I hear about it every single time The Day After Tomorrow reruns on television: There's no way Dennis Quaid's surveying equipment would work in sub-zero temperatures. And that's just one of many scientific inaccuracies in the global warming disaster film that my father, a chemistry professor at New York University, points out during the course of the film. Not to mention other numerous Hollywood releases; there isn't a disaster movie (2012), geek-tastic flick (Total Recall), or Syfy film (Sharktopus vs. Gatoroid vs. Giant Gopher vs. Mega Gary Busey) that my father won't find violates some basic scientific rules.
Not only does this knowledge enable me to take a breath of fresh air knowing my Hell's Kitchen apartment isn't likely to be overtaken by a rogue wave in the near future, but it's always fun to hear how Hollywood got it wrong (outside of Crash's Best Picture win). So following the release of Sony's genetics- and tech-obsessed Amazing Spider-Man, I couldn't help but ask him about the real-life possibilities of a high schooler building his own synthetic web shooters and a scientist's attempt to replicate the regeneration capabilities of lizards in humans, despite his insistence that he is not a biologist. The conversation went like this:
Me: So what do you think about the possibility of a high schooler building his own synthetic web shooters and a scientist's attempt to replicate the regeneration capabilities of lizards in humans?
Dad: First of all, it's a comic and not real.
Me: But let's pretend we want to adapt it to real life. Could someone like Curt Connors attempt to replicate lizards' regenerative properties in humans to regrow his arm? Has anyone ever tried it before?
Dad: It occurs in certain animals, so, in principle, it's feasible. Reptiles can regrow limbs. Amphibians grow limbs. What you can say is there are efforts ongoing in genetic engineering to eradicate certain health conditions or diseases. But are you asking has anyone ever used science to, say, grow wings and fly?
Mom: If you drink Red Bull, it gives you wings. And Scaramanga had three nipples.
Me: Okay, but why does Oscorp want to genetically engineer spiders and their webs specifically? What's the ado? Would any company be interested in creating web technology to replace metal?
Dad: Spider silks are amazingly diverse and have a range of properties from having extremely high tensile strength. So that's not beyond the pale at all. You just sequence their genome and identify the genome that's responsible for making silk fiber. It's lightweight. Metal weighs more. It's a cool material. Spiders are amazing. They generate all sorts of silk for multiple reasons. Some are strong and some are sticky to catch prey.
Mom: Like Frodo.
Me: What about Oscorp's machine that turns any liquid serum into a gas? Could something like that be used like Connors weaponized it to attempt to turn all of NYC into lizards?
Dad: You can make any liquid serum into a gas. Technically, that's feasible. There are biological agents that are dispersed as gasses. But I don't know of any biological agents that turn people into reptiles.
Mom: What's the deal with James Carville then?
This conversation went on for another 15 minutes, delving into fascinating topics like the Darwin's Bark Spider (whose silk is 10 times tougher than Kevlar), Ralph Steinman (who won the Nobel Prize posthumously after using his own pancreatic cancer experiments on himself), and whether a high school kid would be able to buy scientific liquid on Amazon ("If you were Prime," was the answer). But I also learned of Dr. Jim Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor and authority on superhero science that my father said would be far greater the authority. And, as it turns out, Dr. Kakalios was a great authority — so great that Sony recruited the author of The Physics of Superheroes to be a consultant on the film.
Dr. Kakalios — who had also served as a consultant on the set of 2009's Watchmen — is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange, which helps entertainment professionals connect with notable scientists to assist in accurate storytelling. And Sony, realizing they had lofty scientific ambitions with Amazing Spider-Man, recruited Dr. Kakalios early in the filmmaking process, even prior to green-lighting a finalized script. "[Sony was] interested in talking to me about the science of Spider-Man and the science of the lizard in a brainstorming way," he tells Hollywood.com. "Why would you use radioactivity in a genetic engineering lab? How would the wall crawling work? Are there any surfaces that it wouldn’t adhere to? How about the tensile strength of spider silk? How would you reproduce this artificially?"
