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Laramie Movie Scope:
Science nonsense in Melancholia

Science blunders beyond number in this absurd movie

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 24, 2011 -- Melancholia is a science fiction film in which the science harkens back to the Dark Ages prior to the Renaissance. The wrath of God and magical thinking triumph over modern science. This article is a discussion about the many scientific blunders in the film. For a review of the film itself, click on this link to the review of Melancholia.

The heroine of the story, the creepy bride, Justine (played by Kirstin Dunst of the “Spider-Man” movies) is a kind of mad prophet, whose predictions and whose extra-sensory perceptions about the end of the earth all turn out to be 100 percent accurate, while all the world's leading scientists turn out to be dead wrong. John (Keiffer Sutherland of the TV series “24”) is the character who represents rationality and science in the film. He kills himself. While some scientists declare that God is dead; in this film, God declares science dead.

A giant planet called Melancholia, which Justine sees with her naked eye on her wedding night, and scientists armed withe biggest telescopes in the world, discovers later, is hurtling towards the earth. Nobody, except Justine, noticed it before because it was “hiding behind the sun.” This, of course is impossible for a number of reasons. For one thing, the gravitational influence of this planet would be detected long before it became visible. Most of the earth's top scientists say Melancholia will pass close to the earth, but the two planets will not collide. Justine, however, knows the end of the world is at hand. John is sure the earth will survive. Claire, Justine's sister, sees web pages on the internet about the impending end of the world, a “dance of death” of the two planets and begins to prepare for the worst. Even the butler quits, wanting to spend his last days with his family.

John is convinced the family will be safe and that the “fly by” of the planet will be a spectacular sight to behold. John is an astronomy buff with a large, expensive-looking refractor telescope in the yard. Justine, who is in such a funk she sleeps all day and doesn't have the energy to take a bath, begins to perk up and get stronger as Melancholia gets closer. She tells Claire, “I know things.” Among the things she knows are that the earth will be destroyed soon. She knows the exact number of beans (678) in the bottle (a guessing game) at the wedding, by intuition. She knows the earth is evil and that won't be missed in the universe. She knows the earth is the only planet in the entire universe with life on it.

The statements that the earth is evil and that no other life exists are absurd. This is essentially a view of the universe from the Dark Ages, when the earth was thought to be the center of everything and man was the measure of all things. It represents a kind of theological take on astronomy, whereby worlds collide not because of the laws of physics, but because of the wrath of God. Justine is right and the scientists are wrong because her intuition is tapping into a higher truth than science, an intuition about good and evil and the earth's place in the universe as a special place that God made, not just another planet among billions of other planets.

The idea that earth is the only planet with life flies in the face of what is now known about the universe. It is likely there are a billion planets out there like earth (there are an estimated 100 billion planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, and there are billions of galaxies) in the universe we can see. The earth is not unique and probably life is not unique to earth. There could even be life elsewhere in our own solar system, and probably there are multiple instances of intelligent life in rest of the universe, and that is just our universe. New findings in physics give support the idea that there are billions, perhaps trillions of universes (existing in a multiverse in which new universes are constantly being created). There could be an infinite number of universes in which readers identical to you are reading articles identical to the one you are reading right now. There could also be multiple dimensions, each with a virtually infinite number of universes in them.

Man is no longer the measure of all things, as he seems to be in this film. Now we know the earth is not the center of anything. It isn't unique. It will eventually be destroyed by the sun, or by some other means, and it won't be missed (unless humans colonize other worlds by then). That much is true. However, the idea that we are alone in the universe as living beings becomes increasingly more absurd with every discovery of a new solar system, and with the mounting evidence that there are untold billions of universes, as well as multiple dimensions.

The idea that the “earth is evil” displays a similarly stunted view of the universe, the world, and life. It is true there are evil people, and maybe some evil animals, but the bulk of people and the trillions of other forms of life on the earth don't qualify for a blanket label of evil. Are trees evil? Grass? Plankton? Fish? It is an absurd statement, and it is an insult to all of life, including most of the 7 billion humans on this planet.

The “dance of death” diagram in the film shows fundamental scientific ignorance. The diagram, supposedly accurate, at least in Justine's mind, shows Melancholia, which appears to be much more massive than earth, making a sharp loop around the earth, which is impossible, then making a loop around nothing (also impossible since you need a gravitational body like another massive planet, or the sun, or a black hole to make a planet loop like this and change direction by 180 degrees). The idea that a huge, fast-moving planet could make two 180-degree turns in a matter of hours without sufficient gravitational fields (such as a couple of conveniently-placed black holes) to induce those sharp turns is impossible. After the second u-turn, around nothing, Melancholia then heads back towards the earth and overtakes it from behind, catching up to the earth in its orbit around the sun. This is nonsense. It is impossible as shown. It ignores Newton's laws of motion.

If a massive planet like Melancholia came as close to the earth as depicted in the movie, it would cause massive earthquakes and destructive tides. It would alter the orbit of the earth, but it wouldn't make a sharp loop around the earth, then make another loop around nothing and come back in a matter of a few hours. The closest you could get to that maneuver in real life would take weeks or months, perhaps many years. It would require a loop around the sun, and perhaps another loop around a giant planet like Jupiter as well. I've seen Bugs Bunny cartoons that have a better grasp of science than this movie. Once again, this is essentially the depiction of the triumph of insanity over reason. However, I was rooting for Melancholia to pull off this impossible orbital maneuver so it would finally put this stupid movie out of its misery.

The science of this movie is wacky, on so many levels. Lars Von Trier, the director of the film, said in an interview that the impossible “dance of death” in his film was inspired by an article he read about a dust devil on Mars. The dust devils on Mars appear to be very similar to dust devils on earth, which look like small tornadoes, but have relatively little power. Von Trier reasoned that if there could be dust devils in the atmosphere, why couldn't there be something like a dust devil in space? This could take the form of an invisible massless vortex which would cause Melancholia to whip around and come back at the earth. This theory is nonsense. You need air, or some kind of matter, to create a dust devil, there is none in the vacuum of space. Even if there was some cosmic dust to create a dust devil, the force of the resulting vortex would be very tiny, equal to the mass of the particles making up the dust devil. Not nearly enough to significanly alter the course of a planet.


There is an easy fix for all the scientific problems in this film, and that is of course that Justine wakes up at the end of it to find out it is all a dream (a nightmare for the rest of us, a nice dream for her) or a hallucination. My dream ending would have Justine waking up in a mental hospital like the one in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” with a couple of doctors standing over her, saying “Poor girl. She's gone off the deep end again. Let's see if electro shock therapy helps.” This would, of course fix all the film's many scientific problems, but it would not allow for the triumph of insanity over reason, which, unfortunately, seems to be its goal.

Another fix would be to introduce a supernatural element into the film. If the destruction of the earth is a result of divine intervention, god's will, then you can discount Newton's laws of motion. There are hints of this in the film when the story suggests the earth itself is “evil.” The film's view of the universe is also medieval in some ways. If the earth is evil, then perhaps it deserves the death penalty. That seems way harsh, for the reasons stated above, but this allegorical interpretation makes more sense than trying to view this movie as simile, syllogism or metaphor, at least in the classical sense of those terms. The problem is this movie doesn't present itself as an allegory. It presents itself as a straight drama with overtones of dumb science fiction. That is a real problem.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)