Science goes to Hollywood– what are your favorites?

November 10, 2010 • 4:19 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry recently posted on a piece by Carl Zimmer on the depiction of science in movies. Carl doesn’t think Hollywood films have shown very realistic views of science and scientists, and is not sure Hollywood can or should do anything about it. Carl’s more jazzed by the promise and accomplishments of smaller films of the type shown at the Imagine Science Film Festival. This got me to thinking about my own favorite science-y movies, and so, in the spirit of Jerry’s recent literary selections, I thought I’d mention some of my favorite depictions of science and scientists on film. I’ll be putting one up each of the next few days.

I invite WEIT readers to tell us in the comments what are their favorite scenes or films. The ones I’m thinking of capture something I believe to be true about the scientific enterprise; let us know what you found appealing in your favorite. It might be a kernel of truth, but it might be a ‘so bad it’s good’ (a la Plan 9 From Outer Space) kind of thing. I’ll put my first one up tomorrow.

(As an aside, I note Carl wondered why the acid in Alien didn’t burn through the hull of the Nostromo; much more fantastic is how the alien managed to put on about 500 kilos and grow ten feet longer without eating anything after emerging from John Hurt’s chest. The acid, after all, would be used up in the course of reacting with the metal in the hull, but where’d all that body mass come from?)


76 thoughts on “Science goes to Hollywood– what are your favorites?

    1. I’m sure they are unusually nutritious, but there’s still the problem that 50 kilos of delicious John Hurt can’t get you 500 kilos of alien!


      1. I always wondered about the tubes and conduits that adorn the back of the alien. Maybe it somehow “plugged in” to the ships fuel/energy systems and used stuff from the ship itself to add mass, enlarging (building?)the “mechanical” part of “biomechanical” design of the alien.

        Or maybe the tubes were there to look “cool” and we’re not supposed to as such questions.

  1. Not to go off on the Alien tangent too much further, but besides finding a cache of ship’s rations, maybe the alien ate large bits of the ship? We’re already in science fiction land, how much more suspension of disbelief is going too far?

    I liked the main premise of the recent movie Moon, with Sam Rockwell. Just like in real life, all the cool science stuff happens somewhere else, and what’s left is such boring tedium that a real person shouldn’t get stuck doing it.

    1. Moon had some good points, but I don’t think the scientific plausibility of its main premise was one of them.

      **Spoiler Alert**

      You have a corporation that has access to apparently strong AI, and can dispatch a real human crew to the mining site in about 15 hours, but they need a live human being running the station why? Even assuming an onsite supervisor is needed, they want us to believe that it’s actually cheaper to grow and sustain dozens and dozens of clone bodies than to just pay someone to do the work? Nothing he did seemed to require extraordinary training. It was a promising movie, but the central conceit is just so utterly implausible.

  2. I thought exactly the same thing about Alien when I first saw it – probably the writers had some rationale. Also, the aliens lay so many eggs – the eggs are huge for the size of the hatchlings whatever they call them, why would they expend so much energy on so many large eggs all in one place?

    I like Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman. I am sure it is chock full of daft moments you would spot if you work in medicine/biotech, but it shows scientists in a positive light on the whole – the scientists save the day. I hate it when films have large heavy ‘monsters’ that manage somehow to crawl around on ceilings before dropping down on unsuspecting cannon fodder/supporting actors. I do like films that have the scientist as hero who says ‘it’s all going horribly wrong’, only no one will listen except perhaps the local sheriff etc, – “When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” – scientist at the end of Them! – but try not to take them too seriously!

  3. The novelization of Alien, written by Alan Dean Foster (who at one time was a most prolific producer of novelizations of SF movies), explains two things that do not come out in the movie: one is that the alien does break into the food lockers and consumes the ship’s stores and the other is that more time actually passes between its emergence and it’s attack on Brett than is apparent in the film.

    The alien is repeatedly described as “biomechanical”, also leaving the possibility that it was able to consume parts of the ship’s structure to metabolize into the mechanical portions.

    Later sequels also establish that the aliens have a high metabolism and very short maturation time.

    That said, one movie that is interesting is the much-maligned Mission To Mars. They tore the pages on the difficulties and hazards of space travel pretty much from 2001, and made physics the enemy whenever possible, particularly in the scene of the spacewalk from the damaged ship to the resupply module. Of course one of the difficulties 2001 had to overcome was the sometimes painful slowness of pace in depicting somewhat realistic space travel. That, I recall, was the major negative mentioned when it was first-run.

    1. I actually read the novelization, but didn’t recall eating the ship’s stores as an explanation for the alien’s sudden growth. In the canonical Alien movies (i.e. Alien and Aliens), the aliens seem to be strictly parasitoids (parasite-like critters that kill the host– like wasps in caterpillars), so I don’t think they could be eating the ship.


