Basic Science: Fail Edition (GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA)

by guest blogger Ray

Welcome to the inaugural Basic Science column, where I’ll be dissecting movies and TV shows with an eye toward how well they deal with basic scientific concepts.  

 Now, don’t get me wrong.  When I say basic, I really do mean that.  I’m all for suspension of disbelief when it comes to entertainment, and I love my vacuum-of-space ‘splosions as much as the next guy – not everything can be Firefly in that regard, nor would we want it to be.  For the Fail Editions, I’ll mostly be calling out movies that wouldn’t get past your basic fifth-grade science class audit.  And you’d be surprised how much of this there is out there [1].  That isn’t to say that I won’t take the occasional cheap shot at a script that uses super-technical language without understanding what it means, but I’ll try to keep this as gentlemanly as possible.  And, I hope, at least a little instructive in the process.

 So, without further ado, we’ll get to our first offender:  2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  After the hot mess of Transformers, and the racist fever dream that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I was really hoping that the next live action, millennial adaptation of a favorite 80’s cartoon might get it right.  And most of the reviews I read about G.I. Joe summed it up as “at least it’s better than Transformers,” so I went into the thing cautiously optimistic… and came out resoundingly “meh.”  I enjoyed seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt chew scenery as the (spoiler alert) soon-to-be Cobra Commander, but other than that, the movie was woefully miscast (Figure 1) and over-the-top bombastic.  But silly script and other flaws aside, the film’s science was laugh-out-loud bad.

Figure 1: Real American Hero (l); Real American dudebro (r)

Most of the picture revolves around the bad guys terrorizing the near future with nano mites – nanoscale robots that can be programmed to consume anything and everything in their path, continuing until they’re either deactivated or have eaten everything there is to eat.  And this is actually a pretty cool concept, rooted in the “gray goo” of real-world nanotech futurism. Once the Cobra bad guys have swiped a few nano mite warheads, their first stop is at a Paris lab to weaponize them – programming them to start eating everything from the Eiffel Tower to the occasional Peugeot.  And that’s great, except that (1) the lab appears to be on the inside of a supercollider, and (2) the programming is less about loading the nano mites with executable code and more about levitating them, shocking the crap out of them, and blasting them with lasers.  Most of the stuff I’ve shocked while programming has just let out a sad little puff of smoke and gone to robot heaven.  And I’m pretty sure the inside of a supercollider is the last place you’d want to be, unless you were a high energy particle.  But, whatever – it did look pretty cool, so we’ll give it a pass for now.

 OK, so we fast forward, our heroes (mostly) save Paris, and now we’re at the north pole with the Cobra base at the bottom of the sea, tucked underneath the polar ice cap.  The baddies manage to fire off a pair of nano mite missiles heading to Moscow and D.C., and a Wayans brother has to spring into action, grab a super-advanced Cobra jet he’s in no way qualified to pilot, and chase down the missiles.  He goes after the Moscow missile first, and as he approaches it, streaking past fluffy white clouds, a G.I. Joe  teammate radios him that he has to catch the missile before it re-enters the atmosphere.  And right you are, Joe!  It’d be terrible if that thing… wait, what? Aren’t we flying to catch that missile about a hundred yards in front of us? Doesn’t that require lift , air to fly in, et cetera, et cetera?  And don’t those fluffy clouds make up, I don’t know, THE ATMOSPHERE?

 Sheesh.  So, anyway, the Wayans catches the missiles, and now the rest of the Joes can get to bringing the hurt to the bad guys in their undersea base.  One of the better submarine fights this side of Seaquest, DSV breaks out, and in retaliation the Cobra SOB’s detonate the ice cap above the base and bounce.  So now the Joes are in a fight for their very survival, with titanic ice boulders raining down on them from above.  Oh, the humanity!  Titanic ice boulders, I say!  Titanic ice boulders….. Titanic… wait, what!?!  Aren’t ice boulders, you know, icebergs?  And aren’t they prone to floating, finding luxury ships wearing their class issues on their sleeves, and giving James Cameron enough bank to make blue space monkey movies in 3-, 4-, and 5-D? (Figure 2)  Come on, G.I. Joe writers.  Solid water is less dense than liquid water, so it floats!  Just look at the rocks floating on the five fingers of Johnny Walker you ordered to celebrate selling your script.  The only thing heading for the bottom of that glass is your credibility.

