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Chemistry and the cinema

Cinema would not be understood without chemistry. 

From the very beginning, the seventh art was based on chemical processes aimed at achieving what seemed like magic at the time: that the spectators saw moving images projected on a large screen.

But chemistry has not only served to give physical support to the cinema.

Filmmakers also use it on countless occasions as part of the plot of their films.

If you want to know more about this relationship, in this article we tell you what are the most popular chemicals in the cinema and what is fact and fiction in their appearances.

Film chemicals

Let’s see which chemicals we find most often in our favourite films.


Poisons have always been a very useful resource for screenwriters.

It is one of the preferred methods when a character wants to eliminate his enemy silently and without a trace.

Fortunately for the interest of the story, however, this is not always the case.

The most popular poison on the big screen is arsenic. So much so that we even find its name in the title of one of the best comedies in history: “Arsenic for Compassion”, by Frank Capra.

But is it as lethal as we are told?

The answer is yes, but only in high doses.

For example, it takes between 70 mg and 180 mg of arsenic trioxide, one of its most common compounds, to make the dose lethal in an adult person, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In addition, death occurs after several hours at least.

So the typical scenes where the victim falls to her death after taking just a sip of the poisoned coffee are pure fiction.

C-4 (plastic explosive)

What would action films be without the explosions?

We have all seen hundreds of scenes in which the protagonists are blown up while a large explosion is triggered behind them.

Among the explosive materials that appear most often in the films is C-4, a plastic explosive used in mining engineering and the military industry.

The main characteristics of C-4 are:

  • It is a stable material: resistant to almost any physical impact. 
  • It is highly malleable: so it can be moulded to fit different spaces, as if it were clay or plasticine.
  • High detonation speed: the detonation speed it reaches is about 8,050 m/s.

So Hollywood is right to portray C-4 as a very powerful explosive.

But not so much in the ease with which the characters make it explode. 

To do this you need a detonator, you don’t just shoot it, light a fuse, let alone throw it on any surface.


Another chemical that gives a lot of play on the screens is chloroform.

As we see in many films, putting a handkerchief impregnated with this substance over the victim’s nose and mouth is enough to make him or her sleep soundly for a long time.

A free way, therefore, to rob his house, kidnap him or any other misdeed that directors and viewers enjoy so much.

Some of the most famous films in which chloroform is used are

  • Puñales por la espalda.
  • Hannibal.
  • Ace Ventura, un detective diferente.
  • King Kong.

But let’s see what science has to say about it: methyl trichloride (CHCl3) or chloroform is a liquid that effectively has sedative and anaesthetic effects.

In fact, until the 1930s it was used as an anaesthetic for surgical operations. Until it was replaced by other safer products.

However, this does not mean that its effect is as immediate as seen in the films. To render someone unconscious would require an exposure to the substance of at least five minutes.

Nitrous oxide

This compound has many applications in the chemical sector.

But in the cinema, its best known use is by the protagonists of the illegal racing saga Fast and Furious.

In these films, racers modify their cars to add a kit of this gas, N2O. And when they need extra power, they press a button and the gas is injected into the engine, making their cars go faster. 

As you can imagine, in the movies this effect is greatly exaggerated.

In real life, the nitrous oxide kits on the market are limited in their power so that they do not pose a danger to traffic or damage the engine.

Depending on the model of car you have, you can gain between 60 and 100 horsepower for those times when you need faster acceleration.


As is very aptly illustrated in the film The Perfume, chemical processes must be applied to manufacture these essences.

At the time of this story, the 18th century, a still was used to produce a steam distillation effect.

Today more advanced methods are used, such as supercritical CO2 extraction. This is an intermediate state between liquid and gas that serves as a solvent to separate substances.

Lithium hydroxide

If you have seen Apollo XIII, you will know that the members of this crew were nearly killed by a fire in an oxygen tank in the service module.

This incident forced the astronauts to make an emergency return to Earth aboard the lunar module, which did not have enough capacity to purify all the carbon dioxide they generated.

The solution was to adapt the command module’s lithium hydroxide filters so that they could continue to breathe, using duct tape, pieces of suit and other materials they found within their reach.

Chemistry and film: fact or fiction?

It is clear that not everything they tell us in the cinema is true.

We often have to forget about the laws of science in order to enjoy films to the full.

And chemistry is no exception.

We have to be aware that we are watching a work of fiction. And as such, the chemical products that appear in films are not represented very rigorously.

But even so, even in the most imaginative scenes there is usually a small scientific basis, as you have seen in this article.

This is why the cinema is a great way to bring chemistry closer to the general public, provided that the information is taken with care and complemented by other more rigorous sources.

If you would like further information about the chemical products we sell at Grup Barcelonesa, you can contact us by filling in this form.

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