Photograph Courtesy of The Opte Project
Photograph Courtesy of The Opte Project

The Search For the Great Science Fiction Movie (or, I Am Doooomed)

I was in New York yesterday to give a talk about evolution, which was simultaneously a Rockefeller University Science and Media Series Lecture, and a New York Skeptics Society Public Lecture. We had a great turn-out: as I told the crowd, there’s nothing a public speaker likes to see more than a serious fire hazard. The talk was recorded, and I’m hoping soon to be able to direct you to it.

One of the many reasons I enjoy giving these lectures is that I can meet people before and after my talk. Yesterday I met a number of interesting folks, including Alexis Gambis, who somehow manages, all at once, to pursue a Ph.D. by researching neurons, make science-themed movies, and even run a festival of science movies. We got to talking about movies and science–there is a lot of buzz these days about how scientists can get involved in the movie-making process. The National Academy of Sciences has even dispatched emissaries to Hollywood “to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.”

Scientists who get involved in these kinds of projects hope to do some good. They hope that they can get rid of misleading representations of science in movies, and help movies to convey what science really tells us, or what science really is. (This is my impression from speaking to these folks and reading some of their blogs, etc. If you’re one of those scientists, leave a comment to tell me if this is wrong.)

When I get on this subject, as I did with Gambis yesterday, I turn into a raging skeptic. It’s probably not a very helpful response, and I’m not sure why it gains so much momentum inside of me. But I started raving yesterday. My favorite science fiction movies generally deal in some really, really bad science. Laws of physics are regular flouted. Aliens make no physiological sense.

That’s because the directors are just using fragments of science to assemble fiction that reaches down deep inside us, not to our internal database of scientific facts, but to our addiction to beautiful images and human stories. Science fiction movies are not really about science. I just watched Wall-E and liked it very much, not because I learned about robotics (I didn’t), but because the movie’s creators paid close attention to how Buster Keaton made love stories. On the other hand, I watched GATTACA years ago and found the science side relatively clever and the plot as tedious as a tax form. You can’t just add good science to Hollywood like pixie dust and get good movies.

I do think it’s great for scientists to help steer Hollywood away from pernicious myths about science. But there are limits to how far this fact-checking can go. Another grad student who was talking with Gambis and me yesterday complained about how bogus forensics is on CSI. Results of DNA tests just pop up in minutes. He complained about all the people who would crowd around a machine waiting for the results–“All that hair!” he said in horror.

Fair enough. But let’s imagine CSI with all the tedium and dreariness that goes into good forensic work. Tonight on CSI: our heroes wait for results. And wait. And wait! Next week: the samples were lost, so our heroes have to run the test again! We watch movies and TV shows to escape reality, not to be enslaved by it.

I will also grant that Hollywood can find huge amounts of inspiration in science. I myself ended up writing about science because it was far weirder than things I could think of myself. But (yes, there’s always a but) I think a good Hollywood director can find inspiration in economics, politics, crime, and the lives of bored housewives. What matters most, however, is whether the director knows how to turn the raw ingredients into a good story.

Once I was done with this riff with Gambis, I wondered if I was making any sense. Perhaps there’s a kind of science-based movie that transcends my skeptical take. By eerie coincidence, I just got an email from Netflix saying that with my Mac I can now watch an unlimited number of free movies on my computer. I’m now scanning through their science fiction collection (everything from Contact to Plan 9 From Outer Space) to conduct a little “research.” In my heart of hearts, I know that what I’m really doing is setting up my own professional downfall, because I’m going to watch movies all day long. But if anyone thinks I’m totally off the mark, please suggest to me a movie that proves me wrong.