Y2K: The Movie, reviewed and debunked

Oh boy, what a flick. Bad from the first to the last.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor
Oh boy, what a flick. Bad from the first to the last. It leaves me asking, "What if people actually believe it?" So, just in case you've been taken in by any of the myths in NBC's "thriller" movie, here's my review/debunking of the events portrayed….

Myth # 1: "Be grateful it's only a test…." The simulation at the beginning of the film implies that a simulation of an airline flight would identify problems with an actual airline. Nope - the simulation does not include the "300 miles of wire and circuits" in an airplane. The simulator is unaware of the components of the plane, so the computer simulation of the cockpit would not have identified a problem in, say, the airline. Likewise, cutting power at the airport would not cause a power failure on an approaching airliner.

Moreover, air traffic control testing has not revealed any problems like those depicted, even when they used real clocks turned ahead to December 31, 1999. This testing has included real planes flying through simulated date changes.

Myth #2: There is a concerted effort to track the Y2K bug around the world, but the movie misstated things. The government needn't track air traffic control performance around the globe, because it is set to a single global time.

Myth #3: As a Northwesterner, I feel compelled to say that my neighbors are not inclined toward chain link fencing, nor razor wire, except in certain remote areas. Ronny Cox, who plays the kindly father of the Y2K genius, wouldn't be living next to this kind of person in suburban Seattle. More likely, he'd be next door to a former Microsoft employee.

Myth #4: The Federal Reserve's Y2K cash reserve, about $200 billion, is enough for more "enough cash for every family in America to live for one week." In fact, it's enough for every family to live on $365-a-week for five weeks.

Myth #5: Ken Olin's character, "the smartest man in the world," says that someone who says that they know what will happen on New Year's Day "is a liar." Except for the extremists who don't have any sense of perspective, it is easy to estimate what will happen on New Year's Day, both globally and locally. The analogous statement, that no one can know what will happen tomorrow, is literally true - you don't know what surprises are afoot, but a well-studied problem like Y2K does provide ample evidence to know there won't be a disaster in 2000.

Myth #6: No one is "at the controls" for Y2K. It has been a distributed problem, not something that can be centralized.

Myth #7: An F-18 aircraft, which is "flying a routine mission" when it crashes, experiences a sudden, massive systems failure. A pilot at the controls of such a plane would not lose control of the aircraft due to Y2K, and the jet engines would not fail. McDonnell Douglas, the maker of the F-18, has conducted tests and found no date-dependencies that would affect the performance of the aircraft.

Myth #8: The Marshall Islands will not greet the "new millennium" on January 1, 2000. It will do so on January 1, 2001.

Myth #9: ATM withdrawals and bank withdrawals will not be limited to $20 or $100, respectively.

Myth #10: Sydney, Australia, has tested its power grid and production systems, and have found no problems, even in testing real post-Y2K dates by turning clocks ahead.

Myth #11: The cascading power outage, where the crash of one power generation plant brings down another and another, until none are left operating, is a mythical concept. Also, the comment that "if they crash, we crash," about the French power grid, is silly, because the physical character of the grids is not where problems could occur. The management of the grid, in software and human skill, is the determining factor. Embedded chip problems, which have proven to be miniscule - less than one-half of one percent of embedded systems were found to be at risk from Y2K failure - are well documented in the U.S. power grid and would not cause a crash simply because a similar grid in France failed.

Myth #12: The cascading failure across the "entire Eastern seaboard," and the comment that "we've lost 911 in Boston." There's a question that begs asking: How did these people create an interconnected logistics network capable of collecting all this data in real-time without fixing the Y2K problems along the way? The control center and network Ken Olin's team is using would cost as much as the federal government spent on Y2K repairs to assemble and manage.

Myth #13: The first casualty. Emergency surgery will be the only surgery going on at midnight on New Year's Eve. The "sudden fetal distress" indicated by the baby monitor in the hospital is normal for births. It happens when a monitor slips, not just when Y2K strikes. While some medical equipment is Y2K susceptible, hospitals plan to staff bedsides where they are in use. A doctor would not decide to "cut her for no good reason," as portrayed in the film, but would check vital signs first.

Medical equipment is largely ready and will be monitored for problems.

Myth #14: "They all died." The design of a nuclear plant is not as complex as indicated. It is controlling a complex process, but largely electromechanically. The monitors and equipment in the control room of a nuclear plant are providing feedback to engineers, but if they failed they would be overridden by analog meters that would sound an alert if, for instance, the core began to overheat. The engineers would be able to control the plant, as they did at Peach Bottom Nuclear Reactor in Pennsylvania during a computer failure earlier this year (during a Y2K simulation - the problem was caused by a mistake by an engineer who mis-set a clock). In all the nuclear disasters the world has seen, the staffs have not been killed en masse in minutes or hours.

Myth #15: The domestic jet over Washington, D.C., is one of the craft certified by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and AirBus Industries to be Y2K ready. No system on-board a U.S. jet would cause a failure of the onboard power and instruments. Moreover, the plane would not be running "on fumes" because a delay of a couple hours.

The instruments on the jet are portrayed as misreading the altitude. Testing of onboard systems has demonstrated no date-dependency in altimeters and other navigational equipment.

"It worked for Lindbergh." Olin's character lines up a battalion of trucks to light a runway for the last jet in the air over the U.S. The important thing to understand about Y2K is its random character. The confluence of onboard problems, in this case the navigational system failing, and on-the-ground problems, is a very dramatic stretch. The problem with the film is its central theme - what if everything predicted by Y2K doomers come true? Only a fraction of problems predicted will happen, mostly in isolation and with negligible impact on every day life.

