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Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc. All rights reserved

Expert Q&A: How Close Does Pompeii Reflect Reality?

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Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc. All rights reserved

In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii—in theaters now—Kit Harington and Emily Browning play a couple of star-crossed lovers in 79 A.D. whose forbidden relationship is the most minor of problems: The city they know and love is about to come crashing down, literally, as Mount Vesuvius starts spitting lava.

Like any good Hollywood disaster flick worth its ticket price, Pompeii’s filmmakers employed a fair amount of creative license. But Dr. Rosaly M. Lopes-Gautier, Senior Research Scientist and Manager of Planetary Science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and author of The Volcano Adventure Guide, says there’s a lot the movie gets right, scientifically-speaking. We pressed her for details. 

Among your many other achievements, you’re one of the world’s leading volcano experts. So—scientifically speaking—what parts of a volcanic eruption, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in particular, does Pompeii get right?
They got the sequence of events right: the fact that there were earthquakes before the main eruption, that a big explosion happened during the day but pyroclastic flows [rapidly-moving flows of rock and hot gasses] only reached Pompeii much later (in the movie, it’s during the night; in reality, it was early the next morning). The explosion cloud, the pyroclastic flows, [and] earthquakes, were all done very realistically.

Which aspects are most clearly a case of creative license?
There was pumice rock fall but no fiery bombs, which don’t happen in that type of very explosive eruption. However, the rock and pumice fall did destroy structures and caused fires (probably from overturned oil lamps). The lava lake in the crater was artistic license to convey the idea of magma coming up without the people realizing. The tsunami in the movie was larger than the one reported, and in reality the tsunami didn’t move ships in the city.

What’s the one thing you would have done differently?
I’d probably have made the tsunami less dramatic. However, this is a movie drama, not a documentary, so I think artistic license is perfectly fine.

Could the events of Aug. 24, 79 A.D. happen at Mount Vesuvius again?
Yes, though the eruptions of Vesuvius are not generally as large as the 79 A.D. one. Vesuvius tends to erupt in cycles, and the first eruption in the cycle is the largest. 79 A.D. was the opening of a new cycle, so was the large eruption of 1631.

What are the factors that could contribute to that being a reality?
It seems that the longer the volcano rests between cycles, the larger the initial eruption can be. The end of the last cycle was in 1944, with a not particularly violent eruption. Vesuvius could rest for many years before the next one.
What might the potential impact of that look like?
There are over one million people living near the volcano today. Potentially, the impact could be much larger than that of the 79 A.D. eruption. However, the volcano is very well monitored, so there would be warning. 

What are some of the other most potentially dangerous volcanoes around the world?
Many of the volcanoes in Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and other places around the “ring of fire” of the Pacific are potentially very dangerous, as they can have violent explosive eruptions such as Vesuvius did in 79 A.D., or even more violent. The most hazardous volcano in the U.S. is Mt. Rainier, although Yellowstone has the potential for catastrophic eruptions. When we consider volcanic hazard, we look at the probability of the volcano erupting in the near future, such as the next few decades, and the impact to human life and property. Even a not very large eruption from Mt. Rainier could cause ice in glaciers to melt, creating devastating mudflows.
What are three facts about volcanoes that most people don’t know?
1. Volcanoes don’t suddenly erupt without any warning. The movie correctly depicted that they had warning, because of the many earthquakes, but the people at the time did not connect the earthquakes to the volcano.

2. Pyroclastic flows and mudflows are much more dangerous than lava flows. Many lava flows travel slowly enough that you can get away from them, or even walk over them if the crust has cooled enough (cooled lava is a very good insulator, so the flow may still be molten underneath, but with a cool hard crust). Pyroclastic flows and mudflows travel much faster and often it is not possible to escape them using a car.

3. The most spectacular volcanoes to photograph and visit while in eruption are usually the least dangerous ones. For example, Stromboli in Italy, Yasur in Vanuatu, and Kilauea in Hawaii. They have either small explosions or no explosions at all, which makes them very tame as far as volcanoes go.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]


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