Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

“Movie” Review: 2012: Supernova

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This poster is the most well-produced aspect of this film

This poster is the most well-produced aspect of the film

Two colons in the subject line? The review isn’t even underway and it’s already ruined. 2012: Supernova is another sanity-testing straight-to-DVD film-like-product by the Asylum Studios geniuses who have previously brought us such works as Boa vs. Python, HyperMoth vs. SuperLamp, and ExoFrog & EnormoToad. (Or whatever). It came out in 2009 to capitalize on the John Cusack 2012. The title of the movie has absolutely no bearing on anything that happens, the year is completely arbitrary. Asylum’s basic strategy is to make movies with titles similar enough to big-budget films that people doing searches in Netflix confuse the two, and when that’s your approach to filmmaking, the results are never far from miraculous. As such, they are sort of ‘facades’ of real movies, where they have titles and the characters in them look a lot like actors, and you have to assume that living people were actually hired to make the special effects, but you can tell that the paycheck these people get for it is essentially the only thing keeping them from borrowing their parent’s money in order to buy scratch cards for a living.

I was actually interested in this because the description sounds exactly like an idea I had for one of the only astronomical disaster scenarios to be unused in an action film: radiation from a nearby supernova threatens Earth. (And no, not in the idiotic way used in  JJ Abrams’ Star Trek that makes no sense). Problematically though, in real life, if we were hit by, say, a gamma-ray burst from a very nearby supernova, we’d get a neutrino signal a few hours in advance, the sky would get very bright, and then half the planet would just get blasted with deadly gamma rays for a minute or so, and then those people would die. Everyone on the other side of the planet would survive to gradually starve to death due to the mass extinction, or suffer fatal radiation exposure due to the depleted ozone layer. Sort of like The Road but more uplifting. And not a great situation for a movie, since there is almost no warning, and there isn’t really anything we could do about it before everyone was already dead. [Dara O’Briain’s breakdown of 2012’s apocalypse scenario is here, by the way, and it’s hilarious]

The first sign of a supernova apocalypse: meteors

The first sign of a supernova: meteors

For the purposes of a narrative, 2012: Supernova imagines that this supernova explosion is happening gradually and predictably, so our hero can have something to do. All the effects from astronomy’s only sudden and violent event occur gradually and take on completely inexplicable forms. The movie opens with a satellite in Earth orbit EXPLODING because an enormous bubble that expands out of nowhere destroys it. We then go down to Earth where an astrophysicist, Kelvin, waking up in his cavernous undecorated house. There are no photos or personal belongings anywhere— presumably this allows them to rent it out as a porn set on weekends. NASA has summoned him, the big scary thing is happening now, ahead of schedule, he needs to get to the base! And because there is impending disaster, he rounds up his wife and daughter, (who both appear to be roughly the same age), and packs them into his giant black science-SUV. They protest strongly despite the fact that there are now unexplained fireballs reigning down from the sky. Nonetheless, he refuses to tell them why it they’re leaving or what’s going on. Trust him, ladies, he’s an astrophysicist, OK? That is more than enough explanation for why you need to rush somewhere mysterious at a moment’s notice.

We see a shot of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building in Florida where they prepare launches. We are meant to assume that this is a headquarters of some kind because we are inside some command center where an angry government guy in a suit is yelling at the NASA dweebs to launch the rockets harder. Then we are back with Kelvin and his wife-daughters, who are somehow driving across the desert, to get to the launch facility. It seems that his daily commute is California-Florida. Even though they saw burning stuff falling out of the sky a few minutes ago, they are furious at him for taking them to a secure government facility. No one else has responded to city-wide destruction by fleeing, and the road is completely empty. Suddenly people in an identical black SUV are shooting at them! His wife (?) angrily attributes this to ‘another of his stupid government cover-ups!’ Guys who have camped out in the Floridian desert are intent on capturing our astrophysicist. After the car gets a flat, they’re cornered in a factory and assailants (who are, of course, Middle-Eastern) demand to know what he’s doing sending nuclear weapons into space. Angry-Government-Man bursts in and shoots their faces off. Thank god. He made good time getting there from Cape Canaveral.

