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;  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 ( 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.


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.