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Fistful of science

The time has come to create a new system for evaluating science in cinema.

I study and write about movie science for a living. For this reason, family, friends, and colleagues constantly ask me if I hate movies with “bad” science. To which I always answer, “No! I hate bad movies regardless of whether the science is ‘good’ or not!”

My book Lab Coats in Hollywood (2013) explores how filmmakers have used scientists as consultants. One of the things I learned in writing the book is that our society is too particular about “accuracy” in judging movie science. Accuracy becomes a problematic term when assessing things that are inherently fictional.

I much prefer terms like “authenticity” and “plausibility,” words that can capture how closely a movie’s science represents real-world science without holding film to the unrealistic expectation of “accuracy.” Instead, we should measure how effectively a film uses science to tell a unique and exciting story.

The release in 2011 of Dimensions, an intriguing indie science fiction film, prompted me to consider how, and why, filmmakers use science in fictional films, and how we currently evaluate the science in movies. Dimensions is a time-travel romance whose main character is a scientist. If I were to rate the authenticity of the science in the film I might give it a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Not great, but not bad.

But to judge the science in Dimensions solely on the authenticity criterion would be to miss the entire point of the film’s use of science, which is far more innovative than a big-budget blockbuster that practices more “accurate” science.

The film uses scientific theories about dimensionality to develop an engaging narrative and to explore universal human themes regarding how the past shapes our identities, our relationship to other people, and our conceptions of fate. Judging Dimensions on its imaginative use of science to tell an interesting story, I would give it a 9 out of 10.

The time has come to create a new system for evaluating science in cinema. The system would not only judge a film’s scientific authenticity on a scale from “good science” to “bad science,” but would also determine whether the science was being used in novel and imaginative ways, as in Dimensions. Lastly, it would hold the film to the same standards that nonscience reviewers expect: Is it enjoyable? I applied this new system to 10 high profile films from the last five years.

Prometheus

Scientific authenticity: 5/10. Some of the astronomy in the 2012 movie is (relatively) authentic—such as the alien moon—but much of the science is inauthentic at best (calling 35 light years distance as “a half billion miles from earth”) and ridiculous at worst (claiming a 100% DNA match between the “engineers” and humans). The unprofessional scientist characters tip the film into the realm of the scientifically ludicrous. The archeologists treat artifacts as if they are collecting sea shells. The geologist gets lost. The biologist approaches an unknown alien species as if he is trying to coax a cat from under the couch.

Imaginative use of science: 6/10. Although the theme is not uncommon in science fiction cinema (see 2001: A Space Odyssey), the idea of aliens directing human evolution is an intriguing use of science in the film. Unfortunately, any thought-provoking questions about the origins of humanity are undercut by the intelligent design gibberish spouted by the main scientist character.

Enjoyable film: 5/10. Despite some potentially interesting uses of science, the film’s idiotic scientists and implausible science ruin its entertainment value.

Inception

Scientific authenticity: 6/10. Given the fantastical nature of the 2010 film’s dream invasion plot, some of the science is surprisingly authentic. Recent neurological studies have shown that it is possible to read minds and to record dreams—albeit in a rudimentary way. However, the brain’s complexity and our limited understanding of how thought patterns form make the ability to plant a higher-order thought in a person’s brain pretty far-fetched.

Imaginative use of science: 9/10. The science provides the foundation for a visually stunning crime thriller set in a dream within a dream within a dream. Thanks to the science, the filmmakers explore fascinating philosophical issues concerning the nature of the subconscious, the distinction between dreams and reality, and the concept of movies as a shared form of dreaming.

Enjoyable film: 9/10. The science helps the film succeed on multiple levels: as a visual triumph, as a first-class psychological thriller, and as a character study.

Contagion

Scientific authenticity: 9/10. The involvement of real-life scientists paid off for this 2011 film. Almost every scientific element in this film feels authentic. The laboratories, the scientists, the source of the virus, the disease’s epidemiology and the response of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all ring true. The speed in which they develop a vaccine is a bit too quick, but overall the film is a scientific winner.

Imaginative use of science: 7/10. The most intriguing use of science was the film’s exploration of how our society would realistically respond to a deadly epidemic. The film also delves into the Internet’s murky role in disseminating both legitimate and illegitimate health information. However, some of the drama emerging from the film’s science is uninspiring, such as subplots about the head of the CDC misusing insider information and about the distribution of vaccines in poor countries.

Enjoyable film: 7/10. The authentic science leads to a documentary feel for much of the film. But the need for drama conflicts with this pseudo-documentary approach and the film suffers a split-personality disorder: That is, it tries to be a science thriller, an apocalyptic film, and a political drama all at the same time.  Moon

Scientific authenticity: 4/10. The 2009 film features interesting (if somewhat flawed) depictions of space exploration and the possibility of mining minerals on the Moon. However, the film’s (mostly unexplained) cloning scenario is highly implausible, relying as it does on adult clones with implanted memories.

Imaginative use of science: 9/10. The science may not be authentic, but the filmmakers are more interested in using the science to explore fascinating ethical and philosophical issues associated with space colonization, human cloning, and the commercialization of engineered organisms. It also deftly raises questions about the connection between identity and memory.

Enjoyable film: 9/10. Moon is a thought-provoking film whose cloning scenario, while implausible, allows for some excellent acting and for some great psychological drama.

The Happening

Scientific authenticity: 2/10. The plot of this 2008 film centers on a neurotoxin released by plants that causes people to commit suicide. Many real-life plant species do indeed have chemical defenses, but that point is completely undercut by the laughable science in the rest of the film. Any film where a science teacher posits that scientific investigation is limited because there are “forces that work beyond our understanding” is scientifically indefensible.

