Monday, 1 February 2016

Impertinent Perception #2: Science Is Cool Now

From the dawn of cinema, science has always been a part of the film industry. Whether it be for the technology it takes to make a movie, or as a part of the narrative structure, especially in the world of fiction. Mostly, stories take place in a world that is different from our own, as part of the escapism of cinema. Science pushes that idea in movies and helps with world building, establishing the mythology of the movies we watch. The most obvious example of this is in science fiction movies, but apart from that, science can be swapped out for shows of intelligence by specific characters.

Yet despite the useful role that science plays in the movies we enjoy, it's nevertheless subjected to  mockery. The main character, the one we follow, is always a man or woman who doesn't understand the things that generated the conflict, makes fun of it, but is still the best person to solve the problem because of their "destiny". It's easy to see why this is though, the main character is us. By and large filmmakers want their product to appeal to as many people as possible, and in order to do that, the safe bet is to write a character the audience can relate to. It's why Hermione was relegated to know it all brat and Harry was the star of the show.

And she knows it too. 

In the eyes of the filmmaker, the average viewer isn't smart enough to understand the complex ideas that the scientist does, and so even though he has the exact answer to the problem faced by our hero, he has to suffer being told to "SPEAK ENGLISH" when plainly explaining the facts of the fiction. There's a scene in 'Sky High' that exemplifies this. Main character Will Stronghold has discovered his power of super strength, when he comes across fellow superperson Gwen Grayson. Gwen is a technopath which means she has the ability to manipulate sophisticated technology to make it do...well whatever she wants. Will responds "I punch stuff" and his professor says "And he'll be the one on the cereal boxes", because punching stuff real good appeals more than de facto magic by way of science.

The impertinent perception though, is that this might be changing. Rather than being relegated to a secondary character, bordering on a plot device, the scientist has become something of a modern day hero archetype. On the big screen, there's been a heavy emphasis on science in the last few years. In 2013 there was Gravity, which saw Sandra Bullock as a reluctant astronaut trapped in deep space. In 2014 there was Interstellar, which had Matthew McConaughey and co as astronauts trying to find a suitable replacement for Earth. Each year, the role of the scientist gets more and more sophisticated. In 'Gravity', her smarts were there, but she was also driven by the ghost of George Clooney and the memory of her dead daughter. In 'Interstellar' Cooper and Brand had brilliant methodology, but everything sort of boiled down to love being the strongest force in the universe. Both times there was something of a pseudo science explanation that led to the hero's success. This is in no means inexcusable storytelling, but for movies which touted themselves as being "Hard science" it was impossible not be let down.

Close, but no space cigar.

Enter 'The Martian' in which Matt Damon survives being marooned on Mars by having to science harder than any man has ever scienced in the history of science. There's no mention of his family back home, he doesn't have visions in the Martian desert that point him in the right direction. He survives on his wit and his wit alone. Not only that, but the film revels in showing you how it's done. The movie celebrates the taking of a problem and finding a way to solve it. It's actually explained to you rather than immediately shut down as gibberish by a block headed main character.

More popular fiction has done this as well. In this age where superhero cinema has dominated the silver screen, one of the most popular characters of the last 10 years is Iron Man, or more specifically Tony Stark. Here's a man whose entire existence hinges on his ability to problem solve. Sure there's the science of making the Iron Man suit itself, but there's also the fact that Tony Stark in almost every dangerous situation he's in, has to act with the improvisational problem solving of a scientific mind. Yes, people go to see Robert Downey Jr. play a rich asshole, but he's only that way because of his arrogance. Such arrogance comes from a realization that he's so smart that he doesn't have to take shit from anybody. Compare that with just 10 years ago when the most popular superhero on the big screen was a kid who wore his intelligence like a badge of shame, and how much that changed in the reboot.

This may be the saddest picture in the world.

It's not just movies either. One of the more popular shows on television right now is 'The Flash'. In it, Barry Allen and friends fight a villain of the week, each presenting their own particular brand of obstacle. This isn't new for a superhero type story, but typically, the hero is given a weapon or some sort of artifact to help him save the day, which the hero will make a quip about not understanding how it works, they just know it works. On 'The Flash' however, every villain is always taken from a scientific point of view. Everyone on the show is a scientist and every week they face the problem, come up with a solution, and carry that out, with SCIENCE. It's not only interesting but it gives a sense of realism to the show, as impossible things are explained within the realm of our own reality. The fiction for our science.

There's real world science too, like in shows like Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire. Both are shows about coders that shows them as more than what the film industry has typically portrayed them as. The scientist can actually be a person now. Of course I can't talk about science television without mentioning 'Breaking Bad'. For 5 seasons, Walter White entertained viewers by becoming a bad ass, scarface-like drug kingpin, not through the tired acts of hyper violence, but through the beauty of the thought process. This was no more apparent, as the scene in which Walter escapes certain death by setting off an explosion he had previously disguised as crystal meth.

Maybe it's because we're becoming a more intelligent species, or maybe it's because we face global problems that only science can solve. Whatever the reason, filmmakers are taking more and more risks with audiences and allowing us to be the judge of what we can comprehend. It's refreshing to see intelligent thought celebrated, and made accessible, because in this world where life and art are self imitating, the nerdy kid who might be the thinker who saves humanity from certain doom, might be better off being encouraged by characters who had just as much development and importance as the jock, but just had a clue about what the hell they were doing.

Thanks for reading and if you have any thoughts on this, you can leave a comment below. Aside from that, I have a podcast with new episodes every Sunday. I couldn't find an episode that related to this article though's the one where we gave Oscar predictions:


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