Friday, 12 December 2014

Science in the Movies



As scientists we get a pretty hard time of it.  If we’re not struggling for publishable results, or being misquoted in the press about our research; then we’re being portrayed as über-geeks in The Big Bang Theory or with cinema-screen foreheads and clipboards in adverts (I’m looking at you Tefal).  Some of my non-science friends still call me boffin. If that isn’t enough, our subject matter, our interest, nae, our passion can be treated with such cavalier contempt in films.

As I see it, there are several issues to address here.  There is a fair amount (as you might expect) of bad science in movies; however there is also some good science (or at least the director has made an attempt to grasp some basics).  Quite often the scientist is the voice of reason (though the incidence of anyone paying them any attention is rather less); more often than not however, the mad scientist is the preferred flavour.  Finally I shall give some thought to the stereotypes that are perpetuated in the movies and whether there is any likelihood that it may change.



Bad science

There are countless incidences of bad science in films, whether it be luminous bags of DNA mutagens in Street Fighter (1994); upside down Radioactive signs in Moonraker (1979), Robocop 2 (1990), & Unstoppable (2010); or the spurious leaps of scientific reasoning in Star Trek IV (1986), Alien Resurrection (1997), or Deep Blue Sea (1999).

Now, I have to admit that my criticism of science in movies comes from the perspective of a biochemist/microbiologist because that’s my background.  Clearly other professional scientists from other disciplines will take issue with different aspects of movie science eg Gravity (2013; http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/08/gravity-science-astrophysicist).  I had no problem with Gravity and thought it was amazing, but then I’m not an astrophysicist.  The guy over at Follow the Lemur is a physiologist/neuroscientist so his reviews of the Schiensh of Bond (http://followthelemur.wordpress.com/category/science-ish-ness/blogalongabond/) are flavoured in this way.

Still, I’d challenge anyone not to have a problem with the science in Deep Blue Sea (1999).  The idea of genetically engineering sharks to increase their size in order to increase the amount of protein for extraction is the height of spacka science (to be politically incorrect).  Never mind that making them bigger makes them more intelligent, or even the premise that you can stick a needle in a brain, suck out the protein and put it straight onto a microscope slide to see its activity!  The height of all ridiculousness.  Of course most people probably remember Saffron Burrows in her underwear.  Yet again the scientist is cursed!

Stellan Skarsgard loses his watch in a shark - Deep Blue Sea (1999)
At the other end of the spectrum is The Matrix (1999).  An excellent film, but when Hugo Weaving tries to classify humans as viruses my spidey-science senses starts tingling.  Agent Smith doesn't seem to realise that we're mammals because we have hair and mammary glands.  Isn’t Smith a part of a computer programme?  He should have just checked Wikipedia!  So you see, not even good Sci-Fi is exempt from bad science.

Of course spurious science is more often than not used as exposition, and as such is treated with the same cavalier attitude artistic license as the rest of the plot.  It's just a shame script writers/directors don't appreciate that science isn't really open to interpretation.



Good Science

This may be a shorter paragraph. We shouldn't completely disregard the silver screen when it comes to portrayal of science, there are some shining to examples.  Possibly most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Eschewing the norm of having whacking great spaceship noises; Kubrick et al realise that space is a vacuum and so everything is silent, there is just the beautiful melody of Blue Danube as the spacecraft waltz around each other.  Taking it's lead from 2001 is Chris Nolan's Interstellar (2014); the shuttles and the spaceship Endurance also silent from the exterior.

As it is a vacuum, in space no one can hear you scream, and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) also gets stuff right.  There’s nowt as queer as nature, and the Alien life cycle is no more gruesome than Ophiocordyceps unilateral is (sounds like a Harry Potter spell).  This is a fungus which infects ants, makes them walk zombie-like to an area suitable for propagation before growing out of the ant’s head (superb footage on David Attenborough's Planet Earth).  Or even some parasitoid wasps which lay eggs in a host such as a caterpillar; when the eggs hatch the larvae then eat the host from the inside.

