MOVIE NEWS – A nuclear expert assesses the realism of Christopher Nolan Oppenheimer’s film, including whether sunscreen can really protect someone during a nuclear test.
A nuclear expert assesses the realism of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer. Nolan’s film about the invention of the atomic bomb has exceeded all expectations, with worldwide box office receipts of more than $650 million. It became a real blockbuster. As always, realism was essential to Nolan. He is known for avoiding CGI in bringing his epic films to life. In the case of Oppenheimer, he outdid himself and turned to practical effects to depict the devastating effects of the first atomic bomb.
While audiences were impressed by Nolan’s vision of Oppenheimer and the Trinity experiment, the question remains: how realistic was the film’s depiction of the first atomic bomb explosion?
According to one nuclear expert, the film did a largely good, but not perfect, job of realising the scene. In a video for Insider, physicist Greg Spriggs dissected the A-bomb scene in Oppenheimer. He praised the film for its primarily accurate depiction of the bomb itself, as well as the circumstances of the first test. Spriggs questioned the actual effectiveness of one detail. Namely, he wondered whether the scientists, who put on sunscreen to protect themselves from the bomb’s flash, would have actually done so.
Here’s what Spriggs said (at around 3:00 in the clip below):
“They were trying to hold all the cables in place. This was a test. They weren’t certain that this particular design was going to work, and so this was sort of the prototype, and they didn’t go to great lengths to make everything really robust. So they were just basically winging it with duct tape to hold things in place. And the actual one probably was a little bit more structured and more engineered to be a real weapon.”
“The reason they suspended the bomb from the tower, they wanted to get it above the ground so they could measure the shock wave. There was a lot of uncertainty, since it was the first one. There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether this would work, and if it did work, how much energy would be released. And so they needed to be able to film this, and they didn’t want the shock wave interacting with the surface. They thought that if they suspended it up high enough, that they would kind of suppress the amount of nuclear fallout that would occur by all the dirt being lofted.”
“They had actually built several shelters for the scientists. I think the closest shelter was about 5 miles away. And of course everybody was wearing goggles. When the detonation goes off, it would look very bright, but it would protect their eyes. Here are the glasses. Very, very dark. Right now, I can’t see anything. It’s pitch black in here. But if a nuclear detonation went off, I could see it.”
“They were all laying down thinking that the shock wave might get to them and if they were laying down that it wouldn’t be a direct hit. You don’t want to have a big surface area if the shock wave is coming over. You want to be kind of laying flat. There have been situations where we’ve had tests where the yield was a little bit higher than what people thought or the wind blew the bomb a little bit closer to the observers, that people have actually gotten a little bit of a sunburn. I don’t think the sunscreen would’ve helped very much. It’s basically a heat flux that hits you. I guess it would’ve helped a little bit, but not much.”
“For the accuracy of what the weapon looked like and how they hung it from the tower and so forth, maybe a seven.”
7/10 is a surprisingly low accuracy score for Oppenheimer
Nolan’s obsession with realism led him to some tremendous cinematic feats. For example, to have an actual plane crash in Tenet, setting off real explosions. Or the way Oppenheimer captures the beauty and horror of the atomic bomb.
Nolan is also known for bringing in experts to help him capture the science in his films. He even cast real scientists as supporting characters in his films. Given Nolan’s commitment to getting things right, the score of just seven points for nuclear expert Spriggs on the film is arguably disappointing.