(Petroleum) geology in the movies: There Will Be Blood

[This is a contribution to Accretionary Wedge #7.]

One of the most memorable movies I have ever seen happens to be about a geologist who strikes it rich with oil in Southern California of the early 1900s. It is also probably the only movie with quite a bit of geology in that has won two Oscars (but I am not really a movie junkie so corrections are welcome).

Of course, I am talking about There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic story about greed, religion, vengeance, murder, and other delightful human endeavors, written, shot, and acted so well that it is an instant classic, a piece of work comparable to the greatest Greek tragedies. Daniel Day-Lewis took home a second Oscar for his work, and there is a good reason for that: his performance is so powerful that in my mind the only other film character of comparable strength and weight and effect is John Proctor in “The Crucible“, …which also happens to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Despite (and because of) its greatness, this movie is not for the faint-hearted. It is very unlike the average Hollywood production, and, if you want to leave the theater with that sweet reassurance of knowing exactly what is good and what is bad, well, then skip this one. Despite the almost unequivocal depiction by critics of the Daniel Day-Lewis character as a monster – and, I admit, Daniel Plainview is not exactly a charming person -, let’s recognize that many of his thoughts and emotions are not foreign to most individuals that belong to the ‘Homo sapiens’ species. To me, the most scary and most monstrous character of the movie is Eli Sunday, the equally greedy but extremely irrational and hypocritical church leader and faith healer, played very convincingly by Paul Dano.

In any case, it is worth suffering through the two-and-a-half hours, if for nothing else but the realistic depiction of the oil industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. The movie does very well in terms of ‘geological correctness’; certainly much better than most disaster movies with Bruce Willis in the driving seat saving the World from the evil forces of Nature. The only minor issue I can think of is whether it is possible to find oil in a silver mine (Daniel Plainview is a silver prospector before he turns into an oil man). It’s been a long time since I read anything about ore deposits, but silver likes to accumulate in somewhat hotter different places than oil (unless it is in placer deposits).

Still, the best geological ‘delicacy’ in the movie comes at the very end. I would have never thought that you can make petroleum geology (or reservoir engineering) the centerpiece of a shocking movie scene, replete with human tragedy and profound proclamations about delicate philosophical issues.

Further reading: an excellent little piece about the geological aspects of the movie here.

And finally, here is a passage that gives an idea of how some people think about geologists (source):

“The fact is, Plainview is barely human to begin with, so watching him grow coarser and uglier and more full of himself seems a theme more suited to a geologist than a storyteller.”


4 thoughts on “(Petroleum) geology in the movies: There Will Be Blood

  1. The role of hydrocarbons in the formation of some mineral deposits is actively debated upon, i.e. presence of some hydrocarbons seems to play an important role in the formation of Mississippi Valley Type Pb-Zn deposits.Some MVTs are known to also contain Ag but to my knowledge not in quantities that would make it profitable to go for the Ag as a primary comodity. The Pb and Zn, sometimes Cu, are the main reason.Right now I see no big reason that would prohibit oil accumulating in MVTs like environments (carbonate rocks) after the formation of these hydrothermal deposits and cooling down of the hydrothermal system that formed the MVTs. Formation temperatures of MVTs are, on average, 80 to 150C. That should be cool enough for oil to not break down.With sufficient deformation and hanging wall sediment ontop now…but i stil think it is a bit of a far fetch. Maybe we have some petroleum geologists around who know more details?p.s. I didn’t get a chance to see the movie, yet.

  2. Good points – thanks for that!I vaguely remembered bits and pieces about Mississippi-type deposits, but I thought those were largely restricted to lead and zinc.My comment about the ‘hotness’ of silver deposits is probably plain wrong; I was thinking of typical hydrothermal ore deposits, but forgot that those can be of low temperature as well.

  3. Well, if I would be searching for silver I wouldn’t really think of MVTs either. I’d look for something a bit “hotter” like low/high sulfidation epithermal veins, polymetallic veins, stuff like that.Silver also comes to mind as a minor source with red-beds and Kupferschiefer…uh…sedex(i think) like deposits. But…well I still think it is a far fetch.

  4. Yes, I would agree that mixing silver and hydrocarbons in the same mine would be unlikely, at least for any rich silver mines – the hydrothermal activity would probably drive off the hydrocarbons.I have seen hydrocarbons deposit in hydrothermal Hg-bearing deposits (silicified serpentinite containing Hg and hydrocarbons, the latter in vugs). One such area included a nearby hydrothermal gold deposit (relatively low temperature for gold). That would be at the McLaughlin Mine north of Napa Valley, more or less along or near one of the San Andreas – related faults, where mercury is actively coming up in hot springs. The hydrocarbons are either mobilized from deeper sedimentary rocks, or – some think that the San Andreas and other strike-slip faults in the area tap into deep methane sources. (See this post for one idea.)

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