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Fiction Science Club

Hollywood creates a new kind of killer comet

If a killer asteroid or comet comes our way, don’t expect Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall to try flying to the rescue. And don’t expect doom to arrive in one big dose.

Those are two of the lessons that Hollywood has learned since 1998, when “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” put death from the skies on the big screen. The killer-comet theme returns in “Greenland,” a big-budget movie that’s making its debut on premium video-on-demand this weekend. But the plot twists are dramatically different.

There’s a different look to the movie as well, thanks in part to the research that was done by visual effects supervisor Marc Massicotte.

“The movies of the past have had a large creative influence on the direction we wanted to take, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat what had been done,” he told me. “We wanted to update and also be as close [as possible] to what reality as we know it now is.”

Massicotte discussed his vision of doomsday for the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.  And to even out the proportion of science to fiction, I also checked in with Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation. Remy’s group focuses on the threats posed by asteroids and comets, as well as strategies to head off such threats — none of which involve Bruce Willis.

“Every movie that talks about this subject is a way to educate the public and raise awareness about the issue,” Remy told me. “The science in the movies may not be correct, but certainly the discussion and the education aspect — you know, the fact that these things do happen — we think is a plus.”

Massicotte was especially taken by the idea that incoming space objects may not hit the ground at all, but instead break apart as they plunge through the atmosphere, setting off a powerful airburst.

That was the case for the Tunguska blast that flattened half a million acres of Siberian forest in 1908, and for the Chelyabinsk meteor that injured hundreds of Russians in 2013.

For Massicotte, the fact that an airburst would look so good on the big screen was a bonus. “You’d have an asteroid that would come in and have an airburst — and in nighttime it would pretty much light up the sky, and light up its whole environment as if we were in total daytime, having beautiful shifting shadows and shadow play on vehicles that were driving at night on the road,” he said.

Several other choices were made with a nod toward scientific findings. For example, the filmmakers went with a killer comet rather than a killer asteroid, because comets are typically harder to track than asteroids. Virtually all of the near-Earth asteroids capable of causing mass extinctions are already being monitored, thanks largely to an effort that started around the time that “Armageddon” made its debut.

Even better, the comet in “Greenland” is an interstellar object, which plays off the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid in 2017. And the filmmakers set up the plot so that the comet broke up as it rounded the sun, turning a single object into thousands of unpredictable pieces.

As Massicotte and his teammates created the visuals for the movie’s latter scenes, they took their cues from the wildfires that were sweeping over Australia while the movie was being made. That explains the reddish sky that gives everything an eerie glow as the world burns.

“Considering the time frame within the film, the time that has passed, the amount of impacts that have hit the Earth and the devastation of ongoing fires from these impacts, we wanted to show how it had started to affect the climate,” Massicotte said.

There are also parallels to yet another real-world crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The movie’s name, “Greenland,” refers to the location of a huge military shelter that was held over from the Cold War. Who decides which people survive? How do the deciders enforce their will? The failings and sacrifices that come to light in the course of the comet crisis may strike a chord for those concerned about COVID-19.

The script for “Greenland” doesn’t include parts for the brave astronauts who try to subdue the killer comet — which is pretty much how it would be in real life.

Remy said that none of the three generally accepted methods for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid would involve sending humans. One calls for a kinetic impactor to smash into the asteroid, changing its course just enough to result in a miss. Another would use a “gravity tractor” to tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.

“The third one, which we hope we never have to use, is a nuclear standoff,” Remy said, “where you don’t blow it up, like in ‘Armageddon,’ but where you would explode it near the asteroid, and then the explosion will push the asteroid away.”

Scientists still have a lot to learn about comets, asteroids and interstellar objects — and about the best ways to keep our planet safe from cosmic threats — but perhaps the most promising plot development is that scientists are quick learners.

This month, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe delivered fresh samples from a carbon-rich asteroid that’s likely to help scientists figure out how such asteroids are put together. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is carrying an even bigger load of asteroid samples back to Earth. And a future mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will actually try out the kinetic impactor method for diverting an asteroid.

Even Massicotte is fascinated by the real-life science behind big-screen tales of killer asteroids and comets. “It’s all these little aspects that I’m still very curious about and would love to learn more about, obviously,” he told me. “It has shone a light on our little place in the universe — and how we’re not so indestructible.”

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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AI experts do a reality check on ‘Superintelligence’

Seattle, Microsoft and the field of artificial intelligence come in for their share of the spotlight in “Superintelligence” — an HBO Max movie starring Melissa McCarthy as the rom-com heroine, and comedian James Corden as the world’s new disembodied AI overlord.

But how much substance is there behind the spotlight? Although the action is set in Seattle, much of the principal filming was actually done in Georgia. And the scientific basis of the plot — which involves an AI trying to decide whether or not to destroy the planet — is, shall we say, debatable.

Fortunately, we have the perfect team to put “Superintelligence” to the test, as a set-in-Seattle movie as well as a guide to the capabilities of artificial intelligence.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.

And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.

“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”

MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”

The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.

Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.

Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,

Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.

“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).

Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.

Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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NASA works with Tom Cruise on space movie

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise played a drone repairman who turned into an action hero in the 2013 sci-fi movie “Oblivion.” (Universal Pictures)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has confirmed in a tweet that the space agency is working with movie star Tom Cruise on a project that involves shooting a film on the International Space Station.

