Does the science in “Face/Off” still hold up?

True Detective Season 3.
True Detective Season 3.
Image: Paramount Pictures
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Nicolas Cage (domestic terrorist Castor Troy) lies on a hospital bed, in a medically induced coma. John Travolta (FBI agent Sean Archer) stands nearby, contemplating something few people have: Should I put Nicolas Cage’s face… on my face?

Face/Off, released 20 years ago this week, is a John Woo-directed action film in which Travolta is given Cage’s face—so he can pretend to to be Cage while actually foiling a bomb plot—and Cage wakes up from his coma to return the favor, forcing surgeons to give him Travolta’s face. What happens next is a tour de force of prison fights, gun battles, and explosions, underpinned (if you’re feeling generous) by philosophical questions of identity and personhood.

Despite the movie’s arguably medical premise, the science behind Face/Off is cursory at best, sort of like how dinosaurs are brought back from extinction in Jurassic Park (“frog DNA!”) or how Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant in Junior (a miracle drug called “Expectane” 🙄). There’s a “morphogenetic template” that removes faces and puts on other faces, plus a larynx microchip that makes it easy to sound like someone else. Hair is trimmed in some places, added in others; love handles are sucked out. But how Sean Archer can physically pass for Castor Troy, and vice versa—to each other’s families and longtime colleagues, no less—is mostly glossed over. Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for any good Face/Off viewing.

And yet. The science team at Quartz wondered whether the passage of two decades has made made some of the movie more fact than fiction. To assess this, we watched Face/Off together in the most 2017 of ways—streaming on separate devices while live-commenting in Slack. Here is a version of that Slack chat, edited for clarity and length, and annotated with GIFs and research into the veracity of all that delicious “science.”

elijah [12:12 PM]

corinne [12:13 PM]
In 1997, I was 17, high school junior, suburban southern california, probably in denim overalls

foley [12:13 PM]
i was probably hanging onto my dad’s pantleg or on the monkey bars

zoe_schlanger [12:14 PM]
I was in Ms. Quist’s first grade classroom in suburban Connecticut blissfully unawares of science beyond “caterpillars turn into butterflies”

elijah [12:15 PM]
I was 11, in middle school in northern New Jersey and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to watch this but there’s always that one friend with the older brother so…

kira [12:15 PM]
i was 12 and loved this movie then, as now

ephrat [12:15 PM]
25, Japan …. didn’t see until much after it was released, then watched as a joke multiple times
i remember nothing

corinne [12:25 PM]
oh man, what bad luck to run the plane right into the warehouse full of fuel
this guy cannot catch a break

ephrat [12:26 PM]
do planes really catch on fire from the first bullet tho? 1

foley [12:26 PM]

kira [12:27 PM]
yes, everyone currently has their correct face

zoe_schlanger [12:29 PM]
why don’t they just pull the trigger in these situations i really don’t get it

elijah [12:29 PM]
so i think you would still have time to get off a shot after you get shot 2

kira [12:30 PM]
is a jet engine an effective way to subdue a suspect? 3

elijah [12:30 PM]
i’m sort of unclear where he is. what is this fence/chamber thing?

zoe_schlanger [12:30 PM]
looks more like one of those test tunnels
you test things like bike wheels in chambers like that
like, a big fan on one end of a cylinder – something about wind/drag

elijah [12:31 PM]
nice – good for testing drag and also subduing murderers

kira [12:36 PM]
his skin didn’t even seem to react [to having a cigarette extinguished on it] 4

kira [12:37 PM]
wait this is important science. listen up

zoe_schlanger [12:37 PM]
3D printing yo. 5 got your blue laser, your red laser. you’re all set

foley [12:37 PM]

ephrat [12:38 PM]
here’s the real science 6

kira [12:38 PM]
here’s the real science hahaha

zoe_schlanger [12:38 PM]
“this plastic halloween mask is a state of the art…”

corinne [12:38 PM]
we’re just borrowing his face, man! be cool!

