Starship Troopers, Nightfall, Spider Man

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Starship Troopers

The future as depicted in Robert Heinlein's famous novel Starship Troopers is a joyless neofascist society where only veterans can vote. A literal depiction of the novel on film would be a grim filmgoing experience indeed. Fortunately, the producers held only loosely to the novel. The film was described as a "send-up" of the novel, and most of the ideology is presented in the form of rah-rah news bulletins and recruiting ads that are more irritating than humorous.

I found myself wondering whether the film was originally conceived as a send-up or whether that was a cover story to explain away some of the most incredibly bad acting ever seen on film. The good news is the acting is better than Space Precinct or Plan Nine from Outer Space. The bad news: not by much. The acting makes Melrose Place look like a Shakespeare festival.

The film's worst errors aren't so much scientific as military. Indeed, the film repeats most of the standard cinematic military bloopers. Trainees have an astonishing amount of free time. Real military trainees spend most of their "free" time getting ready for inspections and sleeping (and that's true in the novel as well). The Earth forces constantly present the enemy with target-rich environments. Infantry units are tightly bunched (I saw only one scene where the troops were marching in a proper tactical formation). Starships are so close together they can't evade enemy fire, and when hit they collide with other ships. It makes for dazzling fireworks, but it's militarily ridiculous.

This future force is fully co-ed, right down to the shower rooms. This is the most famous scene in the film. Apparently this is one of the recruiting tools of the future.Actually, this is probably more realistic than we might imagine: sleepingquarters in the Gulf War were often co-ed, and people got dressed in theirsleeping bags. There was no privacy for hanky-panky. I could see a no-frillsfuture coed force saying "If you don't have the discipline to keep yourhands to yourself and make your own mature decisions about sex, you don't havethe discipline to handle a weapon."

The plot revolves around a war between humans and a race of intelligent arachnids. Although they apparently lack technology of any kind, the warrior caste of this race is hard to kill and limitless in numbers. The Earth forces are armed with automatic weapons which they spray prolifically rather than aiming for the arachnids' vulnerable spots. The most absurd moment in the film comes when one trooper, after firing about 9.7 million rounds, declares she's out of ammunition. Her squad leader tosses her a clip and says "make them count." Apparently this force of the future has never heard of artillery, close air support, cluster bombs, chemical weapons or grenade launchers (except nuclear - they have nuclear missiles but not conventional ones!)

These arachnids apparently can launch their "spores" across space to colonize other planets. Whenever I hear of organisms that travel across space without spacecraft (the starseeds of Larry Niven's novels come tomind) I wonder how that mode of reproduction evolved. How does natural selection operate? How do you evolve a biological mechanism capable of reaching that kind of velocity? What do the intermediate stages look like? Half an eye will still detect light and motion; half a wing will still allow short glides. What does launching youreggs at half of escape velocity accomplish?

But there's good news. The special effects in this film are excellent. Anyone who thinks future combat will be an antiseptic "zap, you're dead" sort of thing ought to view this film. The combat injuries are at least as graphic as in Saving Private Ryan. The battle scenes on land and in space are simply awesome. Recommendation: fast forward through the sappy dialogue, pause at the shower room scene if you must, and enjoy the action and marvel at the animation.

One thing I didn't appreciate at the time was that this film was scored by Basil Poledouris, a prolific composer (died 2006) who also did Conan the Barbarian,Robocop, Les Miserables, Red Dawn and Hunt for Red October. I'm sorry to say I didn't appreciate this guy until I saw some posthumous tributes to him, but his music can make even a mediocre picture at least worth listening to.

Nightfall

Isaac Asimov's classic tale Nightfall has been rated, by a number ofgroups, the best science fiction story ever written, so when I saw this on theshelf at my local video store, I was intrigued. It hadn't been in theaters,which meant it was a straight video release, which meant it could be prettyawful. Still, it was based on the Asimov story. The jacket lists one ofthe producers as Roger Corman, in the words of the Mystery Science Theater3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, "a name you can trust." Well,there's a buck I'll never have again. 

The good news is it isn't utterly dreadful. The bad news is it isn't really all thatgood. It achieves a nice unsubstantial mediocrity. The story takes place on aplanet in a multiple star system, where night never falls, except, it turns out,once every thousand years when a particular alignment of the suns, plus theappearance of an unknown planet, result in a planetwide eclipse. Theinhabitants, who have never known darkness, go insane with fear and thecivilization collapses. The story and the film both deal with the conflictbetween scientists and a religious cult over how to approach the comingdisaster. Asimov later wrote a novel that explored the story in more depth, andthe film mixes elements of the original story and the novel haphazardly.

