RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004
  CINEMA  -  The seventh art

Marey's chronophotographic gun camera – the forerunner of today's movie camera – was designed to film the flight of birds. Ever since, motion filming has been used to capture and conserve scientific phenomena or information in the same way as written documents, photographs and sound recordings do. Research, with its heroes, myths and ethical dilemmas – whether real or imagined – is also a field rich in dramatic potential to which scriptwriters have often turned for inspiration. We focus on a number of cases where film has drawn inspiration from science, or where science has used the camera to communicate its discoveries.

Exemplary lives
Les palmes de Monsieur Schultz, Claude Pinoteau
Les palmes de Monsieur Schultz , Claude Pinoteau
A number of famous scientists have been celebrated in film biographies, which are often romanticised for dramatic effect. The big screen clearly favours the big names. The French biologist who ‘pasteurised’ our milk and developed the first vaccines was played by Paul Muni in William Dieterle’s The story of Louis Pasteur (1936, USA). That most famous investigator of the subconscious, Sigmund Freud, was portrayed by Montgomery Clift in John Huston’s Freud (1962, USA). Among the Nobel prizewinners, John Nash and Richard Feynman were the respective heroes of Ron Howard’s A beautiful mind (2001, USA) and Matthew Broderick’s Infinity (1996, USA). As to Marie Curie, she has been given the big screen treatment on at least four occasions. She was played by Nicole Stéphane in George Franju’s Monsieur et Madame Curie (1953, FR), by Olga Gobzeva in Elmira Chormanova’s Mysli o radiatssi, and by Greer Garson in Mervyn Le Roy’s Madame Curie (1944, USA). More recently, Isabelle Huppert played Curie in Les palmes de M. Schultz (1997, FR) by Claude Pinoteau, which departs from tradition in that the heroine is not portrayed as dying from the effects of radiation.    

Jean Painlevé, film-maker and scientist
La pieuvre, Jean Painlevé
La pieuvre , Jean Painlevé
'Jean Painlevé, armed with the surreal eye of his camera, peered into an aquarium, a studio without troubled waters. Glass walls and a diffuse light which revealed no starlet with tempting thighs, no young male lead, no independent director, but an octopus, a daphne, a spirograph and other players commensurate with our dreams,' wrote Jean Vigo. 'On the basis of sound scientific knowledge, Jean Painlevé deflates our lazy anthropomorphism and presents films which combine technical excellence (the lighting, the shooting angles, the editing) with visual poetry, doing justice to the mystery or the miracle.'  

A master of the cinema of 'scientific theory', Painlevé made almost 200 films, all magnificent lessons in balance and clarity. The director classified them as films of pure research (using blow-ups, slow motion and other techniques to enable his camera to capture phenomena invisible to the naked eye), educational films (montages of the former for students), method films (systems of investigation revealed and illustrated by the document), as well as films of scientific popularisation for a wider audience. 

Frankenstein and other made-to-measure scientists
Frankenstein, James Whale
Frankenstein, James Whale
The myth of Frankenstein’s monster, created by the pen of Mary Shelley, is, in itself, sufficient to express all the ambiguities of what we expect from science. What reader of the original novel or viewer of the many films based upon it – most famously Boris Karloff in the film by James Wales (1931, USA) – does not, in a sense, want Professor Frankenstein's experiment to succeed? Who does not hope, paradoxically, to see his monstrous, yet ultimately pitiful, creature break free of its master and wreak revenge? Written in an age of puritanism, the story could not leave unpunished the man who dared to rival the Creator. As genetic engineering remains a controversial subject to this day, the debate is clearly far from closed and the novelist effectively put her finger on a key issue.

The cinematic portrayal of the scientist takes varied forms. There is the harmless eccentric, living in his own world but endowed with a certain common-sense –such as Jerry Lewis’ The nutty professor (1963, USA), Fred McMurray in Robert Stevenson’s The absent-minded professor (1961, USA) or Dr Dolittle (of which there are many versions, including one by Richard Fleischer).

Then there is the researcher-turned-sorcerer's apprentice. Among the pioneers of this genre, Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse (1922, DE) and Robert Wiene’s The cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920, DE) use their know-how for particularly evil personal designs. Later, Ingmar Bergman presented his vision of the gestation of Nazism in the eminently expressionist The serpent's egg (1977, SE). Through an alter ego of Mabuse, Dr Vergerus, the Swedish director delves into the role of science under a politically perverted regime. Vergerus drives the subjects of his experiments to madness and suicide before finally taking his own life. Taking the scientist's mania for observation to the extreme, he grabs a mirror to see the effects on his own person of the poison he has just swallowed. 

Kubrick's eye

2001 : a space odyssey, Stanley Kubrick
2001 : a space odyssey , Stanley Kubrick
American film maker Stanley Kubrick made three films which gave shape to his very unique view of the future and which he sought to render as realistic as possible. Each one is a major work: Dr Strangelove (1964, USA) is a superb comedy on the nuclear threat, A clockwork orange (1971, UK) is a sociological exploration of youth adrift in a dehumanised society without moral values. Of course, 2001: a space odyssey (1968, USA). In this dizzying epic, the viewer is presented with a theological thriller examining human destiny. Having acquired the means to explore the universe, humanity is betrayed by its own inventions in the form of Hal the computer. 

