Science and movies: My new essay in Nature

I recently served as a judge for the Imagine Science Film Festival, and Nature (one of the festival’s sponsors) asked if I’d write about the experience. I’m pretty suspicious of the whole idea of bringing movies and science together. It can be bad for science and bad for movies. Here’s how I put it in my essay:

It is odd that science and films have such a complicated relationship, given that films were born out of science. The invention of photography in the nineteenth century made it possible to capture a series of images and use them to create an illusion of movement. With the development of faster cameras, movies began to seduce the world. Each technical advance has brought change to the cinema, although not every change has resulted in artistic progress — witness Smell-O-Vision and Piranha 3D, for example.

For all that science and technology have delivered to Hollywood, scientists have received little back. Researchers portrayed in films bear scant resemblance to those in real labs. Some on-screen scientists are villains that must be destroyed by common-sense heroes. Others threaten nature with Promethean recklessness. Yet others are mavericks who find cures for cancer single-handedly in jungle tree-houses. And movies often distort science itself. Tornadoes, volcanoes, spaceships, viruses: all obey the laws of Hollywood, not the laws of Newton or Darwin.

Scientists have gnashed their popcorn buckets, wishing for something better. In 2008, the US National Academy of Sciences set up the Science and Entertainment Exchange to bring scientists and Hollywood film-makers together for fruitful exchanges of ideas. Gambis’s film festival serves a similar mission: its website announces that it “encourages a greater collaboration between scientists who dedicate their lives to studying the world we live in and film-makers who have the power to interpret and expose this knowledge, ultimately making science accessible and stimulating to a broader audience”.

I’m not convinced such collaborations will achieve this goal often, or even whether they should. Exhibit A: Harrison Ford. Earlier this year, he played a biochemist searching for a cure for a genetic disorder in Extraordinary Measures, a fairly accurate story inspired by a book by reporter Geeta Anand. In 2008, Ford also played a scientist in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a fairly accurate account of a comic-book fever dream. Extraordinary Measures earned a meagre US$12 million, whereas Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull earned $317 million. Hollywood is a place of business, not charity, and the marketplace speaks clearly: people want their scientists with bullwhips, not pipettes.

Even if Hollywood directors dedicated themselves to achingly realistic biopics about Peter Medawar or Henri Poincaré, that might not be a good thing. Films should not be propaganda, bludgeoning us with messages about how valuable certain things or people are. At their best, films embody the conflicts in our societies, and give form to our inner lives in all their ragged glory. They can use real aspects of the world as their raw material, but holding them drearily to account is a mistake. Citizen Kane is about a newspaper editor; it would not have been a masterpiece if Orson Welles had kept asking himself “Does this make journalism accessible to a broader audience?”

But judging these films has let me see how creative people can slip out of traditional traps and find something new and intriguing at the intersection of science and movies. Check it out. (Unfortunately, it’s behind Nature’s paywall.)