Hi everybody. This is my first posting here, and I’m excited to write about science in film, a topic important for both scientists and film people. I’m a physicist who’s also a lifelong science fiction and movie fan. That helped when I wrote a book about science in film called Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, & the End of the World. In the process I watched a lot of films and that has given me plenty to write about.
Today I want to track science-fiction films over the years by comparing two classics with their recent remakes: The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951 (Robert Wise, director) with the 2008 version under the same title, directed by Scott Derrickson; and The War of the Worlds from 1953 (Byron Haskin, director) with the 2005 version War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, director).
The new versions have wondrous CGI special effects that didn’t exist years ago. The original WOTW showed only a Martian’s skinny arm and hand, whereas the later version shows animated full-body aliens along with their truly evil-looking giant war machines striding across the landscape. Ditto for TDTESS 2008, where the alien spacecraft is more eye-catching than the flying saucer in TDTESS 1951. Also spectacular in TDTESS 2008 is the scene where a swarm of nanomachines attacks a tractor-trailer as it barrels down the highway.
But the early versions had good points too as shown by IMDB user ratings for both films, which are actually higher for the originals than for the remakes. One difference is that the originals are shorter than is now typical, which made for tight plotting. There’s not a wasted second in the 92-minute runtime of TDTESS 1951. The action develops at a headlong pace, making the film exciting despite its relatively primitive special effects (it isn’t even in color). Although a 2-hour science-fiction film (WOTW 2005 runs 116 minutes) offers time for great special effects scenes, maybe we’ve lost something by giving up the discipline of making a story work within 90 minutes or so.
That’s a matter of cinematic judgment, but another issue is that the scientific presentation has also changed. Both versions of WOTW follow the original H.G. Wells story of Martian invaders. But in WOTW 1951, Gene Barry is a physicist who frantically tries to use science to stop the aliens. The film provides some scientific exposition as Barry and his colleagues examine the origins and physical makeup of the aliens, seeking their weak points. In WOTW 2005, there are no scientists; instead, divorced father Tom Cruise desperately tries to save his family and himself as an alien invasion brings the world crashing down. The human power of this scenario makes it a valid cinematic choice, but this is a science-fiction story without much science, making it closer to the fantasy or horror genres.
There are differences between the versions of TDTESS too. In both, the alien visitor Klaatu warns humanity that it is in line to be eliminated because of its behavior. But in TDTESS 1951, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) insists that we stop using nuclear weapons or face eradication by an interplanetary civilization, whereas Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) in TDTESS 2008 wants to wipe out humanity because we are despoiling our planet. Each reflects fears involving the science of the time. In the 1950s, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the possibility of nuclear annihilation dominated everything. Now that nuclear fears are less overwhelming, we worry instead whether our own activities will make our planet unlivable.
Because they display contemporary scientific concerns, whether by conscious choice or simply by echoing current trends, even science-fiction films made as entertainment can become part of the serious discussion of these issues. But removing any touch at all of scientific exposition doesn’t bode well for the science part of science fiction. True, it’s not easy to blend exposition into a dramatic story, yet creative filmmakers have done just that. Jurassic Park (1993) did a credible job of explaining cloning, and A Beautiful Mind (2001) managed to put a mathematical theorem on screen in an entertaining way. And filmmakers might just find that filling part of their 2-hour time slots with a bit of science will pay dividends for today’s sophisticated audiences.