Redbrick’s Sci&Tech and Film Writers and Editors discuss their favourite films that incorporate scientific themes
Fantastic Planet – Louis Wright
The science-fiction genre has always been one that provides acute critiques of modern society. Fantastic Planet (1973) is no exception to this as the French animated film directed by René Laloux uses scientific concepts to explore a commentary on the harms of anthropocentrism towards the ecosystem.
By having an advanced alien race, the Draags, rule over the descendants of humanity, the Oms, as if they were nothing more than insects, provides an insight into humanity’s own vanity and our superiority towards the world we live in and the species that inhabit it. By using the concept of aliens, something that many agree are a reality in the universe, to demonstrate how pitiful humanity could be in a situation where their power and agency is revoked; the film provides a powerful commentary on how we must reflect on our place as a species and the impact we have on those we share the world with.
Having humanity within the film be the subjugated species allows the audience to connect with their plight by removing the aspect of otherness that would otherwise be present. Therefore, Fantastic Planet becomes a fantastic demonstration of the impact that humanity has on other species, and that to share the world we cannot rule it.
Limitless – Josie Scott-Taylor
When I was younger, I was blind to the issues in Limitless (2011) because I was too busy getting lost in Bradley Cooper’s eyes, but after revisiting it again recently, its problematic nature was striking. The blatant misogyny was the first thing I noticed – Eddie, the failing author who turns to cognition-enhancing drugs (known as nootropics) to boost his career as an author, turns into a mansplaining womaniser whose intelligence leaves previously uninterested women simpering at his feet, and his behaviour is seemingly supposed to be lauded by the audience. The whole film is one big male-power fantasy.
Sexism aside, the portrayal of Limitless’s fictional nootropic NZT-48 (‘noos’ meaning ‘mind’ in Greek, and ‘trope’ meaning ‘turning’) is interesting, in that it appears to work the same for everyone despite little research having been done into the side effects and risks of the drug. In reality, this would definitely not be the case, with past examples like the Thalidomide disaster, given to pregnant women to prevent morning sickness but causing thousands of babies to be born with severe disabilities, demonstrating the importance of extensive research into bodily differences before distributing a drug. Limitless is entertaining enough, but sadly does not seem to care much for science.
Arrival – Jess Parker
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, released to cinemas in 2016 and based on the Ted Chiang novella Story of Your Life, follows Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she works towards deciphering an otherworldly language. Banks is paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who helps her to build trust and understanding between humans and the Heptapods, an alien race who have landed 12 spacecrafts across the globe.
Contrasting the norms of the Alien-Invasion Sci-Fi subgenre, Arrival focuses on the practicalities of communication, rather than action-packed drama. The Heptapod language is entirely unlike our own, sounding like something you would hear at the deepest depths of the ocean and appearing in a series of circular inky symbols called logograms. Banks begins by working with simple language and grammar, a choice that Jessica Coon, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at McGill University and consultant on Arrival, believes to be accurate to a real-life scenario. Speaking with Wired, Coon explains that “You have to really understand some of the smaller pieces of grammar before you work up to the big question, because there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding.”
Arrival’s tackling of language and communication is grounded in realism, allowing for Villeneuve’s breathtaking visual spectacle to feel grand and fantastical, yet rooted in meaningful conversations surrounding who we are and how we understand one another.
The Terminator – Emily Wallace
The Terminator presents a dystopian future in which the AI network Skynet has taken over the world. When a Terminator is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to the future Resistance leader John Connor, the Resistance must send back a soldier, Kyle Reese, to protect her. As a relationship develops between Kyle and Sarah, we realise he was John Connor’s father all along, thus making his presence in the past necessary to ensure his birth.
While there is much to be said about the representation of evil AI that controls the world, the undercurrent of an AI that literally tries to rewrite the past feels particularly threatening. Theoretical discussions of how time travel would work if it were real have debated whether the time traveller would be able to change the future and create an alternate timeline, or whether the timeline has always been fixed. The irony of Skynet’s plan is that the world exists in a fixed timeline when they believe it would create an alternate timeline; by sending back the Terminator, they inadvertently cause the event they tried to prevent. While the logic of many time travel films can fall apart if examined too closely, the first Terminator film is a surprisingly coherent exploration of how a fixed timeline might work, and in particular, what time travel could look like in a world where technology rules over humanity, and how it might be used.
