Books and Arts

Nature 455, 734-735 (9 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/455734b; Published online 8 October 2008

Science at the movies

Jascha Hoffman1

ARTS REVIEWED: Imagine Science Film Festival

New York City, New York
16–25 October 2008

When scientists appear on the big screen, if at all, they tend to be going mad or else paying for their hubris — think Dr. Strangelove, Jurassic Park and A Beautiful Mind. This month, two new film festivals — the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York (http://www.imaginesciencefilms.com) and CinemaScience in Bordeaux, France (http://www.cnrs.fr/cinemascience) — aim to correct this impression. Privileging fiction over documentary, they show how to tell stories grounded in real research.

The Imagine festival, sponsored by Nature, began as a series of screenings at New York's Rockefeller University by biologist Alexis Gambis. Illness is the villain in many of the chosen short films, from Jen Peel's medical thriller Muerto Canyon, about a deadly virus in New Mexico, to Toddy Burton's The Aviatrix, about the superhero alter-ego of a woman struggling with cancer. Some of the best use humour. California King, directed by Eli Kaufman, is the tale of a mattress salesman who falls for an insomniac, and it is leavened with ironically placed lessons in Newtonian mechanics. Like the wordless opening of Disney–Pixar's WALLdotE, the post-apocalyptic Pygmalion story Lone, from Andrew Nowrojee, has some of the pathetic charm of Buster Keaton.

A pair of pulse-quickening features in Spanish round out the programme: La Habitación de Fermat (Fermat's Room; 2007), a thriller about a group of mathematicians forced to solve word problems or die, and Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (2008), in which virtual labour and water politics make for a Mexican Star Wars with a Marxist twist. The festival also screens Paul Devlin's stranger-than-fiction documentary BLAST! (2006), about astrophysicists travelling to Antarctica to launch a telescope on a high-altitude balloon.

ARTS REVIEWED: CinemaScience

Village CinemaScience, Bordeaux, France
16–26 October 2008

The CinemaScience festival in Bordeaux is sponsored by the CNRS, France's basic-research agency. The festival examines Hollywood's reliance on scientific innovation as a source of disaster, with retrospectives of classics from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) to James Cameron's Terminator II (1991). As a mild corrective, Exodus Film Group's new animated feature Igor, about a hunchbacked lab assistant who hopes to win the Evil Science Fair, promises to poke gentle fun at common misperceptions. Other films engage more seriously with the history of science. The biopic Korolev (2007), directed by Yuri Kara, follows the career of the Russian rocket scientist who survived Stalin's labour camps to launch Sputnik into orbit. Andrzej Wajda's acclaimed film Katyn acute (2007), about the Soviet massacre of Polish troops in 1940, is informed by a forensic investigation of their mass grave. But not all is dark and Slavic. The French comedy La Très Très Grande Entreprise (directed by Pierre Jolivet, on general release next month), about workers who sue an agrochemical company for polluting their pond, is Erin Brockovich played for laughs. And Chilean Ricardo Larraín's Chile Puede (2008) tells the story of an unfortunate cosmonaut stranded in space by his own countrymen.

The festivals show that there are many ways to get research right at the movies. "When you make a film, you want the science to be wrapped around a story," said Gambis of the Imagine festival. "I don't think you have to distort science to make it exciting."

  1. Jascha Hoffman is a writer based in New York.
    Email: jascha@jaschahoffman.com