Plan Ten From Inner Space: 10.5 and 10.5: Apocalypse

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

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Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist.


Hunk Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this, either. Stephen Hawking may be a great heroic role model, but good looks sell tickets.


High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.


Pompous Ass who Pays With His Life. The pig-headed boss or political figure who refuses for selfish reasons to listen to warnings and gets killed. Occasionally it really happens; the governor of Martinique refused to evacuate when Mont Pelee began erupting 1902, and died in the resulting catastrophe. So did 30,000 innocent people.


Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.


Cookie Crumbs Have No Calories. And large objects (like asteroids) cease to exist once they're broken up.


What do you get when you combine some not bad acting talent, a few minutes of high-class special effects, and geology straight out of the Great Big Scientific Random Buzzword Generator? You get 10.5, which aired on NBC May 2-3, 2004. Star Kim Delaney said in an interview "I don't think I've ever studied so much for any project." How hard do you have to study to parrot gibberish?

The local NBC station contacted me about an interview on local earthquakes the week before the movie aired. In Wisconsin, it's about as near zero as risk can get, and they did a pretty decent job with the report. Still, note to self: when a TV station asks for an interview tied to a big upcoming movie, wear a paper bag over your head. Some people have already recommended I do that anyway.

We open in Seattle where a bicyclist's ride is interrupted by an earthquake. He pedals with remarkable aplomb through mounting devastation, pausing at the foot of the Space Needle. Suddenly the foundation begins to crack, with zigzag cracks running upward like the glacier in the opening scenes of Ice Age. It apparently doesn't occur to him to take a few seconds to see which way the tower is going to fall, because he pedals off in the exact direction the tower topples. He doesn't look quite so nonchalant as he keeps looking back.

9-11 taught us some things about what happens when a big structure topples. I seriously doubt the Space Needle would topple like a falling redwood. More likely, once the tower started to fall, the remaining struts would break. At that point the concrete would likely start to fail on all three struts and the structure would pancake like the World Trade Center. If the tower did begin to topple, I suspect the concrete would start to crumble before the tower had toppled very far and then everything would simply drop. In any case, the saucer on top would certainly not remain largely intact when it hit.

At the Washington State Geo-Lab, pandemonium reigns as gallant geologists struggle to make sense of the chaos. The quake has the decency to hit early in the morning, enabling heroine Dr. Samantha Hill (Kim Delaney) to make her first appearance clad only in a long T-shirt (that's as racy as it gets). A TV broadcast describes how a "giant underground gas pocket fifty feet underground" collapsed, causing most of downtown Seattle, including the Space Needle, to cave in. Apparently they did absolutely no site testing before putting up what was then the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. Three minutes into the movie and already the gibberish is flowing.

Meanwhile, down in California, a mother is saying good-bye to her daughter, who is off on a camping trip with the ex-husband. Just another typical single working mom. Then she gets a phone call. Well, not quite your typical single working mom. She's the governor (Rebecca Jenkins).

In Washington D.C., the President (Beau Bridges) is alerted to the disaster in Seattle. He and his aides tune in to a TV bulletin describing how damage to Interstate 5 has caused commuter traffic to overflow onto side streets. I can see why Microsoft and Boeing are in Seattle. Those folks don't let anything stop them from getting to work.

Meanwhile, 50 miles east of Redding, California, a passenger train suddenly is imperiled when a fault ruptures behind it. Amazingly enough, this fault rupture runs directly along the track, finally widening into a chasm that engulfs the train. Even more amazing, once the fault swallows the engine, it stops growing.

Back up at the Washington State Geo-Lab, the geologists watch the new quake come in on their seismographs. These seismographs give the magnitude of the quake on the fly. This actually might be possible if you understand that the magnitude represents the total energy release up to that point. The WSGL folks speculate that the Redding quake might be an aftershock. There's some concern that the "aftershock" is bigger than the main event (rare but it can happen). I'm more concerned that the "aftershock" is 800 miles from the first earthquake.

