- Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World
Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist and film buff, is concerned about the way science, technology, and scientists are presented in Hollywood films, notably science-fiction flicks. He reviews over one hundred films and finds that Hollywood’s version of science does not always match up with scientific knowledge and practice. He would like reasonably accurate science-fiction films but he realizes that even “bad” science has its place. It can advance a flagging plot, attract young people to scientific careers, or impress an audience with the wonders of the universe.
Perkowitz divides his book into three main parts: “Dangers from Nature,” “Dangers from Ourselves,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Real.” The concluding chapters offer some final thoughts on the depiction of scientists in sci-fi films and on Hollywood science vs. real science. That said, it is time to look at the chapters on science as it appears in Hollywood films. These chapters are at the heart of the book.
“Dangers from Nature” features three chapter-length themes: human encounters with alien beings, devastating collisions between Earth and space objects, and the threat posed by violent forces hidden deep within our planet. Alien encounters begin with one of the author’s favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. After that he looks at Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The War of the Worlds, and similar works. What soon becomes apparent in these initial chapters, and in subsequent ones, is that the author devotes a great deal of space to summarizing film plots in numbing detail.
Meanwhile, what happened to “real” science, the science distorted by Hollywood filmmakers? It is reserved for the end of the chapters in parts 1 and 2. There Perkowitz presents a chapter’s central scientific theme in a general essay along with references to the film’s use or misuse of science. In [End Page 473] some cases the essays that comment on a highlighted theme are shorter than the plot summaries. All too often these thematic essays descend into canned surveys of the topic under discussion.
Chapter 8 includes a rather predictable account of Hollywood’s depiction of the scientist as hero, nerd, or villain. In chapter 9 Perkowitz hands out Golden Eagle awards for the best film presentation of a scientific topic and Golden Turkey awards for the worst. I found this neither amusing nor enlightening.
If this book had been published several decades ago it might pass muster. However, literary criticism, film studies, and cultural studies have led to a much more sophisticated treatment of all film genres. Perkowitz’s hunt for science errors does not go deep enough. He covers films from 1902 to 2005 yet he does not critically analyze his material. He does not show us how and why changing cultural, social, and political forces have shaped the way science is seen in film.
In closing I want to call attention to the book’s subtitle: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. In his hunt for mistakes in scientific knowledge Perkowitz overlooks the central fact that science-fiction films, as Susan Sontag first noted (p. 3), are not about science. They are about disaster, the end of the world. What is more harmful to the image of science, a handful of errors of fact or a film genre that has repeatedly identified science with apocalyptic events for nearly a century? This is the context, the big picture, of the 119 films Perkowitz searched for signs of scientific missteps.
The problem is not to get more scientists involved in making films or to see that scientific consultants in Hollywood have the power to get the story right. We should ask why, even when the scientist is a hero who helps avert disaster, science-fiction films associate science with the end of humankind.
Dr. Basalla is professor emeritus at the University of Delaware.