Sunday, June 3, 2012

Science in cinema

for two films, a TV show, and a book. So you can't say I didn't say.

A disproportionate amount of the films and TV I've watched recently have had science as a key plot point. I'm all for creative license - I know if I were to start working in an office very few people would be as fabulous as Joan Holloway - but if a work is trying to address the issues of the day, or raise important questions, I do think they're due some regards for facts.

So, here is what I think of things I have seen recently, and one thing I have read!


Contact by Carl Sagan (1985)

I like this book an awful lot. I found the writing style to be extremely elegant - it's almost in the style of a report, not florid for its own sake, and yet still evocative and moving. Maybe that's just because the story is told through someone* who loves science, and hot damn do I love science. It seems as though it should be dry, and yet it's not, which I think is some feat.

One thing I love about this book is the accuracy of the timescale. It starts sometime in the eighties, and ends around the turn or the milennium. It's funny, because the back cover of my copy promises "Aliens are coming to judge us" and the book itself describes in loving or masochistic detail the waiting, and the struggles for funding, and the internal power struggles, and the politics of big discoveries, and some further waiting. Between the style and the content - the book is over three quarters of the way through before aliens make any sort of appearance, and they don't really have that much to do with it - I can see how it wouldn't be for everyone, but I really like the respect Sagan shows for the tedium.

The book is also an ongoing discussion of the relationship between religion and science. Sagan was famously good at courteously debating believers in real life, and in his book he doesn't reduce the religious spokespeople to mulishly short-sighted hillbillies, but allows them intelligent discussion. One of them is the strongest characters in the book. It was refreshing to see that degree of complexity explored, when the debate in pop culture is often reduced to "invisible sky wizard, hurr"/"evil soulless monsters spitting in God's face", depending on who the writer agrees with.

If I'm honest, I didn't like the ending - searching for the imprint of the maker of the universe in primes - but Carl Sagan is flat-out better than I, he can do what he wants.

Also, I will never say no to The Future, as predicted by the eighties.


Contact (1997)

Okay, I realise they can't have three quarters of the film be Jodie Foster sitting in a dark room waiting for something to happen. It was never going to compare well to the book for accuracy. It shows the squabbling for funding at the start, at has a "Four Years Later" cut-scene, but after that, it falls into the trap of having everything happen at once. They discover the message, then they discover the image within the message, then they discover the blueprint within that, the latter two within minutes of each other. Everything is discovered by the one group of people, as well. Sagan allows non-characters to make discoveries and collaborate on research, rather than have his characters be the shining geniuses every step of the way.  These are all pedantic points, but they're so commonly ignored in pop depictions of science, and the source material addressed them so maturely that it's a disappointment. As these things go, it's quite a good depiction of science.

The only part of the film that really jarred with me from a "That is not how science works" perspective was the ending. Jodie Foster leaves the building where she was being questioned about her experience in the machine, having conceded that she can't reasonably expect anyone to take her word for it, to be met by cheering crowds howling signs saying that they believe her. On a personal level, anyone would love that level of support, especially after hours of questions from a mean government man. As a scientist, I'm not sure how I would feel if I had no evidence for my findings, and people chose to believe it because it made a good story. I feel it strays from the point of the book. And science. (Also, surely she would have noticed the crowds on her way in to the building.)


Prometheus (2012)

Everyone in this film is a terrible scientist, with the exception of the geologist, and I'm only giving him a pass because he doesn't do any geologing.  The stated aim of the voyage was that it was a scientific expedition, and at no point does anyone adhere to anything resembling the scientific method.

The thesis of the two... archaeologists? Maybe? is that as the same images appear around the world, they must represent something real. That it quite a jump, and not a reason to spend trillions of dollars. It's also uncomfortably reminiscent of the argument for theism that all these separate cultures can't have come up with religions and afterlives and creation myths on their own, so there must be something to it.

When it turns out that the space-god-aliens are dead, the male archaeologist sulks and goes drinking and says that the expedition has been for nothing. Then his drink poisoned by morally ambiguous Michael Fassbender robot, so I guess that's a lesson in not giving up the second things don't turn out the way you want them to. Really, I have no idea how he completed a PhD with that attitude.

On a technique-based note, Noomi Rapace and Ford are awfully careless with the two thousand-year-old, immaculately preserved head they find. "Oh look, are those living cells on the outer surface?" Maybe, but it seems more likely that they belong to a detrivorous micro-organism than to the head! And why would they assume the brain has the same structure as a human brain when they start shocking it to see what happens? And why has their DNA apparently not diverged from humans in the interim since our creation? And why did this scene sound like the writes wrote down all the biological-ish terms they knew and tried to work them in?

On a personal note, I hope that one thing that comes out of this kind of sci-fi is that when space travel becomes common, there are safety procedures for dealing with terrifying aliens. Also space-ghosts.


Jekyll (2007)

I like Steven Moffat quite a lot when he wrotes short, contained stories. It's just a pity he can't carry an arc in  Doctor Who. (Hee.) This one is about a man, Tom Jackman, who learns he's a descendant of Doctor Jekyll, and begins to lose control of the Hyde alter-ego. He also gets chased by a shadowy organisation who want to use Hyde for research

This story isn't hugely grounded in science, but a theory floated by one character is that Jackman is a clone of Henry Jekyll created by the shadowy organisation, since the latter left no children.  She says that Jackman was never born, but "grown here". NOT HOW CLONING WORKS. First of all, a DNA sample is required, which means tissue that's been dead for more than minutes will be useless. Secondly, since cells can't yet be induced to develop fully - or even very far at all - in a lab, an artificially created zygote still needs a surrogate mother. The only developmental stage of 'test tube babies' that occurs in vitro is fertilisation.

The twist is that there was never a potion, Hyde was brought out by Jekyll's love of his servant, Alice. The second twist is that it is Jackman's wife, Claire, who is the clone of Alice. Claire is horrified by this revelation, insisting "I'm a real person!" I wasn't aware of that as a stereotype, that if you're a clone of someone you somehow don't count. I can't see how being genetically identical to someone affects your personhood - after all, identical twins exist. I can see how she'd react like that if she found out she were a robot that had been programmed to believe it were human, but I think writing in that horror - at the fact of being a clone, not that fact of being created to turn her husband into a weapon - shows a fundamental misunderstanding of cloning, to the point of being irresponsible writing.


In conclusion, science is good, and the scientific method is good, and you can't use your films to accuse scientists of playing god if they haven't performed any science, and if you're writing about hot topics you should understand them, not pander to misinformation.

* I cannot remember the term for the narrative style is omniscient, but focuses on the perspective of a single character rather than jumping between them. Writer people, help?

P.S. I had reached the bust of the top I mentioned in the previous post when I realised it was going to be too wide and rip it all out. It was very sad.


Jessica Córdova said...

When I switched from studying math and science to liberal arts, it really annoyed me when literary theorists mangled poorly understood scientific concepts to try to sound more objective and authoritative, so I feel your pain.

Forkis said...

Ugh, yes. If the finest minds in the field don't know, it's okay for you not to know! And even if the finest minds in the fields do know, it's still okay for you to be fuzzy on the details as a non-professional, though it's nice to know things.

I know not everyone would sit through a true-to-the-book version of Contact, and that creative license can be taken for the sake of a good story, but as a molecular biologist it pains me in particular are coming to the place in cinema where computers were about ten years ago. ("They've hacked YOUR CAR!") And if the explanation for any plot point is "Because DNA!" the film probably isn't very coherent.

Morally ambiguous Michael Fassbender robot was great, though.