Nerds on film: the depiction of scientists in movies

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A shabby lab-coat clad boffin with greasy hair is doubled over an esoteric machine which spews out ‘special vapour’ and flouro-green death-rays. Immediately we all get the hint: he’s a scientist. Almost definitely an evil –  and probably insane – genius. We ought to be well aware of this kind of stereotype; scientists have been depicted in film since the invention of the medium.

Before I descend into a predictably bilious rant on the cheap and unkind way films portray scientists, I should defend the use of character icons and stereotypes relied upon in films. As Bob McKee writes in his authoritative text Story (and Aristotle alludes to in the Poetics 2,000 years before him), every film has to rely on stereotype to some extent. It would be difficult to make Star Wars fit into 121 minutes if you had to know that Han Solo’s awkwardness with women stemmed from his teenage acne problem, and his abrasive manner was a result of lower back pain from chronic computer game addiction. We’re happy to just accept he’s an out-of-the-box bad-ass. You’re meant to ‘get the idea,’ even for major characters, in a small number of establishing scenes. Apparently, a guaranteed method of getting a movie executive to fake a nose-bleed while reading a script is to have a character description take up more than two or three sentences on paper. Importantly, this applies to the visual motif established for the character. For example, for a small (non-fiction) television gig I was asked to put on a lab-coat. The conversation went roughly as follows:

“But … I don’t usually wear a lab-coat for my experiments”

“But you won’t look like a scientist if you don’t wear a lab-coat.”

They wouldn’t budge, so I caved and wore the lab-coat. Of course, I knew why they wanted it this way, but hopefully I have acquitted the general use of stereotype in film gracefully enough to analyse the depiction of scientists (and technologists and engineers) with some sympathy for the film-maker.

In my opinion, stereotypes of scientists are leveraged, subverted or explored in films in the following four ways:

1: Life in the Faust lane

Historically speaking, the depiction of scientists and their ethical codes in early films has been almost universally negative. One of the earliest examples would have to be Metropolis (1927), where the scientist/engineer Rotwang builds a huge robot to resurrect his love (awkwardly also his friend’s dead wife). Probably the most iconic early depiction of the immoral scientist, the stereotypical insane genius, is in the 1931 version of Frankenstein, when the eponymous doctor maniacally screams “it’s alive!” while gleefully electroconvulsing his maggoty abomination into life. The essence of these films is to explore an interesting issue of morality or ethics, such as: ‘if you could raise the dead, would you?’ Or: ‘if you could clone awesome dinosaurs, should you?’ Unfortunately the message is generally: what happens when science goes Horribly Wrong.

Many of these negative stereotypes, especially if the film has a scientist as a main character, centre around a Faustian bargain. Indeed, both Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of Faust have an academic as the main character. This reflects the perception of great potential power of a scientist. Let’s face it: we’re more likely to believe a plumber’s ethical dilemma is whether to use a plunger or Drain-o than deciding on which continent to evaporate first with his jury-rigged death weapon. The reality of such Faustian stakes played in science became apparent at the end of World War II where, overnight, it became plausible that a few meek egg-heads awkwardly sipping cocoa around a blackboard could literally destroy entire nations. Such a bargain is struck in countless classic favourites including The Fly (1958 and 1986) and Dr Strangelove (1964).

2: Instant geek, just add glasses

Secondly, from a writing point of view, it’s always handy to have a ready-made socially awkward character trope in your toolbox. Here the scientist, the character equivalent of a claw hammer, is an adequate, if hackneyed, tool for the job. The number of films where this instant-dork-just-add-glasses trope is pulled out are too numerous, and mostly too clichéd, to mention. This convention is heavily leveraged in Revenge of the Nerds (1984) - although I am taking liberties here with the definition of a scientist: it would seem that at least one of the main characters in this film has a high chance of being a ‘proto-scientist’. This perception can be nicely inverted, such as in the film versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913 and onwards) where the normally staid Dr Jekyll unleashes his party animal alter-ego with the help of a drug he’s concocted (closely mimicking the reality of Sir Humphrey Davy and his discovery of the mind-addling effects of ether). This inversion is explored similarly in Altered States (1980). Some versions of Frankenstein (e.g. The Edison commissioned version of 1910) represent the monster as a metaphor for the doctor’s evil side. The version of Frankenstein commissioned by Edison is in the public domain and is available to watch on YouTube.

3: Paper the cracks with scientifically proven Plot-Glue

Thirdly, there is a (clearly lame) reason to incorporate a scientist in a film: to justify an otherwise flaccid or impossible plot. The scientist is used as the modern equivalent to Merlin the Magician, or a high priest with forbidden Esoteric Knowledge. In these films scientists can make anything from computer generated A.I. bimbos to time travelling Delorians. In these cases, the scientist depicted is often an Omnidisciplinary Scientist and usually speaks in Word of God, which it’s felt often requires translation by someone who asks something like “can I have that in English?”. This scientific plot-glue has a range of applications, from the conveniently plausible (Ironman, 2008) through the unnecessary (Avatar, 2009 and  Thor, 2011) to the just plain WTF (Independence Day, 1996; Volcano 1997; and The Core, 2003).

4: Scientists are real people too

The final reason to incorporate a scientist in a film is perhaps more interesting and nuanced. Here, the scientist is central to theme of movie, because it’s usually about one. Anyone who knows a practising scientist would understand that science is more a lifestyle than your usual nine-to-five occupation, and that these people bleed red like anyone else (although admittedly some do it in eleven spatial dimensions). It’s usually hard work and the rewards may be fairly scant. But it can make for compelling drama: Infinity, 1996; Good Will Hunting, 1997; Contact, 1997; Shadow Makers, 1989; and A Beautiful Mind, 2001, just to name a few. These more recent depictions of scientists tend to be more positive than the historical low ground – take for example the recent gravy train of superhero based films, most of which feature scientists in at least an enabling role, if not a major character. Perhaps we’re becoming more used to geeks ruling the planet (you’re probably reading this on the internet on some sort of digital reading technology between some sort of social networking and news/XKCD surfing). In any case there has been a recent awareness from Hollywood film-makers that scientific advisors could add a plausible air to their films. Perhaps surprisingly, the US Pentagon has funded training for scientists to write screenplays. There are also institutes with similar aims such as Imagine Science Films, The Science and Entertainment Exchange and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

I would like to think that we have evolved from thinking in terms of stereotypes. But the fact is, that in order to tell a compelling story, films rely heavily on tropes and stereotypes out of necessity. It is fortunate that there is an ongoing effort to make science stereotypes more positive and heroic in recent times.

About the author

Ra hitch-hiked out of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand to become a physicist. He got his PhD in Guitar Acoustics and, after looking at how termites use acoustics to communicate, currently looks for vibrations in the very fabric of space and time. He has directed two short films, enjoys writing and likes to play guitar.

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