As the film opens, Allyra (Jennifer Burns) and Sheerin, two scientists, sneakinto an archeological dig on the property of the cult, called the Watchers. Theyare afraid the cult will bury the site. Question: if the cult is afraid of whatthe dig might turn up, why allow it in the first place? Allyra's father (DavidCarradine) forbids her to risk more confrontations with the cult, but she sneaksback anyway and is only rescued from discovery by a Watcher named Metron. Metroneventually agrees to take Allyra into the desert to a cave full of artifacts,where they have a couple of narrow escapes from desert tribesmen and insane cavedwellers. Question: the cave is lined with lit torches. Why are they surprisedit's inhabited?

After escaping, they pause to rest and the inevitable happens. We see the twoin each others' arms as they awake. Allyra gets up and hastily pulls a robe infront of her. Question: why? They just made love, they're in the middle of thedesert. Who's to see?

As the eclipse draws near, the scientists plan observations and the Watchersplan the destruction of the University to avert the wrath of God. The cultleader and his assistant deliver good, chilling performances, all the more sobecause you know they're going to win. As the eclipse begins, the populace goesinsane and starts burning anything in sight to create light. The cult storms theuniversity, massacring everyone they can. Carradine, who has evidently forgottenall his kung fu skills, goes down in the slaughter. Metron and Allyra escape andwatch the burning city as the eclipse ends.

Why this film was rated R is beyond me. The love scene is tepid and theviolence, despite lots of fake blood, isn't as graphic as many other films. Andthe film departs from the Asimov tale in pointless ways. Metron has psychicpowers that come in handy but serve no real purpose in advancing the story. Inthe original story, the people are utterly paralyzed by fear of the dark, and sounfamiliar with it that even a crude torch is a revolutionary advance. In thefilm, they're just not affected enough by fear to make their actions credible.The film would have been a lot better if it had tried to tell the original storyinstead of trying to jazz it up with hokey action. Still, Jennifer Burns isawfully cute in the film.

Spider Man

Easily the best comic book adaptation in recent years, very faithful to theoriginal. Plus Kirsten Dunst - grrrrowr. Ignoring the genetic improbabilities ofmixing human and spider DNA, the scientific problems boil down to surface tovolume ratio. Spider Man is about 100 times the size of a spider. Mass increasesas the cube of size but surface area only as the square. So Spider Man weighs amillion times as much as a spider but his finger tips have only 10,000 times thesurface area of a spider's foot. That means his tissues have to be 100 times asstrong as the spider's to do what a spider does.

If Spider Man clings upsidedown to something (as he does at several points in the film), the mechanicalproblems get interesting. If Spider Man weighs 125 pounds and his finger tipshave an area of 5 square inches, then the tensile force between his skin andwhat he's clinging to is 25 pounds per square inch. Imagine covering a squareinch of your hand with Crazy Glue, sticking your hand to a 25 pound object, thenlifting it.

World-class rock climbers support their entire body weight fromtheir finger tips at times, but their finger tips are on top of a holdand the forces are compressional. I find it hard to believe human tissue, evenaugmented with spider tissue, could support the sorts of purely tensional forcesSpider Man does. And when we think of dynamic forces, such as falling along way and then suddenly clinging to a wall, the physics becomes even moreunlikely.

Then there's the Web. High-test fishing line can support the weightof a human, so the web isn't wholly implausible in a static situation, but thedynamic forces of swinging, bouncing, or stopping falling objects are tooimplausibly great. And what does the Web stick to? Assuming there's anadhesive that can stand the tensional forces, we have to assume that all thesurfaces Spider Man sticks his web to are completely clean and free of dust,grease, flaking paint, crumbling masonry, etc. On Spider Man's end, if the webis simply coming out of the spinneret on his wrist, which we'll assume is atenth of an inch wide, the tensional force is 125/(0.1 x 0.1) or 12,500 poundsper square inch, enough to rip the gland right out of his arm. If he's grippingthe web, that's about like someone supporting himself by hanging on to a pieceof string. If he wraps it around his hand - well, wrap high-test fishing linearound your hand and then use it to hang from the ceiling.

The most absurd moment comes when the villain sends a cable carplummeting to its doom, and Spider Man hangs by his web to save it. Every cablecar I know of greases the cables, and I have problems picturing even Spider Manbeing able to hang on to a greasy cable with several tons of weight attached.But we'll assume he can do it. And we'll also assume his Web can stand thestresses. In between the two there's nothing but Spider Man! Somehow hisarms, joints and tendons can withstand tons of tensile force!

Concerning GreenGoblin's rocket platform, as Will Smith said in Independence Day, I have gotto get me one of them!


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Created 5 February 1998, Last Update 24 May 2020

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