Balancing Science And Storytelling In Film : Short Wave Astrophysicist Adam Frank is a big fan of science and movies. He's even been a science adviser to Marvel's "Doctor Strange." So we asked Adam to give us his sci-fi films of the decade - movies that tell us about striking the right balance between science and storytelling. Here are the movies we couldn't get to in the episode: 'Annihilation' (2018), 'Coherence' (2013), 'Gravity' (2013) and 'Looper' (2012). Plus, Adam's favorite TV show of the decade was 'The Expanse.' | Follow Maddie on Twitter @maddie_sofia. And email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Sci-Fi Movies Of The Decade (Sort Of)

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Maddie Sofia here. Happy Friday, everybody. I want you to grab some popcorn and a soda or your carbonated beverage of choice because you're going to want them handy after this episode. Today, we're going to talk about two of my favorite things - movies and science fiction. And to help out, I'm joined by astrophysicist Adam Frank.

Hey, Adam. How you doing?

ADAM FRANK: Doing good. Happy to be here.

SOFIA: Adam, tell us your favorite romantic comedy right now.

FRANK: (Laughter) Oh, no. You put me on the spot.

SOFIA: Come on, Adam (laughter).

FRANK: Something from the '80s...

SOFIA: (Laughter) Something from the...

FRANK: ...With Meg Ryan. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: All right. Solid.

OK. So Adam's no expert on rom-coms, but he does know a thing or two about sci-fi. He was a science adviser for Marvel on the movie "Doctor Strange," which is so cool. So I asked him to highlight some movies from the last decade, ones that tell us something interesting about science fiction or science and storytelling.

FRANK: The thing we can ask ourselves about is, when does it matter for science to be done accurately in a science fiction film? So we sort of chose a bunch of films where - that have different representations of science. And sometimes getting the science right mattered, and sometimes it didn't matter at all. And so I thought that would be an interesting way to frame our conversation about science fiction in the last decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Today on the show - sci-fi films of the decade with scientist Adam Frank. Yes, there will be spoilers, but y'all have had a lot of time to watch these movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: We've got astrophysicist Adam Frank with us. OK. Before we talk about sci-fi movies, I want to talk to you about your work as a science adviser on Marvel's "Doctor Strange," which is very cool. Like, that's a cool thing to do.

FRANK: It was a cool thing to do.

SOFIA: If you haven't seen it, it's a film that tackles the astral plane, other dimensions. There are some bad guys. That's all you need to know about it, right?

FRANK: It's a Marvel movie, right? There you go.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

FRANK: That's every Marvel movie minus the astral plane.

SOFIA: So why does a movie like this need a science adviser? And what was it like to work on it?

FRANK: Well, it was, like, the greatest moment of my life in many ways...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

FRANK: ...Except for my kids being born. OK, can I just say that?

SOFIA: Yeah...

FRANK: That was the greatest moment. But right after that - and meeting my wife. But then right after that comes when Marvel contacted me and asked me if I could be part of it because, you know, I'm a massive Marvel fan going way back to when I was a nerdy, you know, 12-year-old.

But the reason why they - they've had science advisers for most of their movies, and I think the thing that's really remarkable about the Marvel cinematic universe is how much it's a scientific universe, right? So they - those are movies that very much respect the idea of science even if, you know, they're masticating the science in, you know, quite large ways. So we spent a long time, for example, talking about that very important scene when Dr. Strange first meets The Ancient One...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Dr. Stephen Strange) Thank you, Ancient One, for seeing me.

TILDA SWINTON: (As The Ancient One) You're very welcome.

FRANK: ...The woman who's going to teach him about...

SOFIA: Oh, yeah.

FRANK: ...This other dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Dr. Stephen Strange) So you've figured out a way to reprogram nerve cells to self-heal?

SWINTON: (As The Ancient One) No, Mr. Strange. I know how to reorient the spirit to better heal the body.

FRANK: And so, you know, all of this was about trying to ground Dr. Strange's powers in the sense that, you know, consciousness, the nature of consciousness, is a question that really science doesn't have a handle on yet and that there would be other ways of looking at the nature of consciousness, which in some sense could be thought of scientific. But they were an expanded idea of what science is and what it can do.

SOFIA: All right. Cool. Thank you for sharing with that. I was really curious about that.

FRANK: Sure.

SOFIA: OK, Adam. Let's get to some of your science fiction movies of the decade. We'll start with a recent one from earlier this year, "Ad Astra" starring Brad Pitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

JOHN FINN: (As Brigadier General Stroud) Roy, we have something that might come as quite a shock to you.

SOFIA: He plays an astronaut that goes on a mission to deep space to find out what happened to his father...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

FINN: (As Brigadier General Stroud) We believe your father is still alive near Neptune.

SOFIA: ...Who - coincidence - is also an astronaut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

BRAD PITT: (As Roy McBride) My father's alive, sir?

JOHN ORTIZ: (As Lieutenant General Rivas) We believe so.

FRANK: My feeling about this movie was that it sucked.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANK: And it's - what's interesting about this movie is that it was very - on certain aspects, the movie was very scientifically accurate. Like, they really were thoughtful about, you know, how travel to the moon would work and the long duration of these trips between Earth and Mars, et cetera. But that didn't save the movie from just being a giant clunker.

"Ad Astra" is a very interesting example of where the - as you asked before, like, the director, the writers were listening to their science adviser - and they clearly had science advisers - but their larger intention for the film just beat that part to death so that it didn't matter. And having it be scientifically accurate didn't make it a good science fiction movie.

SOFIA: Gotcha. So give me an example of some of the science that they got right in that movie.

