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Michael Bay has directed three films in the Transformers series. The most recent installment, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, was one of the most popular films of the summer of 2011, and has recently been released on DVD. This is an adrenaline-fueled action film from start to finish, so perhaps it is not surprising that most of the issues I have to point out are errors of physics, planetary science, and logic.
If you did not grow up playing with the toys that inspired this film (or if you haven’t read any of the comic books, or seen any of the TV shows), you need a bit of back story. Transformers, intelligent machines from the planet Cybertron, have the ability to change shape to imitate vehicles or machines. They have arrived on Earth and continue a long-standing battle between two rival factions, the Autobots and the Decepticons. In the Transformers world, Autobots are good transformers who fight for individual freedom and take the side of humans on Earth. The Decepticons want to establish a dictatorship with humans as slaves. The Autobots are lead by Optimus Prime, while the Decepticons are lead by Megatron. The first two films in the live action series introduced the main robot characters on each side and Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf), the human who has the closest relationship with the Autobots. John Turturro, Francis McDormand, and John Malkovich all take time out from more serious films for this unapologetic action flick.
Dark of the Moon opens with a shot of the real Very Large Array (VLA) radio observatory in New Mexico. The VLA is used to conduct radio astronomy observations and has been featured in several other science fictions films, including Contact (1997). It is neat to see it here, but the problem is the film depicts the VLA as existing in 1961. In reality the facility was built in the 1970s. In the film, the VLA detects an impact of an unidentified craft on the Moon, which becomes the motivation for the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to reach the Moon. There is some neat insertion of actual newsreel footage from the 1960s in this section of the film. When Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts arrive on the Moon, they discover an Autobot ship, but there are no functioning robots. The plot then builds around a Decepticon scheme to teleport all of Cybertron to Earth and enslave humanity. Witwicky and the Autobots must once again save the planet.
There are a couple of scientific terms and concepts about the Moon that are confused and conflated by the writers of this film. First, the “dark of the Moon” is the period in the lunar cycle when the Moon cannot be seen from the Earth. It is also called ”new Moon.“ The “dark side of the Moon” refers to the side of the Moon that faces away from the Earth, even though that side is not actually dark. It is a misunderstanding of the Earth/Moon system. One face of the Moon is always oriented toward the Earth, which means the opposite side is always facing away from the Earth. (In fact, at new Moon, the far side is fully illuminated by the sun, we just cannot see any of the illuminated portion.) During the real Moon landings, there were periods of radio silence when the craft was on the far side of the Moon, and radio signals could not be sent. Astronauts always landed on the side facing the Earth, though, so there were no radio blackouts after landing, as depicted in the film. Transformers 3’s special effects of the astronauts on the Moon are quite good, but I am still more impressed by what I saw in Moon (2009), a film with a tiny fraction of the budget.
Scene from the trailer for Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
There are a number of tributes to the Star Trek franchise in this film, the most obvious being the casting of Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Sentinel Prime. In the role he gets the chance to repeat one of his most famous lines from the Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982): “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Though I appreciated that tribute, the writers were not very careful about logic. Sentinel Prime has been in a kind of hibernation since the ship left Cybertron, and has never seen humans or Earth. Shortly after being awakened he says that his teleportation device “… defies your laws of physics,” but I have two issues with that statement. First, one of the central ideas of science is that our understanding changes with time, so another technology might seem magical, but it wouldn’t defy any laws of physics. Second, Sentinel Prime just woke up from hibernation, so he shouldn’t know our current understanding of physics.
There is a neat use of our current understanding of aerodynamics in one of the many fight scenes. To attack a Decepticon position in Chicago, human soldiers “wingsuit in” to get around the Decepticon’s defences. Wingsuits do exist, and make for a gliding decent for skydivers who wear them. The fabric of the wingsuit between the diver’s arms and legs acts much like the skin of a flying squirrel, providing lift to slow descent. The diver controls direction by changing the position of arms and legs during the glide. Eventually, a parachute is deployed to slow decent even more. There is a very dramatic wingsuit video available at YouTube. Some scenes in the Transformers 3 were filmed by real wingsuit stuntmen equipped with cameras as they plummeted past buildings.
Finally, this film makes a common error in geography when showing the Decepticons have placed teleportation pillars all over Earth. For some reason, film makers can’t seem to remember that the sun can shine on only half of the Earth at a time, so when they show quick jump cuts from North America, to Asia, to Europe, it’s not possible for all of those places to be in full daylight at the same time. I brought up this issue in reviews of Jumper and Nim’s Island, and I hope one day to see a film that gets this right.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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