On The Scientists in Your Popular SciFi Movies

We saw Pacific Rim again two nights ago (yes. Hush.) well, I saw it again. The Chemist saw it for the first time. We both loved it. Visually gorgeous and intelligent, enormously fun.

And yet, sitting next to a PhD biochemist who did his post-doc at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, who I think is pretty amazing, I started thinking about the scientist meme in sci fi movies.

It’s not as prevalent in books… Not always.

But when sci fi scientists reach the big screen, they tend to look like this:

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    Dr. Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown, Back to the Future

And this:

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    Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, Pacific Rim

This:

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    Dr. Brackish Okun, Independence Day

And these guys:

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    Dr.s Venkman, Stentz, and Spengler, Ghostbusters

That’s not mentioning the Mad Scientist contingent of Dr.s Moreau, Evil, Nigma, Strangelove, Frankenstein…

Nor am I forgetting the ‘my experiment on myself went pear-shaped’ folks, namely Dr.s Banner, Brundle, and Klump.

There are the cool ones who try to right their mistakes: Dr.s Neville, Bishop, and Beckett.

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There’s the rockstar:

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    Dr. Banzai, Buckaroo Banzai

And then there’s our Ellie:

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    Dr. Arroway, Contact

I guess I wish there were more like her.

Or at least more like the scientists I know and love. They come in all sizes, shapes, genders, and ethnicities. They don’t have wacky accents and electrocuted hair. They are funny and smart. Even the ones who will occasionally say “Hmmm what does THIS do? Before meddling with the space-time continuum.

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26 comments

  1. I sort of wish there were more like Buckaroo Banzai (IRL as well as in movies)…but I really wish there were more like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Richard Feyman in the movies.

    1. Let’s not forget Jeff Goldblum as New Jersey when discussing the portrayal of scientists in W. D. Richter’s masterpiece. And Dr. Emilio Lizardo (you have to like a guy who toasts ouzo prior to and sings arias during an attempted dimensional transit). And Professor Hikita. And Rawhide, probably. And maybe the rest of the Cavaliers.

      1. I KNEW someone was going to throw Lizardo. He’s pretty amazing, yes, but I was focusing on characters who were id-ed as scientists first, arch-nemeses second if at all. Internet, commence your critique of my position.

  2. I’d throw Dr. Ellie Shaw in the mix as well, because of the way Prometheus subverts the wretched scientist-as-expositor trope that Hollywood can’t live without. And it is a wretched trope. You can set your watch to it. Right before the second peak in the W diagram, the guy/gal in the lab coat comes in and starts ‘splaining together whatever dreadful plot the studio execs have slapped up. I think Prometheus is singular in that it creates a lot of questions and then, right at the point where we’ve all been trained to expect answers, it very clearly does not answer them. I forgave a lot of that film’s shortcomings for that alone.

    Also, if you haven’t, watch Shane Carruth’s Primer. Abe and Aaron belong in your pantheon. I wish I could comment on Carruth’s latest work, Upstream Color, which I believe features a female researcher as the protagonist. But for some unexplainable reason, I haven’t watched it yet.

    1. And regarding PRim being “intelligent,” I would encourage you to meditate on the following spoiler-ey questions:
      How is a clone pregnant? Or do the monsters get to have a little pre-Earth-attack nookie?

      1. I decided the pregnant Kaiju was a transport ship, as the baby was a chameleon-based Kaiju and the mother was some other type … But I wouldnt defend the movie as intelligent. It was a perfect example of what it was, and big dumb fun. It did not fail to deliver on its promise, which is high praise for Hollywood these days, and I will probably see it again.

        Maybe if the movies start getting scientists right, they will then start getting science right?

      2. Yup -transport ship. And easy tension extender.

        Read the visual intelligence post & get back to me. It’s the reason I love the Cherno Alpha crew as much as I do, and why I’ll argue there’s more than one strong female pilot (because she chews the scenery so hard).

