1. A Beautiful Movie?
Medicine Man poster image, courtesy Disney.
| Change: The only constant
Even though mathematician John Nash was diagnosably "mad," A Beautiful Mind shows him in a sympathetic light. In the 1930s and '40s, in contrast, mad movie scientists lacked the redeeming social qualities.
Peter Weingart, a professor at the University of Beilfeld (Germany), studies how scientists are portrayed in films -- fact and fiction. A central goal, he says, is to look at how "science is depicted as a 'strange' and 'extra-social' activity."
Certainly, Sean Connery's gruff botanist was not a guy you'd want to meet for a game of whist and Crowe-Nash, as we've seen, was not precisely a paradigm of psychological stability or extroversion.
By email, Weingart told us that his ongoing analysis of 400 science and science-fiction films shows a trend toward portraying scientists "as youthful action heroes" -- think of Jodie Foster as an interplanetary astrophysicist in Contact or Harrison Ford as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones.
Horror over atomic weapons also motivated movies of the period. "The dropping of the bomb had a big impact on films," Kirby says. Between bombs and DNA, people in the 1950s were unhappy about any "type of science where you're going to change nature. The message was that we made a mistake when we messed around with the atom. Who's to say we're not going to make another mistake with DNA?" In film, as in politics, the status quo was king in the 1950s.
To find the size of the invading microbes, the scientists used filters of decreasing size, says Kirby, "It takes about 10 minutes. It's realistic, but filimically, would be better if they found right away." Crichton discussed negative portrayals of scientists (see "Ritual Abuse" in the bibliography).
Even engineers got positive play in moving pictures. The Jack Lemmon character in the China Syndrome, a 1979 film about a meltdown at a nuclear reactor, was a crusader for public safety. The movie was released -- through sheer luck -- immediately after the meltdown at the reactor at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Engineers also played larger-than-life nerd-heroes in Apollo 13, about a near-disastrous moon mission.
Pros of con-sulting
Indeed, filmmakers went whole-hog for science consultants by the 1990s. When Kirby analyzed the use of science, engineering and math consultants for film, he found that 60 percent used them during the 1990s.
It's nice to hear that Hollywood is spewing the bucks. But it's just a movie. Does it matter if moviemakers get it right?
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