Danny Boyle is another director that gets it right, in the underrated Sunshine (2007).  Of course it helped enormously having Brian Cox as a scientific advisor, but then if you can do that, why not?  It would be an incredible coup having someone like that in your crew, provide the production with credibility and ensure that the facts are correct.  In a similar way, Contact (1997) and Interstellar (2014) both have theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as scientific consultant.  Perhaps Sci-Fi movies should be like governments and have a Chief Scientific Advisor, just to keep the story from doing anything stupid.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Mad Scientists

Of course a firm favourite of many movies, though perhaps more traditional of the horror genre, is the crazy scientist.  The iconic mad scientist is almost undoubtedly Frankenstein.  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created the ultimate uncontrollable scientist in her novel, and went so far as to compare him with a titan - the modern day Prometheus.  In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is not crazy per se, rather he has an uncontrollable desire to gain as much knowledge as feasible and really push the boundaries of what is possible.

On screen, Frankenstein has been depicted by the zany Colin Clive in Universal's horror classic (when Victor Frankenstein is bafflingly renamed Henry (1931)), and the superior Bride of Frankenstein (1935); the superb Peter Cushing in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and the inferior Frankenstein Created Woman (1967); the indefatigable Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994); as well as both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle's superb stage adaptation (2011).

Of course none of these films would be anything without excellent monsters, variously played by Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Robert De Niro and Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller.  But this is an article about scientists, not monsters.  The crucial point to any Frankenstein adaptation is that the Monster be portrayed as a victim, but in all of the movies listed above, with the possible exception of Colin Clive in Universal's 1931 movie, the actor manages to portray Victor as a victim too.  Perhaps this is why the story is so often revisited.

It's alive! - The Bride of Fankenstein (1935)
Wouldn't it be easier if you didn't have to chop up bodies though, and you could just inject life back into a corpse?  Step up Re-animator (1985).  This wonderfully bonkers H P Lovecraft story follows Dr Herbert West who has developed some luminous green goo that does just that!  Simply inject the goo into the brainstem of the recently deceased and hey presto!  Re-animator falls into typical 'all scientists are crazy' tropes, but it never takes itself very seriously at least, and is great fun.  But Re-animator does lead into a subject that all mad scientists are, well, mad about: technology.

Perhaps one of the earliest abuses of technology was by Rotwang, the scientist in Fritz Lang's fantastic Metropolis (1927).  Consumed by his work, he creates a machine man who he names Maria in weird testament to the beautiful woman he meets.  Coming forward through time, Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986) simply invents a teleport system, but becomes fused to a fly when there is an unwelcome guest during a self-test; and Sebastian Craine (Kevin Bacon) develops a serum to make people invisible but of course suffers terrible consequences when he tests it on himself (Hollow Man (2000)).

Rotwang and Maria - Metropolis (1927)
Even more contemporary are the seemingly inexhaustible number of super villains.  Whether it be Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Dr Doom, Mr Freeze or perhaps even Stryker; all have had a shave too close with their research.  So it seems as though there is no shortage of material to be got from the Mad Scientist genre; whether they do something catastrophic to themselves or others, I think there will always be a place for the mad scientist in the movies.



Reasonable Scientists

At least to balance out the catalogue of whackjob mad scientists, there is also a healthy portfolio of boffins who are respected and whose expert opinion is sought out.  This is perhaps best illustrated by Dr Clayton Forrester in The War of the Worlds (1953), or Professor Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit (1967).  With roles reversed (as the whole film is) it is is interesting that Cornelius and Zira are the reasonable scientists in Planet of the Apes (1968); then reverting to type in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) the scientists are again human.  The trouble is, despite being trusted, their opinions are often ignored.

And herein lies the problem.  These guys may be trusted, and called in to situations to give their learned opinion; it’s just that more often than not, that opinion is dismissed.  This is true of Cornelius and Zira in Planet of the Apes when they are ignored by both the military and the religious leaders.  It is also true of The Day After Tomorrow (2004) where Jack Hall and Professor Terry Rapson (Dennis Quaid and Ian Holm) try to warn of imminent temperature fluctuations as a result of climate change; they are completely ignored and, well, Roland Emmerich happens!

