“That couldn’t actually happen.” It’s the mating call of the debunker—the pop culture fan who’s eager to un-suspend disbelief at the first whiff of artistic license. You know the type: “A car could never make that jump.” “Gravity doesn’t work that way.” And so on. Below are six instances where film and TV stretched the bounds of reality to tell their story—and were subsequently debunked by fans who couldn’t resist the simple joy of ruining everything.
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The Indiana Jones series has never been too concerned with the details of its title character’s profession. His archaeologist gig is clearly just a premise for his action-packed exploits. But in a much-discussed 2008 Washington Post op-ed, real-life archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman greeted the release of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull by complaining that the film would be “another long, twisting jump off the cliff of respectability for the image of archaeology.” (To be fair, that was still one of the nicest things anyone said about Crystal Skull.) Silberman’s main complaint was the the movies’ mythology “totally misrepresents who archaeologists are and what goals we pursue.” A letter to the editor stood up for moviegoers: “I’m fairly sure that the public is smart enough to discern that archaeologists might not spend most of their time fighting Nazis and searching for buried treasure.”
America’s favorite astrophysicist and pop culture busybody Neil DeGrasse Tyson has developed a reputation for calling out scientific inaccuracies in film and television. But none of his hectoring has had quite as much impact as the time he informed director James Cameron that the star field Rose looks up at in Titanic was cosmologically inaccurate. The critique made such an impression on the filmmaker, he had it digitally altered for the 3-D re-release of the film in 2012.
Sometimes, the creators of a work preemptively debunk themselves. Star Trek’s beam-me-up transporters are a useful narrative device that can get characters from one place to another in a hurry. The only hitch is, everything we know about physics indicates the transporters—which supposedly convert matter into energy and back again—are impossible. The problem is the “uncertainty principle,” first stated by physicist Werner Heisenberg: It’s impossible to exactly measure the position and velocity of subatomic particles at the same time. As it happens, a transporter needs to do just that. So the producers of the Star Trek franchise invented “Heisenberg compensators”—unexplained gadgets, installed on every transporter, that circumvent the problem. Don’t ask how these things defy the laws of the universe. They just do.
It’s a classic moment of childhood mischief: Dropping a cherry bomb in the school toilet. In the case of Bart Simpson, this youthful indiscretion had an outsized result, with every toilet in the boys’ bathroom shooting water into the air from the force of the explosion. Unfortunately, when the Mythbusters team tried to recreate the moment, the ceramic broke open instead, proving that unless Principal Skinner had indestructible toilets installed, Bart’s prank had an unlikely outcome.
It’s not just Will Smith who was nonplussed by the idea of using a personal computer to destroy an entire alien fleet in Independence Day. Many theatergoers walked out of Roland Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster saying, “Not a chance in hell.” The idea that an Apple PowerBook could somehow be used to hack into and deliver a virus to an alien species’ technology has become a pop-culture punchline, and was the go-to example of big-budget sci-fi silliness—to the point that in 2014, screenwriter Dean Devlin finally had to offer an explanation for the deus ex Mac-hina. “What Goldblum’s character did was turn the ones into zeroes and the zeroes into ones,” Devlin told Yahoo, “effectively reversing the code that was sent.” Sure, that clears it up.
When the Rebellion destroys the second Death Star in Return Of The Jedi, the fuzzy Ewoks watch the explosion light up their sky. Those fireworks create a problem. If the Ewoks’ forest moon is that close to the Death Star, the battle station’s destruction would result in ecological catastrophe. The alarming truth was laid out in a masterful 1997 online debunking. Physicist and devoted Star Wars fan Curtis Saxton soberly yet entertainingly detailed the horrors that the burnt-up Death Star would produce for the Ewoks—including radiation, debris impacts of thermonuclear proportions, and an orbital shift. “A general climatological catastrophe was unavoidable,” Saxton wrote. You can understand why George Lucas decided to end the original trilogy with a sappy song instead.