Everything Everywhere All At Once – Georgia Brooks
One of the plethora of multiverse films that seem to be in our cinemas currently, Everything Everywhere All at Once takes a concept that we are all fairly aware of, but stands out for its creative and comedic use of the idea.
A highly disputed and still totally unproven concept within science, the idea of the multiverse is that of the existence of other universes beyond our own, whether that be bubble universes created every time we make a choice, to regions of space within different planes from our own. However, the multiverse theory could explain some of the confusing scientific phenomena that we observe: for example, there is a many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which would create branching timelines. Whats more, within Everything Everywhere All at Once, Jobu Tupaki (the villain)’s constantly changing weapon demonstrates a very real concept within quantum mechanics: that of superposition, the ability of a system to exist in multiple states at once.
Although the multiverse theory is very much unproven within science, it has also yet to be disproven, and could potentially explain some pretty strange phenomena that physicists observe. Everything Everywhere All at Once plays with these concepts in a more philosophical and metaphorical manner than is typical in franchises such as Marvel, demonstrating the diverse and groundbreaking implications that this concept could potentially have.
Avatar: The Way of Water – Taylor Fulton-Ward
With the Avatar sequel Avatar: The Way of Water hitting $2 billion at the box office, interest has turned to how the producers created their lifelike alien characters, including from that of U.K. scientific researchers.
Motion-capture suits, used in the Avatar films to capture the realistic movements of actors, link sensors on the suit to various cameras to accurately assess movements and subtle changes in body position. The intricate detail that this technology can capture has caught the attention of scientists based in London, England, and their collaborators further afield.
Two studies published by the researchers in Nature Medicine early this year report on how similar technology can be used to track disease progression in two rare genetic diseases. Friedreich’s ataxia, or FA, is caused by a specific change in the DNA of the affected individual, which results in progressive impairments in the movement, coordination, speech and eventually, heart disease. Similarly, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) is also a genetic disease that results in continued worsening of movement and strength over time, leading to a shortened life expectancy. Research into drugs that can be used to treat FA and DMD is a long process as clinical assessment of patients is subjective and often variable.
The two ground-breaking studies report on their use of motion-capture suit technology to measure the disease progression of individuals with FA and DMD through the assessment of movement, coordination and strength. They measured Activities of Daily Life (ADL) to understand objectively how the disease is impacting the patients in their day-to-day movements and activities. The researchers found that use of the novel technology could accurately predict the disease trajectory of patients with FA and DMD and could be used to shorten the length of studies when testing out new drugs and treatments.
This innovative and forward-thinking technology in medicine could pave the way for many more advancements in a field traditionally difficult to study.
Interstellar – Helena Da Costa
Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar offers far more than visually-stunning CGI synonymous with other science-fiction productions. Applying contemporary astrophysics to tell a story of wormholes, time travel, and five-dimensional universes, Interstellar’s extensive research team (led by physicist Kip Thorne) encourages the audience to imagine such environments to be real, even if their existence remains fiction. For instance, wormholes, allowing immediate travel across millions of light years, are the product of fast-rotating large black holes, whose spin and size open a doorway between two areas in the universe. In theory, this could exist. However, the aim was not to prove the reality of Interstellar, but to open up the possibility for such places to exist to a widespread audience, demonstrating how extraordinary the universe is and presenting new avenues in the search for ET. For example, the habitability of ‘Miller’s planet’ in the film is unusual: there is no star. Heat and light are obtained instead from an accretion disk – ring of hot, bright gas spinning round supermassive black holes such as Interstellar’s ‘Gargantua’. Despite some artistic license, accretion disks have been photographed as largely resembling Interstellar’s spinning ring of fire.
However, Interstellar is not entirely a blockbuster-tribute to astrophysical imagination, but to more earth-bound sciences too. In this way, the fantastical ideas indicate a moral undertone: if Interstellar is the dystopia, where is the utopia? The Mad Max-style wasteland on Earth suggests it is now. Consequently, Interstellar inspires us to celebrate the wonders of space and Earth in the same light, promoting its salvation before Interstellar truly becomes a reality.