This quake is felt as far south as San Bernardino, but somehow the governor in Sacramento, halfway in between, doesn't feel it. She has to be told about it in a phone call. Later on we learn that Interstate 5 is closed "from Sacramento to Oregon" due to structural damage. So the quake is strong enough in Sacramento to wreck a major freeway yet the governor doesn't feel it. She's either very preoccupied with her work or has a very soundproof office.

The Central Valley of California is underlain by up to ten kilometers of poorly consolidated sediment, which would shake like jelly in a major quake. In 1906 the Valley felt the San Francisco earthquake much more strongly than the intervening Coast Ranges. So I guarantee an 8+ earthquake in Redding would be noticed in Sacramento.

Father and daughter, meanwhile, are headed for the Redding area but apparently don't feel the quake either. They have to hear about it on the radio. It doesn't occur to them that maybe they should head for, say, Yosemite instead. They keep going, eventually coming to a town buried by a landslide. While attempting to find another route, they drive onto more landslide debris and start to sink. Just like quicksand. Daughter escapes but Dad is trapped in the sinking SUV. The SUV is buried and the roof starts to buckle in. I wonder what kind of rollover rating that SUV has if a foot of gravel can make the roof collapse. Even more, I wonder how it can collapse the roof and not break any windows. Dad finally kicks out the windshield and scrambles to safety.

After the second quake, the WSGL geologists are ferried to Los Angeles to join a task force headed up by Roy Nolan (Fred Ward), the head of FEMA. This guy is obviously meant to be the Pompous Ass Who Pays With His Life, but while he has his bad moments and is clearly capable of being a pompous ass, he mostly does the right things. Hill meanwhile is shown a fresh seismograph, utters a string of geo-babble about "side to sides," "lateral skips" and "preactivity," and concludes that the Redding earthquake was indeed separate from the Seattle quake. "It has its own epicenter," she chortles, thereby educating those of us who thought every earthquake had its own epicenter. (Shut up and learn some new things, my wife kept telling me.) At a meeting where Dr. Hill presents her theory about linked superfaults, Nolan pooh-poohs the idea, but he also does pass it along to the President. And he does let Hill go up to Redding to try to verify her theory.

Hill and her colleague Dr. Jordan Fisher (David Cubitt) fly on up and are dropped off by helicopter. Although there is some wonderful scenery around Redding, it's nowhere near as rugged as what we see in the chopper flight. The scenery looks more like the high Cascades. Maybe she needed to go back to Seattle to get her toothbrush. Hill's theory is that the deepest earthquakes stop at 700 kilometers because our instruments can't detect them below that depth. So she and her colleague take soil samples. I can readily see how going a foot deep with a soil auger will reveal the existence of a fault more than 700 kilometers deep. But the key discovery comes when they spot dead animals and realize a deep pocket of toxic gas has erupted. Just then more gas bubbles out of a stream and they frantically run to their vehicle to don gas masks. Wow. All the field trips I took without bringing a gas mask. I even spent several weeks doing field work near Redding just after college, without a gas mask. I was lucky to escape with my life.

Toxic gases can be a hazard in some volcanic and hot spring areas. A gas mask will filter some of them out. But it won't protect against asphyxiation if the gases completely displace all the oxygen. A gas mask can remove poisonous gases and allow oxygen to pass, but it can't create oxygen if there is none. If you'd been at Lake Nyos in the Cameroon in 1986, when a carbon dioxide outburst killed 1800 people, a gas mask would not have helped.

The deepest earthquakes stop at 700 kilometers because they don't go deeper, not because we can't detect them. "Try screaming through 700 kilometers of earth and see if anyone hears you," says Hill. Apparently she pictures the earth as being stuffed with feathers or Styrofoam packing peanuts. Actually seismographs are perfectly capable of spotting earthquakes anywhere within the earth. If they happened in the core, we'd hear them. On the Moon, the comparatively unsophisticated instruments left by the Apollo Program detected magnitude 1 events at a depth of 1000 kilometers.