      1. The book was apparently written from a script that included a few things that were cut from the theatrical release: an argument between Ripley and Lambert over the former not wanting to let them back in the ship; another conversation in which the women mention that neither of them has had sex with Ash, and another in which Ripley finds a cocooned Dallas who asks her to kill him. Foster added some. Those three scenes were actually shot, and eventually included as extras on a later DVD release. The food lockers were only mentioned briefly in the book, not at all in the movies (I seem to recall that it was Parker who mentioned them in passing). Foster did take some literary liberties with the canon, including hints about the creature’s life cycle that was never in any of the movies.

        1. I suppose the alien being a complex life-form that adapted by some kind of parasitic gene splicing could have the ability to ‘photosynthesise’ when in a dormant phase and thus build body mass from air and water. This would require an energy input, of course and there did not seem to be much light around in the Nostromo to do it the way plants do. The bio-mechanoid angle suggests another possibility. If the dormant alien was able to tap into the ship’s electrics and had thus evolved a kind of ‘electrosynthesis’ process it could grow body mass from carbon dioxide, water and electricity. Maybe the long tail of the chest-buster alien was actually for plugging into the mains? Of course, the crew might notice a big drain on the ship’s power but the little chest-buster could move at lightning speed, as it were and maybe keep moving in between periods of electrosynthesis. Anyone think this plausible?

      2. The food lockers were (IIRC) mentioned in the movie.

        It is the juvenile alien that is parasitoid, all the grownups were shown feeding on live or stashed live victims as predators, even if you technically can call them “hosts” I suppose. (Can’t you hear the screams, in space? :-D)

        Anyhow, I don’t think any physics rules were broken. But how about the frantic growth rate?

        1. Nope, I checked and they aren’t.

          The first time I saw the movie I hypothesized the storage area where the alien was found also had some food (for the crew and cat, if nothing else). So there was not really a need for a “locker” as such. It never bothered me much – the growth rate did.

  4. Not sure if this fits the brief, but as we’re talking Cameron movies…
    In Avatar, the ship transports folks from Earth to Pandora which is a moon of a gas giant (Promethius?) orbiting on of the binary stars of Alpha Centauri. Now, that’s about 4.37 light years away, so the best communication we could get would be a round trip message of a little less than 9 years. Anyway, they take six years to get there, so that’s very fast travel, but not unfeasible. What gets me is the evil company dude says that folks back on Earth don’t like dead Aliens but shareholders dislike bad quarterly statements more.

    I’m guessing with round trip of about 9 years, 4.37 to receive a message, then quarterly statements are about 4.37 years out of date. Why give a fig? The whole moon could disappear and nobody would have the slightest inkling for almost half a decade back on Earth. Unless communication in Avatar universe is instantaneous…It seems that they accept the limitation of the speed of light regarding travel, but not communication.

    Loved the movie though.

    1. I’m not up to economy, but I assume “quarterly statement” is of the company, not of the project. (Not that scheduled project reports aren’t expected, natch.)

      1. Well the implication was that how well they were doing on Pandora was in the quarterly statements, but these were much more important than the reports of killing of natives.

  5. Probably one of the best depictions of science – and one of the best SF films – is “The Man in the White Suit” with Alec Guinness. Heck, it’s one of the few Science Fiction films that actually *is* science fiction out there.

  6. When it wasn’t wasting time with Matthew McConaughey or dealing with the lead character’s daddy issues, Contact was quite good.

    1. Meh.

      The whole didactic point of that movie is to show that Arroway (Foster)’s atheist worldview is inadequate and inhuman.

      The science may not be so bad, but the philosophy is horrible.

      1. Actually, the didactic point was just the opposite. The bad guys were religious (both sincere and insincere), and there were no gods– only extraterrestrial intelligent life. As Capt. Kirk said, “What need does God have for a starship?” Or in this case, what need would God have for a wormhole producer?


      2. The movie shows that the general public thought Arroway’s worldview was inadequate and inhuman, but I don’t think it endorses that view. It’s hardly a didactic point that a country that won’t elect an atheist to public office is not going to want one as humanity’s Ambassador to Vega.

        And as Jerry says, the religious come off much worse in the movie (some spoilers here): McConaughey’s character betrays Arroway’s trust, using their personal conversations to ambush her at the committee hearings; religious fanatics destroy the first Machine; the National Security Advisor destroys the evidence that would support Arroway’s account.

        Meanwhile, when Arroway realizes that she has no hard evidence to offer, she’s true to her principles and doesn’t demand that others take her testimony on faith.

        1. The movie shows that the general public thought Arroway’s worldview was inadequate and inhuman, but I don’t think it endorses that view.

          Why not? Who within the film ever questions it? How is that perception ever portrayed as anything but valid?

          It’s hardly a didactic point that a country that won’t elect an atheist to public office is not going to want one as humanity’s Ambassador to Vega.

          What do you mean, “a country”? The committee that nixes her for atheism is part of the international space organization created in the film. Besides Joss (McConaughey), Arroway is grilled about her atheism by one Indian and one English member that committee. The latter lectures her that “ninety-five percent of the world’s population believes in a Supreme Being in one form or another,” which is total bullshit—and no one in the movie ever says so. (Obviously the moviemakers think it’s true.)

          McConaughey’s character betrays Arroway’s trust, using their personal conversations to ambush her at the committee hearings….

          Yes, and again no one but Arroway herself has the slightest problem with him doing that. No one in the film says a single discouraging word about the idea that atheists should not be allowed to represent humanity to extraterrestrials.

          Joss’s betrayal looks ugly to an audience that sympathizes with Arroway, but the film never connects that betrayal to Joss’s religiosity. As he explains several scenes later, his decision to sandbag her came primarily because he’s a clingy boyfriend, not an atheophobe. But in the same speech in which he admits that, he also gets the movie’s last word on his pretextual “no atheists” rule: “It was a good reason.” That’s the only evaluation the movie ever provides.

          religious fanatics destroy the first Machine….

          Well, yeah—that’s the age-old accommodationist divide-and-conquer gambit. “Fundamentalists suck; Gnu Atheists (such as Arroway) suck; the Real Truth is somewhere in the middle”—in this movie, that’s Joss.

          the National Security Advisor destroys the evidence that would support Arroway’s account.

          Actually, he and Presidential advisor Angela Bassett just decide to sit on that evidence; they don’t destroy it. Anyway, where do you get the notion that Kitz (James Woods) is religious? I don’t remember the film identifying him as such; to the contrary, he’s the character who takes Arroway’s Gnu Atheism to its supposed Logical Conclusion. He’s the punishment she deserves for being so disrespectful of religious faith.

          Meanwhile, when Arroway realizes that she has no hard evidence to offer, she’s true to her principles and doesn’t demand that others take her testimony on faith.

          Right; that’s why she loses at the congressional hearing. She leaves the hearing downcast and defeated. Her stubborn refusal to accept faith is presented as a flaw that she only overcomes afterward—beginning when the real hero, Joss, declares that he does “believe her”—on faith, obviously. She smiles, takes his hand, and (as I quoted downthread) Zemeckis says that shot is “the whole point of the movie”: “the mutual compatibility of science and religion.”

          By Zemeckis’ own statements, he made an overtly accommodationist and anti-Gnu film. I don’t think it’s even very subtle. It appears that plenty of people have missed his point, though.

  7. ‘Evolution’ is my favourite sciency movie. The science is crap but it’s very funny. And the scientists are the good guys.

    1. I wanted to mention Evolution as well! Not in the least because it actually depicts evolution amazingly well. The pace of evolution is of course much faster, with millions of years condensed in each day. But it does show lots of dead animals before one survives with the next good adaption.

      Where it goes wrong is in that it seems to think a human-like descendant is the logical end product of evolution. The ending of the movie doesn’t stress that flaw though.

      And indeed, it is simply a nice comedy.

  8. Andromeda Strain. Both filmed version. Even if you have to overlook some details, the whole movie is a series of scientific problems solving moments. They build on each other, not all the answers are given.

    Great stuff

  9. Contact is my favorite movie. It helps that I’m a biologist so I can ignore some of the problematic scientific stuff that I don’t catch… But I love that the main character is a female scientist, and an atheist to boot. I can relate to her so much.

    1. Yes, but the didactic point of the movie is to show how wrong she is to be an atheist.

      She’s a tragic hero, and her atheism is her tragic flaw. Bah.

      1. Meh, I’ve never interpreted that way thanks to the last sentence in the movie about the video – don’t want to spoil it in case someone somehow hasn’t managed to see it yet.

        1. Huh? You don’t mean the cloying “for Carl” end-title card, do you?

          I don’t understand how the movie can be read as anything but a hatchet job on Arroway’s ideas. She’s denied a job on the basis of her atheism, and no one within the movie ever sees the slightest problem with that. (The hiring committee asserts that “ninety-five percent of the world’s population believes in a Supreme Being in one form or another,” which is an outrageous lie—and again, no one in the movie ever calls bullshit.)

          Director Robert Zemeckis directly draws a parallel between Arroway’s (apparently evil) rejection of Palmer Joss’s (McConaughey’s) religious experience by having Arroway’s experience haughtily denied by an asshole wielding Occam’s Razor. Arroway is offered an opportunity to ask the Congressional committee to take her testimony on “faith,” but she refuses, and therefore loses: she leaves the hearing refuted and downcast.

