Sunday, 5 December 2010

Science on Film


On my twitter profile I claim that I am a scientist (true), evil genius (probably not true), and part-time movie blogger (true). So it is in my capacity as a scientist (Microbiologist to be exact, though I have dabbled in Biochemistry as well), that I wanted to be critical of, and in praise of how science is shown in films. Of course due to my biological science background, a lot of what I’ll say reflects this; I’m sure a chemist or a physicist would come up with a completely different set of examples, maybe even a different conclusion.

Generally I don’t think science is portrayed well/accurately in films. Though to be honest this can probably be said of various media, and of various topics. I think for the sake of an exciting film/TV programme/newspaper article, technical accuracy isn’t always 100%, whether it is scientific, historical, or biographical. Perhaps the difference is that science is logical, experimental, and (should be) based on unbiased facts; ie things are done for a reason. Consequently, when it is obviously done wrong, at best it’s like a slap in the face, at worst it’s just laughable. This of course is a problem (should be a problem) for the filmmaker, because as soon as a punter laughs at something that is supposed to be serious (now I’m not thinking of Yoda at the end of Episode II at all!), then in their eyes the film loses all credibility.

So a slap in the face for me is my pet love/hate; Radioactivity. This is the warning sign for radioactivity:

It is so because the chemical elements that are radioactive are unstable. Due to this instability they break down and release radioactive particles. Therefore the warning symbol shows two “objects” balancing on one, an unstable design. Therefore, to show the symbol upside-down is not only meaningless, but implies the complete opposite of what is trying to be conveyed; “This substance is stable, no danger here”! Actually there are specific rules as the dimensions of the symbol: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazard_symbol#Radioactive_sign

                                                         Unstoppable: All sorts of wrong

                                                              Back to the Future: Correct

While we’re on the subject of things being just plain wrong, here’s another corker. This time from The Matrix. And I quote:

Agent Smith: I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.

WRONG! If only the Wachowski brothers had taken 10 seconds to check Wikipedia, they would have found that mammals are so called because the female of each species possesses mammary glands! And last time I checked, humans fall into that category!

Smith then goes on to say that we are actually viruses. Well, we’re not, but viruses are very interesting. Not least in the context of this article as they possibly (though I have no evidence for this - bad scientist!) inspired Alien, at the very least. We all know the life cycle of an Alien: Queen lays eggs, eggs hatch, facehugger jumps on unsuspecting passer by and impregnates, chest-burster bursts out killing host, and Xenomorph can then grow up and lead a healthy and fulfilling life!

In many ways a bacteriophage virus is very similar. A bacteriophage is a virus than infects bacterial cells. When the virus finds a bacterium, it will attach itself, and then “impregnate” the cell with it’s own DNA. The virus then exploits the host cell processes to make many new copies of the viral DNA; new viral particles are then assembled within the host cell, until it eventually bursts releasing all of the new viruses.

As can be seen from this video, the bacteriophage even look fairly horrific.


The video may be a bit over-dramatic, but you get the idea! So we should tip our hat to H.R. Giger, and Ridley Scott for making a Sci-fi film about an alien with accuracy; because few things are scarier than nature! And as if to confirm this, watch this video of the Cordyceps fungi that infect insects and then grow out of the host body!

So some of those horrific Sci-Fi creatures may have some basis in science and nature, though it may not be intentional some times. And while we’re at it, if you thought that The Thing was a bit too far fetched, then you really don’t have to look any further than Dictyostelium (Slime Moulds):



Then from the sublime to the ridiculous. That special breed of film that contains that particular branch of science: Spacker Science! Whether it be trains of molten phenol in Unstoppable, or toxic waste melting Paul McCrane in 10 seconds in Robocop! But all pale into insignificance when compared to Deep Blue Sea! Ah yes.

“Scientists” discover the cure to Parkinson’s disease; a protein that causes neurons to fire again (which happens instantly in a petri dish!). So, shall we copy the gene for the protein into E. coli, so that it can be propagated and produce loads of protein in the lab (standard practise, even I do this in the lab)? Or shall we breed giant sharks, with giant brains, so that we can pipette the protein directly out of it’s brain?! I’m sure there was a reason for the sharks particularly, but I can’t remember what it was. Of course, giving sharks larger brains makes them super-intelligent! Of course we all know that this is true; larger brains = greater intelligence. That is why the elephant is the most intelligent mammal!?

I could sit here all day and pick holes in this film, but then that’s not it’s point is it. As I said earlier, to make something like a film more entertaining, there has to be a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief, especially when it comes to science. Let’s then be honest, who wouldn’t find Samuel L. Jackson being eaten by a giant shark, or Saffron Burrows stripping down to her knickers and bra so she can electrocute a shark, or L. L. Cool J telling us how to make an omelette entertaining?

I think science generally comes off quite badly in films; if it is not accurately done, then scientists themselves are usually portrayed as socially inept nerds who live only for their research and barely see daylight. There are a few good examples of films, but I don’t really have the time to go into Contact (written by Carl Sagan), or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Sunshine (Professor Brian Cox was scientific advisor), and I’m sure more films that escape me right now.

As I said at the beginning, there are reasons for scientific theories and ideas. Research, experiments, and drawing the most likely conclusions based on evidence (almost Occam’s Razor) is how we progress our knowledge. Perhaps the conclusions may not be completely correct at the moment, but this is the point of research, to question accepted dogma if we have reason to doubt it, or in the light of new evidence. This is why when it is done badly/wrong in films it just looks silly because it just doesn’t make sense.

I should finish by saying this doesn’t necessarily ruin films for me, despite perhaps being “pulled out of the film” by some stupid science, I still think the like of Deep Blue Sea, Robocop, Watchmen, The Thing, AVP, The Matrix are all still great/very entertaining films (I’ll let you decide which of those you think I think are great or just very entertaining!). It would just be nice if Directors/writers/producers/set designers could just do a little bit of research themselves to make sure their film was slightly less silly!