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"The electrician pulled the lever, and the current, slowly at first but growing faster and faster, started crawling down the wires."
Russian joke, popular among physics students

In real life, the effects of electricity travel very fast — relatively close to the speed of light. As such, most power outages always strike near instantaneously and always strike an area.

In fiction, outages — or repowered structures — often come on light by light, system by system, dramatically, with a strange thumping noise. This is known as a cascading failure when it is an outage, and systems often power up slowly if turned on via breaker. Usually used for suspense.

Subtrope of Artistic License – Physics. Related to Kill the Lights and Slow Doors. A product of Rule of Cool.


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  • In a Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar commercial, a power plant is sabotaged and lights go out across a city in blocks.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Naruto: While Lightning Release techniques often move very fast by human standards, they're a fraction of the speed that actual lightning would move, making them possible for a sufficiently nimble fighter to dodge; this is explained by the fact that it's not actual electricity, just human Chakra mimicking electricity.
    • Averted in one noticeable case, when Sasuke harnesses the real lightning from an overhead storm, which is every bit as fast as it should be - fast enough that not even Itachi can dodge it in time.
  • Pokémon: The Series has Electric attacks being dodged very easily. Few Electric attacks miss as easily in the games, and the ones that do involve an electrified body part making contact. Shock Wave notably cannot miss.
    • Though Thunder also has poor accuracy - except in rain. When, realistically, it should become a multi-hitting move in rain instead.
  • Misaka Mikoto of A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun fights Touma a lot, and each time he is able to swing his right arm in the direction of the attack and block it entirely. Later explained as Touma subconsciously using an ability to sense AIM Fields and predict her attacks. Touma doesn't know he's doing this, either; in the novels, he often remarks how fortunate note  he is that her lightning always hits his hand.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: At the end of the 2nd Gig episode "Embarrassment", the crew of a Coast Guard ship sees the lights of Nagasaki going out in sections after the city's power is cut, apparently by the refugees. Justified in that the city had many relay power stations holding up the entire grid, and when the cascade began, it was slowed down by each station's failsafes eventually giving out by trying to overcompensate for the adjacent stations.

    Films — Animated 
  • Even in the future, power is slow: In WALL•E, the Hard Light barriers in the holding cells fail sequentially instead of all at once.
  • Invoked by Syndrome in The Incredibles, since he has a weakness for designing his buildings with dramatic flair.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • At the end of Addams Family Values, the electricity moving in the mass of wires flows so slowly that Pubert is able to crawl into the room and short-circuit the wiring, saving his family from the electric chairs and electrocuting Debbie, who has thrown the switch.
  • In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man and his web lines are able to out-speed Electro's attacks. While it's true in canon that Spider-Man is insanely fast by human standards, he's nowhere near the speed of light.
  • At the end of the first Back to the Future film, the lightning crawls down the wire at roughly a walking pace.
    • And no, no amount of Theory of Relativity at 88MPH will justify it. (Though being in a time machine, you do have some wiggle room)
  • During the power outage in Captain America: Civil War, we see the traffic lights go out one after the other.
  • Constantine (2005): When the title character and Angela Dodson are talking on the street, demonic influence causes the streetlights to turn off (with clunking sounds) — first far away, then approaching them.
  • The Descent: While a woman is in a hospital corridor, the lights go out at one end of the corridor and continue going out toward her, causing her to flee. This appears to be a hallucination sequence.
  • In 8th Wonderland a special ops team has tracked down the server farm hosting the "unwanted" virtual nation. After blowing it to smithereens, the video feeds of the users slowly fade away over the course of a minute.
  • The Elementary School: Fanous takes his son on a tour of the electric station where he works. The big finish is Fanous throwing a switch and picking up some load, with homes and street lights getting lit up at a rate of about one streetlight a second.
  • In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss winds Beetee's wire around an arrow and shoots it into the dome overhead. The charge from the lightning strike on the tree can be seen following the arrow upward.
  • Jurassic Park (first film): When the main switch is turned back on, the hall lights do this.
  • The Matrix series
    • The Matrix Reloaded: After the power station is destroyed (and later when Trinity turns off the power again), the blackout spreads slowly through the affected area.
    • The Matrix Revolutions. Inside the Oracle's apartment building, the overhead lights go off (with clunking sounds) as a warning of Agent Smith's approach.
  • The lights turning on one row at a time in the Men in Black post-credits music video.
  • The Bollywood movie Mohabbatein features a scene where a student is caught coming back to his room after curfew. He's walking in a dark hall when the light right over his head comes on, then the next one in the hall, then the next one... when the last light comes on, it reveals the headmaster starring at him disapprovingly.
  • Ocean's Eleven: When they use the EMP, there is the obligatory shot of the lights going out city block by city block.
    • Averted in the original version, when Josh Howard blows up the powerline, the Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and Flamingo all go dark at once.
  • In the movie My Science Project, the protagonists' car can and does go faster than the electricity running through power lines. This is a plot point, allowing them to cut off power that would have run to an alien spacecraft.
  • Resident Evil (2002). When the Red Queen (and the power) are shut down and restarted in the first film, some areas and devices turn off (and light up again) at different times.
  • In Sherlock Holmes (2009) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, there is a scene where Holmes is fighting a giant man in an abandoned warehouse with the aid of an electric cattle prod. At one point his opponent is hanging on to a pipe on the wall for support, and Holmes touches the far end of the pipe with the cattle prod. Although it moves quickly the movement of the electricity (well, the magic blue sparks showing where the electricity is) as it races down the pipe is clearly visible.
  • Volcano invokes the "sector-by-sector" city blackout after a major quake (a preamble to the titular volcano). For bonus effect, the skyscrapers in the city center are the last to go dark.

