How to Use Movie Physics
in the Classroom

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Movie physics can provide a bonanza of enrichment activities for both high school physics students and first year physics students in college. These generally require nothing more than a VCR and stopwatch. Some movie scenes provide examples of good physics and others bad physics but all can be analyzed and used as topics of discussion. When the physics are so bad they're downright ugly, the real fun begins. Not only can ugly physics be analyzed, but they can be mercilessly ripped apart.

For example, the AP Physics classes at Kentridge HS in Kent, Washington has reviewed a number of movies as a class project. Teacher Tom Robinson describes it as "...a fun and worthwhile project for us to do—I'll probably do it again!"

Movie physics analysis can be used to augment and add variety to lab experiences. To use movie physics in this manner, first play the desired scene on a VCR or DVD player. Next explain how data is to be collected and evaluated. Replay the scene as needed. Most scenes are only a few minutes long and have to be played several times to collect data. The data is then analyzed and used in calculations. End with a class discussion. Intuitor has provided a list of movie scenes below along with classroom movie-minilab sheets for a number of movies in the list. Click on the movie-minilab link under the Classroom Activity heading. We have listed a major physics category illustrated by the scene and have ranked the scene's physics quality: good, bad, or ugly. If we have reviewed and rated the entire movie there is a link to the review under the movie's name.

In most cases a DVD player is superior to a VCR, providing it's the type which can play one frame at a time. In this case, even relatively high-speed movie physics can be analyzed.

Check back often since we will be constantly updating the list.

Please note that all movie-minilab sheets are copyrighted and are the exclusive property of Intuitor. They cannot be sold or published in any medium, electronic or conventional, without the written permission of Intuitor. However, teachers, students, and homeschoolers can download and reproduce unlimited free copies for legitimate classroom or home school purposes.

Physics Principle Movie Scene's Physics Quality Scene Classroom Activity (Time Estimate, Equipment)
Kinematics (Acceleration from V vs t plot)

Dynamics (F=ma, free body diagrams)

Speed 2: Cruise Control,
Sandra Bullock ,
Jason Patric,
Willem Dafoe

Read Our Review
Bad A ship crash into dock causing the movie's heroes to be tossed through the ship's windshield. Answer whether the heroes should have been thrown through the windshield. (30-45 min., stopwatch)


Kinematics (Falls) Project A,
Jackie Chan,
Sammo Hung,
Yuen Biao
Good Jackie falls from a 3 story building through 2 awnings Analyze velocities and acceleration during the fall. Note this was a real fall which could have been fatal had Jakie landed slightly differently. (40-60 min. DVD, stopwatch)
Projectile Motion Goldeneye, Good An unmanned airplane, a motorcycle and its driver all go off a cliff together  
Projectile Motion Back to the Future III, Good-Bad A moving train plummets over a cliff.  
Projectile Motion Speed,
Keanu Reeves
Sandra Bullock
Dennis Hopper
Joe Morton
Ugly A bus jumps a 50-foot gap in the road. Calculate the angle and speed required to do so. (15-20 min.)
Circular Motion (Artificial Gravity) 2001: A Space Odyssey Good The space station is shown rotating as an approaching spacecraft docks Calculate the ship's rotation rate and estimate its level of artificial gravity. Assume a diameter of 400 meters for the space station. (20-30 min., stopwatch)
Circular Motion (Artificial Gravity) Mission to Mars
Gary Sinise
Tim Robbins
Conie Nielson
Don Cheadle
Bad In an interior shot, the space ship is shown rotating on the trip to mars. Assume the rotation rate gives a centripetal acceleration which simulates Earth gravity at the astronaut's feet. Estimate the difference in artificial gravity at their head. (30-40 min.)
Circular Motion (Artificial Gravity) Armageddon
Bruce Willis
Billy Bob Thornton
Ben Affleck
Liv Tyler
Ugly The Russian space station Mir is rotated to produce artificial gravity. Calculate how fast the ship would have to rotate in the various sections to create artificial gravity (30-45 min.)


Conservation of Momentum Eraser
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Vanessa Williams
James Caan

Read Our Review
Ugly Any scene showing the handheld rail gun Calculate the backward velocity of the rail gun using bullet velocity data from the movie and conservation of momentum. Assume the bullet weighs .25 grams. (15-20 min.)
Kinetic Energy, Kinematics (velocity, displacement) Armageddon
Bruce Willis
Billy Bob Thornton
Ben Affleck
Liv Tyler
Bad A Texas-sized asteroid is split in half by a nuclear bomb and hence, misses Earth. Estimate the mass of the asteroid. Calculate the sideways velocity of the asteroid assuming that all the energy in a 100 megaton nuclear bomb is converted into kinetic energy which moves the asteroid halves apart. (45-60 min.)


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