Her – James Evenden
As evolving technologies delve deeper into the realm of the uncanny, I think the most interesting implications this has are the human ones. What does AI companionship mean for humans? There are few films that ask this question than Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). One key detail that both Her and real life stress, when it comes to the nuances of human emotion, is that technology encountering them is likely to be a complicated issue. Professor of Artificial Intelligence Björn Schuller at Imperial College London says that the technology seen in Her already exists, emotional support robots are being used in care homes for example. Her ultimately attests that whilst these technologies are valuable for helping us understand ourselves, there is a definitive boundary between humans and AI that has to be kept separate.
Her tells us that these technologies are simply not fit to deal with the delicacy and unpredictability of human emotion. If Schuller is telling us that these technologies are not as science-fiction as one might think, then we need to heed Her’s sentiment and acknowledge the impossible bar we are asking of AI to understand the innateness and potency of human love.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Leah Renz
Marvel’s Black Panther franchise is a visually stunning work of afrofuturism, brimming with fantastic technology. Whilst many sci-fi narratives imagine dystopian futures, pitching man against machine or oppression via technology, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever imagines a future made more beautiful and empowering through science.
One of the franchise’s signature technologies is maglev (magnetic levitation) which enables vehicles to float and zoom through the air. Though not quite at Wakandan efficiency, China pioneered their own intercity maglev trains using powerful electromagnets to float the trains over a guideway.
Opened in 2004, The Shanghai Maglev is the world’s fastest high-speed commercial train, reaching speeds of 268 mph. The maglev trains’ lack of engine means that it releases no carbon emissions, making it a far greener alternative to fossil fuel travel. According to a 2015 article from The Green Industrial Revolution journal Maglev trains are “faster, quieter, and smoother than conventional systems”.
Seeing the technology of the fantastical Wakanda in real life, such as China’s high-speed maglev train, is amazing. Inspired by the role model of Wakandan princess Shuri (Leticia Wright), the best development in science, however, would not be the implementation of further Wakandan technologies, but rather increased numbers of women and people of colour studying STEM.
Back to The Future – Sophie Utteridge
Back to the Future remains one of my all-time favourite films – and an 80s classic. The concept of time travel fascinated me as a child. I would debate with my dad for hours if time travel would one day become a reality, or if it even should become a reality. Truly, the morals of time travel has become a staple dinner table conversation in my family. But could it actually happen?
Researchers have long studied the realities of time travel. Most have come to the conclusion that even if it did exist, any changes made in the past would not have any consequences in the future. For example, when Marty McFly, the film’s main character, accidently replaces his father in the fateful car accident which led to his parents’ meeting, researchers say that it would have no adverse effects. Marty and his siblings would still exist despite the timeline having seemingly changed. According to the laws of physics, the future has already been written for us.
NASA have a different theory. They use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to explain the effect of “time dilation” as the true version of time travel. This is the effect where everyone’s time is relative to each other due to the curvature of space-time. Essentially, if you are able to carve space and time to bend to your will, you can travel laterally and vertically across the timeline. The only slight flaw in the theory is the physical capability of doing it.
Confused? Yeah, same here.
Back to the Future may very well become possible – just not in the way we expect. We might not get a time travelling Delorean but who knows, perhaps we’ll get a Ford Fiesta.
The Martian – Alex Taylor
The Martian, an adaptation of the novel by Andy Weir, features the Robinson-Crusoe-esque survival story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), as he struggles to survive after being abandoned on the arid landscape of Mars. As Watney slowly learns to adapt to an alien landscape, he, aided by vast quantities of human faeces, learns to cultivate his own food in order to survive. Whilst the science may occasionally seem too-far-fetched, Watney provides a believably messy beard, alongside a detailed log of his life, while surviving solely on potatoes dipped in ketchup. Despite Ridley Scott’s occasional, and light manipulation of some basic scientific principles, his fellow astronauts returning to rescue him concludes the film with a statement on humanity’s perseverance to survive, in the face of insurmountable scientific odds.
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