How Are Scientists Really Depicted in Film?

I stole plutonium so I could mess with the space-time continuum? Great Scott!

Its Alive! (dr. frankenstein and his monster in the 1931 film)

It is easy to imagine some scientists from movies that you’ve seen and to quickly make an assumption that they are typically depicted in one way or another. Images of Dr. Frankenstein from the classic 1931 film, and the ‘Doc’ (Dr. Emmett Brown) from Back to the Future immediately sprang to my mind – odd, asocial characters that reanimate dead bodies and steal plutonium to power time-travelling DeLoreans. I held the hypothesis that the vast majority of fictional scientists were inattentive, mad, unattractive, male, and villainous, but I wasn’t sure if that was really the case. The images of science in film has a strong impact on (and is a reflection of) how the public perceives the scientific endeavour – and so, it is an important thing to investigate. I did some reading, and found an obsessive study that looked at 222 films and quantified a number of things. Here is what they found.

The Data

In these Hollywood films, scientists were typically white (96%), American (49%), male (82%), and between the ages of 35 and 49 (40%). Roughly a third were single, and another third had never been in a relationship. This may be because these fictional scientists don’t get out much; 42% of them work in solitary labs at home, peerless and without public authorities (35% work in secrecy).

The majority of Hollywood films about science are dystopias. More than 60% of the discoveries/inventions in the stories are dangerous, causing damage 58% of the time (it gets ‘out of control’ 35% of the time), and of course, 48% of the discoveries are kept secret from the public. The horror movie is the most represented genre in science films, whereas there are hardly any science films in the comedy category.

But what is not to laugh about? I mean, if these stereotypic representations aren’t far enough from the truth to be laughable, how about the actual science: only 47% of the films deal with non-fictional areas of science. That leaves a majority of films about completely made-up scientific fields of science (14.5%) or real fields that are at a fictional level of development (39%).

Doc Emmet Brown from Back to the Future in his DeLorean
A homebuilt, plutonium-powered, DeLorean time machine? Great Scott!

Trends for Future Films about Science

Younger scientists are making a larger appearance. A study from 2003 suggested there might be a trend towards showing more youthful scientists, but in their study only 24% of the scientists were between 20 and 34 years old.

The mad scientist stereotype dominated earlier films, though the female scientists very rarely seemed to play this role. These stereotypes are breaking apart – there are now some scientists that almost seem like real people (yes, with friends and ethics), more female scientists are getting screenplay, and the scientist-as-hero archetype is becoming a more popular trend. It’s about damn time, too; some credit is due. Computers and pain killers didn’t make themselves, you know.

I’m really happy about these trends, because I think we need to see more scientists like Eleanor Arroway from the movie Contact – a female scientist that works [mostly] in a group, shows compassion, and deals with real scientific struggles (namely, a male-focussed hierarchy and funding cuts). We need to hear about good things in science. We need to see scientists save the day instead of destroy it. I think, most of all, we need at least some films about science that are comedies – films that show science in a positive light, that show it can be a good time, and not just a scary, intimidating nightmare.

Dr. Arroway from the movie of Carl Sagan's Contact
Small moves, Ellie, small moves.