Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tornado! and Twister: a small film and big film about the same natural hazard from 1996

ION Cable TV tonight (Sunday Jan. 27) aired (as part of the RHI movies series) Hallmark’s “Tornado!” (1996), directed by Noel Nosseck. The film tracks some tornado hunters, and an auditor trying to shut a project down. Three major tornados strike during the film, following the screenwriting structure. In the middle a town is destroyed by an F5 that comes out of nowhere. The film is set in the Texas Panhandle in some fictitious towns around Amarillo. The film anticipates that tornados will get bigger with global warming, even though the film is a dozen years old. But higher temperatures and more violent weather had been noted in the 1980s.

A much more famous (theatrical) film in the same year was "Twister", from Warner Brothers and Universal, directed by Jan de Bont, with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. In that film a divorcing couple is forced to come together by working on twisters, on of which picks up a cow. In the opening scene, a man is vacuumed out of a storm cellar.

In late March 1998 some severe tornados tore across southern Minnesota, among the earliest largest tornados on record that far north. I was with a friend up north for the day and remember encountering spring hail as we approached Minneapolis.

When I attended the University of Kansas for graduate school in the 1960s, students sometimes went out and chased tornados.

For aerials of the damage from the F5 tornado that hit Greensburg KS in May 2007, go here.

Update: March 24

TBS and the Sci-Fi channel aired a film (on Sci-Fi) "Atomic Twister", directed by Bill Corcoran, in which a nuclear power plant in Tennessee is threatened with radioactive release and explosion after repeated tornado hits.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

HC: Deep Space Threats to Our Planet

Tonight, The History Channel's "Universe" series aired a one hour "The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to Our Planet" in which a number of externally imposed "mega-disasters" were discussed. The first were the well known comet and asteroid, with a particular asteroid that could hit in 2036 after a close call in 2029, and cause a huge tsunami in the Pacific. Proposed deflection measures like blowing up the asteroid or deflecting it slightly are presented. The Siberian Tunguska explosion in 1908 was covered, with this program offering the asteroid explanation.

The program discussed the gamma ray burst, which could be an extinction event from even 1000 light years away (a super nova). It did not go into as much technical detail about supernovas as an earlier "Mega-Disasters" program (which has covered comets and asteroids, also, in separate one hour broadcasts; check this blog Sept Oct 2007). There would be a sudden flash that would overwhelm the sky and continue at night, although those on the other side of the Earth would not take a direct hit.

The remainder of the program were future certainties that cannot happen in our lifetime. The Sun will become a red giant, almost reaching Earth, in 5 billion years, and then shrink to become a white dwarf. In 30 billion years, we may have "the Big Rip" in which dark energy starts separating galaxies, then stars, the planets, and finally the matter of the earth itself.

Imagine a science fiction scenario. The earth's orbit starts to deteriorate because of aliens, 1% a year, and "they just aren't telling us."

Update: March 22

There is an AP story by Seth Bohrenstein "Distant Star's Explosion Shatters Record", link here. Over seven billion light years away, from half the age of the universe, it was visible to the naked eye. But the gamma ray burst seems to have been from a "safe distance" and didn't do any harm. From 100 light years away, that would be a different matter.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Life After People: Another History Channel speculation

On Monday, Jan. 21, 2008, The History Channel aired its highly promoted documentary "Life After People," link here. The film supposes that one day, at some precise point in time, all humans on Earth simply vanish. It traces in increments in time the decay of the remnants of civilization to the point in some hundreds of years most of the vestiges of civilizations have crumbled. The same thing has happened with ancient civilizations of the past. Most of what the Maya built crumbled in a thousand years. In fact, the ultimate destruction by nature of remnants supports speculations that extra-terrestrials could have built early civilizations or seeded ours and then disappeared. (The upcoming movie 10000 BC, according to previews, shows a civilization that is surprisingly sophisticated.) There is a period of time when highrise cities are grown over and some animals fare particularly well, such as descendants of house cats. A few monuments of civilization, like the Pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China, last for millennia.

The filmmakers obviously invested a lot in CGI affects to show the gradual deterioration of physical infrastructure, which in time becomes quite overwhelming.

Of course, there is no way people could simply disappear without most other higher animals going, too. A gamma ray burst would take some weeks to kill everyone, but would kill most animals. The same is true of most other extinction scenarios, like a massive asteroid or comet hit, or even a significant black hole (however unlikely), or the effect of a nuclear winter.

