Sunday, February 17, 2013

Monsters from the Id

Monsters from the Id: Science is Mankind’s Last Great Hope a film by David Gargani.

Science fiction movies of the 1950s, despite their obvious faults, inspired a generation to become scientists.  In the films, whatever the problems – even when caused by scientists – they brought the solution.  They were heroes.  And they got the girl. Sometimes, the scientist even was the girl, an exception to mainstream cinema and fiction generally.  That point is not in this documentary.  That oversight is one of several, in a generally outstanding effort.

In the words of director, Dave Gargani
The 1950s was an idealistic time in American History, filled with hope, opportunity, and wonder. It was also, "The Atomic Age" where new technology promised to both save humanity as well as put it in jeopardy. All of these factors gave birth to one of the most prolific genres in film history, 1950s Science Fiction Cinema. More then just bug-eyed monsters and little green men, 1950s Sci-fi Cinema provided science inspiration for millions of eager youths across the country. Then after 1957 and the launch of Sputnik, science fiction became science fact as an inspired population worked toward one of the greatest achievements of mankind, spaceflight. Monsters From The Id weaves the intersecting themes of over thirty classic films in order to tell the untold story of the Modern Scientist and his role in inspiring a nation. The film continues to explore the psychological and cultural impact of 1950s Sci-Fi cinema in America and asks, "where is science inspiration found today?"
 The interviews center on Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys which became the film October Skies).   Physics professor Leroy Dubeck also comments. He teaches from his book Fantastic Voyages (reviewed on NecessaryFacts here) to deliver science via science fiction. Professor of film studies Patrick Lucanio (Smokin’ Rockets and Killers from Mars) is an historian.  Also speaking  is his co-author for Smokin’ Rockets, Gary Coville.  Rounding out the live presenters is a film critic from New Zealand, Richard Scheib, who offers more suggestive hints than substance, another of the flaws in this gem.

Shows space alien in a space suit extending an open hand in greeting from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" 1951 movie.
The 92-minute presentation focuses entirely on the 1950s.  But science fiction cinema continued beyond that, and continued to inspire.  Also, a shift in our society moved scifi film and the s.f. genre generally away from that traditional optimism for technology.  The fulcrum was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Star Wars (1977) was the lever.  In 2001, technology failed and we did not find out why until 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984).  By then, some restoration could be found, for instance in Brainstorm and Star Trek: The Movie.  The fact remains that Star Wars absorbed our attention, like the Blob, with no heroic teenagers to come to the rescue: a “hokey old religion” defeated a “technological terror.”  We moved away from hard science – perhaps because it was hard to do.  Physics is not easy, even if books such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters made it seem easy.  Once, in a class at Lansing Community College, our professor got tired of doing our homework on the board.  He said that any of us would go out in the back yard and shoot hoops for 45 minutes and not make a single shot and still claim to have had a good time. “How long do you spend on a problem?” he asked rhetorically.

A “next generation” did follow exploring with Jean-Luc Picard and continuing for 20 years through the Star Trek universe. Today, Star Trek continues. We have some reason to predict success, at least for some of the nerds.  (See the many citations to Big Bang Theory on this blog.)

At the same time the computer revolution of the 1980s also added kindling to reignite the fire.  War Games touted the hacker.  But Tron 2 Point Oh made the beta version look great.  The most heroic computerist in recent film was Matt Ferrell (“feral”) in Live Free or Die Hard.  Though he employs his hacker skills to help John McClain, Matt makes his day with a gun, becoming “that guy” who blasts away when no one else can, getting shot (but only wounded) and smiling while the medics patch him up.

And that leaves out all the other sciences. Perhaps the essential characteristic of the scientists of the 1950s film – also not mentioned in Monsters of the Id – is that they are generalists: “scientists.”  Dr. Patricia Medford (Them) was an entomologist, just as we met physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians.  However, each of them was an artesian well of information about anything that needed to be explained at the moment.   Science is not an object or a subject, but a method.  While other people rely on faith (superstition) or force (the military solution), the scientist reasons from facts and tests her hypothesis.  

And at the end of the movie, after the guns are packed away, and the pews are empty, the scientist wonders what else is out there…

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