Storytelling, Science Storytelling, and Science Movies

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Science fiction movies are some of the most wonderful examples of human imagination put onto the screen.  These movies tend to explore far off worlds or technologies that we have only dreamed about and still manage to tell an intricate tale that has a message.  Sometimes the messages are imbedded so carefully into the stories that we do not even realize that they are being told, while other times they bombard the audience so frequently that we cannot possibly fail to notice the message that is being given to us.  The best types of stories are usually the ones that lean somewhere in the middle or at least more towards the side of a stealthy message.  One such movie that is quite similar to this is James Cameron’s epic Avatar.  This movie tells a wonderful story while conveying its message relatively openly but not to the point that it is overbearing.

The message that Avatar gives the audience can be directly related to the question: to what extent do scientific stories influence the pursuit of scientific inquiry?  The movie Avatar plays an important role in answering this question in that it serves two major purposes.  First, the movie is, in a sense, challenging the way that we view issues and dares humanity to push the boundaries of what we can achieve through science and technology.  Second, the movie serves as a depiction of how important it is to realize that there is a limit to which we must push for progress on any front, including that of scientific inquiry.  Through the coupling of these two important ideas, Avatar is a perfect example of a movie that aids to scientific inquiry but helps us to see that pushes too hard too fast could have detrimental results.

In terms of aiding the scientific community, Avatar’s major asset is the excitement that the movie generates for the audience.  The audience is taken to a world where the living can take their minds beyond their own physical body and inhabit another creature’s body and control it as their own.  This is further shown to be a truly unique experience as the main character Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is depicted as a quadriplegic who is able to transport his mind into a large, agile, and powerful body of an alien species named the Na’vi (Cameron).  Regardless of the actual technology that would be required to have such a procedure work; the movie can be a way of attracting new, young minds to different scientific fields by seeing the movie.  This would not be the first time that a film (or television show) has attracted an individual to pursue a career in the scientific community.  One such example of someone who found a career path through the love of science fiction is clinical psychiatrist Chris Bojrab.  Bojrab claims that his love of Star Trek helped sway him to have a career in the sciences because it, “offered a glimpse of what science can offer at its best, not just technological advances, but perhaps more importantly, a future for humanity where that technology can reduce poverty, inequality, prejudice, ignorance, disease, etc,” (The Exchange).

Not only does a movie like Avatar promote the general idea of scientific inquiry through the excitement of scientific progress, but it also gives support to this notion through the depiction of the scientist as an emerging hero.  Within the film, Dr. Grace Augustine, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, is the head of the Avatar Program and helps Jake gain an understanding of the natives of the planet Pandora (Cameron).  She serves as a link between the two species and, ultimately gives her own life to defend the ideas that she cares so deeply about: the balance between human expansion and understanding of the natural land around those on Pandora.  This image of a scientist as a hero is not unique to the film Avatar, as it has been depicted more and more in films as of late. A major conference and analysis of prime-time television in recent times has shown “an overwhelmingly positive image for scientists in prime-time television,” and that they are “almost exclusively shown in a positive light,” (Nisbet).  What examples such as these show is that, in general, the depiction of the scientist is gaining popularity within our society because television, especially that which airs in prime-time, tends to follow the trends that are popular within society at the time in order to get the highest viewer rating.  

Of course, with a film such as Avatar that shows the physical struggle between man’s ever constant want to take more and more and being in harmony with the world around, there will be the message of not pushing forward too far with scientific progress and technology.  The film clearly has a message of restraint to it, and one could argue that it leads to the notion that mankind is no ready for such technologies as those in the film.  From there, the clear answer to the question of whether this movie aids the notion of scientific inquiry or hinders it is seen in the form of a hindrance because, simply put, man is not ready for this responsibility. The truth is quite the opposite, however.  What the film depicts a warning sign of how far we could one day push those around us to accomplish our goals for the sake of progress. The film uses a futuristic metaphor of the same struggle that originally existed between European settlers and Native Americans.  The European’s, a technologically superior group, brought their ways to North America and began living the European lifestyle here, which was detrimental to the natural lifestyle that the Native Americans lead.  This would lead to increased tensions between the two groups until open conflict ultimately pushed the Native Americans from their homes and all the way across the United States.  Obviously, the film does not show the conflict between humans and Na’vi going that far, but the undertones definitely exist.  In terms of a scientific message that this conflict shows us, the audience is left with this notion: the proper use of technology is the most important aspect of our scientific progress.  Humanity is responsible for its actions and must be able to use scientific progress in such a way that it does not disrupt the natural world around it, so what the film leaves the debate with is not necessarily a hindrance on scientific inquiry but simply a reminder that progress for the sake of progress should always be thoroughly examined.  

