The older we get the harder it becomes to get absorbed by works of cinematic fiction. Educated minds tend to reject anything that seems implausible, even in fantasy worlds existing solely on a computer or television screen. This is especially true for artists trained to think critically about the physics of motion as they are applied to 2D animation or live-action CGI. One of the most commonly broken laws of physics in cinema is Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Known simply as the action-reaction principle, this law stipulates that a pair of forces affect any two objects that interact, meaning that a force cannot be exerted in one direction without receiving an equal amount force in the opposite direction. Ignorance of this physical law is most often seen in depictions of projectile motion, from energy blasts to superpowered kung-fu kicks. Understanding the decision to break away from reality requires a keen analysis of specific scenes from both live-action and animation. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the X-Men movie franchise, and The Matrix Trilogy, the action-reaction principle is violated in order to service certain mechanics of the storyline and for dramatic effect.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar) is an animated kung-fu fantasy series that aired on Nickelodeon. It rose to popularity because of its inventive way of choreographing dynamic fight sequences without showing violent imagery. The world of Avatar is based on traditional Chinese martial arts and ancient Eastern philosophy; the four warring nations within this world each have a mastery over the one of the natural elements: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Aang, the protagonist, is an “Air Nomad” and thus has the ability to bend air to his will, controlling the current around him to leap great heights, or project gusts of wind from his hands to push back any attackers. In the scene below, Aang goes one-on-one with Toph the Blind Bandit, an Earthbending child prodigy who goes on to become his trusted friend and mentor. In this short fight, Aang uses his airbending skills purely as a defensive measure, blasting bursts of wind to evade Toph’s attacks, or to push her back. Yet upon closer inspection we see that the laws of physics are inconsistently applied to the mechanics of Airbending. If Aang’s air-blasts are strong enough to launch him up into the air when aimed at the ground, then by Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the same air-blast should push him backward when aimed forward against an oncoming attack. Granted, the oncoming attacker, be it a boulder or a person, might not give the same amount of resistance as the ground because of a smaller surface area, Aang should still move backward by a distance relative to force of his airblast, instead of remaining planted solidly in place. In the end, Toph loses the fight because Aang’s air-blast pushed her out of the ring, but if Airbending followed the law of action-reaction, then both fighters would lose because the opposite force of Aang’s air-blast would push him out of the ring as well.
The fantastical world of Avatar justifies the show’s deviation from Newton’s Laws of Motion. According to its creators, the various “bending arts” are unaffected, or at least affected differently by physical laws because their power comes from spiritual energy like Chi, rather than natural forces like gravity or electromagnetism. This way of deviating from reality is not unique to animation. Many live-action films, particularly comic book adaptations in which CGI is used heavily for special effects, bend or simply ignore the rules of physics to allow characters to use their superpowers. Cyclops from the X-Men movie franchise is prime example of this kind of cinematic fiction. Like Aang, Cyclops’s superpower is unaffected by the action-reaction principle. He is a mutant with the ability to project concussive beams of energy from his eyes. Taking the appearance of bright ruby-colored light, these “optic blasts” exert a tremendous amount of force on any object(s) with which it comes into contact. Remarkably, Cyclops himself receives no recoil from the impact his optic blasts. In fact, he is easily able to walk forward while keeping a constant beam that destroys everything in his path. This, of course, would be impossible in the real world. The beam’s recoil on Cyclops would likely break his neck as he is pushed backward, considering the amount of force exerted on his targets. There are a number of explanations for how Cyclops is able to resist the effects of recoil, but the most plausible (as far as comics are concerned) comes directly from the official Marvel website’s character profile. While the explanations are based entirely on science fiction, it is important to take these mechanics into consideration when trying to understand how superpowers work in the X-Men universe, and why the director of the live-action counterpart chose to bend the rules of physics. Cyclops’s eyes are essentially portals to an alternate dimension through which the red beams of energy flow. They emanate from his eyes constantly, and so can only be controlled by his eyelids, i.e. when the beams come into contact with his skin. Similar to recoilless rifles which allow some of the propellant gases to escape out of the rear, the backward momentum created by the optic blast’s impact is thrust into the alternate dimension instead of on Cyclops’s body, allowing him to move freely while maintaining a steady discharge of pure destructive power.
If having mutated body parts acting as portals to another dimension seems far-fetched, then fighting inside a computer simulation might be a bit easier to grasp. The last offender in this investigation into crimes of cinematic physics is Neo from The Matrix: Reloaded. The fight sequences in this second installment of The Matrix Trilogy are more theatrical, and so more prone to inconsistent physics. In the famous chateau fight scene, Neo faces off against six opponents attacking all at once. Using the power of his mind to bend the laws of physics within the Matrix, Neo is able to pull off incredible stunts like doing a backflip twenty feet into the air, or sending his foes flying across the room with a single kick. The latter is by far the least convincing special effect in the entire scene. Fortunately, each kick shot in a way that focuses the viewer’s attention on the action part of the stunt, and away from the reaction that would logically follow. The camera tracks Neo’s enemies as they fly across the room, crashing into various marble upholstery and other props. Giving audiences a visual thrill ride is an effective way of distracting them from the obvious limitations of real-world physics. By combining complex yet fluid choreography with high-octane action, the creators of The Matrix Trilogy are able to get away with egregiously inaccurate physics.
To bend the rules, one must first know the rules. Newton’s Third Law of Motion is a simple principle that can be misconstrued in a surprising variety of ways. Separating scientific facts from cinematic fiction is not only an eye-opening exercise in critical thinking, it is a vital step towards a more active viewing experience. Basing plots around science, or “science” is an emerging trend in the entertainment industry. As students of this field, it is our responsibility to explore and understand how professionals apply basic scientific principles to push the creative boundaries of film-making.