Action movies try to kick ass by ignoring the laws of physics, which is like trying to win at wrestling by ignoring the use of your limbs -- you're left with ridiculous plots and big men making stupid facial expressions. Everything that moves, impacts, or explodes is by definition physics. The machines, pyrotechnics, and computers they use to fake those things are even more physics. The only good part of action movies that physics can't explain is Jackie Chan. But he's a problem for biologists, because he disproves the survival instinct, and advanced students of hypothetical insurance theory.
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Jackie Chan, personally fixing everything wrong with the Transformers movies.
But real-world scientists and engineers make "special" effects look like a euphemism. Behold, four real science and engineering videos that apply a significant podal positive impulse to a lot of gluteus maximus.
An international organization of engineers tried to destroy nuclear containment vessels by ramming trains and trucks into them. That's not an engineering test, that's an action movie plot escaped into the real world.
They forged 50 tons of solid steel indestructibility and then tried to destruct it, which is what happens when engineers get sick of philosophers wondering whether God could create something even he couldn't destroy and decide to do it themselves. Either that or it's a top-secret program to develop a taxi service for Jason Statham.
via Free Science Lectures
"We've arrived at a kickass explosion, Mr. Chelios."
They start by dropping containers from a crane, which sounds boring until you realize that they've built the most impenetrable anything they can conceive of and are now playing conkers with the Earth's crust. Then they utterly destroy a locomotive by ramming it into the indestructo-box at 100 miles an hour, and the box is fine. If Hephaestus had been half the engineer these guys are, Pandora could never have caused any trouble.
It escalates like an engineer keeping promises to his 8-year-old self. When the train doesn't break the box, they try again with a bigger train ramming a truck. Then a rocket-propelled truck ramming a wall. Then a rocket-sled-train ramming a wall. These people use The Fast and the Furious to cure insomnia.
via Free Science Lectures
This is actually The Fast and the Furious 7, from a finer future where they no longer waste time pretending to have plots.
This video is everything the Transformers movies should have been. True, the vehicles don't transform, but they also don't hang around with Shia LeBoeuf, so that's a better than fair trade. These vehicles do nothing but kick ass, and then they explode so that they don't have to even look at anyone who wanted more than that.
via Free Science Lectures
OPTIMUS PRIME IS A WIIIIIIIIIMP!
This video is everything we know about gas-powered engines: stupid and awesome. It's not a recording, it's a never-ending series of Christmases for anyone who understands that petrol is made from living things and that burning it releases all their joy back into the world as velocity. Then they cut the middle man and dump a container in a pool of jet fuel and set it on fire, because a rocket-sled engineer's idea of "icing on the cake" can be seen from neighboring countries.
The second law of action movies* states that the more gently a car nudges the ground after meandering off a cliff, the more hilariously violently it explodes. This video does it for real.
*The first law of action movies is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, the only physics law to apply to both forces and Arnold Schwarzenegger characters.
This was the disposal of war surplus material metallic sodium. Sodium is a highly reactive alkali, meaning it has only one electron in its outer shell, and not to simplify chemistry too much, but that electron is a suicidal bastard. It reacts (which often means explodes) as soon as it touches anything, especially water. After World War II, the U.S. Army found themselves stuck with nine tons of Instant Doom (just add water). After three years of winning "not getting blown to smithereens" roulette, they decided to cash out. But the sodium gods demanded that something be blown up, and the powers that be sacrificed Lake Lenore.
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"We had actionable intelligence that lake could have contained scuba-diving terrorists."
Those barrels roll gently into the lake, whistling casually, before suddenly remembering that they're portals to hell. Then they blow hell up. In movies, "detonation" is a transition, an instant of going from non-exploded to better than that. For sodium in water, detonation is a new state of being. Metallic sodium reacting with water releases hydrogen and heat, creating a continual Hindenburg at the water's surface. The stuff goes up like Guy Fawkes' wet dreams and just does not stop exploding. The Catholic church's greatest secret is that the U.S. Army killed Satan in 1947. After destroying Hitler, they figured it was only a short hop up, and since they had nine metric tons of constant boom lying around anyway ...
That's one ton per level of hell, and this stuff is hotter.
It's the pyrotechnic equivalent of syphilis: It only happens because of American soldiers having bad but fun ideas during the war. It resulted in miles of chemical plumes, which the chirpy newscaster relays in the same manner as someone who's just seen an interesting bird in the distance, despite being the exact opposite of that ever happening. This is the same newscaster who cheerfully praises the Army for choosing a lake without any fish in it, because back then "environment" was just a useful Scrabble word for men who'd failed the army physical.
