A couple of weeks ago I parked next to an SUV covered in decals all warning about the coming “zombie apocalypse.” I chuckled, largely because I’ve never had a moment’s worry about zombies. But there is another transformation taking place in our culture that’s leaving me feeling a bit like Richard Matheson’s last man on Earth from I am Legend. Strangely enough, it all has to do with the rising popularity of science.
Don’t get me wrong. I love science. I’ve always been fascinated by it, even though I often have no idea what any of it means. When I learn something new, I tend to gape in wide-eyed wonder like a six-year-old kid at a magic show. Super colliders? Black holes? We might as well be talking about midi-chlorians. I always made good grades in school, but that was because I knew how to study for tests. Real comprehension? That was something else.
The thing that always made science difficult for me was the real-world, practical nature of it. Studying a chapter in a book was easy enough, but lab experiments were hopeless. What does this chemical smell like? What color is the mixture? I could never tell. I could label all the organs in a diagram of a crawfish, but when I had to cut one open, it was all just … mush.
That’s why I gravitated towards the humanities. Literature, art, music, philosophy, theology, history—these were comfortable subjects for me because, unlike science, they were very imprecise disciplines. There weren’t right or wrong answers—only right and wrong ways of answering. Why does Hamlet delay killing Claudius? Do the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few? The humanities were all about finding some intellectual wiggle room, posing questions you could speculate about, knowing there would never be just one answer.
And for the most part, humanities-style thinking has dominated our popular culture. Most of our movie heroes find themselves struggling with moral uncertainties and self-doubt. Gary Cooper, in High Noon, has to find the courage to defend a town that refuses to help him. Rocky Balboa suffers a tremendous beating in order to discover his own sense of self-worth. Ryan Gosling has to decide whether to violate his code and get involved in Drive. These are the dilemmas that speak to those of who are wired for the humanities.
But lately it seems like the sciences are trending everywhere—science as a concept, science as a hobby, science as a philosophy. It’s hard to go anywhere on the Internet without seeing the smiling, genial face of Neil deGrasse Tyson, looking every bit like the kind of guy I would’ve tried to partner up with in lab class, happily playing Igor to his Frankenstein. And certainly, the movie theaters seem dominated by science-related stories. This fall, as part of the awards-season, two of the most anticipated films are biopics of famous 20th-Century scientists, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing.
All these thoughts came home to me this week after making two trips to the theater. The first film was a family affair, Disney’s latest animated feature, Big Hero 6, and the next day I followed it up by seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. In terms of tone and audience, these two films couldn’t be more different, but both focus almost exclusively on the world of science, and both feature characters that factor into the story, not because of their inner struggles or moral dilemmas, but rather because of the things they know.
Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel Comic, though I’ll admit I had never heard of it until now. The story focuses on Hiro, a boy with a special aptitude for robotics who teams up with several young inventors from a so-called “nerd school” in order to catch a criminal. Virtually every character in the story is either a scientist, inventor, or student of science, and part of the drama hinges on the struggle between pure research and applied science.
Predictably, Interstellar also features a heavy dose of science since it involves a space mission through a wormhole. However, this isn’t one of those science fiction action movies where half the characters are supposed to be everyday Joes like Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto in Alien. Everyone in Interstellar is either a high-level scientist or engineer. Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain play the kinds of scientists who, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, can fill up entire chalkboards with long formulas and algorithms full of signs and variables that might as well be in a foreign language.
All of this makes me wonder if we’re moving away from humanities-based characters. For me, a humanities-based hero digs down inside himself or herself and struggles to do the right thing. As characters, they are driven towards the discovery of meaning. Science-based heroes, on the other hand, figure things out in order for the right thing to happen. Thus, Sherlock Holmes would be a science-based hero, as would Mr. Spock. Their actions are driven towards the discovery of empirical, demonstrable truth.
Admittedly, this sounds overly simplified and reductionist, even to me and I wrote it. But these are ideas I just started kicking around during the last 24 hours, so they are still pretty raw. What’s striking about both Big Hero 6 and Interstellar is the way in which each film attempts to combine humanities elements with the scientific perspective. In Big Hero 6, the two main characters are Hiro, the robotics prodigy, and Baymax, the vinyl-covered medical robot who provides the “muscle” for Hiro. Despite the fact that these two are as scientifically-oriented as they come, the most compelling part of the movie is its heart.
Big Story 6 isn’t all that effective as a superhero movie, but when it focuses on the bond between Hiro and the robot, it reminds me of Brad Bird’s masterful The Iron Giant. But significantly, as Hiro struggles with feelings of grief and a desire for revenge, it is the creature of science—the gentle robot—who teaches him the principles of peace, mercy, and sacrifice.
Interstellar, as one might expect, is dominated by science, and many of its concepts, such as the relativity of time, are more complex than anything seen in a mainstream popular film in many years. Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan devotes a considerable amount of time to humanizing the characters so that Interstellar is not just a film about wormholes and relativity; it’s also about fathers and daughters, lost loves and loneliness, regret and hope.
I’m not going to give away any major plot points, but when characters have to make major decisions, they’re often struggling to divorce human sentiment from scientific logic, and at some point or another, almost all of them fail. Some of those failures are tragic while others are profoundly successful. Ultimately, whereas Big Hero 6 suggested that positive human qualities can best come from an artificial intelligence, in Interstellar it’s the human emotions that lead the characters to empirical truth.
Perhaps this increased focus on science is a backlash against the moneyed, political interests that have pretended as if empirical truth simply doesn’t matter, buying private scientists and paying them to deny the reality of climate change. Regardless, both of these films seem designed to appeal to both those who are wired towards science and those of us more in tune with the humanities.
And while I can’t speak for those viewers in the science community, this humanities scholar cried at both … in a good way.