Finger on the pulse: the use and abuse of EMP in 10 Hollywood films


Grant Williams, Senior Sales Manager - Novel Product Incubation

Electromagnetic (EM) pulses are a short burst of electromagnetic energy. They can originate from natural occurrences such as sun spots or electrical storms, but are increasingly delivered through man-made activities either intentionally in a weapon format or accidentally by creating ‘noise’ in certain parts of the spectrum through activities, for example, welding.

Regardless of source, the effects of an EM pulse remain consistent, in that they deny the availability or degrade the performance of critical electrical and autonomous systems; many of these systems being those we place an ever-increasing reliance on to deliver day-to-day functions across our homes, cities and industries.

The impact of electromagnetic interference scales up or down depending on the type of environment that it occurs and its reliance on electrical connectivity. For example, autonomous systems could emit small EM pulses as they communicate with each other - this would be fine in an open space, with nothing around, but place those systems inside of a consumer retail business and the pulses they emit could impact the working efficiency of each other, the infrastructure around them, or even the security of the building. On the opposite end of the scale, terrorist groups could create an EMP device with an impact similar to a nuclear bomb which at the speed of light could wipe out infrastructure for hundreds of miles and leave no trace.

The latter is much less likely to happen, but the slight possibility of it has led many a Hollywood production to include references to EMP. But, like many plot devices, liberties are often taken with the science. So how accurate actually are movie references to EMPs? From the mostly credible to the patently ridiculous, we’ll break down the science for you for ten popular movie moments.

Spoiler alert: EMP is an important feature in most of these films. So, please bear this in mind if you’ve not seen them all yet.

#1 GoldenEye (1995)

“…discovered after Hiroshima. Set off a nuclear device in the upper atmosphere, creates a pulse, a radiation surge that destroys everything with an electronic circuit.” - M

What happens?

The eponymous ‘Goldeneye’ describes a fictional Russian EMP weapon system; two disposable satellites - ‘Mischa’ and ‘Petya’ (which sound a lot less sexy than ‘Goldeneye’). Each is armed with a nuclear warhead, and designed to detonate in the upper atmosphere, producing an EMP blast that affects the area beneath them.

One of the satellites is triggered earlier in the film over a Russian base; we don’t actually see a nuclear blast. Instead, there’s a visible light pulse and lots of explosions at the base in question. The pulse causes two fighter jets to explode, and the other to lose control and crash. It also spells a similar fate for a helicopter. The villains escape the facility in a completely EMP-shielded, stealth Tiger helicopter.

The main antagonist, Alec Trevelyan, plans to later activate the second Goldeneye satellite over London, erasing all electronic information in the city. Ultimately (and as usual) Bond saves the day and the satellite is never fired.

Is it scientifically accurate?

Some of it. Goldeneye is what would be called a High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (‘HEMP’) and, were such a satellite to exist it’d be a credible threat.

Nuclear blasts in the upper atmosphere have shown to cause EMP that effect things at ground level - the Starfish Prime test of 1962 involved a 1.4 megaton warhead detonated over 240 miles above the Pacific Ocean. This was enough to affect infrastructure in Hawaii, over 850 miles away, whilst also irreparably damaging at least three low earth orbit satellites.

What’s important to note is that 60s era infrastructure was much, much less vulnerable to EM than the infrastructure of today. There were less vulnerable electronics; a transistor was the size of a match head. Today, a billion transistors can be fitted on to a match head - if you were to scale your smartphone to 1962, its electronics would fill a football stadium. The point is that there are far, far more electronic devices now and these devices are smaller and operating at lower volts, amps and power. All of which makes for increased susceptibility

Of course, we don’t know what kind of precautions that the electronic systems of the Bank of England have taken - but it’s quite possible that the computer system that governs the UK’s central bank is EMP shielded to a certain extent.

However, the consequences of triggering Goldeneye over London could have been disastrous for other areas of critical infrastructure and lesser-shielded civilian society. Power grids, utility providers, other satellites - all would be vulnerable to the effects of Goldeneye.

That said, the pulse is unlikely to have had such a dramatic effect on the Severnaya military facility itself, instead of arcs of lightning and fires, you’d more likely have just seen the lights go out as the electronic circuits at the facility fail. This is, unless, the base stored munitions; most explosive charges (from mining to the military) use electronic devices as the detonator.