          Where exactly is the pro-atheist material anywhere in the movie? Arroway is brutalized repeatedly, and there’s no indication that Zemeckis or his writers see any problem with any of it. I just don’t understand what you’re seeing, or not seeing.

          I hated Contact. I really hated it. … Why didn’t Jodie permanently lose the newage–rhymes with “sewage”–hippie after he tried to keep her from fulfilling her dreams for his own short-sighted horniness? That started to bum me, but it was the ending that finally broke my heart. The end of Contact asserted that belief in something tangible by a single person is equivalent to belief in god, and that the reality imagined by saints is the same as scientists understanding something they can’t explain to lay people.

          That is evil, utterly evil.

          Some of my friends say I should be happy that there was an atheist hero. They say that she didn’t knuckle under to faith, that she was still looking for proof. Well, I hope that’s what it meant but, man, when “For Carl” came up at the end, I felt cheated. Carl Sagan never hedged like that.

          – Penn Jillette

          [The details of Contact‘s script] undermine the intelligence of Foster’s character and therefore much of the book’s point. I said before that the film was faithful to the novel at a story level, but Zemeckis and his screenwriters (Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart) have recast the thematics in a way that betrays of both Sagan and his heroine. The book was strongly agnostic: Ellie has several run-ins with organised religion (represented by Palmer Joss and the more extreme Billy Jo Rankin) and is fairly merciless in her attacks on them. Her arguments are strong and convincing, and Sagan pulls no punches, at one point noting that the Gospels seem to have “cooked the data” in order to prove a prophecy fulfilled. The book concludes with a classic expression of – if I can utilise an apparent contradiction – agnostic religion: the idea that our religions are too small-minded and that there is something bigger than we can know responsible for the universe. (The kind of viewpoint Hamlet nailed so well: “There are more things on heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) In the film, this is recast: the book’s evocative conclusion – which I won’t give away – is dropped, and the agnosticism is completely abandoned. Ellie seems befuddled by even the most glib and simplistic of Joss’s mystical pronouncements, which further undermines the intelligence of the character. Her views on religion are not seen as a legitimate part of her worldview, but rather (as with Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump) a character flaw that she must overcome. I don’t have a problem with religious faith, as such, but I resent the unthinking reverence of Zemeckis’ approach to it, and feel he has betrayed a responsibility to Sagan’s source. The film is dedicated to Sagan, but it would have been more honest a tribute if Zemeckis had provided a faithful adaptation. If Zemeckis couldn’t reconcile this responsibility with his own values (which, judging from Forrest, are deeply conservative) then he should have passed on the project.

          – Stephen Rowley, “Cinephobia”

          1. Oh thank Spock for those reviews, Rieux. I hated Contact when I saw it, for exactly the reasons Penn said.
            I always wondered why Sagan would have written such religious claptrap (not having read the novel), and now I understand.

            1. No problem!

              I’m actually not a big fan of the novel, either (Sagan was only a little kinder to his heroine than Zemeckis was)—but Jillette’s right, Sagan didn’t hedge about the science.

        2. I just looked it up. The last line of the (DVD version of) the movie is Arroway fielding a question from a small boy regarding extraterrestrial life, and telling him and a group of other children the following:

          The most important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers. I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though: the universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?

          So I’m still befuddled. How exactly does this rescue the film?

          In that scene and that line I see Ellie Arroway the tragic hero having learned the error of her Gnu Atheist ways—having recognized that she was wrong to single-mindedly pursue rationalist truth, because that endeavor unjustly infringes on other people’s (such as Joss’s) “search[es] for [their] own answers.”

          And since when does a scientist claim that “the most important thing” is for people to “find their own answers” to scientific questions?

          Then, the very last sentence (a callback to Arroway’s childhood conversation with her father) is an over-cute bit of teleo-illogic that seems to me incompatible with actual atheism, to say nothing of the “humans are not the center of the universe!” message that was so important to Carl Sagan.

          So again, where’s the good stuff? This is all anti-atheist polemic.

          1. Boy, you Penn Jillette, and Stephen Rowley must have seen a different version of the film than I did. The atheist is the heroine, her persecution by the religious is explicitly shown to be foul and unseemly, and her religious antagonists are depicted as ranging from closedminded, to hypocritically opportunist, to monstrously evil. And the closing line expresses precisely Sagan’s anti-anthropocentric and sympathetic-to-SETI sentiments.


            1. Boy, you Penn Jillette, and Stephen Rowley must have seen a different version of the film than I did.

              I definitely get that idea frequently when I see how other atheists, including Gnu-ish ones, react to Contact. I think you-plural have simply missed the basic points Robert Zemeckis and his writers are making in this film.

              The atheist is the heroine….