Long story short, Peter could make his own web shooters with advanced circuitry ("Real spider silk is very strong and can do something like that — you just have to fudge a little bit on the diameter of the silk"), scientists would indeed love to find out a way to produce spider silk ("You could basically make lightweight clothing that would be stronger than Kevlar, [but] we don't know how to do it"), and lizards are able to regrow their tails thanks to evolution. (If only hands could do the same, "woodshop wouldn't have quite the same terrors," says Dr. Kakalios.) Clearly, it's implausible to believe in our current scientific landscape that a scientist like Curt Connors could find a way to mimic lizard behavior in order to grow back an arm. But when it comes to filmmaking, it's all about helping audience members believe that the existence such research is possible and, more importantly, understandable. "[Stan Lee and Steve Ditko] struggled to try to come up with plausible motivations," Dr. Kakalios says. "That’s the thing that Hollywood wants to do — they want to just have enough plausibility, enough reality, so that you don’t question how totally wrong anything else is."
After all, scientists and mathematicians have explored human mortality and life decay that Connors — and the head of Oscorp — hoped to reverse. An equation called the Gompertz Function actually explains that as one ages, the more he or she is likely to catch a lethal disease and die. As Dr. Kakalios says his colleague, University of Minnesota's Professor Boris Shklovskii, explains it using a metaphor involving cops and criminals, "When you’re young and healthy and in your prime, there are a lot of cops on the beat — a lot of immune cells that are searching out, always trying to nip a defective cell in the bud." But, as you age, "it's like a series of budget cuts that eventually winnow down the police force," and cells causing harm in the system can multiply into a tumor. It's proof that while it might seem ridiculous for a human to attempt to mimic reptile behavior, science is addressing the issue of life decay — and, more importantly, is eager to find interesting ways to do so. After all, as Dr. Kakalios notes, it was curiosity that led to the development of quantum mechanics (which, in turn, led to the existence of cell phones, iPads, and, as the professor notes, "pretty much anything my kids would say, without which, life is not worth living"). "You never know exactly what's going to pay off, and when and where," Dr. Kakalios says. "Quantum mechanics says that if you’re moving fast enough at a solid barrier like a wall, there’s a tiny but non-zero probability you’ll wind up on the other side of the wall. I tell my students, 'Run as fast as you can, and don’t be discouraged by the first 100 billion failures.'"
But Sony was also interested in getting the nitty-gritties correct, even if the storyline requires its audience to stretch their imaginations. Dr. Kakalios says he worked with the studio to create a production-friendly equation that was rooted in mathematical accuracy. "That would always be a pet peeve of mine, because you frequently see a random collection of complex equations that have no connection to each other [on movie blackboards]," he says. And Dr. Kakalios, noticing the theme of life decay throughout the film, opted to channel the Gompertz Function in the formula that audiences see in Peter Parker's notebook. "I took that equation, and I combined it with some other equations, because [the production designers] wanted it to look complicated," he says.
Of course, since, let's face it, the filmmaking business is all about appearances, Dr. Kakalios did have to adjust his equation in order to make it more movie-friendly. Says the professor, "The first thing they said [was], 'We love this, but could you make it more math-y?’ They wanted it to be more visually striking. Movies are obviously a visual medium, and I understand that, so I added some, what I might call, 'mathematical glitter' in order to bedazzle it, and that’s the equation. I thought, okay, but when the movie comes out, I know that there was actually some real science that was like the primer coat that went in there."
Because, when you come down to it, even Dr. Kakalios — and my professor father — is an audience member that heads to the theater for popcorn and a great show, regardless of accuracy. "When I went to go see Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t go with a pad of paper and a calculator, and say, “Ooooh, my physics sense is tingling,'" he says. "I go as a fan who wants to be entertained and understood."
But just one more gripe: Is it actually humanly possible for any high school student to score a plum internship with a plum scientist? "Listen, if I need to do some modern programming, the younger the better. You wouldn't want these old professor farts," he says. "I’ve actually had a couple [high school interns] in my time, and if they’re as smart as Peter Parker or Gwen Stacey, then I’d be happy to have them."
To see more about Dr. Kakalios' amazing collaboration with The Amazing Spider-Man, watch the video, titled "Spider-Man and the Decay Rate Algorithm," below! (Says the professor: "[It] sounds like the title of issue #241.")
(Reporting by Matt Patches)
Follow Kate on Twitter @HWKateWard [Image Credit: Sony] More:Marc Webb on Setting Up Spider-Man For a Sequel Spider-Man Fandom: Why a Reboot Was the Only Answer Amazing Spider-Man: Bigger Than Transformers!'Amazing Spider-Man'
The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.