The Sciences

2012: Or, How the New Hollywood Loves Scientists, Even Though It Still Hates Plausibility

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNov 12, 2009 4:51 PM

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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'sargument 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. In 2012, the hero is Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is--and this cracked me up--a "deputy geologist" at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Well, at least they got the office name right, though geologists have their own agency. Later, Helmsley becomes the top science adviser to the president. And for good reason: He is the guy who makes the US government wake up and see the catastrophe that is coming; he is the guy who runs the models to try to figure out just when it will arrive and how bad it will be--even though these models aren't perfect and often have to be revised, always in the it's-even-worse direction (an interesting analogy with climate change models). Helmsley's virtue--a uniquely scientific one--lies in the fact that he fully and honestly admits as much. In one moment that anybody who cares about science in policy will love, Helmsley explains one of these recalculations to POTUS (Danny Glover) in the Oval Office, and admits, "I was wrong." The president replies (these are not his exact words) "That's the first time anybody has ever said that in this office." Yup, that's the virtue of having scientists in government. Now, granted, even as 2012 idolizes scientists as truth tellers and civilization-savers, the scientific plot of the movie is not only bizarre but was, to me, incomprehensible. If I had only understood it better--something about solar neutrinos transforming into some other kind of particle at the center of the Earth, thus destabilizing the crust, causing everything to move, unleashing supervolcanos and tsunamis and gigantic earthquakes that rip continents asunder--I'm sure I would consider it rankly impossible. But hey, that's the new pro-science Hollywood for you. Don't expect their sci-fi plots to be firmly grounded in events that could actually happen. But lay that care aside, and watch as they turn scientists into leaders and role-models for the next generation of U.S. children. In the end, I think the latter is far more important than any mere quibble over what it takes to produce a mass entertainment spectacle. P.S.: See also Sheril's related post on the 2012 phenomenon, "Apocalypse When?"

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