Accuracy rating: Not bad

#2 Broken Arrow (1996)

“That’s EMP; electromagnetic pulse, nuclear blast sends it out for miles, everything electronic shuts down, including choppers and radios. Hell we just shut down McMurran's field communications!” - Vic Deakins

What happens?

In US military parlance, a ‘Broken Arrow’ describes a nuclear weapon accident. For example, the loss of two thermonuclear warheads in a Utah canyon. Which is just what happens when USAF major and big-time traitor Vic Deakins sells out to a group of American terrorists with nuclear aspirations - crashing a fully armed B2 Spirit in the desert.

Holding the warheads for ransom, Deakins uses ‘uncoded circuit boards’, which override the nuke’s built in safety measures. In order to prove how serious he is, Deakins sets one of the devices to destruct on a timer. The heroes, Riley and Terry move this ill-fated warhead 2000 feet underground into an abandoned mineshaft to mitigate the effects of the now-unstoppable nuclear blast.

Asides from creating a huge subterranean crater, and a small earthquake, the EMP pulse knocks down a pursuing Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) helicopter and temporarily disrupts the electrical systems of the nearby airforce base. Deakins is eventually foiled, and the second warhead recovered, intact.

Is it scientifically accurate?

In large part. A subterranean nuclear explosion, even one so far down as this, could certainly produce an EMP pulse. An underground mine, not being properly EM shielded, would not form a Faraday Cage to contain it. The mass of the ground above the explosion would likely attenuate the EMP. What could happen is that the rock in the tunnel would channel the pulse - so that it were to come out, like an invisible beam from the tunnel opening. Which means that the helicopter might have been OK, provided it wasn’t in the line of site for this beam.

There aren’t too many anomalies in the film. In fact, the special effects people chose to do away with the arcs of lightning and sparks that are so common in some other films on this list. The effects of nuclear-triggered EMP blasts on subterranean electrical equipment has been proven. For example, ‘Soviet Project K’ nuclear tests in the early 1960s over Kazakhstan affected subterranean power lines in the area, triggering electrical fires.

Accuracy rating: Good effort

#3 Escape from L.A. (1996)

"You push that button, 500 years' worth of work will be finished. Our technology, our way of life, our entire history. We'll have to start all over again. For God's sakes, don't do it, Snake!!” - Malloy

What happens?

The Sword of Damocles is a series of 24 satellites in medium earth orbit. A doomsday super-weapon under the control of the US, when triggered, the satellites emit a pulse of directed electrical interference that is able to do everything from shutting down an individual city to the entire planet.

Our hero/antihero, Snake Plissken, is sent to the autonomous prison island of Los Angeles to retrieve the controls for the weapon after it falls into the wrong hands. Snake eventually has a change of heart and, setting the device code to ‘666’, triggers the device on full power, ‘shutting down the earth’ in an event that becomes known as ‘The Pulse’.

This is the first film in our list to use a non-nuclear EMP.

Is it scientifically accurate?

In some ways. If you were able to detonate EM pulses across the entire surface of the planet, ‘shutting down the earth’ would be an apt description of the disastrous consequences. The implications for our increasingly-infrastructure dependent modern way of life would be severe, particularly in more built up areas of the world.

The weapon itself isn’t that realistic, however. The Sword of Damocles is a non-nuclear EMP, which uses a generator, such as a tesla coil or magnetron. Like in the film, this can be directed - the big difference in the range or coverage of the effect. A truck based non-nuclear EMP would only affect an area the size of a city block, at most. There’s no known way of generating that kind of pulsed power at such an altitude without the use of a nuclear warhead (as in Goldeneye).

Accuracy rating: Questionable

#4 The Matrix (1999)

“Electromagnetic pulse. Disables any electrical system in the blast radius. It's the only weapon we have against the machines.” - Trinity

What happens?

In the futuristic nightmare of the 22nd century, the world is ruled by machines that harvest human energy, keeping the majority of people in a collective unconscious hallucination. EMPs are deployed by the free human resistance as a last-ditch weapon of defence against the mechanical sentinels.

