Monday, December 15, 2008

Putting Science in Science Fiction

For quite a while now I have been wanting to see a movie where characters who were supposed to be scientists talked like scientists, and where the writers took the effort to get the science right. (See SciFi Wire: Day's Reeves Pushed Real Science

I very much enjoyed the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" because, for once, I saw a movie that spoke to, rather than down to, a scientifically literate member of the audience.

There was, of course, fiction in this work of science fiction. But the science was, at least, respectable.

Apparently, it is a debt that I owe to Keanu Reaves, who, according to an article in Sci-Fi Wire:

Reeves added: "It's important that we respect the science as much as possible."

One of the changes that resulted from Reeve's value in science was to ensure that the doctor that Klaatu, the alien visitor that Reeves plays in the movie, had a Nobel Prize in a field that would be relevant to the story. So, according to director Scott Dickerson:

"So we all did some research and picked that the scientist that Klaatu meets won for biological altruism. It's a phrase that most people would gloss over, but it means a lot to the people who would understand it."

Unfortunately, I fear that the efforts in this movie may fall victim to the anti-science culture we live in where movies are supposed to promote mindless stupidity. According to one reviewer at CNN.

The new “Day” can’t be bothered to include the thought-provoking dialogue of the original, choosing instead to bury the audience with special effects that are visually impressive but no substitute for an actual script. And what words do remain are so exquisitely awful that they provide some of the season’s biggest laughs. My personal favorite? Astro-biologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) takes alien Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) to see a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and notes that her colleague was honored “for his work in biological altruism.” What would that entail, exactly? Helping frogs cross the street?

(See CNN: ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’: Klaatu barada stinko)

This is one of those all-too-common instances in which a writer - an educator - wallows so deeply in his own ignorance that he can't see what is right in front of him. How hard would it have been for the reviewer to have typed "biological altruism" into Google and read:

In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce.

See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Biological Altruism

I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was quite good. The criticisms that I have seen have typically involved elements of the science that the author simply did not get. For example, why did Klaatu seem to acquire an understanding of humanity that the rest of his people overlooked? Answer: Because Klaatu, ultimately, was born human.

I think that an effort such as this deserves some measure of support. If it gets enough support (while efforts that stupidify science gets our condemnation), we may see a small shift in entertainment away from that which supports stupidity and ignorance, and towards that which contains real science as far as we know so far.


Martin Freedman said...

Well I do find it bizarre that an actor like Keanu Reeves, who IMHO reeks of stupidity in everything he is in, would be responsible for this pro-science point. Maybe he is just acting and is type cast? Somehow I still doubt it :-)

Now I do not know if your argument was just picking up on one badly put point by one reviewer but I am surprised at your positive review given this film has been more or savaged by everyone see Nikto by Amygdala.

I was not going to watch it but now I might, given your recommendation, but first I need to know, (although this is probably not relevant to your getting science right point in your post) how does this compare to the original classic movie?

Anonymous said...

This is totally off-topic, but regarding Keanu Reeves....

Acting ability and intelligence are not closely linked. You can be dumb and a very good actor, or you can be a genius and not be able to act at all (which I'm assuming is the case with most geniuses, as with most people in general).

I've recently been forced to re-evaluate my opinion of Reeves tho. He's in a ton of good movies. Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Matrix, Constantine, Devil's Advocate, Speed, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure... he just tends to have a really monotone voice. Dunno. It's really hard not to think of him as the dumb surfer dude, but his record isn't bad.

Martin Freedman said...

Michael Shermer also gave a positive review in Scientific American of this movie and also emphasized its scientific credentials, with Keanu speaking at Cal Tech!

Interestingly he also highlighted the (not so) hidden Jesus themes in the original movie, (that I was unaware of, having grown up without exposure to xianity).