Science At The Cinema

by Hillary Lamb
by Hillary Lamb

In 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis introduced Dr Rotwang to the world.  Complete with frazzled hair, manic eyes and a laboratory inexplicably full of Tesla coils, the mad scientist archetype was ALIVE.

The twentieth century was marked by rapid advances in technology. The world was changing and scientific developments provoked fear of the unknown: genetic engineering, radar, X-rays, lasers, nuclear power, cloning, the atom bomb and chemical warfare. As a result, scientists and their work became a focus for horror films.

Science at the CinemaPerhaps as a result of living in an increasingly technology-dependent world or perhaps due to more and more scientists descending from ivory towers to engage with the public, scientific developments are now met with curiosity rather than hostility. The last decade in film has been kinder to scientists. Real scientists are frequently invited to collaborate with filmmakers in order to ensure scientific accuracy in films and fair portrayals of fictional and non-fictional scientists are on the rise.

Films can be used in lessons to inform, provoke discussion or as an end-of-term treat. Here are some recent and upcoming films which could be used to support teaching of the new primary and secondary science curriculum as well as related subjects:

Jurassic World (2015), cert. 12

Along with Jurassic Park (1993) and its progressively embarrassing sequels, this film is about scientists who extract dinosaur DNA from inside a preserved mosquito and recreate them to populate an amusement park. Students could talk about the process of cloning (biology KS3-5), extinction (biology KS2-3) and food chains (biology KS1-3). Pupils may try to spot scientific inaccuracies (e.g.: the tyrannosaurus rex did not exist in the Jurassic period) or may discuss the ethical implications of keeping animals in captivity or reviving extinct species, such as the quagga.

Interstellar (2014), cert. 12

This sci-fi epic is about a group of astronauts who travel through a worm hole in search for a new home after Earth’s natural resources have been depleted. This film is well regarded for its scientific accuracy. It handles some advanced theoretical ideas, including wormholes and time travel, which are well beyond the school curriculum. However, it could be used to demonstrate how sound cannot travel in a vacuum (physics KS2-3), the size and structure of space (physics KS3-4) as well as the curvature of space-time (physics KS5). The story also includes a severe food shortage and other effects of humans on the planet (geography KS4-5).

The Theory of Everything (2014), cert. 12

This film is about Stephen Hawking, the most famous living scientist in the world. While it is more about a physicist than physics, there is plenty of content relevant to the science curriculum, including discussion of gravity (physics KS3-4) and the birth and evolution of the universe (physics KS4-5). The excellent depiction of motor neurone disease could also support study of types of disease (biology KS5).

The Imitation Game (2014), cert. 12

A film about Alan Turing; breaker of the Nazi’s Enigma code and father of modern computing, The Imitation Game looks at probability (mathematics KS3-5) and very early computers and computer programming (computer science KS2-4). The importance of mathematicians and scientists in influencing history is well expressed. Pupils may think philosophically about whether machines can think or discuss the ethics of Turing’s punishment and recent pardon.

Gravity (2013), cert. 12

A thrilling and scientifically accurate film about two astronauts stranded in zero-gravity. Younger pupils could learn about the properties of sound (physics KS2-3) or discuss why astronauts need to wear special suits to protect them from the low pressure, coldness and vacuum of space (physics KS3). Older students could discuss the importance of gravity and other forces (KS2-5), how the strength of gravity varies (KS3-5) and the movement of bodies in orbit (KS2-5).

Other films with strong scientific themes:

Never Let Me Go (2010), cert. 12

This is a romantic drama about three clones living in England and preparing to donate their organs. Students may discuss cloning, particularly in humans (biology KS3-5), organ transplants (biology KS5), genetics (biology KS3-5) as well as the ethics of using cloning to supply organs and the philsophy of what it means to be human.

WALL-E (2009), cert. U

This child-friendly film can get pupils thinking about climate change (geography KS4-5), the effects of gravity and low gravity (physics KS3-5) waste management and the human effect on the environment (biology KS2, geography KS3-5). Pupils may also discuss possible futures for humanity and the extent to which machines can think.

Moon (2009), cert. 15

This film is a one-man show about an astronaut mining helium on the dark side of the moon. It covers subjects such as depletion of natural resources (geography KS4-5), cloning (biology KS3-5), the structure of the solar system (physics KS2-4) and the effects of gravity and low gravity (physics KS2-5).

Sunshine (2007), cert. 15

A film about a crew of astronauts attempting to restart the dying sun; Brian Cox was the scientific advisor. As well as covering the subjects of artificial ecosystems and climate change (geography KS4-5), the film graphically shows conditions in space (physics KS3-4) and is all about the life cycles of stars (physics KS5). The film also considers the mental health issues that astronauts face.

Contact (1997), cert. PG

In this film, humans make tentative contact with an alien civilisation. Based on a novel by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, this film balances big ideas about our place in the universe with a sober portrayal of first contact. It is about the importance of mathematics as a universal language and would be useful for teaching pupils about light, particularly its speed and how it can be used in communication (physics KS3-5) as well as providing interesting commentary on religious faith vs. scientific reason.

Films about scientists:

The new science curriculum has an increased emphasis on the work of individuals in developing scientific theories, particularly in KS2. History in KS1 encourages pupils to study the lives and work of historical figures. Aside from The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, there are many other biopics about scientists:

  • Agora (2009), about the life of the female mathematician, Hypatia.
  • Creation (2009), about the biologist, Charles Darwin.
  • Einstein and Eddington (2008), about the pair of astrophysicists.
  • Hawking (2004), about the early work of physicist Stephen Hawking.
  • Copenhagen (2002), about physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.
  • Das Experiment (2001), about the work of the psychologist, Zimbardo.
  • Breaking the Code (1996), a dialogue-focused film about Alan Turing.
  • Infinity (1996), about the youth of physicist Richard Feynman.
  • Madame Curie (1943), about the greatest female physicist, Marie Curie.
  • The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), about revolutionary biologist Louis Pasteur.

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