The weapons are mounted to hovercraft that protect the human city of Zion and, though a recurrent plot device in the series, we see them used initially at the end of the first movie, when Morpheus, (the ship’s captain) fires the EMP of the Nebuchadnezzar to prevent the Sentinels (who have broken into the hull) from killing the crew.

The pulse is visible grey colour, radiating out spherically from the centre of the ship, which glows, interspersed with lightning arcs. EMPs also disable the vessel that fires them, requiring the ship to be manually powered up after emission (though we never see what, exactly, this entails).

Is it scientifically accurate?

It’s a stretch. EMPs are not visible to the naked eye, so the fact that we see the pulse is unrealistic.

The pulse also doesn’t seem to originate from any specific component on the ship, but considering the size of the ship, it seems credible that such a large, energy-hungry device could be mounted in there somewhere. The mechanism of action for EMP is also never explained, though it’s likely to be some kind of non-nuclear EMP device.

We also never see what the manual restart of the ship entails. If you were to set off a full-strength EMP pulse so close to the unshelled electronic hardware in the ship, you would likely fry all of the electronic components on-board. Does a manual restart entail replacing all of the electronic hardware as wells? It's never explained.

In addition, why aren’t the high-technology machine sentinels hardened against EMP blasts? Even assuming that they were unaware of such a threat, if you’re able to build an autonomous, machine equipped with laser and mechanical tentacles that can fly, could you not also protect its electronic components?

Accuracy rating: Questionable

#5 Cars 2 (2011)

“I’m detecting an extremely strong electromagnetic pulse. Finn, it’s the camera!” - Holley Shiftwell

What happens?

The EMP in Cars 2 is disguised inside a TV camera, and is a vital part of the villainous Lemons' plot to take over the world. EMP reacts explosively with ‘Allinol', a new, environmentally friendly modified form of gasoline which many of the characters in the film run on. The camera looks like a standard long lens recording studio video camera with a red glowing aperture that gets brighter as the intensity of the pulse is dialled up.

We first see EM used to kill Rod Redline, a Detroit muscle car and an American agent, who is captured by The Lemons. Once the interrogators get the info they want, they set the EMP to 100% and Redline meets a fiery end.

The Lemons use the camera (set on a lower setting) to interfere with the prestigious World Gran Prix series of races. Of course, the device (and the conspiracy) are eventually discovered in the final, London World Grand Prix race - and, oddly, everyone goes back to using conventional, dirty gasoline.

Is it scientifically accurate?

A little - disregarding all the sentient cars, of course.

EM interference doesn’t tend to make things explode, but it can in some cases. In electromagnetic compatibility testing, one area of concern is the possible initiation of ‘flammable atmospheres’ from EMP. For example, in the explosion of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, it’s possible that interference coupled in to the fuel tank and caused a tiny arc or spark - igniting the fuel vapour.

However, this is rare. What tends to happen when EMP hits a car is that it renders the internal electronics useless, without any fireworks. In fact, there are EMP devices designed specifically to stop (but not destroy) cars.

It’s also possible that an EMP could indirectly cause a fuel explosion, perhaps by compromising the security apparatus in a conventional petrol station.

Accuracy rating: OK

#6 Red Dawn (2012)

"There's a new class of weapon that caused a massive electrical pulse. Everything went offline and never came back. Grids fried, subs drowned, they mopped up by hitting cities with tactical non-nuke warheads…” - Sgt Maj. Andy Tanner

What happens?

The Red Dawn reboot replaces a Soviet invasion force with a North Korean and Russian separatist one. The plot plays out in the ‘occupied zone’ along the Pacific Coast, centring on Spokane, Washington.

We first see blackouts - the lights go out, but the cars continue, which suggests that the EMP has hit the critical infrastructure, but not the whole of the city. The day after the blackout hits, radios go down, mobile phone signals are jammed the airborne invasion begins.

Uncertainty and a bitter fight for survival ensues, with some of the locals forming a guerrilla force known as ‘the Wolverines’. The Wolverines eventually link up with an isolated Marine group, led by Sergeant Major Andy Tanner. Tanner gets them up to speed on the geopolitical situation, and together they hatch a successful plan to steal an EMP-proof communication device that will allow them to contact US command and launch a counter offensive.

Is it scientifically accurate?

