There’s nothing better than relaxing at the end of a long week with a good movie. As scientists, we are drawn to analyze (and sometimes overanalyze) the accuracy of science movies and especially their portrayal of scientists. Being the movie aficionado that I am, I looked for movies that are not typically touted for their scientific accuracy, as well as a couple that are lesser known, but are particularly authentic. Grab some popcorn and enjoy!!
1. Finding Nemo
Debatably Pixar’s most visually stunning film, Finding Nemo tells the tale of a clownfish desperately searching the ocean to find his lost son- all while making unlikely friends and learning how to cope with stressful situations. But in addition to being a total visual delight with a compelling plot, Finding Nemo strikes a unique balance between creative storytelling and scientific accuracy.
Creators of Finding Nemo consulted experts on a number of subjects ranging from swimming mechanics to the social behavior of fish to gain insights into marine biology1. One particularly dedicated lighting animator went so far as to take images of the inside of a beached whale to better understand the dynamics of light inside that whale’s mouth [that same lighting expert gave an enthralling Ted Talk on the subject]. And you might be surprised to find that tropical fish like Marlin the clownfish sometimes do end up in Sydney Harbour in summers when they are swept up in the East Australian Current. Whereas these fish usually don’t survive for long in the cold waters, the characters in Finding Nemo make it back home in time for the sequel (Finding Dory). Sometimes it’s worth sacrificing realistic endings for a good story!
Did you enjoy last year’s movie Arrival, in which Amy Adams plays a linguist in charge of communicating with aliens? Then you’ll love the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster as an astrophysicist named Ellie attempting to identify and translate extraterrestrial signals. After receiving a sequence of prime numbers, the race is on to interpret where the information was being sent from- and why. Based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, Contact is remarkable for its painstaking efforts to be accurate. The nonprofit that Ellie works for, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), is a real institute with scientists that study astrobiology and radio and light signals that would detect the presence of sophisticated extraterrestrial life. Funding can be challenging to obtain for projects like these, and Contact follows Ellie as she loses her public funding and ultimately seeks private donors to fund her work.
The real power of this movie is its ability to take a scientist- a character that is often ill-portrayed in mass media- and give her a compelling personality and history. In fact, Ellie’s character in the movie was inspired by Dr. Jill Tarter, a real-life astronomer who worked as the director in SETI.
So where does Contact take storytelling liberties to stretch science into science fiction? It is certainly within the realm of possibility that advanced aliens could send us messages loaded with information via radio waves. However, it is very improbable that humans could build a machine that relies on a wormhole to travel to distant places in the universe. While wormholes are theoretically possible based on Einstein’s work, their existence remains hypothetical and there is no evidence that supports their existence. Nonetheless, this movie is definitely worth a watch- especially if you love space exploration.
3. Extraordinary Measures
Extraordinary Measures offers a rare Hollywood-tinted glimpse into how the biotech industry, researchers, and venture capitalists collide when new drugs are developed. This one’s based on the real-life story of John Crowley (played by Brendan Fraser), whose two children are suffering from Pompe disease– a fatal disorder resulting from mutations in an alpha-glucosidase enzyme. While Extraordinary Measures often feels like a movie made for Lifetime, it brings to light many important themes in basic drug research. Taking a hypothetical molecule or biological from in vitro testing all the way to clinical trials is time-consuming, challenging, and most of all, incredibly expensive. This is especially true for orphan drugs, which remain commercially undeveloped due to a perceived or actual lack of profitability potential.
Harrison Ford, who both played the main scientist as well as executive producer of the movie, was reportedly insistent upon ensuring that details within Extraordinary Measures were scientifically correct. From the literature that Crowley pores over at the beginning of the movie, to diagrams, lab equipment, and biochemical terms used, all are clearly well thought-out and consistent with real research on Pompe.
