"I'm not going to shortchange myself ever again."—Susan/Ginormica in Monsters vs. Aliens
Regular readers of this column have probably noticed that I’m on the lookout for movies that feature strong female characters, and Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest animated feature from Dreamworks, certainly meets that criterion. We follow Susan Murphy (whose voice is that of Reese Witherspoon) through her transformation from normal woman into Ginormica, a 15-meter-tall, white-haired version of herself. Susan grows after being struck by a meteorite on her wedding day. (I appreciated that they got that right: Susan correctly refers to the object that hit her as a “meteorite,” since it reached the ground. While still in space, rocky objects like this are “meteoroids” and while in the atmosphere, “meteors.”) She is captured by a military unit and taken to a secret facility where she meets several other monsters based on 1950s science fiction films. There is Bob, a blue gelatinous mass, a la The Blob (1958); The Missing Link, who bears a striking resemblance to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); Insectasaurus, who is a giant mutated larva not so different from Mothra (1961); and finally Dr. Cockroach Ph.D., who is the result of a teleportation experiment gone wrong, as in The Fly (1958).
When the Earth is threatened by Galaxar’s robot probe from outer space, the President (Stephen Colbert) enlists the aid of the monsters to beat back the invasion. San Francisco is severely damaged in the battle between Ginormica and the alien probe, and the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed to defeat the robot. Although our heroes have won the day, the robot was just the beginning of Galaxar’s plan to take over Earth with thousands of copies of himself. I don’t think I’ll be giving away too much if I reveal that it all turns out okay in the end.
We see Susan’s development from a woman who only wants to return to normal size into a hero who is proud to have done her part to save the planet. In the end she rejects her self-centered and abusive fiancé and remains single. Susan is not the only female character to show initiative and guts; when the alien probe first crashes to Earth, a teen couple is parked in a car nearby. The young man just wants to leave, but his date, Katie, jumps out of the car and goes to investigate.
Movie buffs will enjoy all the references to well-known older films like Bullitt (1968) and The Great Escape (1963), in addition to the sci-fi films I mentioned earlier. What science buffs will not enjoy, though, is the fact that by replicating monsters from classic science fiction, this film reproduces some of the most common science blunders in film. The foremost of these is scaling. It’s easy to make an actor in a rubber suit look huge by building a scaled-down model of a city. Unfortunately, just making an animal (insect or human) many times larger than normal does not work for a variety of physical and physiological reasons. First, think about volume (if the density is maintained, so is the mass) when an object is doubled in size. If you take a cube that is 1 centimeter on a side and double all the dimensions, you get a cube that is 2 centimeters on each side, with a volume of 2 × 2 × 2 = 8 cubic centimeters. That means doubling the size of the cube made it 8 times more massive (23 = 8). Ginormica went from being a normal height (say 1.7 meters) to being approximately 15 meters tall. That’s a factor of about 9, so her mass would increase by a factor of 93 or about 730. Her mass would go from a very reasonable 60 kilograms to more than 43,000 kilograms. This might not seem so bad, since she has larger bones and muscles as well. The problem is that the strength of a bone is determined by its cross section, not its volume. When she grew by a factor of 9 in all directions, the cross section of her bones grew by a factor of 81 (9 × 9). Although Ginormica’s mass has gotten more than 700 times larger, her bones have only gotten 80 times stronger, so her skeleton would collapse. Muscles have a similar scaling as well, so even if her bones were stronger, her muscles couldn’t move them. The problem is even worse for Insectosaurus, who grew from a one-inch larva to be at least 100 meters tall (that estimate is based on comparing him to the Golden Gate Bridge, which is 227 meters tall.) For a more complete treatment of the biology of science fiction movies, read Michael LaBarbera’s article.
Scale is not my problem with Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. Now, I understand the idea of stock characters, and I recognize that this character is an update of Andre Delambre in the film The Fly, but I do get a little bit tired of the mad scientist. One-third of the top hits returned by a Google image search on “scientist” depict a “mad scientist.” He (and he is always male) has crazy eyes, wild hair, and is clearly up to no good. Science is responsible for some potentially very scary things: atomic weapons, deadly poisons, and biological weapons come to mind. It makes sense that scientists make easy villains for screenwriters to use in science fiction films, but it would be nice to see some of the heroic (and villainous) scientists portrayed a bit more like real human beings.
3D films are enjoying a bit of a resurgence recently, and Monsters vs. Aliens is the first animated film to be produced in 3D from the start. Life science or physiology teachers could use this to talk about how stereoscopic vision works. For us to see depth (or, “in 3D”), our eyes must see two slightly different views of a scene. Normal films look flat because both eyes receive the same image. Stereoscopes and systems for 3D movies are designed to get one view to your left eye and another to your right. (The colored glasses from the 1950s are one way to do this.) Modern systems use polarizing filters on the projector and polarizing glasses worn by viewers to sort the left and right eye images. One limiting factor that physics teachers can point out is that the movie screen must be metallic for polarization to be maintained when light bounces back to the viewer. This means that multiplexes have to replace standard white screens in the theaters in which they plan to show 3D movies.
Monsters vs. Aliens is a nice tribute to some classics of science fiction and will give teachers a chance to talk about stereovision, scale, and the problem of mad scientists in film.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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