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Hollywood's stupid car tricks

DN Staff

July 5, 1999

4 Min Read
Hollywood's stupid car tricks

The recent release of the movie The Mummy has some film critics wringing their hands over the new crop of mindless action films. In truth, film critics do this on a fairly regular basis. When they get in these moods, they complain that the plots of today's action movies are too shallow. And the characters are flat or two-dimensional.

But they usually save some back-handed praise for the technical effects. The technical effects are the saving grace, they say. If only the plots measured up to those effects. Normally, I like it when people compliment technical teams. But this time I have to take issue with the reviewers.

Some of the dumbest cinematic moments of the past decade have come from technical effects--in particular, car chases. If you don't believe it, watch almost any action movie. When the obligatory chase scene occurs, cars begin flying, flipping over, and blowing up.

In most of today's action films, cars can't drive down the street without spontaneously bursting into flames. I'm waiting for the movie in which an unsuspecting motorist runs over a squirrel and gets blown to smithereens.

Some of the "great" technical effects that the reviewers rave about are often hilarious. To find those, you can select from any of a dozen action films. Some of the funniest moments, though, come from a 1996 movie called The Rock.

In it, actor Sean Connery drives a Hummer through the streets of San Francisco, pursued by actor Nicolas Cage in a Ferrari. At first, the technical effects are pretty ordinary. Connery hits a parked car. Kaboom. Cage hits a parked car. Kaboom. Eventually, though, a cable car hits a parked car, and the kaboom is so fierce that the cable car sails 20 feet into the air.

The best part, though, occurs when Cage's airbag deploys. His airbag, which for some reason resembles a hot air balloon, remains inflated for 17 sec after a collision (I timed it). But Cage--brave soul that he is--wrestles with the bag while the flying cable car approaches his Ferrari.

And how does he free himself from his confinement? With his pistol, of course. Like any ordinary accident victim, Cage shoots his airbag. You have to admit, that's entertainment.

Still, someone should probably tell the movie reviewers that, in real life, cars don't blow up every time they collide with something harder than a bowl of Jell-O. In fact, as the producers of Dateline NBC now know, it's really hard to blow up a car. In the infamous Dateline investigation of pick-up trucks, consultants were confounded when they tried to explode the pick-ups. It seems the trucks wouldn't cooperate. Eventually, though, the consultants did it. But only after they overfilled the gas tank, removed the gas cap, and employed rockets.

If you think about it, that's an amazing statement: They needed rockets. It's safe to assume that anything, even a TV producer, will catch fire if you dip it in gasoline and shoot a rocket at it. Oddly enough, movie directors know this. They know because they hire experts to blow up cars for their films. And experts don't accomplish it merely by slamming vehicles into one another. They use five-gallon, gasoline-filled fire bombs in the interiors. And they place powder-filled tubes called "kickers" in there, along with initiation devices known as flashpacks. Only then will the cars blow.

They know--presumably--that engineers incorporate rollover valves and fuel pump inertia switches in vehicles to keep gasoline from spilling, even after a collision. I imagine that most technical experts also know about airbags. At least, they should know that airbags don't inflate for 17 sec.

If you've ever watched an airbag deploy, then you're aware that it deflates in the blink of an eye. There's a frightening pop, then the bag hangs limply from the steering column. Of course, that kind of technical realism wouldn't help the producers of The Rock. How would it look if Nicolas Cage hyperventilated because he was frightened by the pop of an airbag?

That kind of thinking is ingrained. And it's not going to change soon. Some day, though, the great American western will be revived. And when that happens, you can bet that there will be a movie scene in which two cowboys collide on their horses. And the horses will spontaneously burst into flames. But the good guy will be saved, because his horse has an airbag. And the movie reviewers will again wring their hands. Those horse scenes, they'll say, are unrealistic. The horses' characters are much too shallow.

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