1451: Background Screens

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Background Screens
No way, we gotta rewind and cross-reference this map with the list of coordinates we saw on the other screen. This Greenland thing could be big.
Title text: No way, we gotta rewind and cross-reference this map with the list of coordinates we saw on the other screen. This Greenland thing could be big.


Plot and characters are generally the parts a movie that most people presumably pay attention to, as the story, the emotional connection, and character development are generally the things most people find enjoyable about particular films[citation needed].

On the other hand, Cueball, likely representing Randall, pays particular attention to what's on the computer screens shown briefly in the background. Generally speaking, these screens are shown to the audience for a short period of time, and at a low-level of detail, just to dress a set and make a scene feel more realistic or high-tech. They may contain endless columns of gibberish or miscellaneous data flashing by in an eye-blink (only visible by freeze-framing), or cross-hairs zipping across maps.

Often the contents of the computer screens are so unimportant or hard-to-read that the filmmakers do not bother to spend much time (if any at all) ensuring that what is shown on the screen is accurate or even relevant to the film. They may be designed by artists not fully aware of the details of the plot, and as a result, their content (where it is intelligible, such as in a map) can have little to no connection to the dialog or other story events going on in front of them. They sometimes even contain jokes. It is rare, if ever, that important information would be communicated to the viewer through background computer screens. Hence, Cueball's spending most of his time watching the screens seems counter-intuitive to understanding and enjoying the film.

Greenland, a large island east of Canada, is 80% covered in ice up to several kilometers in depth, and has a population of fewer than 100,000 people. Depending on the aliens' priorities (and the plot of the movie) there are myriad reasons both for and against wanting to land in such a remote area. In the title text, Cueball suggests investigating how a list of coordinates from another background screen relates to the location of the alien craft in Greenland, suggesting that Cueball thinks the filmmakers may have intended the viewers to record the information early in the film and analyze the data to learn relevant plot information - something that is very unlikely (and in the rare instance it is true, is intended to be superfluous). Most of the time, filmmakers take efforts to ensure the audience can easily follow plot points by making them more obvious than they might be in reality.


What I pay attention to in movies:
[A pie chart with a small piece (5%) in the upper right part labeled:]
Plot, characters
[The rest of the chart (95%) is labeled:]
Computer screens shown briefly in the background
[Below the chart Cueball, sitting on the floor, and Hairy, sitting in an armchair, are watching a movie on the TV. Cueball points the remote at the TV.]
Cueball: Hang on– That blurry map behind the general shows one of the alien ships is in Greenland! Why Greenland?!
Hairy [quietly]: Can we please just watch the movie?


  • There are a number of websites which specialize in documenting computer screens as seen in movies, including: (partial list - please expand/improve)

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"contain irrelevant or irreverent jokes" 06:30, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

This sounds like it could be a reference to Independence Day specifically, but I'm not sure if a map is shown with Greenland specifically in that film. Anyone feel like skimming through it? 09:10, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

Probably worth pointing out that this relies on being at home where you can pause the film to study the image, which doesn't often happen in a cinema. -- 11:02, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

It sometimes happens in a cinema, though! :p - fixed the "irrelevent or irrelevent" line. This does seem like common practice, though: I too pay attention to what is shown on screens in the background of movies, just to catch odd things. I'm sure plenty of people do this?? Maplestrip (talk) 12:12, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

lol I look at the screens and try to actually read the texts. Mostly won't success but it's really fun to do

See also: Source Code in TV and Films. -- 18:06, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

What memes? Smperron (talk) 19:33, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

Sometimes, of course, background screens show something that's a Chekhov's gun. (If you really have nothing to do for a few hours, after reading the Wiki article wander over to TVTropes and also enquire about Chekhov's Gunsmith, etc...) Although as an inveterate "ha! that's just DOS DEBUG scrolling away, feigning being an Enemy Code Transmission'"-person, myself, I think I might visit that Source Code in TV and Films link myself, when I've got more time... ;) 21:41, 24 November 2014 (UTC)

You guys sure it isn't a reference to "The edge of tomorrow" scene where the general has a map of europe behind him? That map had some innacuracies (like brazilians instead of portuguese), though i'm not sure if the aliens were shown in greenland... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Star Trek during the Okuda era had all kinds of throwaway jokes and continuity references in its background screens (e.g., the two-plane periodic table that's used to explain dilithium has a bunch of Three Stooges references).

Doctor Who in the past few years has sometimes put carefully tailored continuity nods into its background screens specifically to troll the fans. As soon as someone discovers something, Moffat tweets that it means nothing and was just created by the graphics team at the last second. Since the last part is clearly not being true, everyone assumes the first part isn't true either, so that scene proves that one of the things that a 1991 novel claims was covered up is actually known to mainstream news organizations, and therefore that other novel that implies another layer of disinformation within UNIT has been confirmed on TV. 11:54, 25 September 2015 (UTC)

It may be worthy of note that the 2016 film "Arrival" (released 2 years after this comic) does, in fact, feature one of the alien ships landing in Greenland for no apparent reason, and we first find this out by way of a (fairly prominent) background map. I can't find anything suggesting it's a deliberate xkcd reference, but... 07:09, 4 September 2017 (UTC)

I think it's at least a partial reference to how many common map projections grossly exaggerate the size of Greenland. 03:01, 24 September 2019 (UTC)