At this point you may be thinking Mitch is hedging. At ZDY2K, we've never said that there wouldn't be problems, only that the problems will be scattered and well managed. At worst, Y2K will be an inconvenience. "Y2K: The Movie" portrays a world where, for some reason, the Y2K specialists are, and seem to have been, helpless observers at the apocalypse.

Local note: Unfortunately, local advertising here in the Seattle area included poorly-produced Y2K food supply commercials. With the food supply intact, the critical systems across the U.S. at the ready, it will be unfortunate for those people who are suckered by this film if they react by purchasing a year's worth of canned and dried food. The local ad, which is tagged "There won't be any bread lines if we all have our own bread," runs twice during the movie.

Myth #16: "Locks in prisons are computerized." This problem, which is stated inaccurately, has been widely studied in the U.S., and there are no penal computer systems that will allow the doors to cells to spring open.

Myth #17: "The board might also think it's 1900." Nick Cromwell, played by Olin, says the control board of a nuclear plant may be confused by the date change, explaining that it may be looking backward in time 100 years. The reality is that the computer, if it has a Y2K problem, thinks it is the year "00," not 1900. Cromwell may be the smartest man in the world, as the script says, but he's not very accurate. In fact, he's downright dramatic.

Myth #18: "The reactor's in over-drive." Nuclear plants have electromechanical controls and manual controls that allow the engineers to shut down the reaction. The evacuation begun with more than an hour before a core breach would not include the plant staff, who would stay to operate the controls manually. The mechanical problem preventing the water from flowing to the core would be solved not by fooling the computer into "thinking" it is a different date, but by turning a valve by hand.

Myth #18, amplified: "HAL-9000." Nuclear plants are controlled by people. Computers do not take over the controls and refuse to relinquish them. The reactor in the movie has been told "to make more electricity" than is needed. If so, it would cause an imbalance in the local grid, causing circuits to break and closing off the connection to the plant. Regardless of what year the computer "thinks" it is, the mainframe would also be aware of the circuits closing. If that didn't cause it to shut down the reactor, overriding the order to generate more electricity, those people sitting in the control room still have the ability to override the computer.

Myth #19: Fun fact to know and tell: Having been through an emergency in the state of Washington, the police are the ones who drive through the streets asking people to leave. However, the National Guard is at the ready for problems, though they would not likely show up to lead an evacuation with M-16s.

Advertising Opportunity! Hey, if not Y2K, how about Arnold Schwarzenegger in "End Of Days." Neat, now I don't have to worry about Y2K, just Satan!

Myth #20: I'll handle this myself. Why does Ken Olin's character need to go into the containment building of a nuclear plant he doesn't run and has never visited? One of the key ideas to keep in mind about Y2K: There are millions of people out there who know their jobs and how to do them, even in the face of Y2K. Nick Cromwell, the hero of Y2K: The Movie, wouldn't know one valve from another.

Myth #21: "The gauges down here are saying the same thing." Nick feels a pipe with his hand and says the gauges in the containment building are reporting inaccurate information. Yet, the gauges he's looking at are analog gauges, which have no computer components or date-dependent features.

Myth #22: "I'd rather be last than wrong on this one." The news team is portrayed as heroically dedicated to sourcing their reports - no rumors, just fact. This is television congratulating itself, but the furthest stretch in the movie so far. TV news teams would be all over this, rumor or not.

Myth #23: "Hit it with a hammer!" Gawd, Ronny Cox brought Apollo 13 back. Thank God no one's lost a puppy or kitten yet. The most obvious solution, to look at the pumps that haven't been bringing water from Puget Sound is the last thing anyone thinks of? Any plant engineer could tell you that, if you turn a valve and nothing happens, you trace the system backward toward the water source to find the problem. No wonder there's a meltdown about to happen, these people are worse at running their nuclear plant than Homer Simpson (and, yes, I know, this is a line from the movie).

Myth #24: You can't open tanks of compressed gas in a sealed oil drum. The drum would burst from the increasing pressure inside long before the idiotically explosive conclusion to the nuclear drama. See, you even get your non-digital myths busted with ZDY2K.

Myth #25: You can't trust your hacker friends. "Mom, I was terrified. Chaos and Clipper ditched me." Hackers are just as human as anyone else, and that Ronny Cox is dynamite when he points with timely joy at the lost family and smiles. Parents everywhere are finally going to take the dangers of online friendships seriously after that poor girl was abandoned by her friends.

Myth #26: Nick Cromwell is left hanging on the line when power goes out in LA. Here, again, is the problem with the film. Olin's character is supposed to be "at the controls" of the national Y2K effort, yet the problems have orbited his location.

Nothing in life is as dramatic as this movie. I'd been thinking it might be kind of funny and I've been disappointed, except for the moment when Nick is spotted on video camera running outside the containment building moments after an explosion and my wife shouted, "Look, Timmy, it's Lassie!"

Y2K: The Movie shouldn't cause any panic, because it was so indescribably silly. But, in the absence of knowledge about Y2K, or in the clutches of Y2K doomers, there is a real chance that some people will be frightened. Hopefully, they'll get the straight story from reliable sources before they act irrationally to prepare for the disaster portrayed by NBC tonight. Mitch gives it two thumbs down, for bad script and stupid mythology.

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