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Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

David A. Kirby

(MIT Press; US: Mar 2011)

There’s reality and then there’s Hollywood reality, and in the case of science there is often a broad gulf between the two. Of course, the bottom line for movie producers is to make movies which are financially and/or critically successful, while science is presumably concerned with increasing the world’s store of useful knowledge. But these interest need not always be in opposition. That’s David A. Kirby’s thesis in Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, which argues that plausible science can help a film be successful, while a well-done film broaching scientific topics can do much to increase public awareness and appreciation for science.


Kirby is uniquely qualified to write this book. He was a lab scientist studying molecular evolution before taking a postdoctoral retraining fellowship in Cornell University’s department of Science and Technology Studies, and is now a lecturer in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester. This background allows him to see the problem from multiple points of view and to give due consideration to the competing interests and demands of filmmakers and scientists.


He avoids the trap of embracing a naïve view of “realism” (arguing that dwelling on points of minor scientific inaccuracy within a film is often beside the point) in favor of a more nuanced stance, which recognizes that science in movies must be presented in such a way that the audience will find what’s presented at least somewhat realistic.


To put it another way, a successful dramatic film must seem both credible and plausible to the audience, but these goals are seldom reached through a superficial recreation of reality. In addition, reality is mostly dull (much of the daily work of science is both repetitive and routine), while movie audiences expect to see something interesting and entertaining in return for the price of the ticket.


Scientists working in the real world are often uncertain as to whether their research is on the right track or not, but in the movies “ambiguity hinders plausibility” in Kirby’s phrase, so in order to get audiences to accept the cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the movie presents cloning from ancient DNA as established fact. Real scientific knowledge also came into play, helping the digital technicians working on Jurassic Park create cinematic dinosaurs which were plausible to the audience because they moved similarly to familiar animals such as ostriches and elephants.


Kirby takes a positive view of the relationship between scientists and filmmakers, noting that each can help further the others’ goals. The scientific advisor can provide many types of information to the filmmaker, from coaching actors on how to “act like a scientist” and helping production designers create a set of a scientific laboratory which will look convincingly real, to contributing story ideas and advising on how to maintain the plausibility of the scientific enterprise within the film. Scientific advisors also lend credibility to a film and their appearance in ancillary materials (e.g., on “making of” features often included as DVD extras) may help attract audience members because the presence of the advisor may be interpreted as vouching for the film’s scientific content.


The main attraction for scientists to consultant for film and television, beyond the opportunity to make some extra money, is the chance to reach a much larger audience than those few colleagues in professional circles. Kirby cites the 1998 film Armageddon, which portrayed a NASA mission successfully destroying a huge asteroid which was on a collision course with Earth. NASA allowed the Armageddon filmmakers unprecedented access to its facilities and personnel, and NASA researcher Ivan Bekey served as the film’s scientific advisor.


Although Armageddon was not particularly accurate in any scientific sense (unlike another film on the same theme released the same year, Deep Impact), NASA cooperated with the film in the hopes of raising public interest in Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and thus acquiring funds for further research (Bekey makes this explicit in his DVD commentary on the film).


The television series Life Goes On (1989-1993) featured an HIV-positive character (Jesse McKenna) who was being treated with antiretroviral medication. Two consultants for the show had differing opinions as to what Jesse’s future course of action should be: HIV-positive activist Rod Garcia thought the show should portray Jesse going off his medication and trying alternative therapies, while UCLA physician Wayne Grody argued that Jesse should stay on his medication. Grody’s argument, which prevailed, was that if Jesse went off his prescribed medication many HIV-positive men involved in clinical trials might do likewise, potentially jeopardizing their health, and certainly setting back research into newly-approved antiretroviral “cocktails” (AZT plus other antiretrovirals such as ddC).


Much of Lab Coats in Hollywood is based on interviews with scientists who acted as advisors on commercial films, providing insight into the process by which scientific knowledge is incorporated into a film and how decisions are made which balance the competing needs of cinematic effectiveness and scientific accuracy. One word of warning: this is not a fan-boy book, and those seeking a compendium of cinematic trivia will come away disappointed. Instead, it’s an academic treatise, but a very readable one, which will be of interest not only to movie-loving scientists but to anyone who is interested in how “reality”—scientific reality, that is—is conveyed on the silver screen.

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