Back in L.A., Hill announces that San Francisco will be next, but Nolan won't go public on it for fear of causing a panic. The governor goes to San Francisco for a press conference with the mayor. The quake obligingly hits while she's in town, and her loyal aide Rachel (Erin Karpluk) takes a falling wall for the governor. The Golden Gate Bridge collapses, with a nice shot of the deck dropping out from beneath the cars and leaving them in free fall. Curiously enough, there are no landslides on the hills or unusual waves in the water.

Nolan calls the President and 'fesses up that he failed to warn him about the San Francisco prediction, thereby making it clear that he will not get out of this movie alive. But he does say that Hill predicts more quakes, whereupon the President authorizes the evacuation of the entire West Coast. The strip of land shown on the maps as endangered is only 100 miles or so wide, California has 35 million people, Oregon 3.4 million and Washington 5.9 million. So they will have to import the population of Ohio to get close to the figure of 60 million people in danger that the film bandies about. Strikes me as kind of counterproductive if you want to evacuate people.

Dad and the daughter struggle through the woods and finally hook up with a truck full of refugees. They end up in a huge tent city being assembled at Barstow. They went from Redding to Barstow. 400 miles. This is the only refugee center for the whole west coast? To get from Redding to Barstow there are two ways to go. One is down the Central Valley, where you will inevitably cross Interstate 80 to Reno. It's inconceivable there wouldn't be refugee centers along that route or in the Reno area, just to handle the load from San Francisco. The other way is around the north end of the Sierra Nevada and then south, again passing right through Reno. By this time the injured governor has been medevaced to Carson City, just south of Reno. But her ex and daughter go right on past to Barstow.

Oh, by the way, when the truck arrives at the tent city, we see woods behind it. That's a lot more greenery than I've ever seen around Barstow.

Dr. Hill Comes Up With A Plan. Detonate half a dozen nuclear weapons along the faults, melting rock and welding the faults. The only minor quibbles I have are:

But the President okays the plan. Drilling begins at six key places. The nukes have to be placed at exactly the right depths. At one point the drillers complain about having to drill "through layers of solid rock." Imagine! Solid rock, underground. Who woulda thunk it? They were expecting maybe mayonnaise?

Everything goes according to plan until the sixth hole, near San Bernardino. The nuke drops off its cable and wedges in the hole. And it breaks its arming cable, so it can only be armed manually. Now if it were up to me, I'd lower a hook, hoist the nuke out, arm it manually, then lower it to the bottom of the hole. But FEMA director Nolan is due to die, and time is running out, so he climbs down into the hole to arm the bomb. Meanwhile the predicted super-quake begins. Nolan only has time to punch in part of the code before he drops down the shaft and the bomb pins him.

Oh, every so often the action cuts to a couple of doctors in Los Angeles for some reason, and one of them (Ivan Sergei) is Nolan's estranged son. This was a good bit of casting, by the way; they really do look like they might be related. Through a complex series of phone patches, Nolan is put in touch with his son, they reconcile, then Nolan manages to punch in the last digit just in time for all six nukes to detonate.

Jubilation erupts in the task force headquarters as the earthquake dies out, and the seismologists watch the magnitude of the earthquake go down. Now I can sort of imagine a computer interpreting a seismogram in real time and revising the magnitude upward as more signal comes in (recent research suggests it may be possible to predict the magnitude of an earthquake within the first few seconds), but no way can it go down. If the earthquake registered 7.2, it has generated a certain amount of energy, and there's no way it can take any of it back unless it somehow generates negative energy. The jubilation peaks when the magnitude drops to zero. Apparently on this Richter Scale, zero means no earthquake. On the Richter Scale used by most geologists, zero magnitude is roughly the energy of a stick of dynamite.

Hill and Jordan fly out to check the fault and see the Kern River flowing in the wrong direction. The Kern River flows south from Sequoia National Park to Bakersfield, then peters out into an alluvial fan and playa lake. The main course of the river is nowhere near the San Andreas Fault or any of the nuclear detonations. Hill at least notes correctly that the river should be flowing south and wonders "magnetic disturbance?" Jordan lifts our hopes for scientific literacy for a split second by saying "whoever heard of magnetic disturbances affecting a river?" Then he dashes them by adding "ocean waves, maybe, but not a river." They follow the flow to find the river spiraling down into a hole like water going down a bathtub drain. Seems the San Bernardino blast wasn't deep enough and that segment of the fault didn't weld.

