Friday, June 10, 2011

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

by David A. Kirby
The MIT Press

From Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon in 1929 through Iron Man 2 in 2010, Hollywood filmmakers have hired real scientists to work on their scientific fantasies. David Kirby looks at the phenomenon from a scientific point of view: what do consultants do, and what do they and the filmmakers get out of the relationship?

Why first of all do filmmakers hire science consultants? The most important reason is because scientific accuracy adds to a film’s credibility and makes the movie more believable. This (and some other observations) will be familiar to readers of The Making of Star Trek (Stephen Whitfield with Gene Roddenberry, 1968) and similar books and articles since. But Kirby drills farther down to find some revealing distinctions.

According to Kirby, audiences expect widely known scientific fact (what he calls “public science”) to be accurate. Audiences like cutting-edge science and especially up-to-the-minute portrayals about how scientists work (“expert science”) because it’s new. But audiences also expect their beliefs about science to be included (“folk science”), regardless of accuracy. Like a laboratory always must have vials of bubbling colored liquids, even when real ones don’t. Or the surface of Mars has to be red (because it’s the Red Planet) even if photos show it isn’t.

But even “public science” is relative. Lang’s Woman on the Moon showed people strolling on the moon’s surface without spacesuits mostly because filmmaking technology wasn’t up to showing facial expressions behind helmets, crucial in a silent movie. But in 1929 they could get away with it, because few non-scientists knew the moon had no atmosphere. Otherwise, great care was taken to portray rocketry in a plausible way—and (in some ways unfortunately, since this was Germany) this movie did that.

Sometimes the science consultant’s advice results in a visually arresting scene (the Enterprise coming out of the rings of Saturn to avoid detection in the 2009 Star Trek) or even actual drama (the volcanic vents on the asteroid in Deep Impact that created a fatal accident.) But scientific advice is just as easily rejected. Maybe it’s technically impossible or too expensive, or just not dramatic enough. Filmmakers differ on these judgments: while Deep Impact mostly listened to their scientists, the other asteroid-threatening-Earth movie, Armageddon, mostly didn’t.

Scientists may feel used, particularly when their advice was unheeded but their participation is exploited in publicity. But they can also benefit. Jack Horner’s controversial theories about dinosaur evolution got a major boost, even within science, by being dramatized in Jurassic Park. Starting with Lang’s 1929 Woman in the Moon and Destination Moon in 1950 and Kubrick's 2001 in 1968, movies made space travel seem possible and exciting.

Scientists working with filmmakers to fashion the physical results of a theory may see new things that helps them refine the theory or the technology itself. (Movie spacesuits have inspired real ones as well as vice versa.) Probably the best example of a mutually beneficial feedback effect is one Kirby doesn’t describe, because it began not with the movie Contact, but the novel. Author Carl Sagan asked physicist Kip Thorne how traveling across the universe and coming back a few minutes later might really be possible. This led Thorne to develop his highly influential theories about wormholes. Thorne then became a science consultant for the movie Contact—and years later Thorne wrote his own Hollywood movie further dramatizing his theories: Interstellar, coming to a theatre near you in 2013.

Both science and the public benefit by seeing the dramatic and visual consequences of science and scientific theories, even if the science is not totally accurate. Kirby discusses the expectations and impact on awareness and public policy of films like The China Syndrome and The Day After Tomorrow.

But does care with science pay off? While Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk tried to furnish at least a scientific theory for all its comic book characteristics, the 2008 Incredible Hulk film made no such attempt, but did slightly better at the box office. So who knows?

Readers may be surprised at what movies overruled scientists (Steven Spielberg convened a panel of futurists for Minority Report, but thought some of their ideas were too futuristic for audiences to understand) and wonder what in the world filmmakers had on their minds to hire a science advisor for Watchman II. But if you’re into these movies the subject is fascinating anyway.

Though he is a lecturer in science communication studies in England, Kirby actually can communicate on the topic, with a minimum of jargon, a modicum of theory, and some sharp, informative writing. There’s some of the academically necessary stating the obvious, but plenty of good reporting. Besides, his backlot revelations about specific movies inspire seeing them again with this information in mind. For sci-fi and science-based adventure film buffs, always a good thing.

No comments: