A Scientist Walks into a Movie

If it sounds like the start of a bad joke, that’s because it kind of is.
By  · Published on February 23rd, 2017

If it sounds like the start of a bad joke, that’s because it kind of is.

Though cinema began as a technological curiosity, it was the first “magician” of film, Georges Méliès, who gave the movies their first fictional scientists – like the engineer Crazyloff (An Impossible Voyage, 1904) and the inventor Crazybrains (Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship, 1906). In other words, scientists in movies never had a hope.

To be fair to Méliès, the stereotypes he used were already well established in everything from literature to theater by the time he started working with a camera. In her book From Faust to Strangelove, Roslynn Haynes identifies six images of the “scientist” that have embedded themselves in Western literature over the course of the past several centuries. They are, in order of appearance:

The Alchemist (16th century): secretive seeker of forbidden knowledge, loner type (though occasionally has an assistant), intellectually arrogant and driven by a lust for either power or wealth (gold).

The Absent-Minded Professor (17th century): Single-minded and obsessed pursuer of a narrow branch of knowledge (which may or may not be useful) who is liable to forget or neglect social and domestic needs and responsibilities.

The Inhuman Rationalist (19th century): Purposefully detached (suppresses emotions and avoids affection) scientific enquirer who enshrines neutrality but ignores larger moral dimensions and implications of the work.

The Heroic Adventurer (19th century): fearless conqueror who “goes where no man has gone before in the physical intellectual world,” usually not a complex character though quite often rather eccentric, tends to classify things or lay claim to “new” territory.

The Helpless Scientist (mid 20th century): Well-intentioned (but usually clueless) scientist whose discoveries either behave in unpredicted (read: catastrophic) ways or are “hijacked” by corporate or government interests.

The Social Idealist (20th century): Scientist motivated by social conscience or a “search for wholeness” whose “maverick heroism emerges from non-compliance with government or industry.”

These six archetypes can all be seen in cinematic history and continue on in one form or another (some, like the absent-minded professor, are now largely relegated to cartoons and satire), and tend to rise and fall with certain cultural and political trends. The Helpless Scientist, for example, first appeared around WWII and the development of the atomic bomb, while times of increased public anxiety in regards to issues of science and technology tend to bring about numerous instances of the Alchemist, who remains the premier vehicle for representing and criticizing the dangers of scientific hubris. Generally, the biggest public concerns in science can be inferred to some degree by what disciplines are being most frequently represented by the Alchemist archetype: chemists post-WWI, physicists post-WWII, biologists more or less always – dealing with life, they can easily toe over the line into playing God, the mad scientist’s go-to motivation.

We could also speak of a seventh category – that is, scientists as well-rounded characters (who still may possess some characteristics of one or more of the other six categories). However, when looking specifically at movies, this seventh category has a mythical, Yeti-like quality in the sense that it is subject to the occasional sighting but ultimately has failed to establish the sort of consistent presence necessary to validate its existence.

I’ve touched on why portrayals of scientists matter a bit in my articles on Arrival and Hidden Figures (I guess you could call it a trilogy now), but there is a unique value and therefore also unique consequences associated with the portrayals of scientists in media that is entirely independent of scientific accuracy – though, as pieces such as this John Oliver segment point out, there are plenty of concerns to be had there, too.

While it is valuable for people to be more informed, science has more than reached the point where it is not possible by any stretch of the imagination to be up-to-date on current understandings across all scientific disciplines. There’s simply too much out there. We need scientific experts, and we need the public to view them with respect, if not trust. While there are some celebrity scientists (Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, etc.) and some celebrity science enthusiasts and advocates, most exposure to images of scientists is through fictional portrayals.

Starting with Margaret Mead’s seminal survey of 35,000 American high school students in 1957, numerous studies have demonstrated consistent views of “the scientist” that very much align with the stereotypes of the movie scientist: male, white coat, glasses, cold, reclusive. As one student wrote, “The scientist is a brain.” Even when responses were technically positive, they rarely painted scientists as having much in the way of humanity.

“Metropolis” (1927): Guess which one’s the mad scientist. Just guess.
When talking about the history of scientists at the movies there are certain giants that one can simply not avoid mentioning. Dr. Frankenstein in his many iterations and his many imitators. Metropolis’s Dr. Rotwang, who creates a female android who brings the city of Metropolis to the brink of destruction and remains one of the most influential images of a mad scientist, with his trend-setting unkempt hair and crazy-eyed gaze. Dr. Caligari, who, in spite of being (spoiler alert) revealed to be an asylum director seemingly genuinely interested in helping his patients in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s famous twist ending, is still remembered as a menacing figure. Dr. Griffin of The Invisible Man. Dr. Moreau. Dr. Jekyll. All of whom were introduced while movies were still in black and white (and in most cases, silent), but whose heirs still represent pillars of the horror genre and represent a seeming majority of both primary and secondary antagonists in comic book movies, among other things. Fast forward a few decades, and there’s the likes of Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown – who unlike the others, who are all varying mixtures of the Alchemist and the Inhuman Rationalist, is more the friendly neighborhood Absent-Minded Professor type.

