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Movies for a scientific mind

Jascha Hoffman reviews the Sundance Film Festival.

It will be a good year for films about science, judging from the screenings at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah, last month. Aside from environmental documentaries, some of the more intriguing films on offer examined the human mind.

The documentary Boy Interrupted chronicled the life of a teen with bipolar disorder who jumped to his death after his parents took him off lithium, and Over the Hills and Far Away followed a couple scouring Mongolia for a shaman to cure their son's autism. Two fiction films, starring Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, told the stories of psychiatrists negotiating their own mental breakdowns.

Some of the best films got inside the twisted minds of fighters. Bronson made theatre of the psychopathic exploits of a British prisoner, and the documentary Tyson wove the musings of the boxer into a portrait of an exquisitely vulnerable man. Not all films reached this standard. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, about a female anthropologist studying how men view sex, did not retain the cranky charm of David Foster Wallace's novel. Adam, in which a schoolteacher falls for a young engineer with Asperger's syndrome, was stiff and preachy. Yet it won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for films depicting scientists.

“For a screenwriter it's always so much easier to tell a story about the perils of science than about incremental progress,” said Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who co-wrote the 2004 global-warming thriller The Day After Tomorrow and who served on the Sloan prize jury. The festival was remarkably free of such sensationalism.

An unusually strong presence of science fiction included a coincidental pairing of movies about astronauts encountering their own cloned replacements. Although the Japanese The Clone Returns Home was rather slow, its British counterpart, Moon, directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey, was more entertaining. If one accepts their premise — that doctors will eventually be able to duplicate not just bodies but minds — these films raise questions about medical ethics and the origins of identity.

One astrophysicist expressed frustration that none of the 118 films at Sundance depicted an ordinary scientist at work, but not all agree. “I don't make such a distinction between pure science and science fiction,” replied John Underkoffler, science adviser on the films Minority Report and Iron Man. “At their best films convey ideas, and the guise isn't so important.”

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Hoffman, J. Movies for a scientific mind. Nature 457, 1087 (2009).

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