2012 and scientists

hindenburg by e-strategyblog.com
2012: Or, How the New Hollywood Loves Scientists, Even Though It Still Hates Plausibility
[Via The Intersection]

Last night I was privileged to attend a screening of the latest catastrohpic sci-fi blockbuster, Roland Emmerich’s 2012. And let me say, if you’re like me and love action-packed Hollywood world-enders, then you don’t want to miss this one. It is even bigger and better and crazier and more decadent than Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow.

Given Unscientific America’s argument about how Hollywood depictions have hurt the place of science in our culture, I couldn’t help analyzing this film through that lens (once I finished suspending my disbelief, anyway). And I have to say, 2012 presents the latest evidence that anti-science sentiment in Hollywood is really declining: We’re seeing a lot fewer mad scientists in major Hollywood films today, and a lot more scientist heroes.


I’m not so sure that it is the New Hollywood, that is portraying scientists any differently. I am sure that Roland Emmerich movies almost always have a strong rational hero, usually a scientist. They usually start out as some hardworking researcher out on the fringes whose work becomes the dominating theme of the movie. Their emotional and moral foundations provide the needed clarity for their rational solutions. Let’s take a look at some of the ones he wrote as well as directed.

Stargate – James Spader’s character, Dr. Daniel Jackson, is a very smart researcher who is using his vast skills to propose theories that everyone else sees as wrong but turn out to be correct. His keen insights reveal the true nature of the Stargate. He ends up on the mission to enter the Stargate, acts as a moral compass for the mission, solves the problem of how to get back and gets the girl in the end.

Independence Day – Jeff Goldblum’s character, David Levinson, is a very smart computer scientist who is using his vast skills at a cable TV company. His keen insights reveal the true nature of the hidden messages of the aliens. He ends up on the mission to fight the aliens, acts as a moral compass for the mission, solves the problem of how to destroy their ships and may get the girl in the end.

Godzilla – Matthew Broderick’s character, Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, is a very smart researcher who is using his vast skills to investigate the effects of radiation on wildlife at Chernobyl. His keen insights reveal the true nature of Godzilla. He ends up on the mission to destroy Godzilla, acts as a moral compass for the mission, solves the reproductive mystery of Godzilla, and probably gets the girl in the end.

The Day After Tomorrow – Dennis Quaid’s character, Dr. Jack Hall, is a very smart researcher who is using his vast skills to investigate climate change in Antarctica. His keen insights reveal the true nature of the climactic catastrophe. He ends up on a mission to save his son, acts as a moral compass for the mission, solves the problem of surviving intense cold and surely gets the girl in the end.

2012 – Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character, Dr. Adrian Helmsley, is a very smart researcher who is using his vast skills to investigate abnormal changes in the Earth. His keen insights reveal the true nature of the global catastrophe. He ends up on the mission to save the remnants of mankind, acts as the moral compass of the mission, solves the problem that saves the ark and looks like he will get the girl in the end.

Yep, Roland Emmerich seems to have the same character in each movie. This is almost always portrayed as the rational man, the one who, while displaying strong emotions, uses reason to solve the crisis facing everyone.

I would say that Roland Emmerich is singlehandedly portraying scientists as heros because he does like the character. Combining the Wise Old Man with the Young Hero in order to solve the problem presented by the movie gives Emmerich a lot to work with.

I talked about 2012 the other day when I saw it. The theme of how do we react to changes in our world, some of them extreme, is a constant in these Emmerich movies. And in each he uses a rational man, a scientist, to explicitly espouse the rationale for what to do as well as provide a moral center for the reasons why.

For not only are these rational men (and he often uses just men) often directly responsible for the solutions to the crisis, they almost always present an emotional viewpoint that directly drives the narrative. Jackson’s emotional connections to Sha’uri allow him to not only protect their world from being destroyed but also results in the death of Ra. Levinson’s connection to his ex-wife results in his direct role in saving the world.

Tatopoulos connection to … well, let’s just forget about the travesty that is Godzilla. Hall’s connection to his son drives what the movie is about. Helmsley’s connection to humanity results in the climactic scene that saves tens of thousands of people.

Each of the characters also acts to provide a moral center in the movie. They question the often corrupt nature of authority figures, such as politicians and the military. They make sure the right things are done for the right reasons. They know more than anyone the dangers to be encountered yet face these troubles with courage.

Not to say that Emmerich always makes the same movie. I mean 10,000 B.C. and the Patriot are examples. But in his modern movies, particularly ones that deal with vast changes in societies, he presents scientists as the role model for how to properly navigate the new shoals. These characters give him the ability to present rational responses to the problems rather than strictly emotional ones.

However, in each case, it is the scientist’s emotional arc that really drives the movie. These are not unfeeling automatons. In fact, almost every scientist portrayed in these movies is shown to have strong human emotions. John Billingsley’s character, Professor West, in 2012 has just a few lines but one of them, almost yelled at the end, changes the course of the movie. Ian Holm’s death in The Day After Tomorrow and Jimi Mistry’s in 2012 show that other rational men in these movies are strongly emotional human beings.

That is really the thread that runs through each of these characters. They are logical in their approaches to the problems they confront. But these solutions are rooted in very emotional roots. In fact, in these movies, the scientists are often the most human of any character. They provide not only the rational solutions to the problems but also the moral clarity about doing the right thing.

It is their humanity and courage in the face of significant problems that demonstrate how to deal with a complex, ever shifting world. That is why I think that these movies will be seen as representative examples of movies made during this time. Just as watching many of the movies of the 30s can give us some insight into the Great Depression, so will movies like these that are being made today provide insight into the current times.

Yeah, I can write a lot of hooey about almost anything. But I do believe that the stories we tell ourselves during troubled times are attempts to deal with the problems we face. And even something that has no real aspirations above being a great popcorn movie, such as 2012, can still inform us.

Stories are how we learn to deal with the world. That is it is important to see what sorts of stories we are telling.

[Listening to: Surfer’s Life from the album “Surf-N-Burn” by Blue Stingrays]