Explosions. Gun silencers. Chloroform. All very exciting cinematic tools, but none of them really act the way they do in movies. Here are just a few of the most egregious lies that movies have taught us over the years, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. T. rex couldn’t see things that weren’t moving.
Jurassic Park instilled in countless kids the fear of coming face to face with a T. rex. But it also taught them what to do if that actually happened. As Dr. Alan Grant says to Lex in the film, “Don’t move. It can’t see us if we don’t move.”
Sorry, but no: A T. rex could almost definitely still see you if you didn’t move. According to one 2006 study, the prehistoric predator’s visual acuity may have been as much as 13 times better than a human’s.
A rationale was offered up in Michael Crichton’s original novel, but then completely debunked in his sequel The Lost World. So even if you landed in the Jurassic Park universe, freezing in front of a T. rex wouldn’t guarantee your survival.
2. It’s possible to walk away from an explosion without being knocked over.
In the 2010 action comedy The Other Guys, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s characters are knocked to the ground when a building gets bombed some yards away. As Ferrell writhes around in agony, he “call[s] bulls**t” on how action heroes just walk away from explosions without even flinching.
Sorry, Denzel Washington. And Antonio Banderas. And Hugh Jackman. Ferrell is right.
Slowly strolling away from an explosion wouldn’t just require audacity—you’d also need the ability to defy physics. People get bowled over when a bomb detonates because the rapid expansion of gas and change in pressure generate a blast wind.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, you have to be a good 1200 feet away from the blast of a pipe bomb in order to avoid potential death. That distance doubles if an SUV or van is chock-full of explosives. If the vehicle in question is a semi-trailer? There better be at least 9300 feet—that’s nearly 26 football fields—between you and it, or you’ll very likely be a goner.
And those are just estimates. As Homeland Security explains, “Minimum evacuation distance is the range at which a life-threatening injury from blast or fragmentation hazards is unlikely. However, non-life-threatening injury or temporary hearing loss may occur.”
3. There’s sound in space.
When Luke Skywalker torpedoes the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, it blows up with a satisfying boom. Star Wars space battles are pretty loud in general—bangs, blasts, droids beeping, ships whizzing by, and so on.
Sure, it would be weird and boring if all that action unfolded in near silence. But it would also be more accurate—because sound as we know it doesn’t exist in space. Sound travels by vibrating through adjacent molecules in a medium, like air or water. Space isn’t a perfect vacuum; in other words, it’s not completely empty. But its atoms are so few and far between that they can’t really conduct sound waves ... at least not in a way humans can understand. There’s a black hole that was found to be producing a note 57 octaves below Middle C. According to NASA, the lowest sound a human can hear has a frequency of one-twentieth of a second. The sound waves from this black hole have a frequency of 10 million years.
Some sci-fi fans have argued that in the case of something like the Death Star, the expanding atmosphere is carrying the sound waves with it. We’ll leave that debate to the theoretical physicists-slash-superfans, but in general, space action sequences on screen should be pretty quiet, save for whatever’s happening inside a spacecraft or an astronaut’s helmet, where there is air to carry sound around.
4. Astronaut helmets are lit from within.
Real astronaut helmets, by the way, aren’t lit from within like those in Countdown and Interstellar and scores of other space movies. If they were, the glow would create a glare similar to the one on your car windshield when the interior lights are flicked on. Not ideal for visibility during real-life space missions—but definitely useful in helping us distinguish between the spacesuit-clad Sandra Bullock and George Clooney during Gravity.
5. Bald eagles sound majestic.
Space isn’t the only place where Hollywood sound editors take creative liberties for dramatic effect. If your knowledge of bald eagles mostly comes from the movies, you probably think its call matches its appearance: commanding, majestic, even threatening. Not so.
As bird expert Connie Stanger told NPR, the bald eagle has “a little cackling type of a laugh that’s not really very impressive for the bird.” Or for the silver screen—so filmmakers often use the cry of a red-tailed hawk instead.
6. Gun silencers are silent.
We’ve been deceived by Hollywood’s version of gun silencers, too. A real one won’t silence a gunshot completely—nor will it make it as quiet as the discharge of a Nerf dart.
As Ralph Clark, CEO of the gunshot detection software company ShotSpotter, explained in a 2017 Washington Post interview: “In regard to gun silencers, it is more accurate to call them suppressors, as they suppress the impulsive sound of gunfire, not wholly eliminate it.”
As a bullet travels through the silencer, it progresses through a series of expansion chambers that allow the gas to spread out and cool down so it doesn’t explode from the gun with quite so much energy.
According to the American Suppressor Association [PDF], the typical silencer decreases gunshot noise by an average of 20 to 35 decibels—making it about as effective as wearing earmuffs or earplugs. Muffled enough to prevent hearing damage, but maybe not to help you get away with murder.
7. When you’re arrested, you get one phone call.
So let’s say someone gets arrested for murder because their gun silencer made a lot more noise than Hollywood led them to believe it would. Upon arrival at the police station, they demand their one phone call. Because that’s what the Joker did in The Dark Knight, and what Fletcher Reede did in Liar Liar.
In real life, laws about making calls from jail vary by state. California’s penal code, for example, says that “an arrested person has the right to make at least three completed telephone calls” within three hours of their arrest and can call a bail bondsperson, an attorney, and “a relative or other person.”
In Tennessee, by law, they can’t even book you in the system until after you’ve “successfully completed a telephone call to an attorney, relative, minister or any other person.” And they’re required to ensure that you get access to a phone within an hour.
It’s often less about the number of calls and more about making contact with one or more people. That said, there’s no overarching constitutional right to a phone call—and not every state has legislation in place that entitles you to one. So demanding your one phone call at the county jail might not work as well as it does in the movies.