Then the Big One begins. A fracture rips in from the coast, slicing through Los Angeles. At this point the movie has given up all pretense of tying the plot to known geology; frantic reporters talk about warnings put out by the "U.S. Geological Service.") The fault rips on into the Mojave desert and into the tent city. Although the film shows people fleeing in panic and tries to heighten the pathos by every means imaginable, the fact remains there just isn't that much that can fall on you in a tent city. Then the fissure curves north and back out to sea, leaving everything from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara an island. The quake peaks out at 10.5.

The traditional Richter Scale was known for a long time to understate the energy of extremely large earthquakes. In the last decade or so a modified scale called the Seismic Moment scale has been used for extremely large events. The largest earthquake on the conventional Richter Scale was about 8.7 but quakes on the Seismic Moment Scale can exceed 9. The great Chile earthquake of May 22, 1960 was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded with a Richter magnitude of 8.5 and a Seismic Moment magnitude of 9.5. The Indonesian disaster of December 26, 2004 was the first magnitude 9 event since the revised scale came into general use.

Judging from the zone of aftershocks, a good estimate of the fault rupture, the 1960 Chile quake was roughly equivalent to rupturing the entire length of the San Andreas Fault, about 1000 kilometers. Now each step on the magnitude scale means about 30 times more energy, so a magnitude 10.5 event would require a fault rupture 30 times as large, or 30,000 kilometers - three quarters of the earth's circumference. The earth's crust just can't store that much energy any more than a car battery can run your house lights overnight.

On the other hand, this movie seems to think an earthquake can be arbitrarily powerful at a given location and have no effects elsewhere. A 10.5 event, probably possible only from a very large asteroid impact, would very likely cause damage thousands of kilometers away and be felt over most if not all of the earth.

I don't expect much in the way of scientific accuracy from TV movies. I watch things like 10.5 for the same reason people are fascinated by train wrecks. But these guys are from Hollywood. In California. You'd at least expect them to get the geography of their own state halfway accurate. Putting the Kern River near San Bernardino or hauling earthquake survivors from Redding to Barstow is about like putting the Golden Gate Bridge in Bakersfield or the Rose Bowl in Oakland, then having it host a Super Bowl between the Oakland Giants and the San Francisco Raiders.

It Gets Worse

What could be worse than 10.5? Try 10.5: Apocalypse, aired in May, 2006. Kim Delaney is back as Samantha Hill and looking like a junior in high school. I kept expecting her to have to leave some crucial meeting for cheerleader practice. The Great Big Random Scientific Buzzword Generator is glowing red hot and close to meltdown. For example, we hear about "side to side compression waves" and "preactivity." Preactivity is a bit like being preapproved for a loan; once it starts, it's not "pre" any more, is it? And the script writers just love the word "fluctuations." Apparently they think it sounds cool: fluctuations, fluctuations, fluctuations.

The 10.5 catastrophe in California was just the prologue: Mount St. Helens erupts and a brand new volcano takes out Sun Valley, Idaho. Magma starts popping up everywhere and causes ground water to rise and flood the Four Corners region. Then it begins heating up Lake Mead and causing water to rise. Jordan Fisher, Hill's hunky sidekick, flies down from Colorado (Denver to Lake Mead is, like, a five minute ride by helicopter, right?). He sees water beginning to spill over the top of the dam, so he has the chopper hover in front of the dam, below the top. This was apparently to see if what was coming over the dam was really water as opposed to Dr. Pepper or chocolate milk. The dam blows out and the flood swats the helicopter out of the sky like a bug. Samantha Hill is devastated (rumor on the set is they drowned her kitten to achieve the right level of emotion); me, I thought "Darwin Award." I would not have put it past the writers to have him miraculously survive; if they had, you would have had my permission to hunt them down and pummel them with whatever is close at hand. Oh, we hear a news bulletin listing towns as far away as Yuma being devastated by the flood, including Kingman. Kingman is about 1500 feet above Lake Mead and 25 miles from the Colorado River. That must be some flood.