Imaginative use of science: 4/10. While the “plants killed everyone” plot was widely panned by critics, it is actually an intriguing idea for a science fiction horror film that harkens back to the eco-horror films of the early 1970s. But the potential to make an imaginative film based on plant’s chemical defenses rests on how well the filmmakers use the science. These filmmakers fell short.

Enjoyable film: 2/10. The flaws in logic and misuses of a potentially interesting scientific idea (along with some pretty terrible acting) render The Happening almost unwatchable. The dialog, which was evidently inspired by notions of intelligent design, even prevents the film from becoming a guilty pleasure of the sort mocked on cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Avatar

Scientific authenticity: 7/10. The ecological aspects of Pandora’s flora are based on extensive botanical research and ideas from exobiology. The idea of using a brain–computer interface to control another body is becoming more plausible, even if the notion of creating an alien/human DNA hybrid is a bit fanciful. The scientific authenticity of Pandora as a self-sustaining organism depends on how receptive you are to the Gaia hypothesis.

Imaginative use of science: 8/10. The 2009 film uses its science to create a visually rich world that was particularly impressive in 3D. Transferring the hero’s consciousness into another biological body is also a novel way to explore the theme of a white man experiencing life within a minority group. The Gaia hypothesis is well deployed to support the film’s overt green message.

Enjoyable film: 6/10. Despite its authentic and imaginative science, the film is Exhibit A for why good science is never enough to overcome the unoriginal storytelling. (However, the film would score 7/10 if watched in its original 3D.)

Splice

Scientific authenticity: 8/10. The 2009 film Splice hits the nail on the head in terms of its laboratory scenes and its use of scientific terminology. And while the idea of creating a fully developed human–animal hybrid currently seems impossible, genetic engineering is a powerful scientific tool that has already been used to create a new synthetic life form and human-animal genetic hybrids are now common.

Imaginative use of science: 5/10. The film spends a good deal of time on the interesting issue of corporate science in the 21st century. It also gestures toward an intriguing story about the ethics of manipulating human DNA and scientists’ responsibilities towards genetically engineered creatures. However, the film wastes its potential by essentially re-hashing Frankenstein and the old chestnut about not “playing God” with a strange pseudo-incestuous sex scene between one of the scientists and his creation thrown in.

Enjoyable film: 6/10. Like the genetically-engineered Dren, the film is a failed hybrid that professes to take on significant moral issues with science but that ultimately devolves into a standard monster move.

Angels and Demons

Scientific authenticity: 6/10. Thanks to the involvement of CERN’s scientists, the dialog and sets for the scenes set at CERN delivered authenticity. Antimatter exists and it will create pure energy when it comes into contact with matter, which makes the science behind the plot credible. However, it would take over a billion years with current technology to make the amount of antimatter described in the movie, and this renders the plot highly implausible.

Imaginative use of science: 6/10. The choice to use particle physics as the hinge for a plot focusing on a science-versus-religion debate is novel, since the debates frequently center on issues in biology. Antimatter’s presence at the birth of the universe makes it an interesting symbol for discussions of creation. Particle physics also provides an opportunity for characters to discuss the the so-called God particle. In the end, though, the film fails to follow through on the potential of its science-versus-religion theme by settling for the easy “can’t we all get along” conclusion.

Enjoyable film: 6/10. Unfortunately, the thriller elements in this film are not very thrilling. (Just what every action film needs: a trip to the archives!) The mishandled science-versus-religion theme also renders this film a mediocrity.

Knowing

Scientific authenticity: 3/10. Nicholas Cage does a surprisingly credible job as a university astrophysicist in his early scenes. The 2009 film also includes a decent summary of the Drake equation that is used to estimate the number of potential alien civilizations. But the film’s dependence on numerology as a “science” threatens any claims to scientific authenticity the filmmakers might have had.

Imaginative use of science: 7/10. Like Angels and Demons, the film uses its science to engage with debates over science versus religion. Unlike Angels and Demons, however, the engagement is serious. Randomness (science) versus determinism (faith) supplies a major theme within the film.

Enjoyable film: 4/10. Knowing shows how a movie can use its science in an imaginative fashion, but still fail to be entertaining when the ideas are not well executed. The films’ numerous flaws in logic also take away from its entertainment value.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Scientific authenticity: 7/10. The laboratory sets and much of the scientific dialog were authentic, as is now routinely the case for major Hollywood films. Scientists in the film practice gene therapy using viral vectors as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, a practice now genuinely being studied. The idea that Caesar ultimately learns to speak, though, is problematic because chimpanzees lack the anatomical structures for speech.

Imaginative use of science: 8/10. The film’s use of genetic engineering in the creation of a “monster” is not a forced plot point as is the case with many horror films. The film asks us to understand that the scientist conducts these experiments because he sees the impact of Alzheimer’s on his father. The film’s science is also not used in the service of a lame antiscience rant. Instead, it provides the foundation for a commentary on the fate of captive animals (the humans in the sanctuary are far more cruel to the apes than any of the scientists were).

Enjoyable film: 8/10. This film is one of the few science fiction films that includes enough satisfying action scenes while also engaging with sophisticated scientific and ethical issues.

David Kirby is a senior lecturer in science communication studies at the University's of Manchester's Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.

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http://aip.metastore.ingenta.com/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/news/10.1063/PT.5.2009
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Scitation: Fistful of science
http://aip.metastore.ingenta.com/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/news/10.1063/PT.5.2009
10.1063/PT.5.2009