The film speculates at the end whether radio signals would reach a distant civilization, but they disintegrate into noise in about a light year. Future intelligences that replace us might not develop a reflective culture with language like we did. Consider the dolphins.

The film seems like an appropriate broadcast the same weekend that "Cloverfield" opened. In fact, clover is one of the grasses most likely to infiltrate urban areas immediately after people are gone.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Homemade video of a fictitious mega-disaster: Cloverfield (there are real ideas here)

Cloverfield, dir. Matt Reeves, released Jan. 18, 2008, for the New Year, rightfully belongs on the Paramount Classics or Vantage list (there have already been several important films late in 2007 from Vantage) because it really is an art film (made by Bad Robot, with the film title coming from a neighborhood street, although it sounds like the name of a Central Park Meadow) about amateur movies and about 50’s style “Asian” monster movies, in some lattice combination. The soundtrack sizzles, with, for the closing credits, a great concert overture by Michael Giacchino in G Minor called “Roar” with a 5 note theme g-g-Bfat-a-Bflat, wandering around in half-steps, in real sonata form. (It would work by itself in a symphony orchestra concert.)

Of course, everyone knows the gimmick by now. Some yuppie likable post-college kids (already CEO’s of their international Internet companies a la Myspace, probably) get together for a going away party for one of the guys headed for Japan (hint, home of the monster movie). The other kids are documenting the event on home video for him. The opening 20 minutes of the movie are pretty much real time (except for a quick Sunday morning (a la Benjamin Britten) prologue that may be near the old Seaside Courts (paddleball) near Coney Island) as of you could make a Sundance film out of a party video. You probably can. The conversations build up quickly, and if you didn’t know what this film is, you might think this could be an interesting “you are there” art film. (Please, not “Full Frontal” (2002)). Then, there is a roar and a shake as the kids are near the bar, near the balcony, and they can look outside. Pretty soon they are turning on to CNN’s Breaking News, and it seems that there has been an earthquake in lower Manhattan – a good premise, because that really can happen – and an oil tanker has ruptures in NY Harbor. Again, that’s a pretty good premise for History Channel mega-disasters. (There are big tankers there: I remember seeing one from 99 Wall Street while working for Bradford in 1977, where we could see the East River). Well, the destruction gets really bad quickly. Here, you wonder for a while just how the media would cover what sounds like a rerun of 9/11, except that it is really much worse already (if that can be imagined). There simply is no place to run.

The last half of the movie does pay homage to “The Beast from 20000 Fathoms,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” “The Giant Behemoth,” “Them”, even the 70s short "Bambi v. Godzilla". And don't forget the Korean film "The Host" and the Japanese "Pulse" (remade in the U.S.). We get to see the "tadpole" monster in increasingly uncompromising shots, and yet the media doesn’t cover it. But it doesn’t take the military long to start attacking it, and announce “Operation Hammer Down,” abandoning Manhattan forever. The behemoth generates arthropod babies that chase the people further. The kids keep documenting their demise to the very end for others to find. You can say, what a way to make a movie. Film your worst calamity.

The film is shot 1.85 to 1 to look like video, although the actual photography looks entirely professional, even if it is supposed to show the world from the Dogme 95, handheld style.

There is a 1999 TV miniseries, 170 min (4 hours elapsed on TV), directed by Mikael Solamon, novel by Chuck Scarborough, "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York". It airs on ION Cable on Jan. 20, 2008. As it unfolds, it seems like an overlong "Cloverfield" without the ingenuity of presentation (and without being a monster movie). It's the typical disaster movie with many little intersecting survival stories, but Manhattan is pretty much destroyed. A year later, though, it's on its way back. The WTC survives in this pre-9/11 prophecy. Netflix shows a Save status for the DVD, so it may come out soon. This blog discussed a History Channel film for a NYC earthquake scenario Oct 23, 2007 (see archives).

