6 BS Movie Plots (Hollywood Keeps Insisting Are Realistic)
There are plenty of movies that everyone knows star magical or supernatural characters, like Harry Potter, the Marvel movies, or Fast And Furious parts 5 to infinity. And that's fine! The problem is when supposedly non-fantasy films feed us plots that seem realistic, but are basically essentially wizardry in disguise. Sometimes, these "scientific" concepts seep out into real life and we all start referring to them as if they were actual things that could happen, when in fact ...
There Isn't A Chemical That Slows Down Your Pulse And Lets You Fake Your Death
Hollywood loves a good fake death almost as much as it loves teal and orange. You've probably seen a spy/action movie where someone takes some kind of chemical that lowers their pulse until it's barely detectable, thus fooling doctors into pronouncing them dead. This goes at least all the way back to Shakespeare, who had Juliet take a handy fake-death potion so she could get out of her little family pickle.
Spoiler: It worked out great!
Somewhat more recently, this trope can be found in films like (spoilers!) Captain America: The Winter Soldier and shows of varying degrees of verisimilitude, like Miami Vice, 24, Chuck, and Alias. Most of these examples specifically mention a real chemical called tetrodotoxin -- aka, the bad stuff found in pufferfish, and the whole reason you need a specially trained chef to prepare the dish. According to movies and TV, the right amount of tetrodotoxin can slow down your heartbeat and put you in a death-like state for hours or even days; just long enough to let you freak the hell out of everyone attending your funeral.
And ensure no one attends your real one.
As you might have gathered from the fact that people aren't pulling that prank all the time, there is no drug that will let you fake your death. If you take tetrodotoxin at a low enough dose, you just get a tingling or analgesic effect. If you take more than that, at best you'll end up in a deep coma, but it ain't fooling any modern doctors ... which is a good thing, because you'll need their assistance to survive in that state. It's not like this thing can magically make it so you don't need to eat or breathe for days.
There's No Such Thing As A "Photographic Memory"
In movies (usually Matt Damon ones), having a photographic memory means you can take mental "snapshots" of anything you see and then recall that image down to the smallest detail. Jason Bourne can glance at a map and then navigate foreign streets perfectly, while the titular character in Good Will Hunting is able to recall the exact page something is on in order to humiliate a douchebag in a college bar (which is far more badass than being a secret agent).
"And if you look at page 69 of the Kama Sutra, you'll find the pose I did with your ma."
The level of detail is so uncanny that it allows the main character in Psych to regularly fool people into thinking he has magic powers ... but this is totally a real thing, right? Nope, not really. In decades and decades of studies and research, scientists have only been able to find one person with anything resembling Hollywood's idea of a "photographic memory," and it was in less than ideal circumstances (she married the scientist who found her and he stopped studying her, presumably because he was tired of losing every argument).
Now, there is something called eidetic memory, but it's not the same thing -- eidetic images only last for several minutes at most, and can sometimes be destroyed just by blinking. It isn't really a photograph so much as it is a chemically unstable Polaroid. On top that, they're not really that accurate. The Bourne movies apparently omitted all the scenes of Damon stopping his chases to ask for directions.
"Still better than Apple Maps."
And that's leaving out the fact that just because a person has an excellent visual memory, it doesn't mean they're some kind of perfect memory god. We humans have many different kinds of memory, it turns out. That's partially why Tatiana Cooley, multiple-year-winner of the Memoriad World Mental Olympics, still needs to use Post-it notes and shopping lists to remind her of simple everyday things (a statement so ironic that we don't blame you for clicking the link to check it).
The Untraceable, Fast-Acting, Unbeatable Poison Isn't A Thing
Another favorite tool of the cinematic spymaster is the ultra-poison. You know the one: The kind that acts instantly, has no antidote (and thus never fails), and never shows up in autopsies, like some kind of chemical ninja. This trope is so tired that you can pick up one of many Agatha Christie books from roughly a half century ago and find her characters mocking it, including two separate times in one short-story collection.
Above: Agatha Christie reacting to your mystery thriller idea.
Movies like You Only Live Twice and From Russia With Love feature characters being injected with poison and dying after a few seconds of choking and/or heavy breathing. Then there's the perfectly untraceable poison used in shows like Monk and Dexter. If we have poisons that perfect, why are murders committed in literally any other way?
In case you aren't familiar with this article's premise by now: That's not a thing that exists. First of all, poisoning isn't an exact tactic: Different people respond to different substances ... well, differently. One of the reasons people survive poisoning attempts is that there's no universal dosage that works on everyone; it's not like the killer can get you to try different things and adjust accordingly, like he's your psychiatrist. Another reason is that we actually have lots of antidotes for poisons -- here's one for freaking cyanide.
James Bond's entire medicine kit is just six of these and twelve gonorrhea shots.
Poisoning is actually a really easy way ... to draw attention. That's something that this guy convicted of killing his wife with an "untraceable" poison found out firsthand. Not only are you leaving some kind of purchase trail, but almost every poison has symptoms (and potential suspects) so obvious it's like printing a crossword right next to its answer key. They're hardly the stealthy killers spy films portray them as. Cyanide, for instance, gives its victims the shakes and a red flush, and arsenic makes people vomit and shit themselves (which Christie mercifully left implied).
Long story short, there's no poison that matches all the descriptions we listed above. We guess the takeaway is this: If you're planning to poison someone, just mute them on Twitter instead.