The same happens to an extent in Contact (1997).  Though at least when the military try to take over, the scientists are still mostly in control of discoveries.  I think it isn’t until 2012 (movie, not year), when a scientist is believed.  Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Dr Adrian Helmsley is a geologist who discovers some nonsense about neutrinos and solar flares; but as soon as he presents his findings in the White House he taken straight to the President!  It’s a shame most movie scientists aren’t afforded this respect.



Stereotypes

Perhaps almost as ubiquitous as the mad scientist are the stereotypical boffins who are too absorbed with their work to waste time on things like normal clothes or be able to interact normally with other humans.  These guys are the movie equivalent of the 'here's the science' segments of shampoo adverts.  Ones that instantly spring to mind are Dr Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner: Independence Day; 1996), Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd: Back to the Future; 1985), and perhaps Dr Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman: Pacific Rim; 2013).

If the inability of the scientist to integrate into society is taken to the extreme, we find the likes of Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (1956) who lives as a recluse on a different planet!  But another stereotype is the scientist who eventually comes a cropper at the hands of his own research.  I think many of the mad scientists from the earlier section would also fall under the spectre of stereotypes; certainly Victor Frankenstein, Seth Brundle and Norman Osborn are all examples of an introverted lifestyle that just makes them all the more crazy when they venture out into society.

Chris' laxative hat suddenly started working - Back to the Future (1985)

But, you know, that's just, like, my opinion man; and the opinion of one scientist doesn’t count for very much.  Certainly, science fiction isn't going anywhere as a genre, nor would I want it to.  Though I might have been rather critical of the science in various movies, I enjoy Sci-Fi enormously and if all the science in these films were suddenly unimpeachable then I think perhaps some of the fun would be lost.  I’ve certainly enjoyed all the films that I’ve mentioned in this article (with the exception of Unstoppable which is utter guff, and Moonraker is one of the worst Bond movies); so despite bad science pulling me out of the film’s atmosphere it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them.

This is FilmsRruss, last survivor of science on film, signing off.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Interstellar (2014)



Does it say something about my taste in movies that the two movies I really wanted to see this year were purely because of the director?  The first was Godzilla.  I was so impressed by Gareth Edwards’ debut Monsters (2010) that I was really excited with what he’d do with Japan’s most famousest monster.  The only other film on my definite hit list was Interstellar.  I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan ever since I first saw Memento (2000) and was desperate to see a film of his out in space; especially since Gravity (2013) blew me away last year.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I should point out that there are a couple of spoilers in this review.  I generally try not to spoil anything in my writing, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t read anything to do with a film that you want to see and form your own opinion on.  So, to infinity and beyond!

With the Earth increasingly unable to feed itself due to an undefined “blight” ruining crops (and presumably a desperate lack of Food Security policy), an underground group of NASA scientists are looking to the stars for an alternative home.  That might sound like an IMDB descriptor, but that, in a nutshell, is the setup for everything that follows.

It’s probably hard not to make comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but I’m going to try.  The only comparison I will draw is scientific (ish), and that is the lack of any noise (other than music) when we are exterior to the spacecraft.  There is no sound of boosters, or thrusters and indeed a spectacular crash later on has all the more impact because it is so sudden and silent.  That’s probably where the good science ends; I’m not an astrophysicist though, so my enjoyment wasn't ruined; and after all this is science fiction not fact.

I had no problem following the plot, certainly more straightforward than Inception (2010); this could be because we at least have some concept of space travel, while delving into different levels of the subconscious is a little more obtuse.  Having said that, there is a similar theme of temporal distortion running through both films; though here it has the rather accepted name of relativity as a consequence of speed and gravity rather than lower levels of dreams moving slower.

In terms of the film-making, Interstellar looks as good as anything we see on our screens these days, with excellent production value.  Almost all movies set in space since Alien and Star Wars have that space-truckin’ lived in look, and the NASA craft here are no different; everything is functional and important, even more so as the agency is essentially an underground movement.  Initially surprised that Nolan favourite Wally Pfister wasn’t DOP (I’m guessing he was busy with Transcendence when this was being filmed) I thought Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, 2008; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011) does an amazing job of lensing this epic.