To an extent. The vagueness of the weapon’s mechanism of action works in the favour of the plot. Yes, it’s likely that an EMP weapon used against civil infrastructure would cause a grid shutdown, which would on its own, be disastrous. But that’s probably where it ends.

For a start (and assuming a HEMP-based system of attack), indiscriminate uses of EMP against the continental US would cause ample collateral damage. All sorts of destruction would be inflicted upon the world’s satellites, which unlike nations, are not grouped geographically. In addition, Canada and Mexico would probably not take kindly to the effects of EMP weapons being used so close by.

And then there’s the fact that America has a well defended subterranean and sea-based thermonuclear arsenal that would likely be put to devastating use in such a situation. Even, if as claimed, the EMP ‘drowned’ US subs, ones that were located out on the open seas (and there are many) would likely be ready to respond. And, whilst American civil infrastructure might not be EMP hardened, the defensive forces station on American soil are more likely to be.

Accuracy rating: Reasonable

#7 Independence Day (2016)

“What goes up, must come down.” - David Levinson

What happens?

When a larger, more fearsome Harvester alien force invades earth for the second time, humanity is prepared. Armed with powerful alien technology taken from the first war of 1996, the Earth Space Defence (ESD) counter attacks.

Several futuristic bombers packing fusion warheads (which are escorted by several equally futuristic fighters) fight their way deep into the spooky heart of the alien ship, intending to attack its centre and kill the giant alien queen.

However, this turns out to be a trap, and, what appears to be an EMP blast deactivates the human fighter/bomber assault, leaving the planes to plummet helplessly to the ground. Shortly after, a larger EMP blast emanates from the ship, wiping out communication satellites across the glove and enabling the second phase of the alien attack.

But, like in the original, human ingenuity eventually triumphs. After a prolonged and bloody war, the giant alien queen is killed whilst dismounted in the desert, pursuing a school bus full of screaming children. This renders the alien ships leaderless and impotent; 2-0 to the humans

Is it scientifically accurate?

Again, we appear to be dealing with an extraterrestrial alien invasion, so some liberties have already been taken with the science.

For a start, if you could build a plasma powered, cold-fusion enabled space fighter, you could probably electromagnetically shield its components. You’d need to do this anyway to protect against the natural radiation that is encountered in space.

The alien first EMP pulse, which is seen as a visible wave of roiling cyan-tinted energy, radiates from a ring on the ground. After this, alien drones latch onto the descending nuclear warheads, rendering them ineffective. Why does the pulse only affect the human vessels? Are the aliens EMP-hardened, do they not use electronics at all?

For the second EMP pulse, instead of radiating spherically, it tracks the atmosphere of the earth, wiping out communication satellites. Again, EMP pulses can’t really be directed in such a precise manner. The alien ship could have emitted a large pulse, but the many satellites on the other side of the earth would likely be unaffected, as the both the earth itself and its magnetic field would have shielded them.

Accuracy rating: Ridiculous

#8 Captain America: Civil War (2016)

“Longing. Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One. Freight Car... Soldier?” - Baron Zemo

What happens?

James ‘Bucky’ Buchanan Barnes, AKA The Winter Soldier, is a superhuman, cybernetically augmented warrior created by the Russians in the early 90s. He’s being held in an undisclosed facility, somewhere in Berlin. The film’s main antagonist, Baron Zemo has a plan to activate and unleash him.

To do this, Zemo needs to break into the facility where The Winter Soldier is being held. To this end, he uses an EMP device to shut down a substation in Berlin that provides power to the detention facility.

This EMP is delivered by an unsuspecting courier to the substation. It’s large enough to fit into a crate which, when opened by an unsuspecting substation worker, triggers the device. The visible pulse turns off the traffic lights, shorting the electricity pylons and equipment at the power station. It also kills the lights in the facility that the Avengers are in, whilst deactivating the machine that confines the Winter Soldier.

This allows Baron Zemo to read the old Russian activation codes that transform Bucky into the rampaging Winter Soldier, who then fights his way out of the facility.

Is it scientifically accurate?

To a great extent. A pulse localised to an electrical substation would be a very efficient way to take out the power (and the backup) at the security facility.

The device is deployed where it is likely to do most harm with its limited range. The big voltages and currents (hundreds of kV and many amps) that flow in the wires on the pylons within a substation are actually controlled and monitored by digital (computer type) electronic relays. This control and monitoring electronics is usually located in a control house on the substation site. If the electronics fail here, it would very likely shut down the high voltage power flow.