"Smart" Drugs Don't Actually Make You Smarter
You've probably seen ads on random websites for "The Real-Life Limitless Drug Only Available in That Boosts Brainpower!" or something very much like that. "Limitless," of course, refers to Limitless, the Bradley Cooper movie about a man who takes a nootropic drug which unlocks the full potential of his brain, allowing him to play the stock market with perfect accuracy and actually finish a book (holy shit!), among other feats. Then there is Lucy, which takes the concept of brain-enhancing drugs, adds Scarlett Johansson, and turbocharges them both until she is basically a wizard.
"Side effects: Extreme cerebral herpes."
We've already talked about how the "you only use 10 percent of your brain" tidbit is one of those things scientists describe as "not true," so that's a big clue that this is silly. Setting that aside, though, we come to the point that that's actually not even how nootropic drugs work. College students and wide-eyed Silicon Valley stereotypes with messianic delusions who take these pills may feel smarter, but that's likely because the drugs make you less tired and less bored. That's not nothing, but it's also not Limitless. Hell, it's not even The Hangover.
Hate to break this to you, but getting blackout drunk doesn't have this effect either.
Nootropics might one day reach a stage where they enhance our cognition, but right now we don't even know if that's possible, since there's very little serious research on this field. Also, a lot of these drugs are actually "supplements," which means they're a lot less regulated ... which, in turn, means the companies can fill them with a bunch of substances that don't actually do anything and charge you money for the picture of a glowing brain on the bottle.
The harsh truth is that there's rarely a secret shortcut to being spies, or writers, or stock market experts. Just an eager mind and hard work. (So yeah, you're never finishing that book.)
Catharsis Isn't A Magic Way To Relieve Aggression (In Other Words, The Purge Would Fail)
The Purge has almost instantly become part of our pop culture landscape, thanks to the universal nature of its premise (about a world where instead of Flag Day or something, we have a holiday where all crime is legal). The idea that we all have hidden reservoirs of aggression and antisocial impulses waiting to be let out is compelling. After all, who among us hasn't thought of committing a series of daring bank heists while completely in the nude just to feel alive?
They'd call us "The Teabag Bandits" (editorially mandated movie screencap unrelated).
The notion that we have violent tendencies lurking inside us and that we can "cool off" once we have expressed them is called catharsis theory, and it's everywhere from The Purge to tortured justifications for supporting high school football. How many times were we told, as children, to punch pillows to let off some steam? Basically, by letting out our inner Joe Pesci every once in a while, we prevent ourselves from being all Pesci, all the time.
The one problem with this theory is that once researchers started testing it, they realized that the exact opposite was true. As we have mentioned once or twice, unleashing your anger to "blow off steam" actually leaves you angrier. In fact, the better you feel after venting, the angrier you are, because you've just spent all that time wallowing in it. And that's why you know basically no one who turns into a raging asshole only once a year and has perfect control of his emotions the rest of the time.
Believe it or not, this guy is most likely a dick in his regular life, too.
The solution to anger and violent impulses isn't to indulge in them like a guilty-pleasure chocolate bar: it's to calm the hell down by watching ASMR videos or listening to that one CD of ocean sounds you got for Christmas for some reason. So if you're one of those internet people asking, seriously or otherwise, whether we should make the Purge a reality: No. Duh.
Brainwashing Is A Cold War-Era Myth
"Brainwashing" can mean a lot of things these days, so let's be clear: We're not talking about propaganda, manipulation, indoctrinating children, or buying Apple products. By brainwashing, we mean actively converting someone's mind against their will to hold beliefs or act in ways which are contrary to their starting principles, essentially overwriting their personality. You see it in films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War, because we definitely needed two whole films centered around Cap's sidekick going evil.
At this point, the restraints technically count as his superhero costume.
Brainwashing first entered American consciousness as we began to be concerned about communism. Why would American POWs collaborate with the enemy and make false confessions? The Reds must have some secret technique capable of forcibly converting them! It was horrifying and inhuman ... and naturally, the CIA decided to get in on this action with the MKUltra mind control project (and its lesser known, sex-obsessed cousin). When the Unification Church became a thing in America, parents believed their children joined because they were brainwashed, and paid lots of money to have them be "deprogrammed." This hysteria eventually subsided, but the idea of brainwashing stuck around -- it's still a common trope in everything from comics to games to cartoons to pro wrestling.
Examples in increasing order of ridiculousness.
Sure, it is possible to persuade some people to do something through extreme peer pressure and such, but somehow we don't think the CIA was worried about Americans being told that all the cool kids were trying communism. The truth is that brainwashing as we understand it doesn't exist. Like most endeavors that involve buying a shitload of drugs, the CIA ended up declaring MKUltra a failure -- the very head of the project eventually declared it useless. It turns out that all those Commie-captured POWs we were worried about were just the victims of traditional techniques, and, once free, stayed "converted" for about as long as the McRib's annual appearance in America.
The American Psychological Association later reached the same conclusion about the Unification Church and other such movements: they aren't capable of brainwashing people, which probably explains why there's not many of them. Coercing them, maybe, but that's different. The church's persuasive powers were about on the level of multilevel marketing or dancing street gangs.
"We're a-singing and a-dancing and a-prancing because of PEER PRESSURE!"
Nimby Smith has some scripts available, including a mystery with no untraceable poisons, if any fancy Hollywood agents are interested. And even if they aren't yet. Just in case, some contact information: nimby dot writer at gmail dot com.
Since there's no magic pill for improving your mind, try some fun brain exercise games instead, featuring Despicable Me!
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Also check out 5 Ways Movies Say You Can Die (That Science Says Are Wrong) and 5 'Scientific' Movies That Actively Hate Science.
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