James Brown, Biochemical Society
On the 1 May, the Biochemical Society will be at the opening film of the 18th London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film. Prior to the film, geneticist, microbiologist, comedian and all round good egg Dr Charlotte Mykura will be giving a talk which aims to separate the science from the fiction and explore how fact can be even more unexpected than film.
The film in question is Chimera, a Sci-Fi horror in which (and I quote), “A brilliant but disturbed scientist’s children are in cryogenic suspension, while he races to cure their deadly disease by decoding the DNA of the immortal Turritopsis jellyfish. To progress he needs lots of stem cells. A manipulative millionaire can help but she has her own agenda!”
Like all good Sci-Fi films, it takes a nugget of science fact and a current ethical dilemma (in this case gene therapy debates) and explodes it into an over the top, extreme and frankly ludicrous situation. With elements of body-horror and gore, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or those who don’t enjoy a serving of kitsch along with their speculative Sci-Fi.
But what the film has really got me thinking about is: when biochemists are portrayed in film, are we the baddies?
Film historian Christopher Frayling’s book, Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema gives plenty of examples of the mad scientist; Drs Rotwang, Frankenstein, Strangelove, and No do nothing to improve the image of a career in STEM. Anxiety about technological advancement, especially around nuclear power and the Cold War meant that scientists were often portrayed as untrustworthy, egomaniacal and downright careless. But have things changed? Are modern representations of scientists as bad as they have been through much of the 20th century?
In order to answer this question, I’ve completed a totally un-scientific, wholly selective, and most likely quite biased survey of bioscientists in modern (well, my lifetime) film: –
Rampage (2018): – A primatologist played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has to battle gigantic monsters created by a CRISPR experiment gone wrong. Naomie Harris as Dr Kate Caldwell, a disgraced geneticist helps save the day by using more
ScienceTM. This may be the first time that CRISPR has made it into a movie, and while it’s good to see it entering the public consciousness, it’s possible that this isn’t really the message we’d like to get across. Whilst genome editing technologies aren’t without risks and public debate is essential, I don’t think we need to worry too much about accidentally creating giant apes. Still, hearing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being told the difference between genetic engineering and genetic editing is kinda cool. Bonus points for our intrepid geneticist being a woman of colour.
Verdict: Bit of a mixed one. Definitely caused untold destruction and death, but really were being manipulated by big business. Millionaire business people are definitely the baddies here. (See also, Jurassic Park).
The Martian (2015): – Matt Damon has a habit of getting stranded and having to be rescued in films, but in Ridley Scott’s The Martian he can at least fall back on his botany skills to keep him alive while he awaits the cavalry. Damon’s Mark Watney shows the sort of smarts, ingenuity and problem-solving that all good bioscience graduates display every day. By producing organic soil and optimising the growth conditions for his potato crop he’s able to survive on the red planet while listening to 70s disco tunes.
Verdict: Definitely a goodie.
Re-animator (1985): – This gore-filled horror comedy focuses on young medical student Herbert West who develops a serum that can bring corpses back to life. Even with the best intentions, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this isn’t a great idea. The inevitably psychotic re-animated corpses cause all sorts of chaos. Whilst the film was made in 1985, it’s based on a 1922 H.P. Lovecraft novelette, which is itself an updated telling of Frankenstein, which may explain its old-fashioned view of medical scientists.
Verdict: – More mad than bad, but definitely not one of the good guys.
Contagion (2011): – Here’s a challenge for you; watch the opening scene of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and then get on the London Underground. Bet you can’t do it.
When a mystery infection races across the globe killing all in its path and leading to a global crisis, who you gonna call? That’s right, biochemists! While the rest of the world is going all Mad Max, Jennifer Ehle and Dimitri Martin are in the lab trying to develop a vaccine by, y’know research and hard work and stuff. A great example of how science works in collaboration with other organisations and collaborators.
Verdict: Who hasn’t fantasized about their lab work being humanity’s last hope? Goodies through and through.
Annihilation (2018): – Natalie Portman plays “The Biologist” who is investigating the mysterious Area X within which evolution, mutation and modern dance have collided to create something entirely mind-bending and wonderfully head-scratching. Any film that opens with an off-hand reference to John Sulston and throws in conversations about Hox genes gets my seal of approval. Taking a decidedly more abstract approach than the other films on this list, Alex Garland’s proper grown-up Sci-Fi film manages to ask some big questions about individuality, evolution, consciousness and human exceptionalism. More interested in what we don’t know than what we do, Annihilation gives no easy answers which probably makes it the most relatable film about science in ages.
Verdict: – Errr, yes. Possibly. But maybe not. I might have to watch it again.
Bladerunner 2049 (2017): – Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is the CEO of Wallace Corporation which manufactures bioengineered humans, or replicants. Since the primary purpose of the replicants is to be used as slave labour, Wallace is firmly in the baddie category. There’s not really anything else to say. Anyone who creates clones entirely for profit isn’t going to win any prizes for being kind and cuddly.
Verdict: As bad and maniacal as bioscientists come.
The Rock (1996): – In this non-more 90s action extravaganza, Nicholas Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, the only man who has the skills to save the city of San Francisco from biological terrorism. Not only does he get to be BFFs with Sean Connery, he gets the best line ever uttered by a biochemist on film;
“Look, I’m just a biochemist. Most of the time, I work in a little glass jar and lead a very uneventful life. I drive a Volvo, a beige one. But what I’m dealing with here is one of the most deadly substances the earth has ever known, so what say you cut me some FRIGGIN’ SLACK?”
Where’s my T-shirt with that on?
Verdict: Nicholas Cage, good or bad? Better minds than mine have failed to answer that question.
In conclusion, biochemists and bioscientists come out fairly well I think. More often than not they save the day, or try to and their hearts are definitely in the right place. Their biggest crime seems to be that they are often easily manipulated by nefarious business types or shady military organisations. Oops. The only out-and-out villain on this list is also CEO of the company, so we can assume that it’s the wealth and power that led him to the dark side rather than his pipetting skills.
The portrayal of scientists in popular culture affects the reception of science and technology by different publics. Whilst we all know that these are fictional stories, they do have an impact on people’s worldviews, with potentially long-lasting effects. The image of the lone, lab-coated, mad scientist in the early days of cinema has been remarkably persistent. Studies repeatedly show that when asked to draw a scientist, children will default to the white, male, crazy-haired eccentric. This is changing; recent studies show that children are drawing more female scientists than ever before. Unfortunately, other stereotypes persist, namely a persistence of children drawing scientists as white.
If we want a diverse, inclusive and equal society with a respect for difference (which we do), then we need to ensure that we have representation on screen and throughout our cultural engagements with science. While I would not want to suggest that we totally lose the archetype of the Frankensteins and the Strangeloves, I’m certainly glad that our more modern depictions demonstrate not only an increased field of representation on screen, but also that scientists can be the ones to save the day.