How science careers are misrepresented in film

Just how real is the portrayal of science on the big screen?

Elizabeth Meade
27th March 2022
In the past decade, a subgenre that I think of as “science hero films” has saturated popular culture. In these films, the story often centres around one or more quirky, interesting heroes with extensive knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math that they use to save the world.

As a chemistry student, I think these films are largely inaccurate at best and government propaganda at worst.

Christopher Lloyd's Dr Emmett Brown is an iconic film scientist, but is he realistic? Credit: IMDb

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with theming a film around a topic like advanced math, robotics or biology. In fact, if I’m being honest, that’s how many of us were drawn to these fields. I know I’m not the only person who wanted to study chemistry and psychology due to their roles in popular film, TV and literature.

However, the way films frame these subjects is not terribly realistic. It’s understandable to have some factual inaccuracies. After all, speculative fiction such as science fiction, fantasy and horror depends on playing around with real-world concepts as genre staples. The way that experts are characterized, though, often gives viewers the wrong impression.

Science experts in film are often portrayed as unique, idealistic individuals who are full of genuine curiosity. They are interested in these subjects because they are inherently fascinating. The plot, then, revolves around using their high level of skill to help others.

In reality, many experts go into the industry to make money

In reality, many individuals go into these fields for the sole purpose of making money. Looking at the world today, many of the most influential tech experts only care about selling others’ data, selling lifesaving medication at unaffordable prices and producing cheaply-made products that fall apart early on so you have to buy another one. Genuine curiosity or idealism is typically crushed by the profit motive.

Science experts in films are typically misunderstood, have unique ways of doing and thinking for themselves. They sit on their chairs in a new way, make a mess pinning things to their walls to figure something out and make up their own words. However, despite their independence, they still support the status quo, often working for real or fictional military and law enforcement organizations.

Credit: IMDb

In the real world, the beliefs, actions and choices of such individuals are likely to stand out in conservative institutions like the US military or UK Secret Service. What’s more, they are unlikely to agree with those institutions’ policies, which often criminalize and vilify anything that makes an individual ‘different’ from those in the status quo. Some employees of these institutions may dress unconventionally or have unusual interests, but nevertheless support their actions, whether that involves mass incarceration, drone strikes or imperialism. People who don’t fit in with anyone and make a point to think differently are unlikely to support these views.

Fictional science experts are portrayed as knowing a lot about many different things and applying this knowledge in unique ways. In reality, simply having a physics degree doesn’t mean that you can understand everything complicated or technological. Each field is simply too large for one person to know everything. Some experts only really care about their field of interest and don’t know about that many other things, because they don’t need to. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. A specialist often knows a lot about the intricacies and nuances of their field and can find insights that people with less knowledge in a wider range of things won’t notice. However, some specialists see their knowledge as everything there is to know about their field and don’t understand ways that other fields may cross over. Many individuals, for instance, do not understand why ethics and chemistry are connected. This ends up limiting the ways in which they can apply their expertise because they aren’t considering all the factors at play in a given situation. At worst, their behaviour is harmful to others because they do not think that caring about the health, feelings, autonomy or needs of others falls into the small circle of things they need to understand for their job.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Laurence in Don't Look Up, Credit: IMDb

This isn’t to say that nobody in the world of science does anything idealistic or multi-layered. It’s just that many of the true heroes of innovation—those who create and share high-quality work for the sake of other people, animals and the environment—are overshadowed in media by an unrealistic image of highly unique, powerful experts who nevertheless do little but protect society from the threat of change.

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
(she/her) Head of Current Affairs (News, Campus Comment, Comment, Science). Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking. Wrote the first article for Puzzles. Probably the first Courier writer to have work featured in one of Justin Whang's videos.

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