♫ Heeeey, sexy laa-dies! ♫

The wives, daughters, or wife-daughters of Kelvin the Illustrious

Kelvin and his daughter-wives are split up, the women are sent home with agents to get their stuff and then rejoin him at the base. Did those fireballs stop falling on LA? Why isn’t this news anywhere? We saw a clip of them destroying buildings—what is happening right now? Is the apocalypse starting or not? It seems like that scene was just left in the movie by mistake, because now those ladies are rushing back into the affected area to pick up their iPads and favorite sweaters. This is dumb.

At the Vehicle Assembly Building, Dr. Kelvin and Angry Guy discuss how those scheming Arabs could have possibly found out that the US was launching tons of nuclear weapons into space. How dare other countries want to know about such things! It isn’t like there is some kind of famous treaty or anything that bans putting nuclear weapons in orbit. They both seem more interested in tracking down the leakers than stopping the Supernova (the 2012: Supernova!) from wiping out all life. The lackey who manages the MySpace page for the Secret Federal Department of Preventing Astronomical Disasters is put in charge of finding these traitors by monitoring for suspicious IMs and blog posts. (Amazingly, only the last part of that sentence wasn’t a joke).

This is what your face looks like when the apocalypse is coming but you're only through 2 discs of Game of Thrones.

This is what your face looks like when the apocalypse is coming but you’re only through 2 discs of Game of Thrones.

There is an incredulous bit of exposition where they explain that somehow there is a small burst of radiation from the supernova preceding the primary gamma-ray burst. They name drop the Spitzer telescope for some reason and point out a clock that is now counting down the 4 days they have until the blast hits Earth. In a truly baffling bit of dialogue they introduce foreign scientists from the two other nations we’ve deemed important enough to tell about the impending end of the world: Russia and…that big one in Asia. What’s it called again? Let me refer to the scene:

Kelvin: This is Professor Kwang Ke from China.
Kwang Ke: The People’s Republic of China.
Everyone: [Chided]

Yes, they made a big deal out of using the formal part of China’s name. As if someone would confuse it with the pre-communist China somehow.  Let’s see how this sounds in other contexts–
Ryan: Hey everybody, this is my friend Kelly, she’s from Massachusetts.
Kelly: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Ryan: Isn’t that what I said?
Kelly: You didn’t say Commonwealth.
Ryan: Why would I include that part?
Kelly: It’s different than a state.
Ryan: So what?
Kelly: It’s a different word.
Ryan: Yeah, but I didn’t say ‘state’ either. This is totally irrelevant.
Kelly: Commonwealth.

The Russian guy introduces himself as being from the People’s Republic of Vodka, so at least our stereotypes are intact. It’s also wonderful beyond words that a project involving saving the Earth from an existential threat only employs 3 people who know anything about it.

We are from the People's Republic of cheap stereotypes

Pleased to meet! We are from the People’s Republic of cheap national clichés

This is a good time to talk about how they are planning to prevent this burst of apocalyptic, Earth-searing radiation from killing everyone. I will give you a minute of quiet reflection to recall what the solution is in 90% of all science fiction.
Done thinking? OK, good. Let’s all say it together, then: Nuclear weapons! What’s that? I already mentioned that a couple paragraphs ago? Here’s an idea then, why don’t YOU try watching and reviewing these terrible movies? Mind your own business. Christ.

Their entire plan is simply to blow up a bunch of nukes in orbit to create a “shield” against gamma rays. In the world that wasn’t created to leech off of John Cusack’s retirement fund, nuclear bombs create gamma rays, but hey, we’re not in that world anymore.

The people in that car are the lucky ones.

