PD Smith

Science and the cinema

Times Literary Supplement, June 6, 2008

Keith Williams, H.G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies.
279 pp. Liverpool UP, 2007.
£16.95. ISBN: 978-184631-060-7. [pbk]
£50.00. ISBN: 978-184631-059-1. [hbk]

Sidney Perkowitz, Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World.
256 pp. Columbia UP, 2007.
£14.95. ISBN: 978-0-231-14280-9

By P. D. Smith

In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the experience of travelling through the fourth dimension is cinematic: the Time Traveller sits like a film-goer, watching the accelerated passage of time, as the time machine’s dials spin ever faster. The effect is of rapid cutting and slow fade-out: “The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came tomorrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter.” As Keith Williams says, time in the novel becomes a “movie reel, speeded forwards and backwards, or stopped at will”. Remarkably, The Time Machine was written before Wells had seen a film. It was published in 1895, the very year the cinematograph was invented by the Lumière brothers. As film historian Ian Christie has said, their invention “quite literally made time travel a spectator sport”.

Wells, Invisible ManWilliams’s scholarly study argues convincingly that Wells’s early fiction anticipates the “cinematisation” of culture, both in his narrative technique and in his description of the technology. Wells – dubbed the “Realist of the Fantastic” by Conrad – is, says Williams, “the unjustly neglected precursor of High Modernist interest and influence on both avant garde and popular aspects of the new medium.” Wells’s prescience is, of course, legendary and today we live in a Wellsian world. He coined the phrase “atomic bomb” before World War I, anticipating the age of nuclear proliferation and terrorists armed with suitcase nukes.

He also foresaw our surveillance society and mass entertainment culture. When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) portrays a dystopian future ruled by a Big Brother dictator who exploits the new technologies of sound and vision to control his subjects. Lenin would later claim that of all the arts available to promote the Soviet revolution, “cinema is the most important”. Hitler too knew the power of movies. Intriguingly, John Logie Baird described Wells as the “demi-god” of his youth and said his experiments with television were directly inspired by When the Sleeper Wakes.

As well as exhaustively analyzing Wells’s early fiction for traces of “optical speculations” and “self-reflexive visuality”, Williams explores “the creative debt” Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) owes to Wells’s legacy. Having by this time largely outgrown his earlier fear of the future, Wells ungratefully described Lang’s epic dystopian homage as the “silliest film”. It did, however, spur Wells into trying his hand at screen-writing in order to communicate his more optimistic socio-scientific message. But ironically, the man who had skillfully used filmic techniques in his early work was less successful as a screen-writer. Despite stunning visual effects, Things to Come (1936) – Wells’s riposte to Lang’s film – was not a box-office hit. One US distributor complained, “nobody is going to believe that the world is going to be saved by a bunch of people with British accents.”

In his final chapter, Williams shows how Wells’s work has remained “an inexhaustible rhizome for intelligent and visually self-aware SF on film and television”. This is the territory explored by Hollywood Science. Physicist Sidney Perkowitz grew up in 1950s America, in a culture suffused by science – the atomic age, the space race, computers and the genetic revolution. For Perkowitz, science fact and science fiction were always part of the same equation. The best science fiction inspired “sheer amazed wonder” at the universe, but – as his entertaining survey of science in the cinema shows – Hollywood often falls far short of this goal. According to Perkowitz, The Core (2003) represents the nadir of Hollywood science. When the earth’s core stops rotating, switching off the planet’s “electromagnetic” field of energy and exposing everyone to lethal microwaves, a team of crack scientists journeys to the centre of the earth to save the day. Despite having the chutzpah to list scientific advisors in its credits and a claim by its director that “the film is science faction”, Perkowitz skewers it for packing “record-setting amounts of scientific misinformation into a short time”.

A third of the top fifty highest grossing movies of all time are science fiction, and their cultural significance goes deeper than merely popularising phrases like “beam me up, Scotty”. For instance, Perkowitz praises climate-change blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004) for drawing public attention to “a real and current problem”. He points out that in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Al Gore uses the “same diagram to give the same explanation of how warming could disrupt ocean currents” as the fictional climatologist in Roland Emmerich’s film. Clearly, the scientific references in such films “mirror real science and its effects on society”, and they shape our understanding of science. For this reason, Perkowitz wants to make sure they get the science right and he challenges Hollywood to “present good science and realistic scientists”.

HollywoodHollywood Science surveys over one hundred films, summarising plots (redundantly in the case of blockbusters like The Terminator) and rigorously testing Hollywood’s science on subjects ranging from extraterrestrial life and threats from Earth-bound asteroids, to nuclear Armageddon and whether computers could take over the world. Perkowitz also considers the representation of scientists in movies, a subject explored with more insight by Christopher Frayling in Mad, Bad and Dangerous? (2005).

Unfortunately, although it is always readable and informative, Hollywood Science is something of a missed opportunity. Separating facts from fantasies is a laudable task, but there is far more to any film or fiction than factual accuracy. It is, indeed, fascinating to learn why silicon-based life-forms, such as the monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), would face physiological difficulties (carbon-based life-forms exhale the gas CO2, but they would have to remove a solid, SiO2, from their systems). However, as with other movies discussed in the book, there is surely much more to be said here. Alien is, for instance, a powerful meditation on Darwin’s “dangerous idea” – evolution. As Wells says in The War of the Worlds, life “is an incessant struggle for existence”. To the Martians we are “at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us” and Wells reminds his readers “what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” on other creatures. Ridley Scott’s terrifying alien is the perfect Darwinist organism, more lethally successful in the deadly game of survival than even Homo sapiens. It is the ultimate personification of Tennyson’s Nature, “red in tooth and claw”. The alien is nothing less than our worst evolutionary nightmare and the film – like Wells’s early fiction – is a wonderful amalgam of science and fantasy.

[Note: this is the author's version of this review; the published version may differ slightly.]