              Sure—but Zemeckis makes her a tragic heroine, with her atheism (or, more specifically, the Gnuishness of her atheism) as a fatal flaw that the movie punishes her for, so that she can then “grow” out of it.

              Look, Foster is a good actress (and an atheist herself), and she makes Arroway a winning character. But I just don’t understand how anyone can watch that congressional hearing scene and not see a director slashing his heroine’s ideals to ribbons. The point is to hoist her on her own Occam’s Razor petard, and that’s exactly what happens. Jillette’s right: it’s “evil, utterly evil.”

              her persecution by the religious is explicitly shown to be foul and unseemly….

              It is? Where? Where does anyone in the movie dissent from the selection committee’s “ninety-five percent of the world’s population believes in a Supreme Being in one form or another” lie? Where does anyone argue that that’s an outrageous reason to deny an atheist a prominent role in the space program?

              Yes, Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) is portrayed as an opportunistic ass for playing up his theism as a means to beating out Arroway, but no one ever questions the committee’s decision to discriminate against atheists itself.

              To the contrary, the decision to discriminate is presented as principled and appropriate (as are the committee members who make it): the last word on that in the movie goes to Joss (McConaughey), and he calls the no-atheists rule “a good reason” to deny Arroway the job.

              Then, the “persecution” she gets at the hands of Kitz (James Woods) is indeed ugly—but Zemeckis fairly pounds us over the head with the observation that she’s only getting the same treatment that she dished out to Joss earlier in the film. The moviemakers are arguing that she is wrong to disdain and dismiss religion the way she does; Kitz’s “persecution” is just a taste-of-her-own-medicine to help her understand how wrong Gnu-style atheism is. So yes, it’s “foul and unseemly,” but the film argues that it’s no more so than her rejection of religion is. It’s her comeuppance, her deserved punishment for atheistic hubris. (And now I want to quote Jillette again.)

              So what did you see that we didn’t?

              her religious antagonists are depicted as ranging from closedminded, to hypocritically opportunist, to monstrously evil.

              That’s not true. Palmer Joss wins every confrontation he is in in the movie. He is never, ever shown to be wrong. He is the non-tragic hero of the film. He’s Zemeckis’ avatar, the “proper” balance of reason and faith. (Which, in light of Joss’s message, is a nauseating insult to Sagan.)

              And the closing line expresses precisely Sagan’s anti-anthropocentric and sympathetic-to-SETI sentiments.

              Huh? How is “seems like an awful waste of space” anti-anthropocentric? It’s little but anthropocentrism; it’s the assertion that space that doesn’t have stuff like us in it is “wasted.” I find it hard to imagine a more anthropocentric way to “defend” SETI than the one Zemeckis and his writers put in Arroway’s mouth. (The idea comes from Thomas Carlyle, not Carl Sagan.)

              Anyway, if you won’t take Jillette’s, Rowley’s, or my reading as persuasive, how about this guy’s?

              Z: And I think it’s just really fascinating that questions are asked [about Arroway’s journey], and there aren’t answers, and they’re all valid; everything is valid.


              S: I think this is starting to touch on the fact that there are a lot of point of views [sic] that can explain her experience.

              Z: Mmm-hmm.

              S: And that are all fully justified, and are well grounded.


              (Joss: As a person of faith, I’m bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway. But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of truth. I, for one, believe her. [Arroway smiles at Joss from inside the limousine and takes his hand.])

              Z: There you go—Contact! That shot there is the whole point of the movie. And it’s an insert. And it, to me, symbolizes the growth and emotional growth of Ellie’s character.

              S: And, really, the mutual compatibility of science and religion.

              Z: Exactly. That they can go hand-in-hand.

              S: Mmm-hmm.

              Contact director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey, from their DVD commentary on the Congressional hearing scene

              There you go: Contact is a specifically accommodationist tract—according to its own director and producer. What more could you ask for?

          2. Sorry to interrupt such a fervent rant, but hold on a second before you completely render poor Jen.

            Please read what she wrote.

            Meh, I’ve never interpreted that way thanks to the last sentence in the movie about the video

            She is refering to the scene where the female White House official (chief of staff?) confronts the James Wood character with the line “What I find interesting is that it recorded (some large number of hours) of nothing”, refering to the head set video recorder that Ellie wore on her mission. The James Wood character responds with something like “Yes that is interesting isn’t it”, in a manner that clearly indicates that he is fully aware that Ellie did not lose her marbles, and that his attack on her is complete bullshit and has everthing to do with political powerplay and not finding the truth. That he buried Ellie for political purposes.

            Now, please wipe the spittle off your chin, and then continue with your ranting at your convenience.

            1. I see! So the “video” in question wasn’t the video of Contact, but the “video-within-a-video,” i.e., the recording that Arroway brought back from Vega. Now I understand.

