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    Fact Checking Hollywood's Nightmares: Which Apocalyptic Films Get the Science Right?

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Hollywood loves a good apocalypse. The more twisted, the higher the death toll, the better. Consider Oblivion, which takes place in a world where, spoiler alert, aliens have blown up the moon. Without the moon exerting its gravitational pull on Earth, the planet has been rendered all but inhospitable—only a drone-repairing, weary-looking Tom Cruise and some subterranean Morgan Freemanites can weather the hell that it's become.

    Director Joseph Kosinski actually went to considerable lengths to make sure his film actually reflects the science of a moonless world. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Kosiniski explains that he "assembled a panel of scientists from [J]PL and Cal Tech at the very beginning of the movie -- like a roundtable ... and one of the questions was, 'What's the best way to invade Earth? What would happen if an alien force destroyed our moon?'"

    He explains that he was "thrilled to find out that a lot of the things that were depicted in the film are exactly what would happen ... [the moon] keeps everything balanced: the tide, super-volcanos, climate -- it would all go in chaos. It would be a very bad thing."

    Of course, the problem of destroying the moon in the first place complicates the sound science aspect some, but hey; it's nice to see some consideration made for the physics. So how accurate are the doomsday scenarios in our apocalyptic films, anyway? Some are pure fantasy, but others aspire to  Below, we round up some of the best-known end-of-the-world films and take a look at how plausible they really are.

    Global Warming: The Day After Tomorrow 

    For my money, global climate change is the leading candidate for killing off modern civilization. Nothing else seems quite as likely to ruin the planet's habitability than skyrocketing temperatures, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, more intense storms, and scorching droughts. If climate change continues unabated, it will, in the estimation of our nation's top climate scientist, lead to "an ice-free, human-free" planet.

    Unfortunately, global warming gets a weirdly inaccurate treatment when it takes the marquee role in film: for instance, the the disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow imagines not a sweltering world years down the line but an abrupt climatic shift that immediately begets a new ice age.  Climatologists gave the science portrayed here a big fat thumbs down—from the snow-covered New York to the mid-Atlantic glacier, the film gets almost everything wrong.

    Nuclear Holocaust: Threads 

    Nuclear holocaust has been, by far, the most popular apocalyptic scenario since the Cold War, and for good reason. Nukes are the deadliest devices humans have yet cobbled together, and there are some 26,000 warheads still cast around the globe. However, scientists nonetheless think that even if they were all to be launched in unison, we still probably wouldn't extinguish life as we know it. Still, anywhere that did get hit would be transformed into a smoldering hell-hole, and things would get dystopian right quick.

    Threads, a British mock-documentary, imagines, with unflinching accuracy, the harrowing travails of post-nuclear holocaust life. It was made as a sort of PSA for Britons, and used the best available science to illustrate the horrors. The nuclear winter segment at the end may be in question today, but the rest—the blast radius, the fallout, the crippling radiation sickness—is disturbingly true to life. 

    Contagion: Contagion 

    Mass death from a pandemic is another one of the likelier apocalyptic scenarios at the moment; our globalized world allows the transfer of disease from nation to nation, continent to continent easier than ever before. Epidemiologists really are worried that disease—an avian or a swine flu, SARS, or some other plague—could move across the planet and wreak havoc with relative ease. But could a severe, apocalyptic film-style event come to pass? Here's what epidemiologists say about Contagion:

    "Based on my knowledge of the movie, it is a dose of realism. It deals with issues that have, what we call in the business of investigating outbreaks, biological plausibility," Barbara Reynolds, senior adviser for crisis communication at CDC, told ABC News. So yeah. A devastating pandemic is possible, if not likely. 

    Population Bomb: Soylent Green

    Back in the 60s, the primo environmental concern was overpopulation. For that, we can thank Stanford researcher Paul Ehrlich's enormously influential Population Bomb. The book essentially updated Malthus and forecast an era of extreme famine after the planet's exploding population ate the world dry. Its attendant apocalyptic film is now mostly remembered for what Soylent Green turned out to be, but at the time it was shocking—those poor, desperate, huddled masses subsisting on protein bars made out of the deceased.

    There's still an animated debate raging about over-consumption and population growth, though symbolic groups like ZPG may have fallen to the wayside. It is commonly said that if the rest of the planet gobbled resources like United States, we'd need six Earths to supply it all. Meanwhile, climate change is making it harder to grow crops, and food shortages are believed to have sparked some of the most violent riots and revolutions of recent times.

    That said, the U.N. expects the world population to stabilize sometime in mid-century, and while it will still be a challenge to feed everyone (it's a task we're not up to currently, after all), it's doubtful it will be the primary catalyst propelling the apocalypse. In other words, we probably won't be eating people bars at any point in the foreseeable future.

    Asteroid Hits Earth: Deep Impact 

    We've already got some experience with meteor impacts, as the dinosaurs would gladly tell us were they not wiped out by one of them. Clearly, a sizable asteroid striking earth would spell disaster for much of human civilization. That's partly why NASA has a sea lab where astronauts are studying how to land on—and perhaps destroy—asteroids before they get close to earth.

    There are a bunch of films in this dubious genre—Asteroid, Armageddon—but astronomer and blogger Phil Plait says that Deep Impact gets the science more right than not. Producers often consult scientists, but "this time, it appears that the producers listened." 

    Mass death, tsunamis, check. The comet wouldn't obliterate all of Earth, not immediately, anyway. But it would lead to a pretty nasty post-apocalyptic scenario: the matter ejected upon impact would get stuck in the atmosphere and block out the sun. At least it'd counteract some of that global warming though.

    Robot Army Rises Up: Terminator

    As famed singulatarian Ray Kurzweil says about the rapid advances in processing speed, "There are physical limits to computation, but they're not very limiting." It is entirely within the realm of possibility for computers to become so intelligent and powerful that we can no longer understand—or control—them. In our favorite apocalyptic sci-fi films, that means they take up arms and try to destroy us. 

    It is unlikely that robots will organize themselves into killing squadrons and march against man, a la SkyNet in the Terminator. But robots are already making life hell for millions of people, as drones circle the sky and strike at terrorists and bystanders alike. Some experts think that drones and robotization will change war more than the machine gun did, making combat exponentially deadlier. Meanwhile, Cambridge scientists are worried enough about the existential risks posed by out-of-control technology that they dedicated a research lab to studying the robot problem.  But steel-jawed killing machines shooting rockets and machine guns at us? No.

    And, just for fun:

    Zombie Apocalypse: Dawn of the Dead, Walking Dead, 28 Days Later

    The 21st century's pop cultural end times mainstay, the reanimated dead stalking the earth, is obviously unmitigated nonsense. It plays off our fears of disease some, but in a totally unserious manner. Maybe that's why it's the most popular; with zombies we barely have to confront any scrap of reality at all.

    Worlds Collide: Melancholia

    There are people who actually believe there is a mysterious Planet X that will eventually smash into earth. Scientists are quite certain that it will not. They've still offered no word, however, as to whether the post-apocalyptic future will contain a hysterical Kirsten Dunst.