This is a NASA highlight reel of every stupid fake camera effect Hollywood uses, and every single one is real.
You've got shaky-cam, but it's not because a cinematographer was replaced by his evil opposite and decided things would be cooler if you couldn't see what was going on. It's because the entire space booster is shaking. This is a space launch filmed from the point of view of 500 tons of solid explosive forming an orderly queue to detonate its way into space.
Then there's the rainy-cam, and again, it's not an annoying extra from a filmmaker making you wear glasses and then dripping on you. This is breaking through everything the sky itself can do because it will soon be literally beneath us. The whole time the speedometer is rocketing up like a high score of human achievement. Which is exactly what it is.
We watch a sonic boom build and break around the ship as we punch through the sky, and that's an effect even Hollywood hasn't thought of yet. In a minute we've beaten the sky. The shuttle nose is poking into the infinite black, and looking down you can see the curve of everything. No scene changes, no montage; we were on the pad and then lit a flame so fierce that the Earth itself ran away.
By far the best curve you can see online.
Then there's white-out, but it's not caused by someone turning up the saturation; it's caused by humanity burning bits of the world so hard that it decides to let us go.
Vorlons ain't got nothing on Homo sapiens.
Watch the video. There is nothing better you could do with nine minutes. Not even sex, because either you won't be finished in nine minutes, or your sex is insufficiently out-of-this-world to compete with this glory. The only reason it won't win Oscars is because we have to let people who only pretend to be awesome have their little prizes.
In fact, this isn't just special effects, this is an entire action movie. You've got the amazing kick-off scene, the unbelievable escalation of literally everything, the moment of crisis as the boosters break away from the shuttle (the heartbreaking sight of the shining Orbiter continuing on without you as you tumble through space kicks the emotional hell out of every romance, drama, and tragedy ever made), before the terminal action of plummeting through flames back to Earth and the classic, unbelievable, actually-happened-for-real last-minute save. Which is also an explosion. The boosters slam into the sea after proving that the puny atmospheric terminal velocity is nothing compared to the speed of space.
And if no one's using that space soundtrack of fuel tank creaks and moans for hauntological or house chillout, get on with that.
Terminator 2 is one of the best movies ever made. Part of the original appeal was incredible computer graphics that pushed the boundaries of cinema, then doused them in liquid nitrogen, ran them over with a truck, shot them infinity squillion times, and exploded them into a furnace. The liquid metal T-1000 remains one of the greatest villains in movie history (try to name another villain he couldn't beat). One man achieved the same level of special effect with a towel.
When a guy is being cool with a space towel, you know he's one hoopy frood.
We should probably mention that he went into space first.
Commander Chris Hadfield has just finished his shift as the Mister Rogers of space. He swung by every day (15.7 times) to tell us that everything is great. And when he looked out the window, he really could see everyone, why they should get along, and just how beautiful the world is.
NASA, Commander Hadfield
On Twitter and in space, he's the embodiment of Canada, quietly getting things right while everyone else gets upset about nonsense. PR is obviously part of the job, but he isn't up there chilling and advertising. All of every day is space work, and when he gets a few moments to himself, Commander Hadfield's idea of R&R is thinking "This is awesome, I should show more people." Given a choice between "educate the world through the Internet" and "get some sleep," he chose the former. Most of us choose the exact opposite. (Not getting sleep, but making ourselves dumber with the Internet.)
NASA, Commander Hadfield
It's like he's a travel agent advertising the entire planet as a beautiful place to visit. He's right.
This is a man who can post mind-expanding images every time he looks out the window, and when he noticed that didn't do anything for blind fans, he started posted audio recordings of the space station, too. He is the ultimate considerate gentleman. So when a school competition had kids asking him what happens when you wring out a towel in space, he did it. The result is three minutes of reminding yourself there are no special effects.
NASA, Commander Hadfield
Truly a master of the (use of gravitational as centripetal) Force.
His mic and props keep trying to float off, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this is really happening. This guy is in space, and is so good at being in space that he's just chilling to tell you about it. What's happened is that wringing it still forces the water out of the towel, but without gravity to drag it down, the defining force on the fluid is surface tension. So it creeps along the surface, which, in this case, is the astronaut, giving him a liquid coating.
He's sharing amazing things we would never have seen otherwise. He shows us what technology and humanity are really for. Just like the rest of the space program.
UPDATE: He continues to be the best person ever. He's already personally made Twitter worth all the bullshit, and now he's saved YouTube as well:
Most rich kids just want to be pop stars.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.
It's easy to work the system and win these awards even if you don't deserve them.