              But I can’t agree. I don’t think you’re paying attention to how Zemeckis uses that plot point. No one depicted in the movie except (1) Presidential advisor Angela Bassett and (2) villain James Woods ever learns (from the “confidential findings report”) that the recording is of 18 hours of static. Most significantly, Zemeckis denies Arroway herself that information, thus forcing her to make the Hobson’s choice between accepting/requesting “faith” and losing the climactic confrontation with the political committee.

              Zemeckis’ whole point is to force that choice on Arroway—so he can’t give her the crucial evidence that she’d be able to use to show the committee that she’s not simply delusional. But he does give the audience that evidence, so that we don’t have to take Arroway’s testimony (and the subjective experience of hers we’ve been watching) “on faith.”

              That seems to me to be basic hypocrisy on Zemeckis’s part. Given his intention to prove that even idealistic rationalist scientists need “faith” (and thus shouldn’t disrespect it the way Arroway and the rest of us Gnus do), why doesn’t he have the guts to ask/expect faith from the audience, too? He doesn’t even have the courage of his supposed convictions.

          3. Rieux:

            “So again, where’s the good stuff? This is all anti-atheist polemic.”

            Sorry – but you are dreadfully wrong about this. That Carl Sagan wrote this book should be enough to give you a hint you have misinterpreted the message, don’t you think?

            1. We’re talking about Robert Zemeckis’s movie, not Carl Sagan’s book.

              The point that Jillette, Rowley and I (among other atheist critics of the film) are making is that Zemeckis skewed and marred Sagan’s message, twisting it into an attack on atheism that Sagan never wrote.

              Possibly I was too ambiguous that that’s what I was saying? I don’t think so….

            2. After reading the long anti-Contact rants…

              Just because the atheist point of view didn’t win doesn’t make it an attack on atheism. I think you’re seeing things too black-and-white here.

              As stated previously, there was an atheist main character, who was a sympathetic character at that. In the end, she was right about everything, as confirmed by the hours of recordings that were covered up. I think that’s all very positive.

              However, even though she was right you’re angry that she doesn’t *win*. I don’t see that as an attack on atheism. I see it is very reflective of reality. I could certainly believe that an atheist would be viewed negatively in the events of the movie. I can also see how her atheism would be used against her – especially in the United States.

              The movie doesn’t need her standing victorious over the corpses of her enemies in order to portray her as the winner. She found aliens. They weren’t gods. She knows the truth. The public doesn’t. And life goes on. But we. the viewers, know that she was right.

            3. After reading the long anti-Contact rants…

              For goodness’ sake, this is a debate about literature, and I’m citing a large amount of textual evidence. Are you really going to tone-troll on a Gnu Atheist blog?

              [T]here was an atheist main character, who was a sympathetic character at that.

              Yes, she is portrayed sympathetically. But her atheism, and especially the Gnuishness of that atheism, are not portrayed sympathetically. At all.

              As I’ve explained in some detail (an exercise you oddly find fault with), the film severely attacks the very element of her character that many of us on this blog feel great kinship with. Why shouldn’t we find that problematic?

              However, even though she was right you’re angry that she doesn’t *win*.

              No. I am angry that Robert Zemeckis, as he has expressly explained, used his film (and Carl Sagan’s book and its atheist heroine) to make a fallacious argument about the supposed problems with atheists’ dismissal of religious beliefs. Arroway loses in the film because that serves Zemeckis’s accommodationist point. I think that’s a big problem.

              As Zemeckis explains in the DVD commentary, his film makes an argument, one that I think is deeply flawed—and so, I think, do most fans of “WEIT.” At this point I’m awfully tempted to conclude that you and some others are so dazzled by Jodie Foster playing an unashamed atheist that you’ve failed to notice what the film is actually saying—according to its own director.

              I could certainly believe that an atheist would be viewed negatively in the events of the film.

              But her atheism is “viewed negatively” by the film and its makers themselves. I’ve provided ample evidence for this. I don’t see you directly addressing any of it.

              She knows the truth.

              No, she doesn’t. You need to watch the congressional hearing scene again. She never learns about the eighteen hours of static; she ends the film recognizing the real possibility that her experience was a delusion. At the hearing, Kitz browbeats her into admitting that she may have “hallucinated this whole thing”:

              Arroway: Is it possible that it didn’t happen? Yes. [Shocked murmurs from the gallery.] As a scientist I must concede that, I must volunteer that.

              Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight: you admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.

              Arroway: Yes.

              Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.

              Arroway: Yes.

              Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!

              Arroway: Yes.

              So she has openly abandoned the scientific standards of inquiry she’s championed through the entire movie. In their place, all she’s got at the end of that scene are some very familiar grounds for belief:

              Arroway: I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real.