  • Aversion in Long Dark Teatime of the Soul when Kate walks down the street and the street lights go out as she passes them. Turns out there's a reason for that.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: The opening scene of "The Rebel Flesh".
  • Heroes: In "Dual", when the lights go off in the Primatech medical facility's hallway. Possibly justifiable in that maybe Sylar did it that way on purpose.
  • Jericho (2006): We get the city power failure sequence at The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Lois & Clark: Explosives under a light-beam cage were deactivated by having Lois Lane setting off the explosives and Superman destroy the wall panel circuit before electricity reached the destination. This is Post-Crisis, so Superman is fast, but not "here to Alpha Centauri in three seconds" fast.
  • NUMB3RS: In one episode, the case involves several reactors being taken down in an attempt to create a cascading failure. The shot of the shutdown when it occurs is basically the same thing as most shows/movies show though, but it's a bit more valid than a full electrical failure causing the skyline shutdown sequence.
  • Revolution: Technically an Averted Trope in the pilot episode: everything goes out in a single moment, not all at the exact same time, but pretty close... even devices not connected to the grid at all, like airplanes, battery-powered tablets, and cars. What's propagating isn't the electrical power itself, but the activation signal for electricity-suppressing Nanomachines.
  • Smallville: In "Idol", the Wonder Twins attack on a criminal causes a Big Blackout during which the lights of Metropolis turn off in segments.
  • Star Trek:
    • The console displays always came on/off this way. If there's a shipwide outage, expect an outside shot of windows lighting up this way. Usually, the last thing to come back is the engines. Also, the technobabble-laden Star Trek: The Next Generation was always having something about to undergo a 'cascade failure,' but it was pretty much never like this.
    • Possibly a Justified Trope in that the starships in Star Trek use a plasma distribution system as their power grid, rather than modern-day electrical cabling.
    • Star Trek: Voyager episode "Night". While traveling through an area with no stars, the Voyager suddenly loses power. The lights start going out throughout the ship, with some areas and items going dark before others.

  • Animusic: In "Harmonic Voltage", while the arc tower has fast electricity, it has a moment when it makes an Audible Sharpness sound near the beginning, with sparks cascading off the two rails. The background towers also have rings of electricity fall and disappear.

  • In Johnny Mnemonic, the "Power Down" Wizard Mode starts with all systems enabled, but they shut down one by one as time progresses.

    Video Games 
  • Quite a few Minecraft contraptions end up working this way, but that's justified because it's difficult not to use a lot of repeaters in the not even electrical but "redstone" circuits as the power gets further away from the input.
    • The kind of slowness present in a redstone circuit also is present in real gate-based circuits - it's just that the ones that work with electricity have a delay of less than a nanosecond per gate, while redstone is a fair bit slower.
  • Perhaps justified given the genre, but dodging lightning by jumping out of the way seems egregious enough to be listed here.
  • A puzzle in Myst begins this way when you flip on the lights in a certain underground chamber for the first time (understanding that it's electricity, and involves power-ups, overloads, and breaker switches, is crucial to solving the puzzle).
  • Happens in Dark Fall: Lost Souls when you restore power to Dowerton Station. Could perhaps be justified, if one assumes the wiring is defunct and supernatural forces are actually operating the lights as well as the television sets.
    • The same thing takes place in the second game, Lights Out, in the lighthouse of Fetch Rock. After you get the boiler running again, the first three floors light up one by one in time with some dramatic music. The main lamp doesn't turn on, because of the insane sentient space probe that's trapped in a cave under the lighthouse is sapping its power while trying to figure out how to go home.
  • Unreal has you fighting slow monsters known as "Brutes" for the first two levels, which are only really dangerous if you don't move. Later on you're merrily coming back from a hit-the-button trek, walking in a corridor, and suddenly the doors lock and the lights start to go out one by one. When the final one dies, the game presents you with the real enemy — a Skaarj scout, a much faster, harder to kill and more dangerous enemy than anything so far — while you can barely see a thing in the flashing red light of the alarms. Lots of crazed shooting at shadows usually ensues.
  • Penumbra
    • Overture ends with lights in a hallway clicking off one at a time, before Philip gets kidnapped.
    • In the fan sequel, Necrologue, Philip can revisit this hallway, and traveling all the way to the end results in a creepy re-enactment of Overture's ending, though this time it's just a hallucination.
  • In Portal 2 the lighting abruptly goes out in the Enrichment Center's maintenance areas after Chell and Wheatley escape GLaDOS. However, given Wheatley's coinciding dialogue, it's probably just GLaDOS turning each light off manually.
  • Tomb Raider: Legend averts it regarding the power returning to the Kazakhstan facility (it's a fairly instantaneous process once the generator is reignited), but still features slow-moving currents travelling through metal ducts that Lara must cling onto to traverse the level.

