I reckon it’s one of those evenings again when instead of doing something that I had already planned in advance (in this particular case it was a plan to review a film) I will be forced to address an issue that has been brewing in the back of my brain for a while.
It has come to my attention that a film that I thoroughly enjoyed (“Pacific Rim”) weirdly enough has sparked a discussion about the erroneous and allegedly denigrating portrayal of science and its practitioners. Therefore, I feel compelled to voice my own opinion on the subject, as I have not only enjoyed the film and have not been bothered by its take on science, but – as a scientist myself – I think I am reasonably qualified to do so anyway being a member of the community that has supposedly been affected by “Pacific Rim’s” ignorant, superficial and (help me, thesaurus, you’re my only hope) defamatory depiction of the world’s intellectual elite.
In the last week’s episode of Slashfilmcast, as a sort of impromptu debate in between film reviews, the problem of “Pacific Rim” and its goofy scientists has been raised, wherein it was argued that the scientist characters portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman have nothing to do with how a real scientist looks like and that the film-makers have completely over-stepped the line between a comedic caricature and a slanderous mockery. The comment by a real-life professional particle physicist from Penn University, Sean, who must have left the screening deeply offended by how Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham have shown his profession in an allegedly negative light, has only cemented my resolve to partake in the discussion.
Let me ask you this: why do we seem to be having a problem in the first place? For all I know, “Pacific Rim” is not the first and will most certainly not be the last film that is punctuated by raging inaccuracies in its portrayal of science and the mechanistic aspects of reality (i.e. how come a kaiju can be a silicon-based life-form, but still have DNA), but for some reason the general consensus is to single it out as dumb, unrealistic, and offensive in its ignorance. A quick Google search will actually show you, how determined some people have gotten in their attempt to call the creators of “Pacific Rim” on their bullshit. I completely understand the idea of applying real science to point out where exactly a given film is inaccurate; hell, I used to do that myself years ago. It’s just one of those things that nerdy young apprentices of science do in their down time and I was no different. I’m sure I’m not the only one in here, who used to have very heated debates with friends about the intricacies of warp drive, wormholes, mechanics of giant robots, or whether in real life a character would survive the ordeal, from which he seemed to have escaped unscathed on screen.
But would anybody do the same for a fantasy film? Would anybody question the mechanics of conjuring a fireball by a wizard in his battle against a hell-spawn demon? Of course not, simply because we inadvertently assume that we are dealing there with a different universe that might or might not have completely different and obscure mechanics. Nobody questions, why the seasons in “Game of Thrones” last for generations, because it is the very premise on which this entire world is built. So, why can’t we do the same for giant robots and monsters?
Where exactly is the difference then? After all, “Pacific Rim” creates a universe (tangential to our own; I can’t see any kaiju roaming the Pacific coasts, can you?) where an alien race uses an inter-dimensional gateway to dispatch big-ass monsters to fight the inhabitants of Earth. At this point, I am not allowed to question anything about the so-called realism of the universe, because the fact giant monsters can emerge from a different dimension to fight gigantic robots is the very convention used in this film. It’s commonly referred to as poetic license and pretty much assumes that it is well within the author’s powers to create a world as he sees fit and we shouldn’t apply any laws of our nature to explain the events depicted in the story set in the aforementioned universe. Well, we still do it for the fun of calculating things (non-nerds will never understand it though), but I find it unjust to judge the quality of the film based on the mechanics of the universe it shows and its apparent lack of realism. Somehow, I can’t remember anyone being that snipy about “The Avengers”, “Man of Steel”, or “Iron Man”. I guess, nobody is bothered by giant ships floating in the lower stratosphere, men flying at supersonic speeds and/or dressing in suits of armour that can do anything short of cooking a dinner for five. Again, where is that line “Pacific Rim” has crossed?
If you’re somehow capable of grasping the notion of “Pacific Rim” having nothing to do with reality, then most of the initially contentious areas of this film will become irrelevant (maybe excluding the wind-resistant umbrellas), so that we can focus at the problem actually raised by Sean the Physicist. Well, he thinks it is berating to depict scientists (regardless of their field) as loud, goofy, inconsiderate or reckless. He goes a step further though claiming it is damaging to the scientific society, when the general public is shown that kind of stereotypical-bordering-on-racist portrayal of a scientist that fails to show their real motivations, their real desires and dreams, and what real scientists actually do for a living. Because that’s how Hollywood films usually show scientists – as mad, sinister, socially awkward people that use long words, wear white lab coats and dream of world domination. But don’t they do the same with policemen? Aren’t they typically obese, donut-eating, rule-disregarding trigger-happy, alcoholic macho cowboys addicted to adrenaline? …Or politicians? …Or journalists? Seriously, pick a profession and you will find that Hollywood does a near perfect job at creating its stereotypical and potentially damaging image in high-profile blockbusters. So why would the scientists be exempt exactly?
