Heisenberg’s ambulance

For many, especially those of us in our fifties, Die Hard is the archetypal 1980s action movie. It guaranteed two hours of explosions, shootings, and somersaults and was the confirmation of Bruce Willis as a film actor guaranteed to make money; until then, he had had a long career in television, but not very brilliant forays into cinema. The success of the film was a surprise even for the producers themselves, who saw the culmination of one of the most troubled shoots in the history of cinema.

The project was born as an adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing lasts forever, and this is where the problems begin. This book is the sequel to The detective, which had already been adapted for film in an eponymous version starring Frank Sinatra in 1968 and, contractually, Sinatra had to star in all the sequels. Can anyone imagine Frank Sinatra shooting terrorists barefoot in a tank top amidst a hail of glass? Well, it could have happened. Eventually, the Voice dropped out. The role was offered to all the celebrity actors of the day until the tenth choice, a semi-unknown Bruce Willis, accepted.

During the filming, many scenes had to be redesigned due to a lack of permits, or shot with models, which nowadays, seen on television, are quite conspicuous, even though we did not notice them at the time. But the biggest problem that fans have found is a huge plot hole. The leader of the terrorists, played by Alan Rickman, infiltrates the hostages, but when Bruce Willis talks to him for the first time, he immediately knows that he is an impostor. How can he know? Well, this mistake was the lesser evil to cover up a bigger one. In a scene deleted from the final cut, the terrorists enter the building, get out of a truck and synchronise their matching Tag Heuer watches. When Willis meets Rickman, he has already taken out two henchmen and stolen their watches, so he knows that Rickman is one of them, because he is wearing the same model. But by removing the clock synchronisation scene from the final cut, the viewer can no longer tell. The problem was in the original script. The part about the escape of the terrorists was confusing and it was decided on the fly that they would escape from the building in an ambulance, which was hidden inside the truck in which they had first arrived at the building. The problem came when, in the aforementioned clock synchronisation scene, you see the inside of the truck and there is no ambulance in there. It would not make sense for a vehicle to appear out of nowhere in such a timely manner, so this scene was removed.

«Can anyone imagine Frank Sinatra shooting terrorists barefoot in a tank top amidst a hail of glass?»

In the macroscopic world, where the laws of classical Newtonian mechanics prevail, it would not make sense; but here science could have helped the desperate screenwriters. If the film had starred elementary particles, where the laws of quantum mechanics prevail, the script would have stood a chance. According to these laws, the screenwriter could have argued that it was a quantum indeterminacy. Heisenberg established the uncertainty principle, according to which within quantum physics certain pairs of physical variables cannot be precisely established. Therefore, if the terrorists are determining the time by looking at the clock, the position of the terrorists in relation to the ambulance can be indeterminate and the fact that the ambulance could not be seen inside the truck would not have mattered. Perhaps it would have been an honourable way out… or perhaps not. A study published in the journal Physical Review Letters in 2020 succeeded in accurately measuring the quantum transition of a strontium ion within an electric field. Science no longer respects Heisenberg, and 1980s cinema no longer respected Frank Sinatra.

© Mètode 2021 - 110. Climate crisis (online only) - Volume 3 (2021)
Professor of Biotechnology at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. Researcher at the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (CSIC-UPV).