FRANK: Well, one of the things - like, what was interesting was this idea that everybody's on drugs all the time - the astronauts...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

FRANK: ...Because you're in these long trips. One can imagine that for the next 50 years of space exploration settlement that, you know, you're not going to build giant ships. It's very expensive to have a spaceship that's going to cross large distances. So you're going to be in very confined spaces, and everybody was sort of taking, you know, various kinds of mood-altering drugs in order to keep their emotions, you know, within a certain limit. And I had never encountered that idea before, and I was, like, oh, that's an interesting idea.

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. OK. So let's talk about another movie that to me felt a little bit like "Ad Astra." It's another big sci-fi film on your list, "Interstellar..."

FRANK: Yes.

SOFIA: ...Starring (coughing) another leading man...

FRANK: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...Matthew McConaughey. He is also an astronaut on a mission to save humanity. There's robots. There's a wormhole. There's relativity. Talk to me about it, Adam.

FRANK: Yeah. So that movie was much more popular. And this movie really also again made - they made a big deal about its scientific accuracy. They had Kip Thorne, who is one of the greatest, you know, black hole theorists ever, as part of the team. And it was very scientifically accurate, and I appreciated the scientific accuracy. Like, I liked this movie much more than I liked "Ad Astra."

But I still - it fell short for me because again of the story. Like, there is a scene where Anne Hathaway, who's a scientist, you know, who's part of this mission to save the Earth, where all of a sudden, in the middle of the movie, they're trying to decide what planet to go to to try and find the resources to save the Earth. And she just blurts out...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Brand) I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.

FRANK: That was not part of her character before, and suddenly, they made this this central idea. And it was, like, wow. You'd been doing OK up to now (laughter), and that - it just broke the story. And there were a bunch of other pieces like that. So I felt this was a movie that, yes, was very scientifically accurate but also made some very strange choices in terms of storyline that just kind of, you know, made you step back and go, like, eh, that wasn't so good.

SOFIA: Let's just take a moment and - really a moment of silence for all of the terrible writing that has been put in front of women who star in space movies.

FRANK: Yes. Yeah, I agree.

SOFIA: Let's just take three seconds. OK, and that's all we're going to say about that. OK. So...

FRANK: (Laughter).

SOFIA: All right. Let's go - let's get back down to Earth with this next film.

FRANK: OK.

SOFIA: This is a movie that I really, truly liked - "Arrival." That came out...

FRANK: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...In 2016 starring Amy Adams, a linguist. Alien spacecraft have touched down on Earth. Are the aliens here to destroy us? Our linguist and a physicist played by Jeremy Renner have to figure out how to communicate with them. And can I just say I was so satisfied that aliens touched down on some place other than the United States only?

FRANK: (Laughter) Right.

SOFIA: You know what I mean? It's a small detail, Adam Frank. But I'm, like, this makes more sense to me now. At least they're all over the place.

FRANK: Yeah. Right. It's not always, like, you know, right, the White House lawn or something...

SOFIA: (Laughter) Right.

FRANK: ...Or Area 51.

SOFIA: Right. And I also felt like I was really - you know, from a perspective of a person that's interested in how scientists are kind of portrayed, I also thought that that these were pretty well-developed human beings, and they seemed like kind of real humans - not just, like, (imitating robot) I'm an expert. Here's linguistics.

You know what I mean?

FRANK: Yeah. No, I agree because I also found it to be - it's one of my favorite science fiction films from the last decade or so. What's illustrative of this film is how what happens in "Arrival" is where - you know, is it scientifically accurate or not? Well, you know, there's a lot of big ideas in this thing, and who knows what aliens are like, right? So...

SOFIA: Right.

FRANK: This is a movie where it's not so much about being scientifically accurate. It's that there's a really cool idea that comes from science and philosophy even that is being really intelligently unpacked with characters you care about.

SOFIA: Exactly. Yeah.

FRANK: And so - and in particular here, it's a staple of science, of - especially science involved in thinking about extraterrestrial civilizations - that if we ever meet aliens, we'll communicate by using math, right? You know, of course, one plus one must equal two for them, too.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

FRANK: But that fails immediately, and I loved that idea.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

FRANK: And then it - you brought in the idea that the linguist - you know, that you have to really think about what language is and how it functions and how it relates to mind, the idea of mind - how different an alien mind would be. And the whole way they take that in the sense of - the aliens have a very different language, and that gives them actually a different physics. They experience time differently. I thought that was just a really smart, smart movie.

SOFIA: Yeah. I really enjoyed that. It's probably one of my favorites off your list maybe. And OK, so in general, Adam Frank, when people come to you, and they're, like, oh, can you believe they got the science in this movie wrong, what do you tell people about, you know, movies and how accurate the science needs to be and storytelling? Like, what's your response to that?

FRANK: Well, it's interesting. Like, when people made that point, you know, about, like, say "Doctor Strange" to me, and I'm, like, dude, it's a superhero movie, OK...

(LAUGHTER)

FRANK: ...You know? So it depends on what the movie's trying to do. If the movie is explicitly trying to set itself up in a scientifically realistic universe where that science actually is essential to the story, yeah, that's a problem. But what matters really is just that the movie is consistent about the version of the science they're using, right? So that's why I don't really care whether or not they're getting all of the actual science right. Just treat me like I'm, you know, a semi-intelligent person and give me a story that lives within its own boundaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Adam Frank's a professor at the University of Rochester. We didn't have time to get to all the movies we wanted to talk about, so check out our episode notes for more.

Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. The facts were checked by Berly McCoy and big shoutout to Ted Mebane for engineering help.

I'm Maddie Sofia. This is SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you next time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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