Part of a great science-fiction film is the delicate balance between awesomeness and disbelief, and movies based on Philip K. Dick stories tend to walk that line with grace—or hauntingly skitter across it, in the case of Minority Report‘s spider robots. Total Recall, whether the original 1990 version or the remake that came out this past weekend, is no exception. Both movies are about memory modification, which works well because it’s terrifying but imaginable. We’ll leave it to our colleagues at Techland to tell you how it would work.
The new version also includes some pretty rad phone-embedded-in-palm gadgetry that we can’t wait to get our hands on (pun intended). But the science-fiction aspects of the movie don’t stop there. The entire plot revolves around a bit of geophysical conjecture. If you want to know whether it makes sense, keep reading; if you don’t want to know how the movie ends, stop.
(REVIEW: A Total Recall Remake: Why?)
Okay, here are the spoilers: in the world of Total Recall 2012, chemical warfare has left the Earth barren with the exception of two areas, Great Britain (“The United Federation of Britain,” or UFB) and Australia (“The Colony”). The Colony is like a company town for the UFB fancy-pants: the important people live up North and the workers live down South, in the dirty, crowded, rainy (except when the good guys win, d’uh) second-class region. In order to commute to the UFB, where the jobs are, the workers travel via a tunnel that goes through the core of the planet, known as “the Fall.” Rebels from the Colony hope to achieve independence, but the UFB’s chancellor wants to get the Colony even further under his thumb. Colin Farrell’s version of our hero, Douglas Quaid, thinks he works in a factory, making the robotic police officers known as Synthetics; with Rekall, he recovers the memories of his own past as a double agent, infiltrating the rebels on behalf of the UFB but really turning UFB secrets over to the Colony’s underdogs. He knows that the terrorist attacks in the UFB, supposedly the work of the rebels, are really the UFB’s attempts to justify manufacturing more Synthetics, which they can then bring to the Colony via the Fall, to slaughter the residents and take control of the area. When Quaid saves the day, he does it by destroying the Fall with lots of bombs, cutting off the territories from each other and blowing up the transport capsule that has the army of Synthetics inside.
So the Fall is pretty crucial—but would it ever be possible?
“In my opinion, no,” says Charlotte Rowe, a geophysicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “I honestly don’t think that we’re ever going to get to the point where we could see it.”
The average diameter of the earth is a little under 8,000 miles, according to NASA, and the trip through the Fall takes about 17 minutes, according to Total Recall. That’s an average speed of nearly 28,000 miles per hour, more than
2 times 20 times the maximum speed of the Concorde SST. Even if such a speed were possible for the commute—and it might be necessary, in order for the craft to escape the gravitational pull of the center of the Earth—the initial tunnel dig would inevitably take much longer. Just to compare: a deep-drilling project at Los Alamos called Hot Dry Rock only went a few miles into the Earth and, according to W. Scott Baldridge, also a geophysicist at the lab, it took about a decade for scientists to just develop the equipment that would allow the drilling to begin. “None of the tools that existed could withstand the pressures and temperatures,” he says—estimating that the problems were caused by heat at about 600° F at the bottom of those holes, compared to the 5,400°–9,000° temperatures estimated by the Department of Energy much further down at the Earth’s core.
It’s not just the heat and pressure that would cause problems. Much of the Earth’s interior is plastic in consistency—Marc Sbar, a geophysicist who teaches at the University of Arizona, compares it to peanut butter—and, even though it moves very slowly, it does move, which would make it even more difficult to drill through. That motion, convection, is what produces the Earth’s magnetic field. (The Fall’s tunnel would be small enough, compared to the size of the planet, that it wouldn’t have any disruptive effects on that field.)
Total Recall takes place in 2084, but the movie’s tie-in website indicates that the Fall was completed ten years before that—which gives us only 60 years to dig the tunnel. But, chances are, digging would not commence until after chemical warfare created incentive, since it’s not an area of science where a lot of people are working today. “There have been some fairly deep holes drilled here and there,” says Rowe. “The Russians had one in Siberia. The Germans had a fairly deep one about ten or 12 years ago. There has been a hole that was drilled into the magma body underneath the Katmai Volcano [in Alaska], and of course as soon as you hit any appreciable amount of melt, you’re going to stop drilling.” Those holes are meant for probes (or to satisfy scientific curiosity) but there’s little reason to push the dig once it gets tough to keep going. Thus, to develop the tools to create the Fall, to find a way to keep the tunnel open despite crushing pressure and to actually complete the project would take much longer than a few decades. Sbar guesses that, were quick transport from the UFB to the Colony necessary, people would be much more likely to find another way to do it—air travel, for example—because it would be so much less expensive and faster to get off the ground.
That said, the experience of the commuters who travel via the Fall is—if the hypothetical tunnel existed and they were protected from the heat and pressure—more accurate. As the pod passes the core, the characters become weightless. This is due to the fact that, at the center of the Earth, gravity—which, down there, comes from the mass of the planet above you rather than below—is equal in all directions. And, as it does in the movie, “up” and “down” would flip as soon as the vessel moved past the center. Rowe, who likens a graph of the amount of gravity that would be felt during the trip to an upside-down St. Louis arch, says that the experience of such a traumatic commute wouldn’t necessarily hurt the commuters in any way.
So now we have an explanation of the plot- and planet-centric science of the movie, but all of that geophysical information still ignores the most significant piece of technology in Total Recall‘s glimpse of the future—the fantastical prediction that may inspire the greatest hopes among audience members, the vision that is both awe-inspiring and within the realm of possibility: in 2084, at least in this version of it, we still have books.