Worlds Away: Science And Film


Yesterday at the Prospector Theater convened “Space, A Guided Tour,” one of the most intellectually expansive panels held this year that dealt with one of most complicated of subjects — the collision of science and cinema. While the panel veered off into all sorts of themes — ranging from medieval magic, teleportation, and Einstein’s time/space paradigms — the participants kept returning to a singular predicament: how do we relate these two very different technologies for re-imagining the universe. Science deploys the tools mathamatical analysis and logic to model our cosmos, while filmmakers use narrative and celluloid. Fittingly the panel divided evenly between people of science and film folk. The moderator was science advisor John Underkoffler []. On the film side was filmmaker Darren Aronofsky [] (whose sundance hit PI [] made science fiction an indie genre), filmmaker David Sington (whose IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON [] is part of doc competition), Chen Shi-Zheng [] (whose drama DARK MATTER [] is Spectrum), and Howard Suber [] (UCLA Film School Faculty []). On the science side, physics professor and theorist Brian Greene [], Ann Druyan [] (Cosmos Studio [] co-founder) and Margaret Wertheim [] (writer of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace []).

For the filmmakers the cinematic meaning of science changes with each story. In Chen Shi-Zheng’s drama DARK MATTER (which won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize this year), science is more metaphor than metaphysical model. The film was inspired by the real life tragedy Gang Lu [], a grad student in theoretical physics at Iowa University, who in 1991 murdered five people, including his dissertation advisor. Chen, whose previous work was in directing Chinese opera, was drawn to the story for the ways it spoke to a series of issues: Chinese cultural shock, the abuse of Chinese graduate students, the universal appeal of theoretical physics, etc. When we spoke to Chen before the panel, he explained that he chose chose ‘dark matter’ for his character’s field of study because of its poetic effect. “I was trying to keep it as a symbol, to use it as a metaphor for some mystery as well as being what he studied. I was not trying to make human story with science as a parallel subject.”


For Darren Aronofsky, whose recent feature THE FOUNTAIN [] mixes science fiction with mythology, was more concerned with the representation of space travel. “Science fiction has been hijacked by technolust,” argues Aronofsky. “It’s all about gadgets and gimmicks.” In making THE FOUNTAIN, Aronofsky explains, “We tried to return science fiction to its spiritual origins” and move away from what he called “giant trucks floating in space.” But while they ended up back with the man/machine model, Aronofsky remembers, “We played with lot of way with how someone one would travel across the galaxy in a realistic way. For me, the solution as in CONTACT was really interesting.”

Ann Druyan, who’d help produce CONTACT, points out that the problem is that “science hasn’t actually caught up with the imagination of filmmakers. Because of that science fiction is based around the idea that space travel either looks like a little retrograde, harking back to the 50s, or you have to do something that looks to the science of the future as CONTACT did.”

Besides being on the panel, the participants were also members of the jury for the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which “carries a $20,000 cash award to the writer/director of an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character.” The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation established in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. [], then President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation.

Peter Bowen

Senior Editor, Filmmaker Magazine