Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar and Hollywood's New "Actual Scientists"

The moment when Portlandia killed me softly was with this sketch, wherein yet another good-looking Somebody advertises herself as "just a big nerd, really!" — at which moment a portly young man appears and breaks the frame, confessional-style, to share what an "actual nerd" looks like. He is, of course, the spitting image; doughy, beady-eyed, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. He looks and sounds exactly like the Magic: The Gathering nerds who were my friends in middle school, and the overweight grumpy guys that ran the comic book shop I frequented. These are "actual nerds," and they are not good-looking, confident, or cutely dressed. They are often unhappy people.


Today, Hollywood is having a flush of infatuation with scientists, in the wake of Warner Bros.' release of Interstellar, which forms a kind of one-two punch of well-received science-fiction epics with last year's Gravity. Both films have been praised for their scientific accuracy, lambasted for their schmaltzy dialogue, and celebrated as heralds of a new era in pro-science cinema.

This is all well and good. Putting science front and center at the movies — whether as a playground for spectacle or as a methodological approach to interacting with the world — can only have a positive influence on the public, especially given the alternatives of Let's Be Cops and Iron Man 4.

My complaint for the hour is not with the above films' treatment of science, broadly — I have no issue with the absurd liberties taken in Interstellar's third act, or the fact that Gravity should have been called Inertia. My complaint is with Hollywood's continuing portrayal of scientists as looking and sounding nothing like actual scientists.

The trouble with Interstellar, arguably, began with casting Matthew McConaughey, who accepted his role as America's All-Purpose Cowboy with a smirk about five years ago and now plays just the one guy in every movie, a persona disdainful of everything but intuition and good times, all right all right. But even a perfectly-cast actor remains a servant of the dialogue he is given, and this is where science truly gets short-changed. I can't link to scenes from Interstellar without committing piracy, but consider this dialogue from the film, as a group of highly-trained astronauts and engineers perform a critical docking procedure:

Cooper: "Okay, taking control... Approaching docking port... It's all you, Doyle."
   (Doyle wipes his brow as he guides the spaceship toward the connection point.)
Cooper: "Nice and easy, Doyle, nice and easy."
Doyle: "No good..."
Cooper: "Take it slow."
Doyle: "Locked!"
Cooper: "Target locked. Nice work!"
Brand: "Good job."

•         •         •

"T-minus 5 minutes to launch: The commander of the shuttle will be given the "go" to start the orbiter's auxiliary power units (APU), which produce pressure for the shuttle's hydraulic system. There are three separate onboard APUs, and their fuel systems are located in the aft fuselage of the orbiter. Once the APUs are powered up, ground teams will analyze the system, and if they detect any glitches, this could halt the countdown. At the T-minus 4 minute, 30 seconds mark, the Ground Launch Sequencer program will switch the main fuel valve heaters off. As the clock ticks down, the GLS will also perform checks of the fuel and main engines."


Start to get the idea? SCIENCE IS HARD. The things that scientists do — whether it's docking a space shuttle, splicing genes, or colliding particle beams —are incredibly complex and dangerous, and each action requires an exhaustive set of checks and confirmations to execute. This rigor of procedure is at the heart of what scientists do and what kind of people they are; they perform tasks carefully, thoughtfully, and methodically, because if they don't, they usually wind up with (at best) tainted lab results or (possibly) a horrific fireball of death consuming them and all they know.

Okay, fine, you say — but what about when the scientists are in a frantic, fast-paced survival situation, as in Interstellar and every other sci-fi movie ever? The answer is (ask any scientist), those situations are precisely when their scientific training kicks into fifth gear. Listen to the dialogue in this clip from Ron Howard's Apollo 13, a movie that mercifully embraces and revels in its jargon:

 "Houston, we have a problem... We have a main bus B underbolt. We've got a lot of thruster activity here, Houston."
"What's the story with the computer now?
"It just went offline."
"I'm checking the quads."
"Christ, there's no repress valves."
"Maybe quad C."
"I'm gonna reconfigure the RCS."
"It doesn't make any sense."
"We've got multiple cautions and warnings, Houston. We've got to reset to restart."
"All right, I'm going to SES."

