Having been thoroughly engrossed for the last few weeks by the excellent, informative, and inspiring Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (produced by Seth MacFarlane and hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson), I’ve started to look into the history of scientific discovery and the lives of renowned scientists. What Cosmos does brilliantly is create scientific curiosity about the universe, the world around us, and the history of scientific endeavor. Tyson is an engaging host and is clearly a passionate scientist. So in honor of science, this week is dedicated to movies about scientists. Some of them are about real life scientists, but since movies like these are somewhat rare, there are some fictional scientists mixed in as well.
Movies About Scientists
6. Einstein and Eddington (2008)
This is the story of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and his controversial association with English scientist Arthur Eddington during World War I. One of the most exciting things about this movie is that Andy Serkis plays Albert Einstein. Many of you probably haven’t seen Serkis outside of the Lord of the Rings universe and have no idea that he has had a long and varied career before his turn as Gollum, but Serkis is surprisingly versatile and compelling. Another plus is that Doctor Who‘s David Tennant plays Eddington and gives a soulfully tortured turn. Together, Einstein and Eddington bring physics into the modern era, despite scientific prejudice, national conflicts, and personal issues.
5. Hawking (2004)
This biopic portraying Dr. Stephen Hawking’s early life, scientific career, and physical deterioration is written by Peter Moffat and directed by Philip Martin, the same pair who produced Einstein and Eddington. It features a pre-Hollywood fame Benedict Cumberbatch – who, like Andy Serkis, has had a long and distinguished career before his international heartthrob days – and he gives a sensitive and detailed performance of the young Dr. Hawking. Cumberbatch spent time with Hawking in preparation for the role and does an excellent job capturing his great mind and personality, as well as giving a subtle and accurate depiction of Hawking’s ALS. What this and Einstein and Eddington do brilliantly is combine the perfect amount of historical information, scientific fact, and personal biography to compel its audience while educating them.
4. The Fly (1986)
What list including movies about scientists would be complete without The Fly, a movie about the ultimate doomed scientist and how the obsession to find answers brings him to ruin. This remake of the original 1958 version is written and directed by David Cronenberg and it shows. Cronenberg is written over every frame and drips from every word of dialogue. What better subject for the master of body horror to tackle than the splicing of man and insect through technology. Jeff Goldblum plays Dr. Seth Brundle, the inventor of a teleportation machine. His scientific zeal (and an act of drunken defiance caused by sexual jealousy) leads him to test the machine on himself. All seems well until he starts changing – vividly and disgustingly. What is really fascinating about Brundle is that he never stops thinking. Even as his body goes through terrifying changes, everything has scientific value to him. Despite his deep fear, he finds his transformation fascinating.
3. Contact (1997)
Contact is the ultimate science fiction movie written by an actual, real life scientist. Carl Sagan, the creator and host of the original 1980 Cosmos series, had an inimitable sense of wonder about the universe paired with a healthy skepticism that made him the perfect scientist. This duality shines through in his characters, the ultra scientific Eleanor Arraway (Jodie Foster) and the religious Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). The movie also touches heavily on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, something that Sagan was deeply involved in during his professional career. As one of the first popular scientists, it makes perfect sense that Sagan would write a popular science fiction novel that would eventually become a major motion picture.
2. Frankenstein (1931)
What better movie to illustrate the great possibilities of science, but also the great danger and moral implications that can be caused by scientific progress. Just because its possible, does that mean it should be done? Certainly the great and tortured Dr. Frankenstein did not consider the complex responsibility involved in creating a living, sentient, and unique being. He was not prepared to take responsibility for his monstrous and equally tortured creation, and so a massive and childlike man was unleashed on the world, searching for his place and purpose, all while learning terrible lessons through the death of a little girl and the friendship of a blind man. If this story tells us anything, it is that as a scientist, you must be prepared to take responsibility for the things you create. Plus, Boris Karloff is pretty damn awesome as Frankenstein’s monster.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
Doc Brown may have built a time machine, but one gets the sense that he was never a very successful scientist before that. He says himself, in a perfect ecstasy of achievement and incredulity, that he “finally invented something that works!” The point is, of course, is that he never stopped trying. As a scientist, Doc could not stop himself from experimenting and inventing, regardless of whether any of them ever worked. It isn’t really until Part III that we get to see the passionate scientist and how brilliant he really is. He may have had the gift of future knowledge, but who else could manage or would bother making a giant refrigerator in their barn in 1885. His conversations with Clara under the night sky reveal a deeply romantic, passionate, and imaginative mind. Not only that, but Doc is the epitome of the great mad scientist character, with his unmanageable hair, excitable nature, and volume control issues, he will forever be one of my favorite mad scientists.