kira [12:38 PM]
there’s also like no recovery time for this procedure

foley [12:42 PM]
interested in knowing whether or not skin transplants now can grow hair 7

kira [12:46 PM]
boop! face off

elijah [12:46 PM]
what is this laser pen

foley [12:47 PM]
oooo it’s a play on the cyber knife maybe? 8 that was state of the art tech back then right?

kira [12:47 PM]
it’s increasingly clear to me they just said “do everything with lasers, people won’t know wtf lasers can actually do” 9

elijah [12:48 PM]
can you stay alive with your face off? 10

kira [12:48 PM]
GREAT question

ephrat [12:48 PM]
just massage it back in

elijah [12:49 PM]
clearly not psychologically ready. what’s the psychological recovery from getting a new face? 11

kira [12:50 PM]
microchip on your larynx!

elijah [12:50 PM]
is this a thing we can do? this seems like somewhat reasonable tech 12

foley [12:52 PM]
wow there is a surgery you can get for this!
but i don’t think we have anything that can sit on your larynx just yet

zoe_schlanger [12:53 PM]

ephrat [12:53 PM]
prisons with magnetic field floors? still a dream for the brilliant future I think

zoe_schlanger [12:53 PM]
being under constant magnetism of that strength can’t be good for your health, right?

ephrat [12:54 PM]
being in prison is bad for health generally. so…

kira [12:55 PM]
i feel like if they don’t care about the geneva convention they’re ok with magnet boots hurting prisoner health

kira [12:58 PM]
ok so [Troy] is…up. whether you could live without your face skin is a v relevant question

foley [12:59 PM]
smoking in hospital

zoe_schlanger [1:00 PM]
smoking in hospital WITHOUT A FACE

foley [1:00 PM]

corinne [1:01 PM]
the babysitter just walked in. Explained we were watching Face Off, she said, Oh, that happened to my cousin

elijah [1:01 PM]

ephrat [1:02 PM]
wait what?

kira [1:02 PM]

corinne [1:02 PM]
got into a car accident, they had to peel back his face to remove all the glass, then sew it back up. he has no sense of smell anymore

elijah [1:02 PM]

kira [1:02 PM]

corinne [1:02 PM]
so that answers some of our questions

foley [1:02 PM]
that’s incredible

zoe_schlanger [1:02 PM]

zoe_schlanger [1:03 PM]
also [Troy] just said his memory loss is like “a tab of bad quantrex.” quantrex, it seems, is a solvent

elijah [1:03 PM]
so when it goes bad…

zoe_schlanger [1:04 PM]
so that’s basically… poppers?

kira [1:13 PM]
good point about chins. i feel like a butt chin would be hard to recreate in a face transplant

elijah [1:13 PM]
hm is butt chin a bone shape thing, or a muscle/skin thing? 14

corinne [1:16 PM]
yeah this is where the movie falls apart

elijah [1:18 PM]
you mean cause of the unbelievable science?

corinne [1:19 PM]
no, i meant the marriage

they make clear that this family doesn’t communicate much, but  it should raise alarm bells that suddenly he is a completely different person

kira [1:19 PM]
but i mean it’s not like if your spouse suddenly started acting really weird you’d be like
“…….are you someone else wearing my husband’s face?”
i mean NOW i would
bc i’ve seen face/off

corinne [1:19 PM]

elijah [1:19 PM]
trust no one

kira [1:19 PM]
i think the more relevant question
is whether you’d recognize your spouse’s junk

corinne [1:20 PM]
key question this movie completely fails to explore

ephrat [1:20 PM]
she hasn’t seen it in two months per [her] journal

foley [1:20 PM]
penile transplants were developed in part for vets!!!

elijah [1:20 PM]
did they do that procedure?