Certainly some of the money shots (in terms of punter-pulling as well as cost to put on screen) are some of the exterior shots as the Endurance transits across Saturn or Gargantua, and these do look phenomenal (I’m praying this is still on at the BFI IMAX in London when I’m there next month).  Interestingly, Endurance is also the name of the ship that Ernest Shackleton sailed on perhaps his most famous voyage to the Antarctic.  Following calamitous ice conditions, Shackleton’s expedition changes to one of rescuing his ship-mates and getting them home; similar to the feat undertaken by the Endurance of the movie as they try to rescue astronauts from their various planets, hoping they can bring them home.

I thought it refreshing that things go wrong because of human error rather than that of a machine. Error, or blind devotion to the mission.  In this way Dr Mann is the HAL 9000 (sorry, 2001 reference) of the story in that the mission is everything, crew expendable.  It actually turns out that TARS (the robot) is benign/useful/sarcastic and actually happy to sacrifice himself!

Having praised everything so far, I did think it was overlong, and a bit twee that Cooper was in fact behind the books communicating with his daughter; I just felt it tied everything together a bit too neatly (like the perfect rug).  Though I did appreciate the attempt to render time as a fourth dimension, and it allowed for some more excellent Escher-like moments.

The cast are fine without being outstanding. McConaughey is good as Cooper and I forgot that I was watching a big star; in contrast I always thought of Anne Hathaway as Anne Hathaway.  I actually thought that the 10 year old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) was better than Jessica Chastain, however I thought that Casey Affleck as the older older brother Tom was excellent, but criminally underused.  I also had no idea Matt Damon was in this, so his introduction was a real curve-ball for me, especially given his actions.  However, I would have liked to have seen more of John Lithgow, whose work I’ve admired ever since Footloose!

The score was excellent but quite un-Hans Zimmer-ish.  Initially l was sure it would be long-term Nolan collaborator Zimmer who was composer.  But about halfway through I became convinced that the score was composed by Philip Glass.  The music sounded so much more like some of his delicate compositions from Kundun (1997) or Watchmen (2009) rather than the traditional big bold themes that Zimmer is so good at.  Though of course there is still the occasional BRAHHHMMM!

I think that’s all I want to say, other than my brain didn’t stop running for several hours afterwards; not through incomprehension, just processing it all.  I actually thought it was pretty great, though there’s something that prevents me from saying it was amazing.  I don’t know what it is.  Perhaps it was a little more style over substance, although for the most part the substance blasts a lot of other sci-fis out of the solar system.  But, you know, that's just, like, my opinion man.

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Friday, 31 October 2014

Insidious (2010)


Best known for directing the the inventive torture horror Saw (2004), James Wan’s haunted house ghost story lacks the teeth of his first success.  Starring Patrick Wilson as Josh and Rose Byrne as his wife Renai, Insidious tells the story of their family moving house for a fresh start.  This all turns sour as their son mysteriously falls into a coma; provoking thoughts of possession etc.

Written by previous Wan collaborator Leigh Whannell, the first half is very creepy, mysterious, and manages to keep the viewer guessing.  There are some very unsettling moments, all the while the screechy discordant music composed by Joseph Bishara ramps up the tension.  However, the second half of the film attempts to explain the hauntings and consequently destroys any atmosphere; the movie then runs like a paranormal X-Files episode.

I find it strange that Josh and Renai can afford such big houses on one teacher’s wage, but at least the big houses allow the camera to sweep around which it regularly does: there are several lovely tracking shots.  Keeping the camera moving makes for a very stylish film, despite the usual tropes of a haunted house thriller.  I say usual tropes, there is more going on than the usual ghost story, it’s just that the scares are nothing new.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are both very good, and play off each other in a convincing way, each carrying their own baggage into the situation they find themselves in.  It is their relationship that sells the film; if we weren’t invested in the characters, the events would all be meaningless.  I was initially going to call this movie Insipidous, but a second viewing convinced me otherwise.  A suitably inventive and creepy movie, let down by a third act that tries to explain and understand the events surrounding the Lambert family.  But, you know, that's just, like, my opinion man.

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