Since the medium began, movies from “Metropolis” to “Iron Man” have plundered science, molding and sometimes mangling it. But physicist Sidney Perkowitz argues in his new book, Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World, that science in cinema probably does more good than harm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before virtual reality, we’ve had Hollywood, which often uses the raw material of real life to make money, and sometimes art. Since the medium began, movies from Metropolis to Iron Man have plundered science, molding and sometimes mangling it.
But physicist Sidney Perkowitz argues in his new book, Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World, that science in cinema probably does more good than harm. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: One reason which needs to be recognized more is what big influence they had on turning young people in the direction of science.
The second thing, just speaking as an educator, is even if the science isn't right, you can use it to teach correct science to people who want to learn.
The third reason is that they often raised issues about how science and society interact. A lot of the movies of the 1950s had fear of nuclear war as a theme. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Klaatu barada nikto. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: You got it. And that was an important message. For those who don't know, that comes from the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still in which an alien comes to Earth to warn us to stop fooling around with nuclear explosions. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER/ENGINE-LIKE NOISE] MICHAEL RENNIE AS KLAATU: I am leaving soon. And you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you liked The Day After Tomorrow, a global warming film released in 2004. There were storms, a tsunami, an Ice Age – you name it. It was criticized as bad science at the time. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: There's no question the science was terribly exaggerated. The film had all these bad effects that you just mentioned happening over a period of weeks, whereas everything we know about global warming says we're talking about a time scale of decades. But it alerted the public to a real issue.
We could compare it to Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, which did get the science just about 100 percent perfect. But The Day After Tomorrow, judging by ticket sales, reached about ten times as many people. So it has an impact. Like it or not, distorted science or not, it has its effect. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you're saying that's always a good thing? SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: Couldn't guarantee it's always a good thing. The science could be so distorted that it would be worthless. But if more people know about the possibility of global warming than did five years ago, I think that's a good thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That theme has been explored at least as far back as 1973's Soylent Green, where we're already far after the disaster. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: It showed what the world would be like had things gone to pot in the way we're envisioning might be happening right now. [CLIP] CHARLTON HESTON AS ROBERT THORN: They're making our food out of people. The next thing, they'll be breeding us like cattle – for food. You've got to tell ‘em. You've got to tell ‘em! You tell everybody. [SHOUTING] You've got to tell ‘em! Soylent Green is people! [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you mean when you wrote that there is "active feedback between movie science and real science"?
SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: The most famous example of active feedback is the fact that when we launch a rocket we count down from ten to one. That actually came out in an early German science-fiction movie from the 1920s, and apparently NASA [LAUGHTER] loved the idea and has used it ever since. They get inspiration from the B movies, even when the science isn't right.
And, of course, the science feeds into the movies. The fact that there are movies about genetic engineering when it has barely started proves that point. The movies pick up what's at the front of the wave very quickly. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about genetic engineering. We had Gattaca, where people are genetically engineered to be more or less perfect, and one who was born naturally has to fake his way through, using other people's urine and so forth so that he can travel in space, which is all he ever really wanted. [CLIP] ETHAN HAWKE AS VINCENT FREEMAN: There is no gene for fate. And when, for one reason or another, a member of the elite falls on hard times, their genetic identity becomes a valued commodity for the unscrupulous. One man's loss in another man's gain. [END CLIP] SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: I put that movie on my list of 10 Best because I thought it had such a well-done human element. So the science was there, but the movie is really more about the impact of science on people. And I think that's an important thing to convey. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also look at how scientists are portrayed in movies, and you say that they come in three flavors, essentially - evil, noble, or nerdy. Give me some examples of each variety. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: There was a character named Rotwang in a film from the 1920s, Metropolis. Rotwang thinks he can replace his real-life girlfriend who he's lost, with a robot.
A noble scientist would be Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow. He risks his career, his profession, his family to try to convince the government that global warming really is coming.
And a nerdy – well, there are more examples than you can think of. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you think that movies that actually use scientists as consultants are more accurate than movies that don't? SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: They should be. [BROOKE LAUGHS] In real life they're often [LAUGHS] not.
Sometimes they're hired very late in the production process, so if the scientist says, you know, really there is no air on the moon and you need to change that, it's too late to change it because it'll cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. So there's no guarantee.
But the movie Contact¸ on my list of 10 Best, actually had a lot of scientific consultants in the science, and that movie rings pretty true. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about that film briefly. It starred Jodie Foster, as a scientist, who was neither evil, nerdy nor noble; she was just devoted. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] JODIE FOSTER AS DR. ELLIE ARROWAY: Yeah, there are 400 billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one out of a million of those have planets, all right, and if just one out of a million of those had life, and if just one out of a million of those had intelligent life, there would be literally millions of civilizations out there. [END CLIP] SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: One of the best representations of a film scientist there is, on Jodie Foster's part, and the fact that she's a woman, an underrepresented category, makes it even better. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you seen Iron Man yet? SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: Not yet, but I sure have read a lot about it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a film where a genius scientist basically makes weapons that kill people, and then he makes another weapon, only this one he uses to protect innocent people from being killed by his bad weapons. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: I might say as far as the technology goes of the Iron Man's suit, there's no doubt that this kind of thing can happen. The U.S. military and other agencies have already taken steps in that direction. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what? SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: Powered exoskeletons, a steel framework you put around yourself that's powered by motors and gives you more endurance or greater speed or greater strength. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the end, would you say that Hollywood has been good for science? SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: Maybe by 51 to 49 percent. I'm not sure I would make it more than that. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
But I think we should all try and get the best we can out of the way Hollywood does treat science in the movies. If we're smart, we can use Hollywood to do good things for science. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ: Oh, thank you. It was really fun. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Sidney Perkowitz is a professor of physics at Emory University, and the author of Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World.