Science and the Silver Screen

Science and cinema have something of a complicated relationship.


Despite being just over a century old, cinema has expanded to become a cornerstone of modern culture. Numerous movie classics have become firmly cemented in our collective consciousness, many of which take science and its consequences as a central theme, or as the backdrop against which the drama unfolds. But how important is it, if at all, that film makers ensure the science depicted within is realistic?

Major productions now routinely employ science advisors and consultants, even when the plot itself is inherently fantastical. Cosmologist Sean Carroll served as science advisor on Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Thor’; presumably his job description was something like ‘despite heavy references to the Norse Gods, help us ensure a level of realism’. Films such as these are fairly innocuous in terms of scientific realism, the plot itself requires one big suspension of disbelief (ie that Thor exists, or that Natalie Portman is a physicist) and then the science advisor steps in to ensure the script is free of any glaring errors. For movies in which science is as peripheral as Thor, it is fairly inconsequential that Stellan Skarsgård says ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ instead of ‘wormhole’ (yes, Sean Carroll actually prides himself on this indispensable contribution to cinema)


What about when science isn’t on the periphery, when the plot brings it to the fore, does this necessitate a higher degree of truthfulness? The short answer is: it depends on the genre, or at least the purpose of the film. This is a good time to make the distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘science fantasy’. Author Ray Bradbury characterises science fiction as a ‘sociological study of the future’; essentially this genre explores the societal impacts of particular technologies or scientific principles that have been allowed to permeate civilization, like the Replicants in Blade-runner, medical technology in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or cloning in Jurassic Park.  Science fiction puts a scientific principle at its centre, and as such a certain degree of faithfulness is necessary if you want to be effectual. The best in this genre seem to give equal weight to scientific realism as to philosophical implications; the uniquely human struggle to co-exist with the ‘other’, whether it be machines, aliens or a new and pervasive technology. The more credible this ‘other’, the better the audience can identify with the struggle.

star-wars-1-vader-2400x1200-660808050818Science fantasy on the other hand is typified by Star Wars, the science is not integral to the plot but it threads itself throughout. The setting is vaguely futuristic and advanced on the surface, but the bare bones of the plot could be mapped onto a different context without much damage. Feudal Japan would my first choice for a Star wars re-hash, swapping lightsabres for Katanas, Sith for Samurai and well I suppose the emperor is still an emperor, but the plot could be left largely alone save for any explicit references to technology.  Accuracy in science fantasy films is almost irrelevant; it’s missing the point to debate whether the Death-star is feasible. Films in this genre prize drama above reality almost by definition. However that’s not to say ‘anything goes’ in science fantasy, these films must still strive to create a sense of consistency in tone, it must quickly establish the limits of possibility otherwise no real drama could unfold. The reason ‘Prometheus’ felt quite insubstantial is that it was never established what the black gloop is and what it can do; it had wildly different effects in different contexts (dissolved one person’s face, zombified another, impregnated a third), a sloppy ‘deus ex machina’, conveniently advancing the plot wherever the writers were too lazy to concoct something more engaging, therefore the tension dissipates quickly. Incidentally my failure to engage with the Harry Potter franchise is for the same reason. The rules and limits of magic are vaguely explained, such that any serious danger to the protagonist is undercut by the possibility of a convenient new spell we haven’t yet heard of fixing everything.


Scientific accuracy takes on paramount 0058273 - Copyimportance in another genre. The scientist’s biopic is enjoying something of a renaissance currently, with producers queuing up to buy the rights to the biographies of esteemed scientists. Disappointingly these tend to be very light on the science itself; typically there will be a montage of the hero scribbling equations on blackboards looking deeply bothered, followed by an explanation to the lay-person using a hilarious metaphor. Ta-da, the science is finished. This is more aggravating than any inconsistencies in science fiction and fantasy; these are real people who made great contributions to society, and like any matter of historical fact there is a certain responsibility to be faithful to the facts. In The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking appears to have an unending series of eureka moments, despite getting his jumper stuck on his head. Obviously the long process of refining and testing cosmological equations doesn’t make for gripping drama, but I’m left wondering how many people leave the cinema appreciating that the great bulk of any scientific endeavour consists in exactly that. According to Hollywood, all it takes to win the Nobel Prize is to go to any sufficiently romantic setting with a constipated facial expression, and then simply count down the seconds until revelation strikes.

Scientific accuracy will never be the most important element in any film, even the scientist’s biopic. Plot, dialogue, acting, cinematography, and score still overwhelmingly determine the quality of any movie, but just take a moment to consider what makes ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ so resoundingly brilliant, and ‘Angels and Demons’ so instantly forgettable, and it should be apparent that the level of scientific realism can be the icing on the cake, or the final straw.


Facing the Absurd: Albert Camus and the Joker.