Accuracy rating:Not bad

#9 The Fate of The Furious (2017)

“That Damocles 7 EMP weapon that went missing in the Gulf? Arms dealers from the Liberation front have it in Berlin. This thing can wipe out an entire electrical grid in a major city. No lights, no power, instant stone age… This is a Class Four WMD, do you have any idea what’s at stake here?!” - DS Allan

What happens?

Dominic Toretto uses a souped up, armour plated and EMP-hardened 1968 Dodge Charger, equipped with the ‘Damocles 7’ EMP device to break into a Russian separatist military base. The first EMP blast takes down the front gates, also bringing the camera system down.

On a mad tare towards a dry-docked Akula nuclear sub, the second, final pulse takes down a pursuing military helicopter and ‘resets’ the parked submarine. The blast allows the villain, Cipher, to take remote control of the submarine and initiate the launch sequence for one of its nuclear missiles - but the good guys break into the base shortly afterwards to prevent this.

That doesn’t stop Cipher from breaking the submarine out of dry dock, remotely-driving it out of the base, before later being thwarted by what is, effectively, a group of luxury sports cars.

Is it scientifically accurate?

Not really. For a start, the EMP device itself - which is far more powerful than any existing non-nuclear EMP device of a similar size. It’s very convenient how the pulse causes the security gates to lower, allowing access to the separatist facility.

It’s not explained how an EMP pulse could be used to take remote control of an Akula submarine. Disregarding the fact that the submarine itself is a water tight metal tube - which makes it a Faraday Cage by default. The pulse, if effective, would damage the submarine’s electronics, which, if anything, would make it harder to access remotely.

Accuracy rating: Dubious

#10 Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

“…twenty minutes ago an energy surge knocked our power across the entire Pacific Northwest.…our first instinct was that it was an EMP… but electromagnetic pulses don’t have that kind of power” - Unnamed US General

What happens?

Sonic (a super-powered sentient hedgehog from another world), sets off what appears to be an extra powerful EMP blast when running laps in an abandoned baseball field during a moment of ennui. It takes the form of a visible electric blue pulse that radiates outwards, knocking out the lights in the nearby town.

This pulse alerts the US government that something is afoot, leading them to dispatch super spook and drone warfare specialist, Dr. Robotnik, to get to the bottom of things.

No more specific references are made to EMP, but Sonic periodically uses his electric powers to defeat Robotnik’s drone army - perhaps trashing large swathes of the surrounding infrastructure in the process?

Is it scientifically accurate?

No way.

For a start, the aerodynamic effects of traveling at what appear to be thousands of miles an hour would have disastrous effects on Sonic’s organic tissue - unless he's made out of something that is seen in no other living creature. This is possible, we suppose, since he’s an alien.

That aside, assuming that Sonic was capable of surviving the aerodynamic effects of such speed, would running rapid circuits on a baseball field, whilst emotional, trigger an EMP? No. Much of the energy would be consumed as drag, which would transfer to heat - not EM interference.

And then there’s the EMP itself. Asides from the conversation in the Pentagon, immediately following it, we hear nothing more. A pulse with enough power to take out the grid across the entire Pacific Northwest would be disastrous.

It wouldn’t be a simple matter of restarting everything, a pulse of that power would quite literally destroy a large amount of critical electric and electronic infrastructure - the consequential loss of life would be considerable.

Accuracy rating: Ridiculous

Electromagnetic activity in the real world

While we have torn apart the scientific accuracy of EM attacks in the way Hollywood portrays, the fact is that electromagnetic disruption is happening and having an increasing impact on business and services.

The application of the EM threat is shifting rapidly from expensive military systems to low cost, easy to acquire and highly mobile platforms, increasingly being used by sophisticated terrorist, cyber-criminal and civilian activists to disrupt our key industries and services for their gain.

EM pulses are invisible to all cyber detection technologies, meaning that interference, be that intentional or not, can not only cause issues with an organisation’s infrastructure, but it can be undetected and remedied for an unknown amount of time; causing untold organisational, reputational and operational costs.

You can find out more about QinetiQ’s electromagnetic disruption detection technology here.