Robots: good and bad
A.I., Steven Spielberg
A.I., Steven Spielberg
In delegating their powers to technology, are people exposing themselves to danger? In a certain vision of the future, any progress, discovery or invention ultimately turns against its creator. Robots are no exception. Together with the docile R2D2 and C3PO in George Lucas’ Star wars (1977, USA) and David in Steven Spielberg’s Artificial intelligence (2001, USA), there are many examples of androids which escape the control of their masters. Among the most famous are the rebellious victims of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973, USA) and the 'replicants' of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982, USA). Above all, there is the supreme computer of James Cameron’s Terminator (1984, USA), installed to manage the planet but which immediately concludes that the first service it can render is to cleanse the world of the human species. Its weapon? Implacable superhuman robots cast in the mould of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wild and beautiful
Le peuple migrateur, Jacques Perrin
Le peuple migrateur , Jacques Perrin
Some documentary filmmakers have made films for a mass audience which show exceptional aesthetic qualities: Frédéric Rossif’s Le monde sauvage, sauvage et beau; Paul Calderon’s Attaville; and Jacques Perrin’s Migrants. More boldly, François Bel and Gérard Vienne moved further towards abstraction while, at the same time, encouraging the viewer simply to observe without any supporting commentary in Le territoire des autres (1970, FR) and La griffe et la dent (1976, FR). The makers of Microcosmos (1996, Europe/USA), Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, used modern studio techniques to reveal entomological realities to dramatic effect. As for Barbet Schroeder, it was with camera in hand that he set off to record the communication experiences of Penny Patterson in Koko, a talking gorilla (1977, FR).

Oceanography has also been the subject of some major films: The Great Barrier Reef, produced by Liège University (BE), and The silent world by Cousteau and Louis Malle, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1956. Vulcanology inspired Werner Herzog to take some major risks to film La soufrière just before the eruption of the volcano on the island of Guadeloupe. Two major documentaries, brought to the big screen by Haroun Tazieff, dealt with the same dramatic subject:  Le volcan interdit and Le rendez-vous du diable

Star Trek and the Trekkies
Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry
Star Trek , Gene Roddenberry
First shown more than 30 years ago during the Cold War era, the entertaining 1960s TV series Star Trek was based on the philosophical and politically committed vision of its creator Gene Roddenberry. To get round the censor, he opted for the space opera. In it, he expressed his views through the utopia of an atheistic world in which scientific knowledge underpins harmonious relations between people of different planets who prefer the virtues of diplomacy and negotiation to shows of force. The series was so successful that the message lives on to this day thanks to the activities of its worldwide network of fans (Trekkies). It is they who ensure that each new sequel respects the coherence of the universe imagined by Roddenberry, down to the very last detail. To date, the series has inspired no fewer than ten feature films. 

The scientific adventure 
Mon oncle d’Amérique, Alain Resnais
Mon oncle d’Amérique , Alain Resnais
For the scriptwriter, scientific research offers the dramatic attractions of suspense plus exploration of the unknown. A number of authentic events from the world of science have been brought to the big screen, including the Mercury programme in Phil Kaufman’s The right stuff (1983, USA), a US space fiasco in Ron Howard’s Apollo XIII (1995, USA) and episodes in the making of the first atom bomb in Roland Joffe’s Shadow makers (1989, USA).

Medicine too has provided compelling cinematic material. The determined struggle of two parents in search of treatment to help their son, who is suffering from Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) – a rare genetic disorder – is presented in George Miller’s Lorenzo’s oil (1993, USA). The gripping And the band played on (1993, USA), by Roger Spottiswood, depicts the race between French and US laboratories to isolate the AIDS virus while, at the same time, condemning the politicians for being slow to react.

Much more originally, the theories of Henri Laborit on the subconscious urges which drive our behaviour were the inspiration for Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980, FR). This cinematographic experience – which many consider to be unique – is a psychological fiction situated in a scientific environment. 'What interests me is not the characters or even the story. It is the dramatic construction. A form. On the one hand, the theoretical discourse of the scientist; on the other the individuals who act and to which the theories may or may not apply – because they retain their freedom,' Alain Resnais once said. 

A question of time: SF and nostalgia 
Soylent Green, Richard Fleischer
Soylent Green , Richard Fleischer
Travel in time and space is the stuff – among other things – of science fiction. However, unlike in literature, and for complex reasons, cinema has often failed in its renderings of the genre. Few directors and scriptwriters have used its potential to explore the many speculative or utopian possibilities. When it is not limited to heroic fantasy that lacks all realism, the genre today no longer conveys the enthusiastic curiosity of the characters of the 19th century French novelist and father of science fiction Jules Verne, but rather a sense of anxiety when faced with the uncertain future or unfathomable vastness of the cosmos. Often, in seeking to discover the infinite, a person, such as Icarus, courts countless dangers in the form of undesirable encounters, or alien concepts which defy his understanding. Among the many space operas on confronting such belligerent aliens as those in British novelist HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979, USA) is one of the most pertinent because it is situated in a much more plausible context. The crew of a space cargo vessel carrying minerals picks up a strange signal on the return trip. Seeking to decode it and shed light on the mystery, the space travellers encounter an unknown life form, which is terribly aggressive and has a worrying ability to mutate. 

Another futuristic current has its origins in fear of nuclear conflict. Nuclear war and its aftermath offer rich material for film makers, from Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983, USA) to George Miller’s Mad Max II and III (1982, 1985, AUS), and including Peter Watkins’ The war game (1965, UK).  Soylent Green (1973, USA), on the other hand, is difficult to compare with anything else. The inspiration for this nightmare vision of the future by Richard Fleischer lies in the warnings by 1970s futurologists about ecology and population growth. 

As to travelling back in time, remorse seems to be the rule. The 'what would happen if?' of travelling into the future becomes the 'if I could have done it differently'. These time machines tend to be used for personal purposes: Robert Zeugmes’ Back to the future (1985, USA), Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere In time (1980, USA), Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968, FR). They only rarely tell stories that could have changed radically the course of history, such as Don Taylor's The final countdown (1980, USA). What is more, the cinema has never adapted Wells' Time machine for what it is: a highly sceptical fable of the destiny of man and the planet.