Update: Jan 24, 2008 Vertigo indeed

A story on CNN "Scary Viewers Making Viewers Sick" reports that some moviegoers experience motion sickness and nausea from the rapid uneven movement of the handheld cameras in the film "Cloverfield". I did not have any discomfort at all, but I've gotten used to "Dogme" like camera work, and this seems to be an individual variation. The story is here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

History Channel cosmology, and CERN: here, the strangelets and mega-disasters are the stuff of sci-fi movies

The History Channel seems to be going into repeats on its Mega-Disasters, and it may be stretching things to make too much out of the cosmology in its Universe series, but there may be something here.

January 1, the Universe series discussed three kinds of “cosmic holes” – worm, white and black. That’s not the same idea as the 2001 Disney adventure movie with Shia LaBeouf. No, here we’re talking about basic notions in physics. The white variety are fountains that spew matter into the universe (we’ve never found them). The wormholes would presumably take us to parallel universes in multi-dimensional space (by connecting branes), like a shortcut eaten through an apple. Black holes are, of course, well known: there are millions of the stellar kind in each galaxy, formed by supernovae, and there are the supermassive ones at the centers of galaxies. In rare cases, they merged. Previous History channel programs had dealt with the very remote possibility of a gamma ray burst from one of these hitting the earth every few billion years or so.

The end of the New Years Night Universe presentation discussed some large accelerators around the world, such as one in Switzerland, near Geneva and the border with France. This one belongs to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN has a web entry that claims that the World Wide Web was invented by one of its scientists, Tim Bernes-Lee, in 1990, at this link. (The root website appears to be the School:). Now that is quite a claim (not quite like Al Gore ‘s), because the elements of the Internet were invented in various defense-oriented entities and universities starting back in the 1960s, and the public did not gain the right to use it until 1992. CERN (and other similar accelerators around the world, as in Texas and Illinois) are concerned with basic particle physics research, and not speculations of science fiction.

Various Internet personalities have speculated whether CERN or similar activities could conceivably lead to the production of black holes that swallow the earth, or to strangelets that produce runaway deterioration of space-time. That speculation occurs in a book by Sir Martin Rees “Our Final Hour” (Basic, 2004). It also appears on sites like “Risk Evaluation Forum” But the History Channel Universe program, contrary to the sensationalism of many of its other films, toned down this speculation to be essentially impossible.

Mini-black holes would present a confluence of general relativity and quantum mechanics, and challenge questions as to whether information in an object that sunk beyond the Schwarzschild Radius (event horizon) of a black hole could ever be recovered. The idea that information could be preserved in black holes and transported (faster than the speed of light) to other points in this or other universes was popular and circulated in some papers in the 1970s (such as Jeffrey Mishlov’es) and picked up by the “New Age” movement of the time. There are many articles about these matters on Wikipedia, which is trying to get some professional physicists to fill in the details and sources for the claims made.

The "Universe" show did make the point that the deeper laws of physics -- the mathematical constants, and the apparent impossibility of transcending the speed of light, the operations of relativity, and the avoidance of time travel paradoxes -- all seem to be nature's way of "protecting itself." One could extrapolate from this into religious notions of personal morality.

Along these lines, it’s interesting how science builds up in blocks. The basics of physics (or physical science) lead to chemistry; the descriptive facts on the Periodic Table, leading to all the possible valences, orbitals and electronegativities (so much the subject matter of AP chemistry courses) all follow from the physics of elementary particles. From this, at the next level, are inorganic compounds and then the whole world of organic chemistry, the bane of pre-med students in college. Then, of course, biology builds on chemistry, from ATP to amino acids to RNA and DNA, to cells, with its life cycles, forming patterns that have “moral” or religious significance to people and that seem beyond explanation without some sort of intelligent design, in the minds of some people.

Nevertheless, the idea of a mini black hole does give rise to some loglines for sci-fi movies or novels. I am working on a novel manuscript, which I may title “Brothers Simple” and I won’t give the plot (“beginning, middle, end” etc.) here (I have three different formulations from the viewpoints of several different characters) but I’ll hint at the sci-fi scenario, as another possible “mega-disaster.” A certain infection appears in some older people with unknown transmission and becomes recognized as a bizarre retroviral disease. The viral proteins can accommodate certain radioactive atoms (like a new allotrope of astatine) that produce micro black holes that allow the information imprints of other personalities to be imported. A few infected individuals take on the identities of selected from entities called the “144000”. People start disappearing, with their identities assimilated by others, as the world approaches an apocalypse. That’s the basic idea. It’s got a ways to go before winding up on imdb.