Beau Bridges, meanwhile is looking very concerned and Presidential, a whole lot more so than any of the talent pool on the horizon for 2008.

Samantha begins to suspect that a theory her father developed before being kicked out of the USGS for being a wacko might help explain what's going on. Seems the plates are reversing direction and beginning to converge again. But pappy (Frank Langella) is bitter about his treatment at the hands of the scientific community and has launched a second career as a lethal poker player in Lost Wages, and refuses to discuss the matter with Samantha. (How they got someone with Frank Langella's credentials into this mess defies logic. It can't be the money - he stands to make beaucoup bucks from Superman Returns) One of Samantha's colleagues runs a computer simulation that predicts the disturbances will expand into the Midwest, create a rift zone, and reactivate the Cretaceous seaway that once extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. (In a stunning plot twist, the seaway is real science. We scientists were completely blindsided.) Samantha notes that the whole region is "barely above sea level" to begin with. (Chicago, 600 feet; Bismarck, 1700; Fargo, 900; Omaha, 1040; St. Louis, 450, etc. All of them still mopping up after Hurricane Katrina. Just the other day they found an alligator in Mall of America).

Pappy changes his tune when he spots evidence of a tiny tremor. He sneaks into the basement of the casino and finds acidic water leaking in. He calls Samantha and warns her that Lost Wages is about to be hit, and that the acid water is eating away at the rocks below, creating a "giant Swiss cheese," like the script. Then the quake hits for real. With all that eating away underground, downtown Las Vegas simply sinks into the ground.

Samantha convinces the President that her father holds the key to the puzzle, so a massive rescue effort is mounted to save him. Since there are only, like, twelve rescue workers in the whole United States, the same rescue crew we saw working at Sun Valley is flown down to Las Vegas. Pappy and a few others are trapped deep underground. People killed by falling debris, check, panicky loudmouth, check, rescue worker's wife is pregnant but he doesn't know yet, check, Pappy rescued, check, hotshot hero dies bravely, check, tearful reunion, check. It's The Poseidon Adventure in a basement.

The coming attractions show the President ordering the evacuation of the Plains States. Considering how long it took to empty Houston before Hurricane Rita, that would be fun. No word on what the Canadians plan to do with Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The rift starts by smashing Mount Rushmore, then propagates south at 60 miles per hour. As it enters Texas, it's headed straight for a nuclear power plant, threatening to release a huge radioactive cloud over the Southeast. From a hundred miles away they can tell a zigzag crack is going to hit the power plant instead of missing it by a hundred yards or so. Pappy concocts a plan to blow up some gas wells and divert the fault (that's why there were no earthquakes in Kuwait during the Gulf War.) The usual nick of time effort pays off and the fault is stopped dead. It has glowing lava in the bottom, which just sits there.

But then the fault starts moving again, heading for the Gulf of Mexico. As everyone who's ever been there knows, the Gulf Coast of Texas is desert right down to the water line. Pappy watches incredulously, saying "I don't believe it." Although we may have been talking about different things, I agreed wholeheartedly. The rift hits the Gulf and water starts pouring in, turning to steam as it hits the lava (amazingly enough, a fairly accurate portrayal).

Considering how they botched the geography of their own state in 10.5, it's futile to expect these writers to have a clue about the rest of the United States. They seriously think the Dakotas are near sea level. They have no idea that all that lava in the bottom of the fault would flow downhill and eventually out of the rift. And the water pouring in from the Gulf runs all the way north to Canada and thence to Hudson's Bay.

An Open Offer to Hollywood

Send me your tired clichs, your poor plot premises, your huddled one-dimensional bit actors yearning for speaking parts, the wretched refuse of your latte bars. But mostly, send me your science scripts. Just tell me where you want some science, and how many syllables you want, and I'll insert some for you. It may not be perfect, but I guarantee it will be plausible enough that scientists watching the show won't shoot popcorn out their noses from laughing.

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Created 5 May, 2004,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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