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The Role of the Sci-Fi Scientist

In 1902 Georges Méliès captured one the first images of scientists on film. “Le Voyage Dans la Lune” (Trip to the Moon), Méliès iconic film, captures the stereotypical scientist. They are older, have crazy hair and beards, glasses, in robes, etc.

This image may never die but the character of “the scientist” is one that keeps reappearing, especially within the Sci-Fi genre. Looking back over the history of film the “scientist” of movies is a very interesting character to track because his (or her, but typically his) role keeps changing.

Is he the hero or the villain? Does he help the protagonist or the antagonist? Both?

The scientist of a science fiction film may be friend or foe, but either way he plays an integral role to both story and plot and is a driving force behind the movie.

In 1951 McCarthyism and the Red Scare were in full swing. Paranoia was running rampant and Sci-Fi was at its peak. The differences between them and us were being explored on the silver screen and communism lent itself nicely to the Earth vs. Alien(s) storyline.

Two films, “The Thing from Another World” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” are excellent examples of this phenomenon. They also provide two different scientist examples.

“The Thing from Another World,” in true sci-fi form, is about an army base at the North Pole who digs up an alien being out of the ice and accidentally unfreeze him. The alien then proceeds to wreak havoc on the quarantined military men who are stuck inside because of a snow storm.

Our scientist here is Dr. Carrington. He believes that the alien can teach him and that science and knowledge is more important than the harm the extraterrestrial can inflict. Carrington wants to befriend the creature, he admires him.

Carrington says, “Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors. No pleasure, no pain…no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way.” Even after the alien attempts to kill him he is against killing it. “Knowledge is more important than life,” he protests.

He looks like a scientist should look, he has the white hair, is always surrounded by microscopes and machines, and has people around him verifying how intelligent he is. Carrington is not our hero. But he’s not our villain either. He is certainly an annoyance to our protagonist. However, in the end our alien is defeated, the hero gets the girl and all is right with the world.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” does not follow the typical mold of the genre. First of all, the creature from another planet is our protagonist. He travels to Earth to deliver an important message and gets attacked by the Earthlings as soon as he lands.

Klaatu, our alien, spends the entire film trying to find a group of intelligent beings from all the countries of the world to share his message with. He knows the science community will be the only ones to welcome him without hostility and will believe his message and be able to do something about it.

In his search he finds Professor Barnhardt who young Billy says, “…is the smartest man on Earth.” Barnhardt has wild hair pushed pack and is working on a complicated math problem when we first meet him.

He is there to aid Klaatu and give him a platform to share his warning with the world. Like Carrington, he wants to learn from Klaatu but he is realistic about the situation. When first meeting Klaatu he warns that professors and scientists aren’t always listened to and are often ignored. The movie ends with an uneasy warning then Klaatu flies home.

Another interesting twist on the scientist character is in 1958’s “The Fly.” Here our scientist is our protagonist. This is our first example of Susan Sontag’s “savior-scientist.”

Andre Delambre builds a teleportation device and when testing it on himself is accidentally transformed into a house fly that was also in the machine. Delambre is our scientist, our protagonist, and the creature we are supposed to fear.

We relate to him because he is the central character; at the same time we are scared of him and the danger that he could cause. Delambre became a scientist and created this machine to help humanity. Instead, he might destroy it.

Similar to Barnhardt he is out for the betterment of mankind but not at the cost of human lives. In the end he knows that he must be killed in order to save the world. He muses, “It’d be funny if life weren’t so sacred.” Then, he instructs his wife to kill him.

A couple of decades later, in 1979, we get the movie “Alien.” Here we get a crew of astronauts sent to retrieve an oil refinery brings aboard an alien egg that hatches and runs amuck killing almost the entire crew. Our scientist here is Ash. The twist is that he is a humanoid sent by the company to make sure above all else the alien being gets back to Earth alive.

Like Carrington he too values science and knowledge above life and the other crew members. Ash’s motto, “Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.” Ash is there to help the creature above all else.

He can afford to be unrealistic because if the alien destroys him it’s okay because he was never alive to begin with. He was a robot. Ash fights our hero, Rippley, and loses. Both he and the alien are destroyed. But Earth is saved to live another day…until the sequels at least.

In our last example, 1996’s “Independence Day,” we see two different types of scientists, Dr. Brackish Okun and David Levinson. When alien spacecrafts start showing up over the world and firing on major cities the people of America ban together to fight them off. (That’s the basic premise, there’s too many storylines to go into great detail.)

Dr. Okun, once again, looks like your typical scientist. He has long uncombed white hair, glasses, is a little socially awkward, and even has a white lab coat. Okun works underground at Area 51 and is in charge of the scientific research.

He has studied the creatures that crashed earlier and is in awe of their technology. When showing off the alien ship they have he remarks that since the other ships had shown up his ship had started doing “really neat stuff,” completely oblivious to the fact that people are outside getting killed. He meets his end when curiosity meets the best of him and he decides that it’d be a good idea to autopsy a living alien.

At the other end of the spectrum we get David Levinson. He is another example of the “savior-scientist.”

David is the first one to find the alien’s code and then figures out how to use that against them to destroy them…with the help of his “magical” laptop. He knows that they must be destroyed; he doesn’t romanticize a meeting with them so that they can learn from each other. He flies up to the mother ship, plants the virus, and blows the ship up.

He of course lives and gets the girl and all is right with the world.

Since Méliès’ “Trip to the Moon” many different scientists have appeared on screen. We’ve seen savior-scientists, mad/ obsessive scientists, villainess scientists, and scientists who are all of these combined. There motives may change but the image of a scientist never will. In Christopher Frayling’s “Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema” it says:

…scientists are dressed in white lab coats; they have frizzy hair or else none at all; they wear Coke-bottle spectacles; they work alone indoors or underground in laboratories marked ‘Secret’; they are clearly remote from everyday concerns and relationships; they are middle-aged and not at all physically attractive.

The stereotype will never die. But do we really want it to? Science Fiction wouldn’t be the same without him. He is a vital element of any sci-fi movie or any film with sci-fi elements. They all may have different limitations and boundaries but fundamentally they are all after the same thing, the betterment of mankind. Who knows where Earth would be without them.

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