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Armageddon !!!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Movies that deal with the Armageddon caused by the impact of a meteorite on earth have the great advantage that they can almost completely define the scenario – until now almost no references exist how such an event would occur in reality.

Large impacts were relatively rare in historic times; the most famous (and still controversial) is the Tunguska event in 1908. However because of the remoteness of the Siberian taiga the destruction and human fatalities were limited.
Interests on this kind of catastrophe arouse late, only in the mid 20th century the possibility that earth can be hit by large chunks of extraterrestrial material became widely accepted, when in 1960 the geologist Eugene Shoemaker settled the debate about the origin of a large crater in Arizona, confirming an older hypothesis that it was not of volcanic origin but formed 50.000 years ago by an impact.

In 1994 the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted on Jupiter, the event followed by most mass media. Maybe influenced by the great interest of the public, since 1997 various movies on meteorites have been released.
An advantage for a disaster movie to deal with an impact is the supposed catastrophic effects, especially of large objects, which can affect the entire surface of earth. However a disadvantage is the supposedly short duration of the disintegration and explosion of the extraterrestrial body. A movie writer has to put the catastrophic event at the end of the movie and fill the rest with a love story or personal tragedies.

Asteroid” (1997) is a cheap TV production with many elements found in similar disaster movies. After the discovery of the approaching asteroid some laser-beams are used to destroy it. However some fragments reach earth and still manage to destroy various cities.

© Touchstone Pictures 1998*

In the more expensive “Armageddon” (released in 1998 with a 140 million dollars budget) a crew of stereotypically characters and an atomic bomb are send onto the approaching asteroid with the estimated “size of Texas“. The bomb is planted in just 250m depth on a more than 1.000km large mass – why even bother to drill? Also by detonating the bomb and considering the inertia of the asteroid, simply a rain of minor chunks would bombard earth – causing anyway worldwide devastation.
The introduction of the movie also mentions the Chicxulub-impact (“it happened in the past, it will happen again“), however showing earth with the modern conformation of continents and oceans (according to plate tectonics a geologic impossibility).

Also the “Super Mario Bros.” movie (1993) starts with the premise of the Chicxulub-impact. However here the cosmic rock rips apart the space-time-continuum and produces an alternative earth, still ruled by anthropomorphic descendants of the dinosaurs.

© Paramount Pictures 1998*

Deep Impact” (1998 with a 75 million dollars budget) was released 2 months before “Armageddon” and is in some parts more accurate than the later movie. Also in “Deep Impact” atomic bombs are used to prevent the imminent impact of an 11km large comet, but again some fragments arrive to earth, killing millions of people.

Meteorites!” is another TV-production from 1998 dealing with a shower of meteorites which cause destruction in a small American town. “Tycus” (1998) and “The Apocalypse” (surprisingly released in 1997) are also both cheap productions intended for the video-market and dealing somehow with comets. “Meteor Apocalypse” (2009) was produced and distributed by “The Asylum Films“, a company famous for their movie rip-offs. Here the melting ice from a comet contaminates the groundwater of earth.

© American International Pictures 1979*

A much earlier movie is “Meteor” (1979), with an only 8km in diameter large meteorite that will hit earth in just six days. To build up suspense smaller chunks (it seems that meteorites in movies never space travel alone, however we could assume that gravitational forces split up a larger asteroid/comet, like Shoemaker-Levy 9) hit earth first. Again rockets are used to blast the nearby meteor into pieces, but again chunks fall on earth causing again havoc. The special effects are terrifying cheap, even considering the year of release. This movie mentions also the origin of the idea to use bombs to stop the meteor: “Project Icarus“, developed in 1968, was an assignment by Professor Paul Sandorff for a group of MIT graduate students to design a way to deflect the asteroid “1566 Icarus“.

Appropriately in the movie “When Worlds Collide” (1951), predating “Project Icarus” and where an entire planet is approaching earth, humanity tries to build a space ark to evacuate the doomed world.

© Compagnie Cinématographique de France 1958*

The Day The Sky Exploded” (1958) is an Italian science-fiction story with a slightly modified version of the asteroid-scenario: here a lostspaceship with an atomic engine first explodes inside an swarm of asteroids, changing the orbit of the swarm towards earth.  To prevent the final impact all nations of earth fire contemporary their nuclear weapons to the sky.

It’s interesting to note that movies produced before 1960 (when most research on impacts were done) use mostly planets rather than asteroids as threat for earth.

© Mercury Film International1966*

Planet on the Prowl” (1966) is another Italian movie, following the tradition of planet-movies, however here it is the gravitational force that unleashes storms, waves and disasters on earth. A team is send into space to destroy the planet, but here they discover that the celestial body is a living (!) cybernetic organism that will not simply surrender without fight…
A very similar plot was already used by director Antonio Margheriti in “Battle of the Worlds” (1961), where the mainframe of an alien spaceship, mimicking a planet, is attacking earth…

Bibliography:

KAY, G. & ROSE, M. (2006): Diaster Movies. A Loud, Long, Explosive, Star-Studded Guide to Avalanches, Earthquakes, Floods, Meteors, Sinking Ships, Twisters, Viruses, Killer Bees, Nuclear Fallout, and Alien Attacks in the Cinema!!!! Chicago Review Press: 402

*This image is the cover of a videotape, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, etc. and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher of the video or the studio which produced the video in question. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of video covers qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Percival 11:33 pm 12/24/2012

    Hollywood has a history of abusing source material for movie treatments (Deep Impact’s relative scientific accuracy may be due to it being based on Clarke’s SF novel _The Hammer Of God_ though it was so mutilated that Clarke got no credit). I wish someone would do a faithful film version of Niven and Pournelle’s _Lucifer’s Hammer_.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bucketofsquid 2:45 pm 12/27/2012

    Lucifer’s Hammer and The Hammer of God were both wonderful novels and Footfall, while less likely also dealt with the impact of an asteroid hitting deep ocean at high speed. All three would be interesting movies if made faithfully following the novels.

    I also noticed some odd grammar in the blog. It looks much like it was written in a language other than English and then run through Google translate.

    Link to this
  3. 3. dpierce3 3:56 pm 12/27/2012

    “…a crew of stereotypically characters and an atomic bomb are send onto the approaching asteroid with the estimated “size of Texas“.

    …a crew of stereotypical characters are sent with an atomic bomb onto the approaching asteroid which is estimated at “[the] “size of Texas”.

    Link to this

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