kira [1:20 PM]
big oversight in a sea of very scientifically accurate plot points imho

elijah [1:21 PM]
seems like something Troy wouldve talked about a whole bunch by now

zoe_schlanger [1:22 PM]
casual sulfuric acid laying around the prison

foley [1:22 PM]
okay does that actually happen when you shoot it? 15

zoe_schlanger [1:26 PM]
you’d die if you jumped into water from that high! 16

kira [1:26 PM]
even if you scissored your legs in slow motion like that?

zoe_schlanger [1:29 PM]
…so hold up
he just swam to shore

kira [1:29 PM]
yes, those are the rules of chases. if you jump off a large platform into the ocean you’re free, they can’t pursue you anymore

zoe_schlanger [1:32 PM]
alright what do we think the prescription is

kira [1:32 PM]
what would you dissolve in water…

zoe_schlanger [1:32 PM]
lil antacid

kira [1:33 PM]
wow there are multiple posts on this
consensus seems to be ketamine

zoe_schlanger [1:35 PM]
well certainly looks like he’s on ketamine

elijah [1:35 PM]
i think it’s kinda PCP-like 17

elijah [1:50 PM]
wait didnt they keep their bodies?

corinne [1:50 PM]
liposuction, hair transplants – might as well be a body swap

foley [1:55 PM]
wait if troy killed the doctor who gave him the operation….aren’t they both screwed?
what a pickle this is

ephrat [2:00 PM]
is that like the Theranos blood test? 18

corinne [2:00 PM]
scoop alert elizabeth holmes got the idea from Face Off

elijah [2:00 PM]
whoa amazing if true

kira [2:01 PM]
and applied the same standards of science
“but it worked in face/off!”

elijah [2:01 PM]
love the idea of combing through 90s movies for startup ideas

kira [2:01 PM]
richie rich – the smellmaster 9000 19

kira [2:14 PM]
if you die
can you still have your face transplanted back?

foley [2:15 PM]
this is the longest i have been nauseated without actually being sick

zoe_schlanger [2:16 PM]
so if you shoot a propane tank – that’s 100% chance of big kaboom, yes? 20

ephrat [2:17 PM]
that’s what I meant earlier — the plane also exploded fast … just on a shooting … seems unsafe

zoe_schlanger [2:17 PM]
also how about safety glass. if you shoot a windshield with safety glass, will it completely fall apart? did they have safety glass in 97?

elijah [2:18 PM]
i wonder if propane tank tech has improved. like, is it harder to shoot through, now that we’ve seen Face/Off and know what can happen?

foley [2:20 PM]
i’ve always had so many questions about explosions in water 21

foley [2:22 PM]

kira [2:22 PM]
they literally lasered your faces like it was nothing
and you’re acting like a little knife cut is going to be a big deal

elijah [2:22 PM]
yea come on. the tech clearly allows for total face reconstruction
all you need is that plastic vacuum mask thing

corinne [2:22 PM]
wait what – how do they know
what did i miss

elijah [2:23 PM]
cause of the Theranos device

kira [2:23 PM]
elizabeth holmes saves the day

ephrat [2:23 PM]
I knew she would redeem herself

foley [2:24 PM]
how much therapy do you think the family needs now

kira [2:24 PM]
no they’re great now
closer than ever

ephrat [2:25 PM]
they seem very resilient

corinne [2:25 PM]
just going to sweep the whole “i accidentally slept with our son’s killer because of your work thing” under the rug

foley [2:25 PM]
“sorry i shot you”

elijah [2:26 PM]
yea im pretty sure this is like 10 years of therapy

corinne [2:26 PM]
hey guys got us a new kid

ephrat [2:26 PM]
so it all worked out

foley [2:26 PM]
‘to replace our old one’

kira [2:26 PM]
“can we keep him?”

ephrat [2:26 PM]
better than ever : )

kira [2:26 PM]

zoe_schlanger [2:26 PM]
casually didn’t ask your spouse

ephrat [2:26 PM]
he knows what she needs

kira [2:26 PM]