With that said, there are a few obvious abnormalities throughout the storyline. On the superficial end of the spectrum, the fictional research teams wear lab coats but no gloves or safety glasses. Who does that?!? A more glaringly exasperating theme is the depiction of Ford’s character, who Crowley works with to bring his basic research to clinical trials. Robert Stonehill (the fictional scientist) is a stereotype of silver screen scientists- brilliant but socially inept and prone to outbursts. Though he runs a university lab and is a round-the-clock worker, his graduate students are rarely seen. This perpetuated representation of bioscientists does little to show the general public how sociable and diverse most scientists actually are.
All in all, Extraordinary Measures is a semi-predictable tear-jerker that is slow and sappy at times, but is worth seeing if only for the fact that it revolves around a very true and inspirational story.
4. Schläfer (Sleeper)
A love triangle. A suspected terrorist. Cutthroat politics at the bench. All of this and more is portrayed in Schläfer, an Austrian-German film from 2005 which ran at the Cannes International Film Festival. I haven’t personally seen this one- it’s notoriously difficult to find a way to watch it online or get a DVD- but Nature Magazine published an excellent article discussing the verisimilitude with which Schläfer depicts science and strained relationships at the bench2.
In the film, a young academic named Johannes has been asked by a secret service agent to spy on his research partner Farid, who is suspected of being a post-9/11 ‘sleeper’ terrorist- one who is inactive but could potentially commit terrorist acts in the future. Johannes refuses, but things get complicated after he falls in love with a girl who chooses Farid. Making matters worse, their domineering supervisor fails to list Johannes as a contributing author on a Nature publication, though Johannes assisted with the research. This infuriating sequence of events ultimately result in Johannes reporting Farid to the authorities and replacing him as author on the Nature paper.
If you have seen or end up watching Schläfer, let us know in the comments below what you thought about its portrayal of science! And be sure to tell us how you were able to watch it – it sounds like an interesting movie!
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Okay, for this one I really have to make a plug here for the book or radio show, not the movie. Douglas Adams’ sci-fi/comedy blend combines spot-on irony, sarcasm, and wild creativity. The story starts off with Arthur Dent, an everyday Englishman who wakes up to find that his house is about to be demolished for a bypass. Little does he know that he will abruptly be swept off the Earth seconds before it is destroyed- to make way for a hyperspace bypass. After that follows a series of ridiculous events, including fishy slugs that translate every language for you, a bad poetry reading, a self-kidnapped president, and a depressed robot- all before lunch!
To say that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGTTG) is wacky and mind-bogglingly random is an understatement. More fantasy than sci-fi, the plot weaves Arthur Dent into all kinds of far-fetched scenarios like travelling with an Improbability Drive (which allows users to pass through every point in time at every place until the destination is reached).
But when you consider some of the more absurd principles of our own universe like quantum mechanics, some of the quirky adventures in HHGTTG don’t seem terribly bizarre in comparison. And as it turns out, there are a few concepts that this story, originally written in 1978, ultimately got right. For instance, the “Babel Fish” that allows Arthur to understand every language in the universe is getting closer to becoming a technological reality. Tablets such as the Kindle and iPad wonderfully emulate the exact concept of the electronic guidebook that gives HHGTTG its name, especially when you consider using them to peruse Wikipedia. And, without giving away spoilers, there are serious philosophical discussions about whether we might actually be living in a giant simulation3. All this and more makes you wonder what other sci-fi has inspired recent technology (a lot, as it turns out!).
All in all, this one’s a big stretch when it comes to making the list. Don’t panic when I give it a solid honorable mention for being ridiculously funny as well as a classic, though!
- Abbott, A. (2004) Science at the movies: the fabulous fish guy. Nature. 427: 672-673.
- Abbott, A. (2006) Science in the movies: from microscope to multiplex – betrayal at the bench. Nature. 441: 924-925.
- Bostrom, N. (2003) Are we living in a computer simulation? Philos Q. 53: 243-255.