Back at the porn mansion, the ladies are hunting around for some random piece of jewelry and severely not recognizing that they need to get out of there. Of course, we’re never explained to why the NASA base is somehow less vulnerable, or why it would matter if the plan is to create an Earth-wide radiation shield. The agents finally get them to leave and they set out once more across the Floridian desert. But wait! Like all Supernovas are wont to do, this one is causing an earthquake. This movie is changing everything I thought I knew about science. A CGI boulder takes out the agents’ SUV, and the daughter-wives are now stranded in a frightening world where they must fend for themselves against a Supernova that has more convenient, unjustified, plot-advancing powers than Superman. (Take THAT Superman!)

This is how my brain feels

In the mere hours since this catastrophe began, cities have been reduced to rubble. But there’s no reason to mention it in this disaster flick…

Kelvin the Magnificent and the only other 4 people working at NASA are launching shuttles non-stop through the magic of CRT monitors and old, public domain launch footage. When one of them goes awry, destroying the shuttle and boosters, the director makes the stupid and offensive decision to use video of the Columbia burning up over Texas to show this. The clip appears to have been one of those shot by a citizen since it’s extremely shaky and partially occluded by a telephone pole (which there are very few of in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean). So the people making this movie aren’t just idiots, whoever made that choice was also an enormous asshole.

Why are disaster movies always destroying Jovian moons?

Europa was so bored by 2012: Supernova that it blew itself apart

The middle of the “film” is just more of the same. The ladyfolk wander confusedly through the desert as all sorts of generic apocalypse things happen to them. Their car breaks down, there is a tornado for some reason. Because our two groups of characters are isolated in the wilderness, we never have to see any sort of news program, or anyone else reacting to the general array of weird fiery things happening everywhere (“How convenient!” thinks the budget director at Asylum Productions).  After taking shelter in the house of a creepy overall-wearing rapist, they are forced to flee when he attempts raping them both simultaneously. This happens moments after he gives them his only mode of transportation…because “I’ve lived here all my life. I’ll probably die here” And shrugs at how he lacks even the slightest will to live. In a way, recovering his will to rape, moments before being knocked unconscious by a wrench, was sort of a positive sign, psychologically speaking.

Never turn your back on anyone who looks like this. First lesson of apocalypses.

Never turn your back on anyone who looks like this. First lesson of apocalypses.

At NASA’s central command, the drama revolves almost entirely around things that are of no immediate importance to the impending apocalypse: the ‘leaking’ of information about things that are happening so soon, that there is no reason to try keeping them secret at this point. In one scene, they discuss reprogramming the voicemail system to require passwords (yes, this actually happens in a disaster film). In another, The Incredible Kelvin, while working in a dramatically endarkend room, is attacked by a ninja, and only survives when the Social Media Director for the Secret Federal Department of Preventing Astronomical Disasters walks in and gets himself killed as a distraction. Since ninjas are from Asia, and the People’s Republic of China is also in Asia, the movie is now implying that the Chinese Professor was the ninja with the subtlety of a drunk hockey player.

Ninja headwear is complicated

Ninja headwear is complicated

There is then a 5 sec cut-scene where a beam of energy causes one of Jupiter’s moons to EXPLODE. Shit is getting real. And more randomly destructive.

If all scientists communicated this way, we'd get so much more done

If all scientists communicated this way, we’d get so much more done

Then some of the most bizarrely staged things I have ever seen happen. First they conduct an argument while driving side by side in golf buggies for no reason. Then the three scientists argue about how best to explode the nuclear shield in a parody of those Jeff Goldblum moments where he explains a science concept with whatever random objects he has at hand. Except unlike Goldblum, nothing about pouring coffee into paper plates and then punching holes in them with pens, has any relationship with the things he’s talking about. It’s so beautiful, like seeing a tuba player walk slowly across the field in the middle of a football game with his pants around his ankles.

In Soviet Russia, plate uses YOU in analogy.

In Soviet Russia, plate uses YOU in analogy.