....This is an incredibly exciting scene. That's not a joke. That dialogue you just read is thrilling as shit when you watch the movie. The scene is suspenseful because 1) we know something really bad has happened, 2) the music is churning and the camera movements are frantic, and 3) we believe that these guys are extremely smart and are doing everything they can to fix things, and are still helpless. It doesn't matter that we don't have a clue what they're saying. If an audience member has half a brain, he should expect to not understand a lot of the dialogue in a movie about fucking astronauts. Do we really think that when rocket scientists are building the rocket they say to each other, "Here, run the big blue wire up through that little slot next to the bolt thingy."? No, they say "Please pass the transducer conduit through the LTS junction so our sync feed can connect to the fiber relays." Or some shit like that.


The point is that science jargon makes movies featuring scientists better. It makes us believe that the characters are smart and that they will make good choices in the face of peril and that they have earned their place in the story. It works especially well in scenes of high tension; try this sequence from another Matthew McConaughey not-quite-masterpiece, U-571. For all I know, "main induction valves" might be a part of my washing machine, and the screenwriters just bullshitted it right onto a German submarine. But it sounds like the kind of thing these seamen should be yelling about. I believe this scene.

Hollywood fancies itself in the throes of a new crush on scientists, but it has spent too many decades in bed with the All-American Cowboy, and it still swoons for His way above all others — for His Way is the Way of Generalization, wherein all specific dialogue is eliminated and replaced with drawled generalities: "Press the red button" becomes "You got this, Jim!"  The Cowboy Way constitutes a diminutive and irreverent approach to scientific exploration, and it is dangerous for our young movie audiences, who may now think the best people to lead our pioneering scientific expeditions are those with the most swagger — a proposal that may literally come true with the planned reality TV show to launch the colonization of Mars. The movies shouldn't make us want to see John Wayne flying the space shuttle. He would be terrible at it.


  1. while i totally agree with your main argument, and i think sciency films would do well to learn and employ much more science-talk, i think one trade off that i'm willing to swallow is that films like interstellar and gravity, films with 3rd grade autistic kid levels of science talk, really sex up the notion of science for the masses.

    think about it. people are going to see interstellar in droves. lotta kids, too. some of those kids just might divert their course in life because of an interstellar or a gravity, and simply because Nolan / Cuaron made science *look and sound cool.* the pure sex of it all, which includes gross oversimplification, is like a bright dumb flame that will hopefully attract a ton of moths.

    do we need more thinkin' man's science fiction? abso fuckin lutely (see: Sunshine). we need it in droves. we need the kind of stories and characters that light fires under our asses, yours and mine, and make us want to pick up a solar panel and figure out just what in the fuck it's doing. but we also need big dumb commercialized slick john fuckin' wayne sci-fi, for the kids. for the future scientists. science has to, and is starting to, look really fucking cool.

    1. I agree with you that the easy appeal and sexiness of pro-science movies is paramount. We'll call this the Greater Good argument.
      What I'm suggesting is, all you need to do in these movies is shift the dialogue in a few key scenes toward the "actual scientific procedure" end of the spectrum, leaving the plot and everything else intact, and you will have a profoundly more authentic sexy blockbuster experience.
      Apollo 13 is the perfect example -- Howard could have built the "we have a problem" scene out of generic McConaughey-esque dialogue like "It's all gone crazy, man!" "Get a handle on it!" "This is not good..." but he chose to use the intelligent sciencey language above, and the scene works. It works perfectly because in moments like these, it's not about what they're saying, it's about how they're saying it.
      The docking sequence in Interstellar could just as easily have used actual procedural tech-speak, and it wouldn't have changed anything about the movie as a whole. You'd still have your sexiness and your absurd plot twists and almost certainly your $60 million box office take...but then at least guys like me wouldn't have had to get all grumpy and bust the nerd out here.
      Just sayin'.