Figure 2: really glad ice floats (l); not so much (r)

So, there you have it.  The movie’s climax hinges on a threat any five-year-old with a lemonade stand could tell you isn’t a real problem.  And all in the name of looking awesome.  As much as the writers got paid, I have no doubt they could have come up with an equally compelling ending that didn’t violate an everyday physical principle.  But that would clearly take too much work, and it’s far easier to let the kiddos watching learn that ice sinks in water.  So, fail on you, G.I. Joe

 With that, we’ll close out our first Basic Science.  Next time we’ll change gears and look at a win with  a great pair: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the perpetually overlooked 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

[1] Seriously, Hollywood – I’m available, I’m credentialed, and I work cheap…

12 Responses to “Basic Science: Fail Edition (GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA)”

  1. Damn you, Hollywood! I hate when you make it so incredibly evident that you do not care AT ALL. As Ray says, it would be so easy to write a climax that doesn’t hinge on the physical impossibility of sinking ice!

    The fact that this movie had Channing Tatum AND Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I still didn’t see it says a lot for how bad it looked. I’ll check it out if it ever becomes free-streaming, however, because those boys are pretty.

  2. Now we know, and knowing is half the battle. The other half is common sense and science taught to us before we thought Power Rangers were cool. I do recommend always performing science experiments using Johnny Walker.

  3. There was a G.I. Joe movie? Really? Was it a cartoon, or a Roger Rabbit style cartoon-live action hybrid? Sounds like, uh, a great movie there.

  4. Ray, I enjoyed reading this and Im looking forward to your next post.

    On behalf of Hollywood (and by the way, I am not actually permitted to make announcements on their behalf….but what the heck) I would like to say that GI Joe was a mistake. An Accident.
    I cant actually apologise for GI Joe on Hollywood’s behalf but someone definitely should. Perhaps James Cameron.

  5. James Cameron is a good choice–or perhaps Michael Bay? He has the most to apologize for.

  6. I love this post harder than the hardest diamond on the Mohs scale.

  7. Uncle Mustache Says:


    The science in this movie sounds about as bad as Mission to Mars when they are look at dna strand with only a handful of base pairs and one of them says, “that DNA looks human.” Oh Hollywood.

    Nice ripping, Dr. Wag. Can’t wait to see your next analysis.

  8. I would say that I will never watch this movie because of my respect for science..but those boys are pretty (i am just being honest) But I will watch it with more knowledge and probably won’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed reading this post.

  9. How incredibly satisfying to read a pissed-off scientist (and movie nerd) actually call out the “science” in one of these films.

    Truly an awesome take down, but if you really want to get my ice floatin’, may I make a specific recommendation?

    Take down Moon next. I know, I know. Everyone loves Moon, Duncan Jones and Sam Rockwell. Take it down anyway. I’m not even a NASA scientist and I know that whole movie’s premise was bullshit. I’d go on, but I bet you can do it better.

  10. Thanks to everybody for your kind feedback! I’m glad you all enjoyed this outing, and I’m hoping it’s the first of many more to come. And Jerry – you’re breaking my heart with Moon, but I’m afraid you may be right. I haven’t seen it since the Duncan Jones screening at JSC, and though I did love it, it had it’s problems. Maybe it’ll be the first split decision article?

  11. Daniel C. Says:

    One other thing I noticed was the Polar bear. It would have been better to have penguins since polar bears don’t live on Antacrtica.

    Not physical science, but natural science.

  12. “.. OK, so we fast forward, our heroes (mostly) save Paris, and now we’re at the north pole…”

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