Monday, November 15, 2010

Science Fact or Cinematic Fiction?

Flight of Fancy

Mankind has always yearned to fly. From ancient stories of Icarus to Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines, we have dreamt of flight since we first watched birds fly. And, thanks to the Wright brothers, and a lot of other innovative people, we actually are able to fly. But that doesn’t stop us from dreaming up newer and more creative ways to break the ties of gravity. The wildest of those ideas very often end up as entertainment and find their way into movies that attempt to create various flying machines. As examples, in “Return to Oz” there is a flying moose couch, in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” there is Jack Skellington’s flying sleigh, and in “Zardoz” a giant stone head glides through the sky. These three flight vehicles are all compelling and interesting transportation devices, but when measured up against the real world of physics, all of them would fall flat. In fact, none of these devices would last even a second in the air before plummeting. There are certain very real conditions one needs in order to obtain flight. In this essay, I will explore the science behind why these three movie flying machines wouldn’t come close to flying.

“Return to Oz” (1985) picks up the story thread six months after Dorothy returned to Kansas at the end of “The Wizard of Oz”. Since Dorothy arrived back home, she cannot sleep. She has been talking to Auntie Em so much about her first crazy adventure that her aunt has taken her to mental hospital. Dorothy escapes the mental hospital only to find herself back in Oz where mayhem resumes. Midway through the movie, Dorothy, running to hide from the wicked queen, locks herself and her friends in the attic. There she finds two couches roped together, a raggedy stuffed moose head tied to the front, a broom serving as a tail in the back, and four palm fronds attached – wing-like – to the sides. Dorothy sprinkles magic dust all over the wings and head and says the magic words. Naturally, the contraption comes to life! The moose head talks conversationally and the palm frond wings begin to flap. Dorothy and her friends climb in and the flying thing propels itself out the window just as the witch opens the door to the attic. They fall several stories, almost to the ground, but the moose-headed flying couch is able to take flight at the very last moment – to everyone’s relief!

In reality however, this couch-as-air vehicle would have fallen to the ground and probably killed everyone in it. As we dissect the reason why, we can deduce from the flapping palm fronds that in this story the flying contraption is trying to mimic bird flight. Birds are usually small creatures, with hollow bones that make their mass light. They have large wingspans in comparison to their bodies, rely heavily on gliding, and flap their wings to provide upward thrust. While flapping motions are used by Dorothy’s flying moose-headed couch, it wouldn’t be able to get off the ground because of how it is designed. The wings are far too small to support the weight of two couches alone, even without Dorothy and her friends, and the palm fronds just aren’t aerodynamically sound wings. Palm fronds are feather-like pinnate compound leaves that certainly aren’t designed to allow moving air to support them together as a “wing”. When one moves a palm frond back and forth, the air simply moves through the frond, and doesn’t catch the thrust of the air beneath it. This palm frond “wing” simply couldn’t be supported in the air. On the other hand, when one holds even a single bird feather and moves it through the air, you can really feel the air catch the feather and support it. The zany flying vehicle from “Return to Oz” is definitely unrealistic. Yet, set in a fairytale-like world along with talking chickens, a witch who can change heads, and men made out of metal, we viewers are able to suspend our disbelief and enjoy Dorothy’s ride.