              When a character who has been built up over a span of two hours as a fabulous rationalistic atheist scientist is reduced to saying that in the climactic scene (indeed, the climactic line) of the film, surely you can’t deny that that means something. I don’t see how you can ignore what it obviously says about the point Zemeckis is making here.

              To wit: Arroway has utterly surrendered the Occam’s Razor skepticism she applied to Joss’s theism earlier in the film; now she’s reduced to tearful invocations of what everyone in the room recognizes is faith. Our atheist heroine has collapsed: she’s now defending her ideas in the same totally unscientific terms that she scoffed at an hour earlier when Joss tried them. The film’s argument is that her dismissal of religious truth has just been exposed for the blinkered and arrogant nonsense it is.

              Fundamentally it’s not Arroway who loses in that scene: it’s Gnu Atheism. That’s Zemeckis’s point. And I think he’s flatly wrong. Don’t you?

  10. Not a movie, but the Simpsons episode where Principal Skinner is looking for comets seems one of the more realistic depictions of “science” being done.

    1. This deserves repeating:

      Principal Skinner: “sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… Science has it all.”

  11. I always liked Hooper from Jaws. He was badass and a leading expert. And in the book he bangs the sheriff’s wife.

    That character inspired me to be a marine biologist. Now that I’m all grown-up I’m a zebrafish researcher. Here’s to living the dream!

  12. Contact. And an obscure 1950’s B movie called Gog. Yep, Gog from the bible, but don’t let the title fool you, the movie was replete with cool underground bases and space stations and robots and ray guns.

  13. “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Only the worlds scientist’s could overcome their petty political differences in order to convene to hear the dire warning from Klaatu. What better role model for a scientist is there besides Professor Barnhard (as portrayed by the great Sam Jaffe).

  14. I don’t know you guys, but the movie “Sunshine” really stood out for me as one of the most honest depictions of scientists. I can’t really speak for the science parts of it but Brian Cox (from CERN and BBC Documentaries)was supposedly an advisor for it. It’s a sci-fi flick and the whole idea of reigniting the sun one would think is ridiculous. But the relationships within scientists and the way the show that science deliberation is about informed decisions and not about democracy and how many people like your ideas was really cool. SPOILER ALERT………………….
    The fact that the bad guy of the movie turns out to be the religious-dogmatic-irrational type seemed very appropriate but probably the reason it didn’t get much publicity…

    1. You beat me to it. Sunshine is my personal favorite sci-fi flick, if not my favorite film of any kind. And yes Brian Cox did work on the movie, it’s actually worth getting the DVD (or Blu-ray) just to hear his excellent commentary. He talks at some length about the aforementioned relationship between filmmaking and science. It’s fascinating the way a scientist advising on a film has to weigh his predisposition for factual accuracy against the need to tell a compelling story in a manner that keeps the audience’s interest.

      1. I didn’t know he made commentary for the DVD. I’m gonna have to buy it now, he explains science in a very fun way in all the documentaries I’ve seen of him.

  15. In the mid 80s, the BBC did a made-for-TV movie called Life Story (I think it was called “The Race for the Double Helix” in the US). It featured a somewhat over-the-top performance by Jeff Goldblum as Jim Watson, but I liked Juliet Stevenson’s protrayal of the patiently meticulous Rosalind Franklin. I thought the film did a good job of distilling some complex concepts for a general audience, and of illustrating the disparate personalities and rivalries of the scientists involved. An overtly educational movie, but enjoyable, nonetheless!

  16. I kind of liked Primer, which is about time travel (which I consider absolutely impossible), but feels as genuine as such a thing possibly could.

  17. I loved The Dish ( ), which took some liberties with the real story to make a better movie but nonetheless featured low key, normal looking & acting satellite dish technicians facing one snafu after another still managing to play an important role in the first US moon landing. An unheralded story and an unexpectedly hilarious in places movie (on purpose, not inadvertantly).

    For that matter, Apollo 13 was pretty good, too.