While it is too soon to see if recent fictional scientists will come to define any trends of their own, these past few years have provided some (relatively) well-rounded fictional scientist characters who do not fit into any of Haynes’ six categories, from Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival (2016) to Mark Watney in The Martian (2015) and Murphy Cooper in Interstellar (2014).

But what about fictional portrayals of real scientists?

The semi-mythical well-rounded scientist character would seem most likely to come to fruition when dealing with fictional portrayals of real people, but film history has demonstrated that that’s mostly just a nice idea. The mini scientist-hero bio-pic boom of the 1930s and 40s gave us more scientist heroes than any period – before or since – began at Warner Brothers in a move that seems more due to desperation than anything else. At the height of the studio system, studios needed to produce about 2 films a week (an “a” picture and a “b” picture) to keep from losing money. Warner Brothers was looking to make their gritty, gangster image a little shinier, but Jack Warner was decidedly not thrilled by the prospect of making a film about Louis Pasteur when the idea was proposed, doubting audiences would have any interest in the story of a “milkman.” However, Director William Dieterle, producer Henry Blanke, and actor Paul Muni were committed to the project, and managed to get the incredibly begrudging approval of Warner. The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) was given a minimal budget and schedule, and had to work primarily with second-hand sets. The studio still had no faith in the project, and sold it to exhibitors at a reduced rate.

The film went on to be a commercial success and won three Oscars.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936): Donald Woods and Paul Muni
Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur is the antithesis of the Alchemist-type mad scientists that dominated the horror genre. Virtuous to the point of being saintly, he fights against a bloated bureaucratic system for the Good of Humanity. “The benefits of science are not for scientists, Marie,” he scolds his wife at one point. “They are for humanity.” He and the other fictionalized representations of real scientists from the biopics of this period easily fit into Haynes’ Social Idealist category.

Warner Brothers continued on their science kick with the production of Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), another tale of a scientist working more or less all waking hours of the day and night to advance the human condition while also fighting an outdated bureaucracy. By this point, Twentieth Century Fox also jumped on the bandwagon with The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). MGM, meanwhile, ended up going with Thomas Edison, opting for two films instead of one: Young Tom Edison and Edison, The Man (both 1940).

The scientist hero mini-boom ended with Madame Curie in 1943. In development at MGM for five years, it was first written up as a treatment by Aldous Huxley in what has been referred to as a “hymn to scientism.” Only it was deemed too scientific, and the project was handed off to someone else – a grand total of 18 people worked on different versions of the film before it was finally produced, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked on the project for three months and imagined it as a portrait of a new sort of marriage; Louis Pasteur where Pasteur was a woman. The version that ultimately got made, however, was more Mrs. Miniver with radium (no, literally – it starred Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson, and the posters advertised “Mr and Mrs Miniver… together again!”). Somewhat ironically, the saintly suffering scientists of the biopic boom lined up quite nicely with the female martyrs around which the woman’s film genre was built; Madame Curie got to be both.

“A Theory of Everything” (2014)
We’ve seen a slight uptick in science biopics in the past few years with the likes of Hidden Figures (2016), A Theory of Everything (2014), and The Imitation Game (2014), and a few have popped up here and there in the interim, but most portrayals of scientists in the decades since the biopic boom have been in overtly fictionalized accounts or as secondary characters in other films, like David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006).

Of course, one could not talk about fictionalized portrayals of real scientists without mentioning Albert Einstein, the most recognizable scientist of the last century. Writing just a few years after Einstein’s death, Roland Barthes commented in Mythologies that Einstein had already become a myth, a figurehead in the minds of many for all of science:

“Einstein fulfills all the conditions of myth, which could not care less about contradictions so long as it establishes a euphoric security: at once magician and machine, eternal researcher and unfulfilled discoverer, unleashing the best and the worst, brain and conscience, Einstein embodies the most contradictory dreams, and mythically reconciles the infinite power of man over nature with the ‘fatality’ of the sacrosanct, which man cannot yet do without.”

However, in Einstein we have a sort of chicken-and-egg question in, what came first, Einstein or his hair? It’s an answerable question, and the answer is the hair. The popular images of Einstein really come from the last 15 years or so of his life, when his hair reached peak wildness, while the stereotype of the crazy-haired mad scientist was popularized by Rotwang in 1927, when Einstein’s hair only showed a glimmer of the iconic puffy white cloud it would soon become. The archetype of the well-intentioned mad scientist had similarly already been established. Einstein did not create the boxes (notably, many of which were established in fiction), he just checked them all, and did so so well that he still, for many, defines these concepts.

As mentioned before, these past few years have seen an increase in quality, financially successful portrayals of science heroes – both biopics and purely fictional – unlike anything mainstream U.S. cinema has seen since the 1930s and 40s, though they still represent a minority of all scientists portrayed on film. Nonetheless, their existence demonstrates that if scientists are still mainly portrayed as big brains and cold lizard hearts encased in nearsighted white male bodies, it is not because filmmakers are incapable of creating something else nor because audiences are inherently unwilling to watch something else.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.