Movies are fun, but they also exert an inordinate amount of influence over our day to day lives. People accept what they see on TV and in movies as depictions of reality. Fiction has actually altered our reality in some dangerous ways. Here’s a look at a few ways in which Hollywood is trying to kill us.
CSI is a fun group of shows. It has also fucked up our legal system badly.
In CSI, the forensics labs use wizardry to solve crimes. They can pull fingerprints off of any surface, blow up even the most minute detail caught on film to become perfectly clear, and find anybody on Earth in their magical DNA database. The problem is that people think the stuff they see in those crime-solving montages actually exist in real life. As a result, numerous violent criminals are walking free because juries have unrealistic expectations of evidence.
When violent criminals go to trial, juries now have to be briefed that they cannot expect a CSI-style presentation of evidence. Fingerprints are actually pretty hard to get – even placing your hand on something isn’t necessarily going to leave a set of prints police can use. Not everybody has prints or DNA on file, making things even more difficult. Pattern recognition programs are not perfect in finding matches. Other CSI-style tricks, like blowing up security footage to get a clear picture of somebody, do not work in real life. Cameras only have so much resolution, and zooming in on something that requires more resolution than you have just gives you a large blurry image.
My favorite bit of CSI-style magic actually comes from The Dark Knight, where Batman takes fragments of a bullet, reconstructs it with a computer program, and pulls a fingerprint off of it. That’s pretty damned wrong every step of the way – there’s no way someone would be able to reconstruct a print that way, and there’s no way that the print would be on the bullet in the first place. The bullet casing, perhaps. Not the bullet. (While unrealistic, though, the movie gets a pass because A) it’s nice to see Christopher Nolan show off Bruce Wayne’s detective skills and not just his punching technique, and B) it’s Batman. He can do that impossible stuff.)
It’s true that America’s judicial system is based around the idea of “innocent until proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.” However, unrealistic expectations of evidence move the goalpost on what “shadow of a doubt” means. Got a killer who is implicated by eyewitness evidence but not fingerprints or DNA? Someone on the jury who takes CSI too seriously might not see the case as airtight. Got someone who has been raped but DNA evidence is inconclusive? There’s a chance the rapist will walk.
Admittedly, it’s not like droves of murderers and rapists are walking free, but the problem is significant enough that juries have to be briefed multiple times about what is and is not within the realm of possibility when it comes to forensics. And there have been cases when violent offenders who would probably be incarcerated have instead walked away because some folks on the jury take TV too seriously.
Defibrillators of Resurrection:
You’ve seen it on House, ER, Scrubs, and pretty much any medical show ever. Someone’s heart stops, so the medical team whips out defibrillators and zaps the person’s chest, usually yelling, “Come on, come on!” or something similar.
This one is pervasive enough that first-year medical students need to be taught out of that mindset. Why don’t hospitals want somebody shocking a flatline? Because doing so will kill them dead.
Defibrillators are meant to disrupt electrical currents associated with an irregular heartbeat, forcing a heart to return to its normal rhythm. If the heart is not beating, though, zapping them is just pumping the full of dangerous electricity, which is more likely to make their eyes pop like runny eggs than get the heart beating again. There are multiple other techniques used to get a stopped heart beating again, including CPR. A defibrillator can help a weak heartbeat, not a nonexistent one.
In terms of breaking reality, bonus points go to The X-Files, where one episode had a kid with the ability to zap lightning save somebody’s life by zapping them with his lightning powers, which should just have turned the guy into a pile of fried flesh. Oddly, a movie which gets things close to right is actually Casino Royale, in which James Bond, having been poisoned, needs to use a defibrillator to stabilize his rapidly fading heart rate. The scene actually doesn’t go and have Bond shock a flatline. It does, however, blow that credibility by then having Bond walk back into the casino and play poker, but then he’s James Bond and therefore capable of breaking reality like that.
Bottom line: if someone’s heart has stopped, don’t pull out a pair of defibrillators. Don’t stick their finger in an electrical socket. Don’t hook them up to a car battery. Actually zapping someone who has flatlined is going to make sure their heart never starts again.
Gun Safety? What Gun Safety?:
Okay, so most folks aren’t on a jury and won’t ever be in a position where they need to use defibrillators. But a heck of a lot of folks have guns or will be exposed to guns at some point. And people tend to use guns like idiots and get killed as a result.
The basic laws of gun safety are: always treat a gun like it’s loaded, don’t point a gun at somebody if you don’t plan on shooting them, and don’t play around with the trigger and safety. In other words, guns are very, very dangerous and should be treated as such. Yes, it’s awesome to see John Woo-style gunplay in an action movie. It’s not so awesome when some idiot decides to imitate that in real life. Guys in movies point guns at people, wave them around at random, and even shove them down the waistband of their pants. Doing that in real life, though, is going to get somebody killed.
At the same time, there are a surprising number of cases where somebody does something really dangerous with a gun and somehow gets off quite lightly despite putting peoples’ lives at risk. As with CSI-style forensics, juries tend to be misinformed when it comes to gun safety. People reference stuff like Pulp Fiction, where Vince Vega accidentally blows Marvin’s head off, to explain that “accidents happen” while ignoring the fact that Vince Vega is both a criminal and a moron. Dick Cheney shot his hunting buddy in the face and got no punishment beyond some bad press. Plaxico Burress decided he wanted to play gangsta and walk into a nightclub with a gun tucked into his sweatpants. Sure, he only shot himself, but he could easily have shot somebody who didn’t deserve it. Closer to home, the murderer of my wife’s cousin isn’t serving a life sentence because the prosecutor wasn’t sure a murder charge would stick because of the man’s claim that his gun “just kept going off” without him pulling the trigger – something that, upon examination of the gun, was blatantly impossible, but which juries might buy because they think that Quentin Tarantino was doing a documentary or something.
Hollywood gun safety is a very broad area of what-the-fuckery that has tainted several parts of our real life. Police trainees, like medical students who think they can shock flatlines, have to be trained out of the mindset that laying down one’s gun in a hostage situation is a good idea. It makes for good drama in movies, but setting down a gun when someone else has a gun is just likely to get both the officer and the hostage shot. Of course, it’s better than doing what Keanu Reeves decided to do in Speed and shooting the hostage. “Flesh wounds” rarely actually happen, since the arms and legs have a lot of important blood vessels in them and any shot to the torso is likely to cause fatal damage, either from the bullet itself or from the bone fragments and other shrapnel caused by the gunshot.
But Dear Lord, if you’re going to get into a gunfight, do it right. Don’t run around with a “ghetto grip,” because that will screw up your accuracy. Don’t dive behind a couch for cover, because bullets are strong and couches are weak. Don’t go for trick shots (unless, of course, you are Robocop), because you’ll very likely miss. Oh yeah…don’t run around while shooting at the same time, because that screws with your accuracy and tends to cause collateral damage. Police officers have forgotten that rule and wound up shooting old women by accident because they forgot that they weren’t Chow Yun Fat.
So am I trying to suggest that movies suck because they are unrealistic? No, not at all. I like Batman, James Bond, and Robocop. CSI is a fun show, as is Law & Order despite the sheer number of laws it gets wrong. Even House had its moments in its first few seasons. My point is that people who look at that stuff and consider it to be anything but pure fiction is making a serious mistake. And it’s not just some schlubs who will never be in any of those situations making those mistakes – actual professionals, including lawyers, physicians, and police officers sometimes mistake movies for reality. It’s bizarre that fiction has such a deep influence on our society, but it does.