The Rule for Success in Science Movies: Make It Personal

As a biopic on famed physicist Stephen Hawking nears release, here's a look at 7 flicks that clicked.
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Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in the upcoming film The Theory of Everything.

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking is the focus of a new biopic that opens Friday in U.S. theaters, but the work on black holes that made him one of the leading scientists of his generation isn't the star.

Instead, The Theory of Everything focuses on the life of Hawking, 72, now almost totally paralyzed from motor neuron disease, and the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde. It's an approach that has led some science-minded folks to knock the film in advance.

But movies have always preferred to look at people over the knocking together of equations, says the film's Oscar-winning director, James Marsh, who already is being mentioned as a possible contender in Hollywood's upcoming award season.

"What we do is travel through Jane's eyes to try and translate the science," Marsh says. "We made the movie for the audience, not for theoretical physicists."

From 1943's celebratory biopic Madame Curie to 2001's A Beautiful Mindthe recounting of the troubled life of mathematician John Nash that in some ways is the clearest precursor to The Theory of Everything—the most popular science flicks have emphasized the personal over the professorial. Here in no particular order is a look at some films that glimpse science through a personal lens:

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In Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. plays a lone genius who invents an indestructible suit.

Iron Man (2009): The premise of a lone genius who concocts an indestructible suit is crackers, according to Caltech physicist Sean Carroll.

But the movie's second half, depicting crackup after crackup of botched Iron Man tests, is a lot like real life in a lab, where repeated failure is the rule and humiliation always hides inside the next test tube. "And that's why I loved Iron Man," Carroll wrote on his Preposterous Universe blog.

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In Gorillas in the Mist, Sigourney Weaver portrays Dian Fossey, who was killed while studying endangered gorillas in Rwanda.

Gorillas in the Mist (1988): The drama about the National Geographic Society-funded researcher, Dian Fossey, looked both at her efforts to save the gorillas she studied and at her slaying. (See Fossey's "Making Friends With Mountain Gorillas" in National Geographic magazine.)

The film excelled at depicting the interactions between scientists and wild apes, complicated relationships in such studies even today. Film critic Roger Ebert said, "The relationships between woman and beast [were] deeply absorbing. There were moments when I felt a touch of awe."

Gravity (2013): It's a treat to watch this in 3-D, even though it was knocked for botching orbital mechanics. In space, you don't actually point at your destination and zip off toward it in a straight line like the characters did in The Jetsons. But the film delivered a solid depiction of space hardware and the dangers of decompression, as well as the claustrophobia of an astronaut's life.

The film also inspired what may be the greatest joke in the history of the Golden Globes awards, when host Tina Fey said of Gravity, "It's the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age."

Kinsey (2004): The biography of the famed Indiana University sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, thoroughly portrayed mid-century America's discomfort with sex surveys.

Despite that, the survey methods pioneered by Kinsey and depicted in the film remain a standard part of social science today, and sexuality researchers still live with the burdens, and interest, inspired by his legacy.

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Gene Wilder (standing) plays the grandson of the original Frankenstein, with Peter Boyle (on table) as the new monster, in 1974's tongue-in-cheek Young Frankenstein.

Young Frankenstein (1972): Mary Shelley's Gothic novel from the early 1800s has long served as a warning about the dangers of playing God, and has been a template for every scientist-as-madman potboiler since. It also created the template of the "sympathetic monster," as horror novelist extraordinaire Stephen King noted.

On film, the best depiction of the lot undoubtedly is Mel Brooks's whimsical version, Young Frankenstein, which skewers both the eccentric madman and the sympathetic monster. Whether the film exceeds Blazing Saddles for laughs (here is a list of the film's best lines) may be something science can never settle.

The Two Cultures

The language of cinema and the world of science have come closer than ever in recent years. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences even created a film-consulting arm, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, that has consulted on more than 800 movies since 2008. But its science advice, as always, serves the story.

"We're telling the story of two extraordinary people, and the science matters because it tells what his career did to their relationship," Marsh says of The Theory of Everything.

"The fact that [Hawking] has survived and had this incredibly full life, become an iconic presence in our culture, the sheer visual aspect of him, the voice so dramatic, that story is what we needed to tell."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter. Learn more about black holes in "Star Eater" in National Geographic magazine.

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