Science and the Movies

A few weeks back I went to see Jurassic World. This isn’t a film review blog, so it wasn’t something I was planning on discussing. But I’ve read and listened to quite a few discussions around the representation of science in the media (for example The Infinite Monkey Cage), and that has ultimately prompted me to write something.

Now, I’m not going to actually assess the science of Jurassic World, or more broadly the Jurassic Park series. There are plenty of others that have done that (e.g. Here and Here and Here but I will say their attempt at a throwaway defence doesn’t work).

Nor will I particularly ‘review’ Jurassic World, although my opinion will inevitably come through.

No, what I want to discuss is the general importance of science in movies. Because there were several ‘killjoy palaeontologists badmouth Jurassic World’ articles, and I don’t think that’s remotely fair.

So, let’s say it right up front. Jurassic World isn’t a bad film because its dinosaurs have no feathers, or because the genetic science underpinning it is wrong, or because it doesn’t understand fossilisation, or because of issues with physics, or chemistry, or any other branch of the sciences. No. It’s a bad film because it’s badly written, badly acted, and badly made.

That may seem mean-spirited, but it’s the crux of my view of science and the movies. If the science in Jurassic World was absolutely flawless, but everything else was the same, it would still be a bad film. If the science was as flawed as it undoubtedly is, but the rest of the film was fun and engaging and held your attention, then it would be a good film regardless.

A great example is the original Jurassic Park. I could easily write a few hundred words on the many flaws of the science, flaws repeated and magnified in Jurassic World, but I still love the film. I don’t expect Star Wars or The Avengers to have great science. I expect them to be big and fun. Which they are. So the science of how the Millennium Falcon flies, or the Hulk grows, doesn’t matter a bit. If Jurassic World was big, dumb, fun, I’d be happy.

Don’t get me wrong, good science in a good film is a pleasure. It enhances the overall experience. Something like The Dish, or Awakenings, or Apollo 13, that is rooted in real science is great to see. But in all three cases, the films have to be good too (and they are). In a good film, the good science enhances, the bad is forgiven.

There is an exception to this though. If you are a film like Gravity, or Sunshine, or Interstellar, and you really make a selling point of being shaped and guided by scientific advice, that you are striving for accuracy, then you are making a rod for your own back. You better get it right, because now we are going to see a film expecting good science. Any failing will, quite rightly, be magnified by the lens you chose to place on it. It’s like making a biographical film and getting substantial chunks of the narrative wrong, all because you think this improves the story (hint: 99% of the time it doesn’t).

Even here the good/bad rule comes into effect though. Sunshine is a good film, so the lesser aspects in the science get forgiven. Gravity is a great experience so you are pulled along (on the big screen that is; the small screen removes that particular shield and instead all the bad stuff comes back into play). But Interstellar’s bad moments bring down the whole movie. So rather than being able to ride it out, the whole thing collapses in on itself (a metaphor particularly appropriate to a film dealing with black holes).

The argument runs that people watch films, know they are films, and therefore it shouldn’t matter of the film is accurate. I would contend that anyone saying that has never worked in the fields of public science communications. For better or worse, films like Jurassic Park and Jurassic World shape the questions palaeontologists and other professionals receive for decades to come. Really, they do. My old colleagues in museums will be fending off Jurassic World related questions from now till their retirement. Even then, in the Home for Old Curators, young visitors will ask about spitting dilophosaurs and grasping pterosaurs.

So what is my conclusion, my advice to Hollywood? Please make good films first and foremost. Don’t make them dated, sexist, cheap, boring, poorly characterised, lacking in good dialogue, and utterly unengaging. That’s the most important thing. But, good science won’t harm your film. And bad science will affect people down the pecking order from you. So, if it’s not too much trouble, have a conversation with an expert along the way too. Don’t make up your mind the day you get the job, be open to creative possibilities. Because your film will only be better for it.

And just so we’re clear, if you are still thinking of seeing Jurassic World and haven’t yet, just leave it there. Go see Jurassic Park again instead.

This entry was posted in About the blog, Birds, Evolution, Fossils, Geology, Media, Museums, Physics, Scientific Terminology, Tech stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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