The way in which the film is depicted is also of importance to how it aids the scientific community.  Given that some of the technologies that are shown in the film clearly do not exist as of yet, the actual bits of science that are shown are described in a clear, concise manner that the audience is able to understand and follow along with.  This style of description follows some of the basic principles that have been laid down by many different authors and public figures to telling a story that is clear to understand and holds someone’s attention.  As the famous author George Orwell notes there are six rules to writing that keep the story, essay, etc. on a level where anyone can read, watch, or listen to it and understand it, and Avatar follows the fifth rule quite well.  The rule states, “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English word equivalent,” (Orwell).  The explanation of the link that Jake shares with the Na’vi body is a perfect example of this in action.  Instead of trying to explain it with the best scientific terminology and explanation that is possible with our given technology, the film opts to very loosely define the process so that the average viewer can follow along and not become confused (Cameron).  This helps keep the audience engaged and interested in the plot of the story and not get anyone confused as to the technical aspects of what is going on within the film.

This is not to downplay the importance of explaining some scientific ideology and terminology to the general population.  There is no better explanation as to the importance of reaching out, from the scientific community’s point of view, and trying to explain certain aspects of the technical side of scientific inquiry than that which is given by Robert Krulwich.  He explains this idea by stating:

“Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists, because science stories, you know this, have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories, bible stories, movie stories, myths can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists, this is not a gentle competition. So you've got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.” (Kruwich)

What Krulwich states is the hard truth.  People cannot always believe that the bulk of scientific endeavors are the result of some sort of science fiction story that simply materialized into existence.  It is important to realize and respect the immense amount of work that went into deciphering the mysteries of the universe that many have spent their lives unraveling.  

Films such as Avatar serve an important role in the progress of scientific inquiry.  These sorts of films serve as a romanticized example of the wonders of the world of science.  Through the story that is told in the film, people that never had interest in pursuing a career in the scientific community could realize their imbedded passion in the field.  It is equally as important, however, to remember that movies such as Avatar are fictional and that some of the images, technologies, and so on that are presented are just that, fictional.  It is crucial that those that see these sorts of films remember that though the equipment, technology, and gadgets do not exist today, the same can be said about many pieces of technology that we use in our everyday lives and take completely for granted.   It takes innovation and dedication to transition these sorts of futuristic technologies to the real world and scientific inquiry makes some of these pieces of technology become a reality.  The film Avatar may be about a fictional world and fictional people, but the feelings that it generates within the viewers of the film are real.  Those feelings of awe and curiosity of how some of that futuristic technology works should be embraced by those that feel it, as they may one day be the person who makes the breakthrough that leads to the development of such technology.

Works Cited

Cameron, James, dir. Avatar. 2009. Film. 14 Mar 2013. 

The Exchange, . "Scientist Spotlight: Chris Bojrab." Science & Entertainment Exchange . 20 Feb 2013: n. page. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. <http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/article/scientist-spotlight-chris-bojrab>.

Krulwich, Robert. "Tell Me A Story." California Institute of Technology Commencement. Caltech, Pasadena. 2008. Address. 

Nisbet, Matthew. "Reconsidering the Image of Scientists in Film & Television." Science Blogs. 05 May 2010: n. page. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. <http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2010/05/05/reconsidering-the-image-of-sci/>.

Orwell, George. "Politics and the English Language ." 1946: n. page. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. <http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Orwell/politics_and_english.html>.