  18. I could think of several but for me, one interesting depiction of scientists is the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. Against the background of the 1950s paranoia, the scientists depicted in the film are realistic. They go fishing and camping, fly small planes, go to square dances etc. They are good problem solvers who focus on the problem and seem to be logically moving towards a solution to the threat the Martians provide.
    The trouble is the film itself seems to have a creationist subtext. The scientists fail and the earth is saved by divine intervention. “We were all praying for a miracle,” says scientist Clayton Forester (Gene Barry) who has not shown any prayer-like behaviour up until then.
    Earlier in the film, when one of the scientists calculates that they only have six days left to save the earth, Forester’s ditzy girl friend says, “The same number of days it took to create it!” Nobody says anything but a woman scientist places a restraining hand on a colleague’s arm as if to say, “Don’t say what we are all thinking!” Whether this was a clever bit of impro or not, the silence makes the point. Even the scientists are dumb in the face of the almighty. Trust in God, not in science.
    Yet the scientists in the film are plausible, they are gritty, human people. There is a bit of bet-hedging such as when Gene Barry puts his spectacles on when he is being a scientist and takes them off when he is being a matinee idol but on the whole, scientists are presented as normal people doing science. A bit of re-editing and the removal of the horrible narration would send out a different message from the theistic one. This is just what happened when the film was basically remade as Independence Day.
    When I first saw The War of the Worlds, the scientists were trying to develop a biological weapon against the Martians and I was intrigued. I thought it was a development that HG Wells would have approved of. A mob put-paid to the scientists’ careful planning and the army let them down by not providing an adequate escort to their convoy of equipment laden trucks. Why?
    In Independence Day, the problem solving theme was developed more satisfactorily. It is a scientist (Goldblum) who tackles the problem, (We can’t get through their defences, we’re going to have to try to get around them.) What is more, he has the courage of his convictions. The idea of the scientist as hero rather than mentor or villain is relatively rare in films. We might point out the bad science in Independence Day and groan at Brent Spiner’s over the top super-geek stereotype but Jeff Goldblum does rather restore the balance somewhat; even if he is a little over the top in the opposite direction, so to speak.
    A religious subtext is still apparent in Independence Day. There is the cheesy Jewish philosophising but it is nowhere near as in-your-face creationist as in The War of the Worlds.
    On the whole, I think such films could be well-intentioned but they are filtered by the studio bosses who have to pander to various political agendas including those with a religious bias. Still, I think Independence Day deserves a qualified pat on the back for at least trying to avoid stereotypes – some of the time.

  19. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the greatest Sci-Fi movie of all-time: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly one of the most scientifically accurate films ever made, and furthermore, makes a fairly decent number of predictions of future technologies.

    And if anyone is looking for a fairly accurate film with a scientists as the protagonist, how about Dante’s Peak? Granted there are a number of inaccuracies (artistic license expected), it does get a number of geological details correct, far more than the movie Volcano.

  20. I still quite enjoy “Real Genius” for its witty dialog and the depiction of a university where students actually study, and research takes time and there are setbacks and failures along the way.

  21. Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” contains, by a wide margin, the most credible scenes of scientists doing (or at least talking about) science. Especially the sequence where they’re examining the creature’s severed hand and the various experts are discussing the nature of the alien.

  22. I was only there as an undergrad in linguistics, but based on my experience Harrison Ford pretty much nails the life of a Chicago anthropology professor in the Indiana Jones series.

  23. I became a neurophysiologist – inspired by Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World”. I wanted to record dreams (which is now possible… in rodents).

    1. Part of the movie is about a group of scientists (working in an underground lab in outback Australia, no less) who created a machine that can record activities from the visual cortex of one person, and then play it back to another. Eventually someone figured out how to use the technology to record dreams. As it turned out, our dreams are so out of this world, so beautiful that everyone became addicted to watching their own dreams. Wenders did a fantastic job about the dream sequences. He managed to make what are supposed to be images reconstructed from brain activities look so beautiful and yet so fragile, that he convinces you that it is possible to be addicted to dreams.

      My friends next door are designing a bionic eye. I always had the idea that they are essentially doing what was depicted in the movie. I just realized that it’s not the same thing. A bionic eye is about mimicking the signal coming out of the retina. The machine in the movie is about recording visual experience. We have a long way to go.

  24. Back to the Future! and Jurassic Park!! I know they aren’t very realistic, but I still love them! I also love the X-Files (the show)

  25. I am very surprised that no one has mentioned the clear winner when it comes to accurate representation of a scientist in film,


    Well, in my dreams anyway. I mean who wouldn’t want to be the worlds greatest scientist, martial artist, rock star, brain surgeon, daredevil adventurer, lover, worldsaver and more all rolled up into one?

  26. I have a real taste for very bad science in film, Plan 9, of course, but a special soft spot for The Giant Claw, in which an alien bird (laughable) “as big as a battleship” devours parachutists and trains with equal gusto. Can’t shoot ti down, or even nuke it, because it has an anti-matter shield around it. The physics in this gem are hilarious.

  27. How about the movie “October Sky”? Here’s the description copied from Wikipedia:

    “October Sky is a 1999 film directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. It is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner’s son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 to take up rocketry against his father’s wishes, and eventually became a NASA scientist.”

    It’s based on a real-life story.

    One of the best scenes in the movie shows the protagonist proving using physics to explain to his high school principal that their experimental rocket was not responsible for causing a forest fire.

  28. Although technically not SciFi, and maybe too much based on real-world events, but mine would have to be Inherit the Wind, for depicting the science teacher as, well, a proper science teacher, and religious nutters as, you guessed it, proper nutters.

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