  • In Problem Sleuth, electricity takes several hundred years to get across the fan cord in order to turn on the fan. However, this is justified, as, thanks to GPI, the fan cord now stretches across the entire length of the imaginary universe. Twice. As the comic points out, electric current can only travel at the speed of light.
  • Discussed in the commentary of this Bob and George strip, but averted in the strip itself. In the strip, Elec Man is shown pulling off a Ride the Lightning move to get behind Mega Man almost instantly. The commentary notes that turning into electrons would actually make Elec Man slower, because while electrons do move at the speed of light, they move in completely random and chaotic directions, and the overall velocity is very slow. The author also explains that despite this, light switches turn on almost instantly because voltage moves at the speed of light and stimulates the electrons in the lightbulb.

    Western Animation 
  • Near the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula shoots a lightning bolt at Katara, only for Zuko to jump in front of the bolt in Slow Motion. It makes very little sense—the lightning should have hit Katara before Zuko even noticed—but whatever.
    • Lightning in general seems to move fairly slowly in the Avatarverse. It is occasionally dodged or even reflected.
  • An episode of The Magic School Bus does this in an episode about computers, with the electricity that flows between the different parts of a computer slowed down immensely so that the kids could follow them. While riding skateboards. The producer even lampshades this in the phone call at the end of the show, noting that electricity's speed would be nearly instantaneous to a human. But that wouldn't make for an entertaining episode.
  • The animated version of The Boondocks. In the episode "The Passion of Rev. Ruckus", as Uncle Ruckus is delivering a sermon he's struck by a lightning bolt. This causes the lights of the city to go out a section at a time.
  • In the The Simpsons episode "Last Exit to Springfield", the Big Blackout caused by Burns shutting down the power plant is traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood.

    Real Life 
  • What we think of as electricity is produced by, or at least related to, the motion of electrons. The electrons themselves have mass — very little, but some — so they cannot move at the speed of light. In fact, they move very slowly in wires, often on the order of several centimeters per hour. Current in a wire doesn't work by moving a single electron from point A to point B, however; it's more accurate to think of the electrons in the wire as many tightly-packed balls, or water molecules, or as beads joined in one big rope. If you push or pull on one end, electrons at the other end will move almost immediately. How quickly? At the speed of the propagation of electromagnetic fields, which is at the speed of light.note 
    • Essentially, electricity could be considered to "move" at the speed of light or slower than a slug. Neither one is much like the speed shown in movies.
      • Alternating current has zero average movement, as it does not depend on the sheer speed of an electron moving from beginning to end (as in a battery), but instead is going back and forth 50 or 60 times per second (for house current). This allows easier change and manipulation in voltages (through using a static cheap transformer, which is basically an electromagnet that amplifies or decreases voltage when under alternating current, which it cannot do on DC) without the necessity for a faster current (which requires a faster generator and multiple sub-generators, hence why in Edison's time a substation was necessary for every city block).
      • This is also why AC ammeters first need to rectify the power into DC.
    • Electrical signals in a living nervous system are even slower, as they're created by moving ions rather than electrons, and may have to cross synapses where the signal temporarily becomes chemical rather than electrical.
  • One engineer working on the electronics of the then-new B2 bomber invoked this trope for a demonstration by having the power indication lights of the various electronics turn on in sequence rather than simultaneously from a single master switch. This was either to limit power-on current or just to make a more impressive visual presentation.
  • Lights in a big warehouse flickering on one at a time has reasons: first, if they use fluorescent lamps, they might take many seconds to warm up, and the warm-up time might differ between them. Second: said fluorescent lamps need vastly more current when turning on, so if you have a lot of them, it is wise to not turn them on all the same time: maybe you have current to supply all of them when they operate continuously, but your system would not survive if you turned them all on at the same time.
  • The "electricity slowly disappearing one section of city/country at a time" trope may be Truth in Television. When one section of grid fails, the substations at the edges of the dark area try and re-balance the new loads (or lack thereof) across other circuits. This generally causes them to fail after a few seconds as well, so a new section goes dark. This continues outward from the point of failure until it reaches interconnects powerful enough to prevent any more outages.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Gradual Outage


"Get me out of this hole!"

In his panic to get away from the River of Slime as he's being hoisted up, Ray accidentally damages an underground powerline and ends up blacking out all of New York.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / BigBlackout

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