Is the Film Industry fuelling the mistrust of Science?

By Lucy Williams

In the same year that Independence Day – the classic alien invader film – was released, UFO sightings in the UK increased five-fold.

The portrayal of science in films does seem to influence audiences, whether consciously or not. So, are film and TV producers making an effort to portray science in an accurate, positive light, or do negative portrayals cause mistrust in science amongst the public?

2001: A Space Odyssey, made in 1968, is often named as one of the most scientifically accurate films for its time. Having hired a former NASA scientist, the director Stanley Kubrick went to great lengths to accurately depict space travel – even building an artificial gravity wheel to simulate a spaceship.

Believe it or not, the team behind 2003’s Finding Nemo also went to lengthy measures to ensure that, beyond the talking fish, the film was scientifically correct. Experts in marine biology and fish biomechanics gave lectures to the team during production, which prompted the animators to remove kelp from every single shot of coral reef.

A ‘Science and Entertainment Exchange’ has even been set up to match TV and film makers with science consultants, with clients including the likes of Iron Man and The Avengers.

Despite this, some films exhibit quite the opposite, bypassing any inclination of scientific accuracy. Of course, when it’s clearly a work of science fiction, such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars, this is not a problem, but film plots that originate from recognisable scientific concepts and mislead their audience completely can leave a bit of an itch. The Matrix, I am Legend and Total Recall are examples which come to mind.

Regardless of its accuracy, the positive and negative portrayals of science and scientists in films makes for an interesting discussion. Is science a force for good or evil? There are countless examples of films and TV series that portray scientific innovations gone out of control: The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Godzilla, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes and Stranger Things to name but a few.

Scientists so often cause the problem, or even are the ‘bad guy’ themselves

Scientists so often cause the problem, or even are the ‘bad guy’ themselves, whilst it is the average lay person who comes to the rescue. This is all the more true for horror movies, with mad scientists often being the main villains or causes of destruction, such as in From Beyond, City of Lost Children and Sharktopus.

It is certainly reasonable to hypothesise that the negative portrayal of science affects public perception of it, reflecting and reinforcing misunderstandings and suspicions people have of scientific research.

The reflection of how the public perceive science due to film and TV is perhaps most evident in how scientists are portrayed. The stereotype of scientists being white, male, eccentric and/ or socially inept is often fuelled by TV and film; it is reinforced by the likes of the main characters in the Big Bang Theory, Doc in Back to the Future, and even Ross in Friends – who’s enthusiasm for palaeontology triggers laughter from the audience.

It is not all negative, however: the lack of strong female leads in scientific or science fiction films does seem to be diminishing, with Arrival, Gravity, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman being popular examples. Furthermore, the recent popularity of scientific biopics such as The Theory of Everything, Hidden Figures and The Imitation Game shows that the public’s desire for seeing true examples of incredible scientists does exist.

With the start of the new year, we look forward to what we hope will be a realistic, positive and progressive year of science in film.

Photograph: Godzilla (1954) via Wikimedia Commons

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