Where are the real scientists in good sci-fi films?
Kevin Fong laments the lack of scientist role models in good sci-fi films.
What I’ve been wondering lately is this: when it comes to good science fiction films where exactly are all the scientists? You’d figure that in this genre, if in no other, they should feature pretty prominently. Surely that’s part of what real world scientists love about science fiction: the chance to watch believable incarnations of themselves doing cool stuff, thereby bringing kudos to an otherwise sorely misunderstood discipline.
But I’ve realised that can’t be it. List off your top ten sci-fi films. Chances are that somewhere in the run are Alien, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now try and work out where the scientist role models are in them.
The cast of Alien comprises a bunch of space truckers who, at school, would have been the kind of kids you’d have been a little bit wary of in the playground – the ones flicking chewing gum and paper aeroplanes around while teacher laid down sums on the board. Even Ripley (actually, especially Ripley). The closest thing to a bona fide scientist in that flick turns out to be a homicidal robot with condensed milk for blood. Hardly a poster boy.
On to Blade Runner. Here a gun-toting future cop chases around yet another bunch of homicidal androids (sci-fi might be unfair in its depiction of scientists but at least we do a bit better than robotkind). Scientists are few and far between in this replicant filled future, the implication being that, having created technologies which have given rise to robot rebellion and a world where Grunge is the dominant colour palette, those responsible have buggered off to a better life in the off-world colonies.
Finally 2001: A Space Odyssey. An odyssey perhaps for HAL and astronaut jocks Dave and Frank. But this time the poor scientists on the team don’t even make it out of the freezer.
Now, there are good examples of scientists in mainstream film. Roy Schnieder’s character in 2010 is one of my favourites. Jodie Foster in Contact perhaps. I’ll even give you Cillian Murphy in Sunshine. But none of these movies enjoys quite the same iconic status as those mentioned above.
Maybe it’s hard to crowbar credible scientist characters into truly epic films. Maybe scientists need to be a bit less hung up on fidelity when it comes to the representation of their profession. I strongly suspect that on film the only realistically represented jobs are those you don’t really know much about. And members of other workforces seem happy to let flagrant abuse of reality pass when it comes to their occupations. Think MI6 and James Bond, think bank robbers and Reservoir Dogs, think cowboys and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, think graduates and, er, The Graduate. And then you have medicine. I’m a medic – do I feel like we’re well represented? Do you think that deep down Gregory House is what we’re all about? I’ve got to level with you here. On a good day in the hospital I’m not a House.
Still we lap that stuff up. Why? Because we want what everybody else wants from the cinema and TV: escapism.
Don’t get me wrong. Escapism is not the same as comedic misrepresentation. We hate it when the stuff doesn’t hang together well enough for us to suspend disbelief. But all evidence points to the fact that we’re willing to forgive a few unrealistic details if the plot clips along nicely.
I suspect the truth is this: scientists do love good sci-fi. And what makes sci-fi good is something other than strict adherence to the laws and realities of the natural world. If you think otherwise then recall that 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of your all time science fiction faves, concludes with Dave Bowman communing with a gigantic cosmic paperweight.
That’s the challenge for screenwriters in the science fiction genre: to set up a world that suspends disbelief, long enough for a director to render in the cinematographic medium, what we have until that moment only captured in our mind’s eye.
You can hear Kevin talk more about this and science on film in general on the Guardian Science Weekly Podcast.
What’s your favourite science or medicine-inspired film? Contribute to our discussion thread.
The Wellcome Trust Screenwriting Prize encourages the creation of high-quality feature films inspired by biology or medicine. The 2012 competition is open for entries until 10 August 2012.