Immortal Mechanics

The movie National Treasure was on television this evening. Dana and I had been talking about the film for a couple of days before hand, and when we saw that it would be showing tonight, it seemed fitting to watch it. I had never seen the movie before, and having done so, I found that it triggered in me a response I’ve had over and over again when I watch movies like this.

Have you ever driven a really old car that still ran like it was new? If so, how old was it? More importantly, how often had it been worked on, maintained, and had the oil changed over the course of its lifetime? Have you ever used a machine that had been left, oh, I don’t know, beneath the water table with a subway line running nearby to shake everything once every half an hour, for hundreds of years? Would you expect one to work if you found it? In spite of the obvious difficulties of these things, Hollywood script writers seem to take it for granted that centuries-old hydraulic and counterweight systems will work smoothly like the day they were designed, just as soon as the hero presses on the secret panel or inserts the long-lost key into the strange slot in the wall of an ancient tomb.

What is it about this sort of plot device that keeps it coming back over and over again? I enjoy suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy a film, but I have my limits. Asking me to think that some kind of counter-weighted, self-opening door system buried hundreds of feet beneath a city where the water table is less than twenty feet below the surface of the ground is going to be not only dry and dusty, but also fully functional nearly two hundred years after it was built? There is suspension of disbelief, and then there is a blatant disrespect for the most basic principals of engineering.

In spite of the obvious flaws in the logic, the concept is popular. In movies from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to National Treasure and countless others before and since, complicated machinery left untended for tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years springs to life at the lightest touch. The ropes never rot away, and the chains never rust. The ratchets never seize, the pulleys never slip. There are some puffs of dust, a fine spill of sand from between the ceiling beams, and a clanking noise somewhere in the distance, but otherwise, everything works flawlessly.

Just once, I’d like to see a film in which the hero steps on the loose stone in the floor and there is nothing more than a feeble splintering sound from inside the walls, leaving us all to wonder why there are what appear to be a set of carefully constructed earthen ramps about the right size to fit the huge round rock outside the mouth of the cave, almost entirely grown-over by more than a hundred years worth of jungle foliage. I’d like to see a film in which the ancient builders who hid the fantastic treasure were smart enough to realize that their plans for complicated swinging blade traps and spring-loaded dart launchers would not stand the test of time. The pharaohs, after they got over their fascination with building giant stone tombs out where everybody could see them, took to burying their treasure where it would be very difficult to find. It has taken us thousands of years to even locate some of those burial sites, and there are likely more we don’t even know exist. Perhaps those are the people we should be taking lessons from in the art of protecting ancient valuables.

-posted by Mark

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2 Responses to Immortal Mechanics

  1. laikal says:

    Oh, agreed. Plus, ancient peoples mostly resorted to spiritual punishments in the form of wards and spells in order to deter would-be thieves, not intricate traps. That could be pretty good fodder for exciting action, too.

  2. Mark says:

    Laikal,

    Certainly. The Mummy, for example, made use of the more supernatural variety of deterrent. Sure, they had the horrible scarabs which might eat you, which were sort of a trap (and which had somehow not starved to death sealed in a pyramid for thousands of years), and the thing with the falling sand, but overall, the mummy himself was the “trap”. If you’re trying to make a more “realistic” movie, though, horrible undead creatures might not fit with your concept. In that case, the plan of just hiding everything very well, and then burring your hiding place, still strikes me as the best bet.

    –Mark

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