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Real-life planet quest goes far beyond Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, and its two suns are a good example of science echoing Star Wars. Or is it the other way around? (Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox Photo)

Over the past 42 years, filmgoers have seen exotic worlds come to life in a succession of Star Wars movies — a series that is now coming to a climax with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker.” But are those exoplanets really all that exotic anymore?

Sure, we’ve seen two suns in the sky over the sands of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We’ve been to an ice planet (Hoth) and a lava planet (Mustafar). We’ve even spent time on a habitable exomoon that’s in orbit around a gas giant (Endor).

Back in 1977, most of us might have thought those types of worlds to be science-fiction fantastical. Today, they’re seen as totally plausible categories in the study of thousands of planets beyond our solar system. And Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who focuses on astrobiology and the habitability of exoplanets, suspects Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this could happen.

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‘Terminator’ is back! AI experts do a reality check

'Terminator: Dark Fate'
The killer robot in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” played by Gabriel Luna, can split into a human-looking ectoskeleton at left, and a metallic endoskeleton at right. (Paramount Pictures Photo)

He promised he’d be back — and 35 years after Arnold Schwarzenegger created what’s now a cliche for artificial intelligence gone wrong in the first “Terminator” movie, the cinematic nightmares about time-traveling killer robots have returned to the big screen.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” also marks the return of writer/producer James Cameron — who directed the first two movies in the franchise, but wasn’t involved in the three sequels that followed. Cameron skips over those films and reboots the saga with an alternate timeline for the robo-apocalypse.

Although monstrous machines have figured in movie plots since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in 1927, Schwarzenegger’s performance in “The Terminator” set the stage for worries about out-of-control intelligent machines.

Billionaire techie Elon Musk is among the best-known doomsayers. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street, killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said in 2017.

On the other side of the debate, Oren Etzioni, the CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, keeps telling people to calm down. “Even though AI is more and more being used, I want to reassure people that Skynet and Terminator are not around the corner for many, many reasons,” he told GeekWire in 2016.

Does the new “Terminator” movie update the saga with all the developments in AI, automation and robotics since 1984? How does “Dark Fate” stack up against the realities of our AI age? To get some informed perspectives, I invited two folks who work in the field to watch the movie with me — and share their thoughts afterward.

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Brad Pitt gets thumbs-up from space for ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt at NASA
Brad Pitt, the star of the space movie “Ad Astra,” chats with NASA astronaut Nick Hague over a video hookup to the International Space Station. (NASA via YouTube)

Imagine the taglines in the movie ads: “Really good” portrayal of zero-gravity! “Absolutely” better than George Clooney!

There’d be some justification for Brad Pitt’s space movie, “Ad Astra,” to use those lines after today’s Earth-to-space video call between the A-list Hollywood star and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, who’s finishing up a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station.

Pitt said the linkup, arranged through NASA, was a “real treat.” And he didn’t waste any time getting a film review from Hague, who watched an advance screening of “Ad Astra” with his crewmates on the station.

“Now that I have you all the way up at the space station, let’s talk about me,” Pitt said. “How’d we do? How was our zero-G?”

“I gotta tell you, it was really good,” Hague said as he floated amid the trappings of the station’s Destiny laboratory module. “The depictions, the settings, as you can tell, look very similar to the type of setting I’ve got around me.”

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Revisit the wacky world of corporate musicals

No fan of Broadway musicals should miss classics like “I Never Enjoyed My Operation More,” “My Insurance Man” and “My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place.”

What’s that? Never heard of ’em? For decades, those songs were heard only by employees at morale-boosting events, plus a precious few record collectors enchanted by what are known as industrial musicals.

Now one of those record collectors, TV comedy writer Steve Young, has had his quest turned into a hilarious and sweet documentary titled “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” The movie has already been picking up awards on the film-festival circuit, and it’s opening this weekend in Seattle for a regular run at the Varsity Theater.

Ironically, the innovations that have allowed Young to flesh out the little-known saga of industrial musicals — including the rise of the modern tech industry, the internet and online video — also contributed to the decline of industrial musicals.

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‘First Man’ and ‘The First’ put a new spin on space

Ryan Gosling in "First Man"
Ryan Gosling plays the role of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (Universal Pictures Photo)

Two big-name dramatic productions — “First Man” in theaters, and “The First” on Hulu — are putting the glorious past and potentially glorious future of space exploration on big and small screens.

But if you’re expecting the Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Armstrong, or the Sean Penn streaming-video series about the first mission to Mars, to tell a geeky off-world tale like “The Martian” … expect to be surprised.

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5 ‘Martian’ miscues to fix in future space flicks

Scene from "The Martian"
Astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) climbs through a hatch in his pressurized rover in a scene from “The Martian.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

LOS ANGELES — Planetary scientist Pascal Lee could give astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a good run for his money when it comes to truth-squadding movie depictions of space missions.

For almost two decades, Lee has been working on the tools and techniques that will be needed for future Mars expeditions, as the leader of the Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. The project, funded by NASA, the SETI Institute and other institutions, provides an earthy analog to the Red Planet’s bleak, cold, dry, isolated environment.

Astronauts could conceivably set up shop on Mars sometime in the next decade or two, and there could be a crewed base on the moon even before that. So Lee says it’s high time for Hollywood to provide a more accurate picture of how such missions would work.

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