Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Best skeptical film ever

Watson: You know, Holmes, I've seen things in war I don't understand. In India I once met a man who predicted his own death, right down to the number and the placement of the bullets that killed him. You have to admit, Holmes, that a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible.

Holmes: Oh, agreed. But... It is a huge mistake to theorise without data. Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit theories, rather than theories to suit facts.

- Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I am convinced that the scriptwriter for this film is a guerilla skeptic. It's bloody marvellous to see someone taking the mickey out of credulity, rather than the usual attitude of "it's not mainstream therefore it must be right".

Another great moment is the hilarious gypsy fortune-teller Holmes employs to try and scare Watson off getting married ("Oh, I see patterned tablecloths... oh... and china figurines, and... ugh! Lace doilies!"). And there's more, but first I should issue a SPOILER ALERT.

As it turns out, the villain (Lord Blackwood) has built an entire evil master-plan based on convincing people he has mystical powers. The first time we see him is overseeing the sacrifice of a young woman. When confronted by Holmes and Watson, he lures Watson into charging at him with violent intent.

And if Holmes hadn't been there, Watson would have died right then, untouched by human hand... Holmes stops Watson and points out the so-thin-it's-invisible skewer of glass extending from Blackwood's fingers to just in front of Watson's nose.

Trick 2: When in prison, Blackwood appears to put a spell of some kind on a warden, leaving him struggling in agony on the floor. This is a simple one to solve: the warden was bribed. Never underestimate the profit motive.

Trick 3: Blackwood is sentenced to death and hanged. But death is only the beginning! The stone on his tomb is broken, apparently from the inside, and his grave is empty (of Blackwood, anyway).

Holmes' solution: a special waistcoat with a hook near the throat, and the collaboration of the hangman (more bribery), allow Blackwood to survive his hanging. A drug-induced coma allows him to deceive the medical examiner. The tombstone was pre-broken then stuck back together with a water-soluble glue. When it rained the night after Blackwood's hanging, the glue dissolved and the stone fell apart under its own weight, releasing Blackwood.

Trick 4: It turns out that Blackwood's intended power base is a mystical (credulous) secret society that includes several MPs, judges, etc. One of the steps he uses to convince them of his "power" is to kill the Order's leader in his bath, again untouched by human hand.

Solution: A chemical painted round the rim of the bath that reacts with water to produce a rather nasty acid. Once the police drain the bath ("out of common decency" - idiots), the chemical is effectively undetectable. OK, so that's not exactly one you could figure out at home, but it's definitely another point for skepticism's scoreboard.

Anyway, you get the idea. There are some wonderful lines in it as well. My current favourite:

Member of the Order: "We know you don't believe in magic, Mr Holmes. We don't expect you to share our faith, merely our fear."
Holmes: "Of the two, fear is the more efficacious condition."

Well said, Holmes. Well said.

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