Picking the best and worst of anything will get you a lot of grief. So we applaud Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory University physics professor, for his courage in choosing the best and worst science-based movies of all time. Of course, we are outraged he didn’t include all our favorites among his top five. How could he leave out the wonderful Alec Guinness film The Man in the White Suit (about a chemist who invents a fabric that never gets dirty, never needs ironing, never wears out—and nearly causes a revolution because it is too perfect) Fortunately, Perkowitz does include The Day the Earth Stood Still (the film in which Patricia Neal delivers one of cinema’s most famous geek catchphrases: “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”). Here are Perkowitz’s top five picks (and his comments) for the best (he calls them Golden Eagles) and worst (Golden Turkeys) science-themed films. Check out his other choices in his new book, Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World. —Jane Bosveld
The Best (Golden Eagles)
1 Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997). Set in the not-too-distant future, without overt preaching or much scientific exposition, Gattaca uses the youthful dreams of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) to tell an affectingly human story about the consequences of putting too much faith into DNA, genetic destiny, and stereotypes.
2 Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy builds girl” could be the tagline for this stunningly realized early futuristic film, as scientist C. A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) replaces the woman he loved with an erotic female robot. But Metropolis goes much deeper than it sounds, with audacious future projections of technology and its impact on society.
3 A tie! The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) and On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959). Both films reflect the scientific and global realities of the cold war era. The Day the Earth Stood Still comments on the dangers of nuclear knowledge without corresponding human wisdom; On the Beach paints a despairing picture of a world destroyed through unbridled nuclear warfare.
4 A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001). Apart from the cinematic qualities that won it four Academy Awards, this film pulls off the difficult feat of presenting abstract mathematics on-screen—the idea called the Nash equilibrium, which had won the film’s protagonist, John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994.
5 Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997). Jodie Foster believably evokes the psychology of a real scientist as rarely shown on screen when she plays Ellie Arroway, a dedicated radio astronomer. (However, not many actual scientists would bet their careers on the slim chance of finding advanced aliens.)
The Worst (Golden TURKEYs)
1 The Core (Jon Amiel, 2003). The Core’s characters include four physicists, a world-class computer hacker, and two astronauts, and the film got advice from some real scientific advisers. Nevertheless, it manages to impart record-setting amounts of scientific misinformation about basic physics (like elementary magnetism, electricity, and heat) in a mere 134 minutes.
2 What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente, 2004). Designed to resemble a documentary, this film works hard to convince us that quantum physics tells us we can change reality by our thoughts alone. This is good news for lead character Amanda (Marlee Matlin), but sadly, it’s not what quantum physicists say. Even one of the talking heads in this film was dismayed by how his comments were misconstrued. Of course, that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a New Age classic.
3 Chain Reaction (Andrew Davis, 1996). Fusion power—the production of clean, near-limitless energy by smashing hydrogen nuclei together—is a difficult process that has yet to be achieved. The garbled science in this film makes fusion power even more problematic, and the beautiful but ineffectual physicist Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) doesn’t exactly help the cause of women in science.
4 Volcano (Mick Jackson, 1997). When the San Andreas Fault hiccups, a volcano grows in the heart of Los Angeles, forcing emergency services chief Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) and geologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) to save the city. But the San Andreas Fault can produce only earthquakes, not volcanoes, making a flood of lava on Wilshire Boulevard very unlikely.
5 The 6th Day (Roger Spottiswoode, 2000). This film offers action scenes for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it makes some sharp comments about science versus religion. But its plot device—a cloning process that produces an identical, fully grown copy of an adult human in just a few hours—is so far off-base that you just can’t suspend enough disbelief.