There is a gaping expanse that separates our desire for life to have meaning, and the chaotic unfairness we actually experience. French philosopher Albert Camus called this feeling ‘The Absurd’; bad things happen for no reason, we work repetitive and probably meaningless jobs, and eventually die, and we spend a lot of that life suspecting that there is supposed to be some master plan or purpose. Camus encapsulates in his concept of the absurd the awareness that these expectations are simply unfounded, which he outlined eloquently in his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.

However, he is not the only person to promote such a notion. Another man expresses startlingly similar sentiments, he is a fictional person, and he is to be found in the annals of the DC comic book universe. Recently played to perfection by the late Heath Ledger, The Joker espouses a philosophy that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Camus’s ‘The Absurd’. “It’s all a joke” the Joker reminds us in almost every film and comic appearance, maintaining that life is inherently ludicrous. It seems Camus and The Joker are in agreement about our sorry state of existence, yet they diverge wildly when it comes to how to react in light of this.

Camus wrote “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”, if life is pointless, why should you go on living it? Because, he writes, that’s just avoiding the problem, it’s taking the easy tumblr_men7f5Tvnp1rs7i8ao1_500way out. Nor should you try to dismiss or rationalize the apparent absence of meaning in your life. Many people do this and make grand claims about the meaning of life; religious and spiritual teachers all claim to know some higher truth that will cause all the little pieces fall into place, but Camus says these people are just wasting their time, it’s the blind leading the blind. Camus calls this act ‘philosophical suicide’; it’s just another easy way out. The Joker agrees with sentiment this, as he quips:  “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.”

So what does Camus, and his fictional grim counterpart, prescribe for those trying to engage with a truly Absurdist life? What should we do if we are not to end it or deny it? This is where the two make a wild departure from eachother.

Camus says we must be like the Greek hero Sisyphus downloadwho was condemned by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain every day, only to watch it roll back down each night. The minutiae of our lives are just like Sisyphus’ futile task, repetitive and completely fruitless, but Camus says we have to imagine that Sisyphus is happy, walking down the mountain with a wry smile on his face; Sisyphus eventually recognises that all anyone is doing is rolling boulders up hills and watching them roll back down. The joke is on the Gods, they thought they were punishing him, but when they told he’d be doing a meaningless task forever, they freed him from the illusion that life was supposed to be meaningful, he became awake to absurd, and this allowed him to be truly content. He’s no longer struggling to find that ever-elusive fulfilment and meaning, he knows its basically bullshit, so now he can simply be.

The Joker, like Sisyphus, recognises the absurd, but he goes a step too far. He decides it’s not enough to go on pushing your boulder up your hill, smiling to yourself wryly that this all anyone can do. He makes it his life work to make everyone else see it too. “I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” If the world is inherently chaotic and random, then not only does that render all attempts to impose a meaning on it pointless (as Camus says), in fact they are positively ridiculous. A bad joke, as the Joker puts it.

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The blockbuster movie ‘Dark Knight’ depicts the joker enacting a veritable crusade against purpose; he blows up hospitals, assassinates a mayor, and even robs banks only to burn the money. He is essentially a terrorist without an agenda. “I’ll show you.” He says “When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

The Joker is, obviously, fictional, but I don’t think that should give us license to reject his associated philosophy out of hand, why should we prize Camus’s advice over the Jokers? I can think of a few misguided individuals who chose the latter. In 2012 James Holmes walked in to a Colorado movie theatre armed with several automatic weapons, he opened fire indiscriminately on the defenceless audience. 12 people died, and Holmes was arrested. His apartment had been laced with explosives and he had been planning the attack for a considerable amount of time. His obsession with the Joker character, specifically the Heath Ledger incarnation, was obvious. Here is a man who is clearly mentally deranged; I don’t mean to imply that he made a rational choice to engage in a philosophical act when he murdered all those people, but it is also clear that from his diaries and subsequent james-holmes-trialinterviews that he definitely recognized the inherent absurdity of life and was also clearly a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. Holmes decided against embracing meaningless as Camus would want, but instead he chose to actively inflict it on others, becoming what the joker calls ‘an agent of chaos’. A living reminder of Joker’s warning: “You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!”

For no real reason, we are here. We must realise this if we are to be intellectually honest, and not try to shy away from it by convincing ourselves otherwise, or stepping down from the challenge and taking our own lives. Ultimately the Joker’s philosophy is self defeating, ironically so, his scheme to show everyone how pointless and purposeless everything is, is in fact just another pointless scheme on the pile. His quest has become for him a sort of meta-purpose, he essentially rejects the absurd and superimposes a purpose onto a chaotic existence, and this puts him squarely within the ‘philosophical suicide’ category that Camus outlines in the essay, he is simply not facing up to the true reality of existence by embracing the absurd. Unlike Sisyphus, the Joker does not recognise the pointlessness of his struggle, therefore he is not truly living.