08 November 2004

Science in the Movies

Here's a quick list of some movies that feature scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc., actually doing some science. There must be science in the movie (usually embedded in a love story, war movie, thriller, western, etc.). They must do the math. Scientist at work.

There are basically two ways that movies look at scientists:
  • Scientist/mathematician/engineer/inventor as a tormented, or at least slightly odd, solitary genius
    • A Beautiful Mind
    • The Fly
    • Frankenstein
    • Good Will Hunting
    • Back to the Future
    • The Island of Dr. Moreau
    • Sherlock Holmes
    • The Man in the White Suit
  • Scientist/mathematician/engineer as part of an imperfect team
    • Fat Man and Little Boy
    • Contact
    • The Dam Busters
    • The Andromeda Strain
    • Ghostbusters
    • Flight of the Phoenix
Here are my remarks on some films that present a range of images of science and scientists, arranged chronologically. Any comments or suggestions are welcome.

The Story of Louis Pasteur--1935, William Dieterle. Paul Muni won the Oscar(r) for best actor in the title role. Too much of a western, with Good (the saintly Pasteur) vs. Evil (the skeptical, conservative establishment), but still more science than most films about scientists. Gets 7.4 of 10 on IMDB.

The Dam Busters--1954, Michael Anderson. True story of Dr. Barnes N. Wallis, CBE, FRS, (played by Michael Redgrave) and his role in the war-time effort to develop and deliver bombs against the Rhur dams. Even uses some real footage of the bomb trials. IMDB voters give it 7.5 out of 10.

The Flight of the Phoenix--1965, Robert Aldrich. (I haven't seen the remake by John Moore yet.) Perfect casting of Jimmy Stewart as over-the-hill, seat-of-the-pants pilot (remember he was top-of-the-hill flyboy Charles Lindbergh in 1957). He has to hold his marooned cast together while asocial engineer Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) struggles to convince them he has a way to safety. 7.6 of 10 by IMDB voters.

The Andromeda Strain--1971, Robert Wise. The first film from a novel by Michael Crichton, (M.D.), before Westworld, Coma, or Jurassic Park. As the review at And You Call Yourself a Scientist! notes, the film portrays more accurately than most how "We [scientists] spend very little time doing brain transplants, resurrecting the dead, or even plotting to take over the world with our secret armies of remote-controlled flesh-eating zombies. What we do spend a great deal of time doing, however, is the same thing over and over and over again." Seven out of ten on IMDB.

The Serpent and the Rainbow--1988, Wes Craven. Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis wrote several books about his plant-hunting adventures. This is the movie of one of them. Emphasis on drugs and zombies. But Wade really did do some freaky things in the field. Movie gets 6 of 10 on IMDB. Bill Pullman's third film.

Fat Man and Little Boy--1989, Roland Joffé. The Manhattan Project. Paul Newman as crusty Army administrator Gen. Leslie Groves tangles with prima donna Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz--you may not know his face, but you have probably heard his voice), while scientist Michael Merriman (John Cusack) actually does math in one crucial scene. Gets 6 out of 10 on IMDB .

Microcosmos--1996, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou. Incredible ultra-macro-closeup window into the world of insects and other creepy-crawlies. No science, no scientists. Just bugs being bugs. You will be awed--and isn't that one of the reasons science is fun? (8 of 10 on IMDB.)

Enigma--2001, Michael Apted. Bletchley Park codebreakers plus love story/whodunit. Boffette Kate Winslet. Tormented math genius Dougray Scott. First film from Mick Jagger's Jagged Films. IMDB rates it 7 out of 10, though reviews were mixed.

Here are some other films featuring scientists, engineers and the like:
  • Stand and Deliver
  • A Brief History of Time
  • The China Syndrome
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • The Prize
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • any Sherlock Holmes--his reliance on deduction, reasoning, and facts makes him an archetypal scientist. The films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are my favorites--crisp, sharp: case closed.
  • Q in Bond movies--not really working at the bench any more--he's more of an administrator.
  • Young Tom Edison
  • Edison, the Man
  • Real Science
  • My Science Project
  • Medicine Man
  • Lorenzo's Oil
  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
  • The Invisible Ray
  • the Invisible Man
  • Re-Animator
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Demon Seed

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