What Disaster Experts Really Think of Disaster Movies

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Each science-based blockbuster provides new chances for scientists to squirm: They’re glad that the occasionally arcane topic they’ve devoted their lives to studying is getting some public attention, but the misconstruals of science that big-screen treatment often entails undermine the educational effect.

While reporting my story on the biggest disasters that threaten the U.S., I heard similar sentiments from seismologists. The problem is particularly acute for them—their worry isn’t just that people will have the wrong idea about space, but that they’ll die or be injured because they don’t understand how earthquakes work.

Take San Andreas, this year’s vehicle for action star The Rock.

Real-life Lucy Jones, a USGS seismologist, has been particularly vocal about trying to get Angelenos to prepare for a big quake, and she spent the last year working on a project with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to better prepare the city. Her work snagged her an invite to the premiere of the film in May, where she walked the red carpet and posed with The Rock. That didn’t stop her from a Tyson-esque tweetstorm factchecking the film, with generous portions of both plaudits and facepalms:

In the end, she hoped that the movie might at least spur some preparedness.

By the time I talked to Dr. Jones in August, she seemed a bit more glum about the movie’s message of total collapse. “You either believe it, and then it’s impossible to prepare—it’s all going to be armageddon—or else you don’t believe, and you dismiss the whole thing,” she told me. “In that sense I think it wasn’t that useful to have a movie like that.”

John Vidale, a professor at the University of Washington who also leads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, had a similar experience.“The San Andreas movie, it was really fun. We took the whole seismic network over and watched it,” he told me. “We were kind of giggling through the whole thing. You know, it’s spectacular.”

Even if much of the film is fantasy, he said, the general feeling in the seismic community is that it’s acceptable, or even important, to exaggerate in the service of awareness: “These long-term risks are something people won’t adequately prepare for if they don’t have a fire lit under them from time to time.”

Meanwhile, The Rock has been busy averting other disasters: