Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Top 5 Science Movies

As we discussed last Tuesday, there are good science movies and bad science movies. You’ll have to wait a bit to hear me wail about the bad ones, but here are some of the better examples of science in film.

Gattaca: I’ll admit I’m biased because I enjoy this movie, but it’s still fairly scientifically sound. Presenting a future in which parents can control the genetics of their children is neither absurd nor far fetched. The science of screening for genetic defects is already present and it’s not that much of a technological leap to assume that the technology to not only screen but prevent genetic disorders will someday happen and it’s sadly even less of a leap to assume that it will be abused to craft children’s genetic destiny. If you were going to be a parent and you could make your child a star, would you have the will to say no? In the end, this movie presents interesting a realistic ethical question regarding scientific advances we could see in our lifetime. You can’t ask for more than that.

The Right Stuff. This is not the most scientifically rigorous movie, but it really isn’t trying to be. That said, it does an excellent job of depicting the historical, events and discoveries related to the Mercury 7. It’s always so rare to see a movie that says “based on a true story” actually trust that story to be interesting on it’s own..

Blade Runner. Another example of doing a good job with a reasonably imaginative future. No outlandish technological leaps. No one fires a laser pistol. Okay, so there are flying cars, but there will be flying cars any day now (don’t destroy my dream and while we’re at it there will also be jet packs any day). The other reason Blade Runner goes on this list is that it represents an excellent example of quasi super humans (the replicants) who obey the laws of physics. There are innumerable reasons that you can’t rip a steel door apart and to this film’s credit, the superior biological organisms never do.

Contact. Bear with me, I am aware of how ridiculous the giant black gyroscope is. That’s not why the movie is listed. It’s listed because this movie does a respectable job of presenting not only its science, but also the complexity of a discovery like this. You have to get and keep funding which is not an easy task. You have to work in teams, there is rarely if ever a lone scientist making every discovery themselves. Any international project will be complicated and political. But, most importantly, you have to believe in your work. Even in the face of doubters and funding cuts, you have to have absolute unwavering belief in your project, otherwise you are doomed to failure. Also, bonus points for the fact that aliens totally exist.

Awakenings. An all around excellent film that details some very real aspects of a clinical trial and in particular the applicability of drugs to multiple conditions (A Parkinson’s drug is used to “awaken” some patients) and the nature of success and failure. This is an incredibly powerful film about the possibilities of discovery. Plus it makes you cry. It makes everyone cry.

Looking at these movies you can see the common themes. Realistic science, an examination of the philosophical implications of that science and the existence of physics are present in all these films. The science in a good film isn’t always real, but it usually makes a certain kind of sense. Unlike the terrible, terrible films to be discussed next Tuesday.


  1. Another good one is "Osmosis Jones"- an animated comedy by the (gasp) Farelly bros. which actually does a pretty good job of explaining how the immune system functions.
    "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History" is a docu. from Australia thats funny and spot on. It documents the terrible environmental effects of invasive species introduced knowingly or otherwise.

  2. Also, for anyone who is interested I highly recommend the NIH/AFI series " Science in the Cinema" http://science.education.nih.gov/cinema.
    It combines two of my favs. AFI and NIH :) But seriously, it is a great opportunity to watch fab. films and then have a discussion about the science in the film with leading researchers.

  3. Wow. I never would have thought of Osmosis Jones, but I suppose it is.

    Thanks for the link to the AFI film series. I can't believe I forgot to list Inherit the wind. I love that movie.