The “Nightmare before Christmas” is a 1993 claymation fantasy. The hero of this story is Jack Skellington, King of Halloweentown, who discovers seemingly preferable wonders in Christmastown. Enamored by Santa Claus’s role, Jack tries to take over Santa’s duties by delivering gifts on his bizarre version of Santa’s sleigh. This sleigh is made up of various items that come from Halloweentown – his carriage is a coffin, his bag of gifts is made from an oil barrel, and his reindeer are made… well, they are reindeer, but they’re skeleton reindeer with Christmas wreaths around their necks. Jack flies around driving his makeshift sleigh to deliver gifts to children throughout the real world. It is all fine and dandy if you suspend your disbelief about how sleighs might or might not fly though the night, but in reality the sleigh wouldn’t be able to budge an inch, let alone get off the ground. First and foremost, let me point out that Jack is a skeleton, which makes him lifeless and dead and therefore unable to build this contraption in the first place. Second, the reindeer are also dead and hence wouldn’t be able to pull the sleigh on the ground let alone consider flying. Putting the whole everyone-is-dead thing aside, Jack’s invention might possibly be pulled by three live reindeer. As reindeer push their heels into the earth, the earth pushes back, and depending how heavy Jack’s sleigh is, the reindeer might be able to pull his sled forward. But moving forward isn’t flying, and in the movie this sleigh definitely flies through the air at night, delivering presents to children. It would take a lot more for his sleigh to even get off the ground – perhaps energy to move it upward would help, or installing aerodynamically sound bird-like flapping wings, or to be attached to a giant balloon.

“Zardoz” is by far the weirdest movie of the three. It is a mid-1970s science fiction futuristic movie. In the year 2293, Earth is inhabited by two kinds of humans, the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals worship the god Zardoz, who is a giant hollow flying stone head. From within the flying stone head a god-like voice bellows, “The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth . . . and kill!” The Brutals provide Zardoz with grain and in return, out shoots hundreds of guns from the mouth of Zardoz. But what the Brutals don’t know is this god-like head is controlled by an Eternal. One day, Zed, a Brutal (played with gusto by Sean Connery), hides inside the head of Zardoz, flies off to the Vortex where the Eternals live, and sets off a string of strange events. But, what about Zardoz? Could this giant stone head actually glide across the sky? In this movie Zardoz looks to be only a giant flying hollow rock carved with a scary face. The storytellers don’t even attempt to explain how such a thing could hover in the air. Zardoz doesn’t have wings so it isn’t trying to mimic a bird or a plane. It doesn’t fall under the category of ballistic flight because it moves very slowly. It doesn’t fall under the category of buoyant flight because rocks are certainly not lighter then air. It doesn’t appear to have an engine or any mechanical parts at all. (Its insides looks like a stone cave.) Perhaps since the movie is set so far in the future we might assume that whatever is allowing the rock to fly, hasn’t yet been discovered. So, from my standpoint in the year 2010, I find myself scratching my head to even know how to approach the discussion of why Zardoz wouldn’t really fly. Except, well, it’s a big giant flying rock but big giant rocks don’t really fly. One can throw smaller stones and watch them sail in the air for a short time before hitting the ground. One can pick up and drop a big rock and let gravity take over. However, when it comes to flying, people usually tend to rule out anything having to do with rocks since rocks could be said to be the opposite of flying. This film is simply science fiction, I guess. Therefore, anything can happen and “physics be damned!” So, as Forrest Gump would say, “That is really all I have to say about that.”

The addition of a flying vehicle is a popular element in many, many movies and I can see why. Flight is appealing. Humans want to be able to soar through the air, get out of danger, go quickly and easily from one place to another on a crazy adventure (and, of course, without dealing with the Transportation Security Administration every time they want to fly.) They want to MacGyver something out of a few unrelated elements that allows one to fly adventurously and spontaneously through the air. Many of these fantasy and Sci-Fi movies don’t write in the elements that believably make these contraptions fly, but when you look over the plots, you realize why they don’t bother. These kinds of movies are often so fantastical and strange from the get-go that flying vehicles don’t seem out of place. We would only really question these flying vehicles if they were put into more serious movies, like “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia”. And, that is why Sci-Fi and fantasy are appealing to so many people; they are so magically unreal and dreamlike that there’s no reason to be bothered by the facts.


  1. This is to confirm that you posted your term paper on time. I'll try to get all the papers graded by the end of next week.

  2. Your paper is bit light on the physics details but it was fun to read especially since I'd forgotten all about Zardoz.

    Intro and Conclusions 20 of 20 points
    Main Body 10 of 20 point
    Organization 15 of 20 point
    Style 20 of 20 point
    Mechanics 20 of 20 point
    Total: 85 of 100 points