Does every police drama have to pay due homage to the trials and tribulations of the law enforcement officers? Conversely, does every Sci-Fi film have to be scientifically accurate and/or truthful in its depiction of science? Hell, No! Do you want to know why? Because it’d be boring – that’s why!
I know that we – scientists – tend to have some form of a god complex which makes us feel unique and special, so that we can create our little bubbles in which we’d dwell completely divorced from the mundane problems of the real world. Therefore, we are led to believe that whatever it is we do, it is magnificent and ground-breaking and if we can get just that one grant, or that one paper out, then we could change the world and we would be remembered for eons…
But, let’s be honest for a second. What are the real motivations that drive a scientist to spend days and nights in the lab, to stare at white boards full of equations, to run countless simulations, or to never stop thinking about work? Is it the inherent desire to understand the world? Or maybe the selfless need to help others? As much as I’d like to think so, the truth lies far from it. In the grand scheme of things, as with any other profession, I might add, the main goals of any practicing scientist are fame, power, and money. I really don’t want to delve deeper into the rotten nature of the scientific community, but modern science – for the most part – has nothing to do with selfless sacrifice for the greater good. A scientist these days doesn’t pursue the problems he finds interesting, but rather the ones that would yield publications. Research than cannot be published is simply not worth the hassle. Moreover, the scientist strives to publish his findings only in the most prestigious of journals, so that he can secure the grants for his future endeavours and so that he could feel better among his peers.
Exactly – peers! But, have you ever tried to explain your research to a civilian? How many practitioners of science are capable of addressing the general public, so that the crowd understands the importance of their work? And worse yet: how many scientists actually do that? Try and ask members of public to name 5 physicists, astronomers, chemists, or biologists and you’ll see how lacking the perception of science in the real world is. A simple question of who won the Nobel Prize in any of the scientific disciplines would reveal how little people actually know, and it’s not their fault, honestly speaking; it’s the hermetic shut-off nature of the scientific community filled with elitist individuals who despise teaching that’s responsible.
So, yes! I’d like my film scientists to be divorced from reality sometimes. I’ll gladly take the goofy guys from “Pacific Rim” or the socially awkward bunch from “The Big Bang Theory” any day of the week. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing faithful portrayal of any profession, but there is time and place for everything and at times a little bit of comic relief (be it caricature or not) is much welcome. If you’re worried that the youngsters will take that kind of depiction seriously and it would steer them away from pursuing science as a career – well then, they wouldn’t make good scientists anyway, if they’re that easily discouraged. I know some of you might feel they are getting the shorter end of the stick when the cops, pilots, soldiers and any other gun-wielding profession gets all the appraisal and flag waving. But a true scientist should be immune to applause and continue on his journey to the truth in spite of it all, so if you’re offended by wacky scientists in blockbusters, maybe you’re not a scientist after all, but more of an attention-seeking lab-rat suffering from abandonment issues that thought becoming a researcher was a great career move.
In closing, I’d like to bring one more thing to attention. While it’s perfectly reasonable to discard the scientific validity of anything that Hollywood tent-pole releases try to pass as science, I find it baffling that there are individuals out there claiming to have been offended by the idea of Charlie Day’s character sticking an electrode into a hunk of alien meat and attaching it to his own brain. I am really struggling to understand the problem. Could it be that a ‘real scientist’ would never ever ever ever ever do anything like that, because it’s a reckless, potentially harmful behaviour and nobody can possibly fathom what repercussions it might bring?
Well, have I got news for you… Self-experimentation has been and most likely will remain indispensable as a tool of scientific progress. It embodies the pinnacle of human curiosity – which by the way the scientists should carry forward for the future generations – without which many discoveries and ground-breaking observations would have happened much much later. Simply because the breed of scientists has a long history of researchers tasting their synthesized chemicals, or injecting themselves with home-made vaccines, or various bacteria, I do not have a problem with seeing that on the screen.
After all is said and done, in this day and age when we are advised not to endanger ourselves in the name of curiosity, I think every scientist out there should share the sentiment that we think it’s really (!!!) cool to be able to do something like that; just to feel how it’s like for a moment. Because that’s what science is all about and I’d very much like the young people to understand it, however comedic it comes across, there’s nothing wrong in showing a guy willingly establishing a wired connection with a hunk of meat. It’s all about learning the truth and heeding the cry of our inner curious child that makes us boldly go where no man has gone before. And if any particle physicist ends up offended by that, then he must have a huge chip on his shoulder, and maybe – just maybe – he’s not a real scientist at all. Science is not a job that you do and it has nothing to do with scoring a position at an Ivy League institution. Being a scientist is a state of mind; it’s the desire to do what nobody else would think of doing. So, to the best of my knowledge, even the wacky scientists in “The Independence Day” or “Pacific Rim” end up rather faithful in that regard, everything else aside.