The discussion is also about the manner and location in which to detonate the warheads to maximize their effectiveness as a shield. They are really waiting ‘til the last minute to work stuff out, and making bewildering paper-plate/coffee analogies in the process. Kwang Ke is pissed off that we aren’t better prepared and says the PR of C would have done it better. Of course, if they were so amazing at everything they would be doing it themselves wouldn’t they? Kelvin wants to change the method of nuclear weapon deployal, but he gets overruled by the Double Entante of China & Russia. For the only time, this detail will be important later, but only in a way that makes the movie stupider. Please make a note of it.

And not the Armenian kind

Earth’s nuclear weapons platform was designed by Cardassians

They have lost communication with the launch mechanism of the platform orbiting Earth (where they have been sending all those nuclear weapons), so they have to go up and do it manually. And we know the best team for a job like that is a multinational group of only 3 astrophysicists who have spent the last week working around the clock and fighting with each other (prior to important missions NASA always keeps it’s astronauts awake and irritable for at least 5 days). Once on the orbiting platform, they get to work preparing the launch, and after about 5 minutes, Kelvin the Luxurious finds that the Russian guy has been murdered. The Chinese lady who everyone thought was the ninja, WAS the ninja all along! Our hero fights and subdues this trained assassin/China’s greatest scientist, finally killing her by just yanking a power cable out of something and shocking her to death, like that scene from Alien. He deploys the nuclear arsenal. Through a CGI-masterpiece of confusing imagery, what I assume is supposed to be the gamma-ray burst (depicted as an aqua-marine cloud with no 3-dimensionality), is dispersed by a set of explosions that destroys the orbiting platform. We then watch the complete destruction of the space station, and the deadly gamma-ray cloud passing through it. Will Kelvin the Sumptuous survive?

Obviously, he will. And they don’t even stretch out the suspense— we hear his voice about 5 seconds after it appears he was killed. Kelvin explains that the People’s Republic’s Greatest Ninja-Physicist was disrupting everything and killing people so she could position the nuclear shield to better protect China. At least it’s finally over.


There, I just did more research than anyone who made the film.

Before we part ways and never think about this again, let’s take a moment to ponder some of these things, and in so doing, spend more time considering the logic of this movie than the writers did. A gamma-ray burst is notable in that, since it comes from a single distant point, it would burn only one side of the planet. China and the US, far apart as they are, would be unlikely to get hit in the same blast…though it’s possible. The area in between would be the Pacific and/or unpopulated northern parts of Russia and Canada, and both countries would get less radiation exposure. Remember a paragraph ago when I mentioned there was only one important thing to remember? That thing, as you surely have now remembered for me, was that Kelvin wanted to redesign the shield deployment and the other scientists overruled him. He doesn’t reprogram anything…so if the Chinese scientist was already getting her way, why on Earth would she be sneaking around killing people in pajamas?

It took a major effort to make the original 2012 feel like an enjoyable romp, but this ill-conceived tangle of willful stupidity has successfully made that effort.

SN-C_BrownDwarfArtistConcept2My Grade for this Movie: Brown Dwarf.

Like the saddest objects in the universe, this film is relatively significant mass of stuff, that nonetheless fails to sustain hydrogen fusion reactions at its core. Sure, it glows a little bit from gravitational contraction energy, (or from having a mother-daughter pair played by actresses that can’t have more than a 10 year age difference between them), but that’s not nearly enough to make anyone notice either. And just as the non-stars are most visible in the reflected light in a binary system, the only reason anyone would be able to see this is if they mistakenly hit ‘play’ while looking for John Cusack’s most unrealistic film since Grosse Point Blank.

In fact, like the MACHO studies of the late 90’s that surveyed thousands of stars in hopes of spotting microlensing events caused by these dark matter candidates passing nearly in front of more luminous objects, this movie begins with a promising idea, but ends in inevitable disappointment. Sure, before embarking on those studies we suspected that big bang nucleosynthesis results already limited the number of baryons in the universe, and therefore, that the missing mass wasn’t in the form of traditional objects like neutron stars and or massive free-floating jovian bodies, but we still had to check.

The MACHO Project was worth it, this movie wasn’t.


Author: (Ryan) Michney

Dread Astronomer

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