviously, NASA should have equipped our heroes with steel umbrellas. The air must contain oxygen to feed the sparks of fires that are blown by a sometimes howling wind. There must also be a "fifth force" that holds Stamper's crew to the asteroid's surface. It can't be gravity. The force of gravity on the Armageddon asteroid is about 20 times weaker than that on Earth. A 180-pound human would weigh only 9 pounds.

     With Americans learning so little science in high school and college, there is the danger that they will think that certain aspects of Armageddon are accurate. In terms of asteroids, Armageddon is nonsense.

     Because of the intensity of the action, Armageddon is more likely to appeal to a younger audience. The older generation should stick to Deep Impact, which is easier on the heart, more realistic and deals with the human drama of an Earth-threatening catastrophe.

     Apparently, Armageddon is a movie that you're not supposed to take seriously. So sit on the edge of your seat and hold your breath. It's like riding a roller coaster for more than two hours. The action never stops.

     The movie Deep Impact, in which Earth is threatened by a comet, portrays a much more realistic scenario than Armageddon. There are few scientific errors in Deep Impact, and those minor flaws present are probably not noticed by the audience. An example occurs after the astronauts have landed on the dark side of the comet. When "morning comes" and the Sun shines, suddenly jets of gas gush upward like geysers. It is highly unlikely that the temperature would rise so rapidly so as to produce such gas outflows.

     Is the comet's surface reasonably portrayed in Deep Impact? It is difficult to say. Even in the modern age of discovery, scientists know little about the detailed nature of comets. One of NASA's new millennium projects is to launch a probe to explore a comet. In a decade or two, we may see a comet up close for the first time.

     In Deep Impact, an approximately two-mile wide fragment of the comet lands in the Atlantic Ocean producing a giant wave that submerges New York City and sweeps over the Eastern coastal plain. The creators of the movie did a superb job in animating this tsunami. Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have simulated the effects of ocean-slamming asteroids. The height of the wave in Deep Impact is approximately correct; if anything, it might even be a little taller. Such a wave would sweep all the way to the base of the Appalachian Mountains.

     If New York falls victim to an extraterrestrial impact in the future, it will probably be as portrayed in Deep Impact. It is much more likely for a comet or asteroid to land in the Atlantic Ocean than for it to strike the City directly as happens in Armageddon.

     Both movies missed the opportunity to startle the audience with enormous sonic booms. The fragments that strike Earth are travelling about 100 times faster than the speed of sound. Deep Impact did do a wonderful job of showing the atmospheric pressure wave, which expanded outward from the collision site.

     In Deep Impact, the comet is blown up by several nuclear devices at the very last moment. It is understandable that Hollywood wants to create as dramatic a movie as possible. But such a procedure would not save the world. It is impossible to pulverize a comet as portrayed in the movie. The nuclear devices would break it up into fragments that would act like a multiple warhead. The devastation might even be worse, as the destruction would be spread over a larger area of Earth. The atmosphere would suffer more damage.

     These Hollywood dramas create the false impression that science and technology can save the world under any circumstance. This is simply not the case. When the hand of Nature comes pounding down on Earth, we shall be like tiny ants in our efforts to stop it.

This report was prepared by the staff of Jupiter Scientific, an organization devoted to the promotion of science through books, the internet and other means of communication.

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