8. Humans are only using a small percentage of their brains.
What if there was a drug that could unlock the 90 percent of your brain that you currently can’t access? You’d be smart enough to make a killing on the stock market, and you could probably finish your novel in four days. You’d be … limitless.
Or at least that’s what happens in the 2011 Bradley Cooper–starring thriller Limitless, which is based on the idea that humans only use a small percentage of our brains. The concept also helped inspire the 2014 sci-fi flick Lucy, in which a brain-unlocking drug gives Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy even more outrageous powers—telekinesis, telepathy, immunity from pain … you get the picture.
The 10-percent myth is false for a couple obvious reasons. For one thing, it would mean that most brain injuries wouldn’t have any impact on people’s lives. If 90 percent of your brain matter was totally useless, you could probably afford to impale a chunk or two without doing too much damage. But that isn’t the case.
And secondly, two words: natural selection. As Britannica explains, “early humans who devoted scarce physical resources to growing and maintaining huge amounts of excess brain tissue would have been outcompeted by those who spent those precious resources on things more necessary for survival.”
In other words, if some human ancestors had developed such inefficient brains, they probably wouldn’t have been very successful at staying alive and procreating—so that kind of cerebral dead weight wouldn’t have gotten passed down often enough for all of us to still have it today.
Thanks to advanced brain imaging, we know that even pretty effortless tasks like looking at a picture requires way more than 10 percent of your brain. But since a lot of that effort happens on an unconscious level, it can feel like you’re only using a tiny sliver of your mental resources most of the time.
The 10-percent idea was mentioned in Lowell Thomas’s forward to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, and scholars generally point to the self-help industry as the force behind the myth’s ongoing popularity. But any self-respecting scientist will tell you it’s bogus. So if someone offers you a drug that they claim will make you telepathic or even just really smart, don’t take it.
9. It’s possible to enhance grainy images to perfect clarity.
You’ve seen it in Taken, Blade Runner, and every crime show ever: With just a few clever keystrokes, someone enhances a blurry photo or video to the point of immaculate clarity. This is more or less impossible, because it’s essentially creating new data out of nothing.
As photo editors know, you can play with contrast, shadow, and other settings to manipulate the data already in an image so it’s easier for the human eye to see. But if you have a super pixelated image, you can’t just fill in the blanks—like facial features—by adding a bunch of nonexistent extra pixels. Or, more accurately, you can fill in those pixels however you want, but it won’t magically reveal some perfect representation of reality that was hiding beneath the grainy original.
As How-To Geek explains it, “A function that creates something as specific as a human face from nonsense data would require actual knowledge of the end product—you would need to know the actual person’s face in order to ‘find’ it in the blurry image, which sort of defeats the point of this imaginary technology anyway.”
Even today, there are AI-assisted applications that can “fill in” missing info in static and moving images—but they rely on some form of accurate data to inform their guesses. And they’re not perfect. In 2020, an image circulated around the internet from one of those applications; it showed a low-resolution photo of Barack Obama coming out the other end with the former President looking 100 percent white. Whether that was the result of presumably unintentional bias in machine learning or other shortcomings of the software, it showed that the process has a lot of room for improvement.
In short, “enhancing” footage is sort of possible—but definitely not the way Hollywood does it.
10. You can’t file a missing person report until the person has been missing for quite some time.
Another well-trodden trope of crime dramas is that police can’t file a missing persons report if the person hasn’t been missing for at least 24 or even 48 hours. It’s such a common misconception among the public that a number of government websites—from Portland, Oregon to New York City—expressly state that there’s no waiting period before you can report a missing person.
The sooner you inform the authorities of someone’s disappearance, the better. As former FBI agent and University of South Florida criminology associate professor Bryanna Fox told ABC News, “The information that law enforcement gets tends to be a little more accurate” in the first two or three days. After that, people’s memories aren’t as sharp—and tips from the public begin to dwindle. You’re not doing the detectives or the missing person any favors by letting a day go by.
11. You can suck the venom out of a snake bite.
If you happen to see someone get bitten by a venomous snake, you might be inclined to mimic what Elsa Pataky’s character does in Snakes on a Plane: Cut the wound open and suck the venom out. Heroic—and a heroically bad idea.
For starters, the cut-and-suck method ratchets up the risk of infection—in part because your mouth is teeming with germs. And if you have any sort of open wound in your mouth, the venom could very well enter your own bloodstream. Moreover, snake venom typically moves through your body too fast for your suction tactics to make much of a difference.
You shouldn’t even apply a tourniquet, as that can cause nerve and tissue damage. Instead, call 911. If you’re on a plane, well, hopefully Samuel L. Jackson is there.
12. Chloroform immediately renders people unconscious.
A chloroform-soaked rag to the face is a pretty convenient way for screenwriters to quickly remove a character from a scene. Maybe a little too convenient.
Chloroform does knock you out. Real-life criminals like 19th-century serial killer H.H. Holmes used it to subdue victims, and physicians once used it to anesthetize patients. But the slightly sweet, colorless liquid doesn’t work immediately.
As anesthesiologist [Satya] Kumar told The New Indian Express, “The victim will never faint in an instant. It takes a good two to five minutes for the patient to slip into unconsciousness, and even that only if an unusually high dosage is administered.”
This misconception has some staying power; it actually predates movies and TV. An 1865 edition of The Lancet discusses the popular belief that “chloroform can produce insensibility,” and clarifies that “anesthesia by chloroform is not very quickly or very easily effected upon a non-consenting person.”
13. The human head weighs 8 pounds.
And lastly, contrary to what Ray taught Jerry Maguire and the rest of us, the human head doesn’t weigh eight pounds. It usually tips the scales around 11. Though Ray was a kid, so maybe his did weigh eight.