Scientists in Film: Musing Over the Messages

by Diane Calabrese

Scientists in Film: Musing Over the Messages

IN HOLLYWOOD, it’s generally about getting the woman. Yet
even the sane male scientists portrayed in films seldom find
a date. They lose out to secret agents, pilots, cops, and CEOs. The few women scientists in films have a tough time too. Ingrid Bergman, playing a gifted psychiatrist with a Freudian bent, manages to snag the interest of Gregory Peck’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). But Bergman has some work before bliss, given that the object of her affection arrives as a murder suspect suffering from amnesia.

More than four decades later, Contact (1997) star Jodie Foster comes off much better as radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway. She simultaneously balances the persona of an intriguing and intellectually engaged scientist. In between Bergman and Foster, and in contrast to them, floats Raquel Welch. The star seems to have been made part of the medical team of Fantastic Voyage (1966) simply so her miniaturized male colleagues could pull attacking phages off her microscopic but still voluptuous body. The medical men at least got their hands on the woman during that trek, although under peculiar circumstances indeed. In most films, science types get much worse treatment.

They are developed as mad or laughable or (at best) eccentric
individuals. Among the maddest of them all emerges Dr. No in the eponymous 1962 film. As a foil to Secret Agent 007, No has the technological expertise to interfere with rocket launches. Yet he is no match for clever-minded and attractive James Bond, played by Sean Connery. Is the message about the limitations of scientific knowledge and the value of a sensual approach to one’s surroundings? Perhaps it is. Fast forward to Jurassic Park (1993) with its inherent warning about cloning. Jeff Goldblum plays John Malcolm, a mathematician specializing in chaos theory who predicts the disaster that occurs. Malcolm literally gets the girl, a graduate assistant in paleontology, but the love affair appears as tepid as a Bond encounter is hot.

Anticipating advances in engineering DNA, an earlier advisory
about dangerous liaisons came in the form of the 1958 version
of The Fly. The film was remade in 1986 to incorporate the improved knowledge of genetic engineering. Goldblum again took a role as a scientist but he had less success with work and women. Boris Karloff first became Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and made the cinematic monster a sympathetic creation. But the admonition in the film was still clear. Tampering with nature has serious consequences. The Invisible Man (1933), which is based on H. G. Wells’s novella, followed fast on the first Frankenstein movie. A scientist planning to use a secret formula for invisibility to rule the world instead
engenders his own ruin. No surprise that a story as popular
as the Frankenstein tale inspired not only remakes, but also spawned new versions, such as Young Frankenstein in 1974.

Young Dr. Frankenstein, keen to follow the path of his grandfather,
makes his own monster. The catch, of course, is that this mad scientist is a humorous character. So it is with the resourceful and slightly mad neurosurgeon played by Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains (1983). Martin’s character has, in essence, the attention of two women, so something must be wrong. And it is. The woman he wants lacks a body. Considering the way scientists appear in films, the descriptor “eccentric” adds a layer of redundancy. Nevertheless, several films come to mind in which the scientist is just downright unconventional, not menacing in any way. In recent time, there is Doc Brown in the Back to the Future series that began in 1985 and the suburban inventor in the series that started with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in 1989. Dateless though they usually are, scientists are not clueless. In fact, their efforts are probably closer to the reality we strive to construct
off-screen than anything that goes on between Bond and a beauty.

Confusing as the competing messages emanating from the world
are, scientists in film–just as those in the real world–try to decipher them despite the tedium of the enterprise. Action heroes can resort to blows if they don’t like the perception of their environs. Scientists want to know more so they can make reasoned adjustments. James Coburn, playing a psychiatrist, exemplifies the scientist’s trademark mix of commitment and curiosity in The President’s Analyst (1967). The phone company, TPC, wants to implant cerebral communicators (CCs) in the heads of neonates. If TPC can’t persuade Congress to adopt its plan, it would like to persuade the president. After all, there is Arlington Hewes, the droid version or the human version-we will never know which–heading up TPC. Hewes says, “Wouldn’t it be just grand if we could get rid of all that old-fashioned hardware? The billions of miles of wire?” (“Just grand” is used ever so lovingly–and memorably–in
the innocuous musical Forty-Second Street. So it is delicious frosting here, a sweet and syrupy phrase concealing sinister intent.) A TPC video with animated characters illustrates the how of the CC. The CC, a “telephonic receiver and transmitter,” operates “without any costly maintenance” because it is “in and powered by [one’s] own brain.” (Pshaw to those that saw The Net (1995), and thought it first pointed up the danger of a lost identity.) Coburn’s
character illustrates the choices scientists are frequently called upon to make in the movies.

In film, as in real life, the scientist is often caught between a pursuit of scientific discovery and the fear nonscientists
may have of scientific discovery. One thing is clear: Hollywood
(and society) have mixed feelings about the character and work of scientists: Mad scientist, saintly healer, bubble brain, genius. Then again, perhaps filmmakers have it right. In science, there is tremendous power and potential to do both good and evil. Catch a showing, if you can, of John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). That silent film classic, I think, says it all.

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