      3. Dammit! You know I’m a sucker for visual intelligence (I was in fact just arguing with someone about Mako being blue and Hannibal being pink). But I think having both levels is better and possible, and PR had so many logic and science problems that I can’t discount that element. Of course, most of those were because it was staying true to mecha and Kaiju movie history.

      4. Which is probably why when my son and I are pretending to be Jaegers, I do the Mako stance and he does the fistpalm.

        But I told him my Jaeger was named Carlos Danger, so yeah, another parent-teacher conference on the way.

      5. Fran and I have already gone around once on just how dumb I though PRim was. In short: I expected cheese. But at least a cheese appropriate for the cheeseburger served. You have a movie about people who have to essentially become giant machines in order to save the world. And they have to merge with each other mentally to do it. Seems like a target rich environment, thematically. But instead we get this thing about dude’s dead brother and the world’s most under-baked romance. And Idris Elba is really Mako’s father or something. It’s like GDT couldn’t be arsed to actually look at the story he was telling and figure out what point of view he had.

      6. I’d say PRim was visually detailed. I wouldn’t say it was visually intelligent. In fact I’m not sure what visual intelligence means. In terms of film-making, the idea of telling a story with images is hardly a new one. I have trouble of thinking that Pacific Rim exists in a Wellesian tradition, though.

        Also: if I was supposed to ignore the non-visual elements in this movies, why was there all that talking? And why did it support such an inept story? Again, I didn’t expect the story to be handled with sublety or even maturity. But I did expect a story that seemed to go with the images I was seeing on the screen.

      7. Re:pregnant monsters
        But, according the the movie’s own internal logic, the kaiju that we saw in the movie were advance scouts. They weren’t the main body of the invasion force. So why would you expect your scouts to bivouac long enough to give birth? And why would you send a pregnant female into battle? Regardless of species, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.

        Which bring us to the big stumbling block I run into in any extra-terrestrial invasion story that isn’t titled Footfall: if you have mastered physics to the point that interstellar/inter dimensional travel is possible on a large scale, why waste your resources invading anything when you can just go find a habitable planet that doesn’t have an industrial civilization living on it? Or just “terraform” the nearest rock in a habitable zone? Greg Bear posits in Forge Of God that if you could just whack Io in two and drop one half onto mars and the other on Venus, you’d triple the amount of habitable worlds in the solar system. That sounds like a lot of work, but it’s peanuts compared to interstellar war.

        Of course, I would have no problem accepting a flimsy premise as a vehicle for a larger point of view, provided that point of view had something to do with said premise. In Pacific Rim, it doesn’t.

      8. I didn’t really get the scout thing either. That would mean that the scouts had a 100% fatality rate, yet the Kaiju kept up scouting for 7 years. Seems questionable tactically, sort of like having all these jaegers but never putting more than one into combat. You know, like how we send a single fighter plane rather than one and a wingman in a squadron of at least four.

        I went with the Lovecraft read, that the Kaiju were the the Great Old Ones and had been here before and were now coming back from deepest R’lyeh. Which means the breech is magic, not science, and is only opening on our world, not controlled by the Kaiju as to where it will go.

        Even with that, though, I don’t know why they didn’t open with a Zerg rush.

      1. I did read articles where he said he felt grateful to be getting back to his natural British accent after spending so long playing an American. I think it means he’s lost track.

        I’ll allow that the dialogue he’s been given here is such US action-movie-commander clichĂ© that even the most proper BBC accent would sound rather yee-haa.

    1. Theory 1: East London by way of “been in the States too long.”

      Theory 2: PR is some sort of alternate Earth where the USA makes analog machines and steampunk welding backpacks, so Idris Elba devised an accent that evolved only in that alternate world.

      Now, anyone know what Raleigh’s accent was?

  3. We saw it again last night with friends. One is an Army helicopter pilot and giggled at the physics of the helicopter lift (and wondered how they got the jaegers BACK out of the water).

    Many things were better and worse – the story logic is worse than I thought on first viewing, but the Lovecraft and movie homage stuff is better.

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