A Comparative Analysis of the Portrayal of Scientists in Popular Media with Reference to 80s Films

Posted on 2011/07/12


Feature Image - A Comparative Analysis of the Portrayal of Scientists in Popular Media with Reference to 80s Films

***This post is based on an essay I wrote in September 2010 when my friend Tom Ward challenged me with the title.***

The popular media’s usual portrayal of scientists (real or fictional) follows a few basic themes. These themes are often to reinforce misconceptions about the working scientist which the laymen already hold. A quick glance of films of the 1980s will highlight the trends.


‘The Fly’ (1986) is one example of many films which reinterpret the same themes that were explored in novels such as Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Scientist Seth Brundle creates a machine which turns him (accidently) into a mutant human-fly, inviting the viewer to explore the ethical consequences of scientific inquiry and to fear of the unknown.

Doctor Emmit Brown in ‘Back to the Future’ (1985) is rather obviously based on Albert Einstein. In case you didn’t see the resemblance, Spielberg calls Brown’s dog ‘Einstein’ just to be sure.

However, less obviously, Doc Brown also inherits a number of Einstein’s interests and beliefs. Brown’s field of study, time travel, was first given popular appeal by Einstein’s work on Special and General Relativity in 1905 and 1916. Brown’s bump on the head, while standing on his toilet to hang a clock, was the trigger for the invention of the exceptionally named ‘flux capacitor’ (which implies a device for the storage of the flow of time). This is a rather explicit example of Einstein’s belief in the elusive nature of imagination, and its significance to science.

I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

Albert Einstein (1931)  ‘Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms’ p. 97

Stupid Machines

The ‘Rube Goldberg Machines’ built by Doc Brown throughout the trilogy are shown to reinforce a conception of the scientist as often solving non-problems with over-engineering, over-precision and, when possible, and explosion or two. The opening scene of the first film, with the automatic dog feeder, tells us so much about Doc Brown before we’ve even seen him.  The ice cube dispenser of the third film reminds you that Doc’s eccentricities aren’t bounded by the constraints of any particular time. This theme also enables film-makers to have some tangible mechanistic invention for the audience to watch to break up all that theoretical fancy talk.


Speaking of fancy talk, the opening of ‘Weird Science’ (1985) is perhaps the clearest example of a plot which not only assumes that the audience knows little or no science, but relies on it. The plot revolves around two ‘nerds’ trying to make a dream woman using their computer. The same outcome could have been achieved with supernatural fantasy. We could have the two boys selling their souls to the devil in exchange for their fantasy woman.  They could have made the woman out of clay and recited a spell.  They could have wished to the toothfairy (or similar deity) for a woman.  And so on.

The rest of the film would have been just as funny. However, rather than a fantasy plot of this sort, the writers chose to utilize the general population’s ignorance of science. Make the boys seems pretty smart and say big words. Make them use computers; no one knows how they work.  For some, present day scientific understanding must seem as bewitching as mystical speculation.

This scene includes a moment where the boys scan in a picture of Einstein’s face.  After a pause, the computer screen declares that it is incorporating Einstein’s intelligence into the model.  What are we to make of this?  Do the writers expect the audience to have a strong grasp of the debunked science of phrenology, or are they just hoping that most people will have glazed into a fuzzy stupor by this point?

Another film which uses this theme extensively is ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984) in the character of Dr. Egon Spengler. Spengler often quotes figures to numerous decimal places and follows this by saying “approximately”. This lets the audience know that his great intellect is holding back the true value for brevity and makes the quoted value more believable. [On a personal note, I, at age 10, was so confused by this scene that I thought 'approximately' actually meant 'precisely'.  And I continued to use the word in place of 'precisely' for several years, until a maths teacher spotted the oddity and corrected me.]

Distraction & Abstraction

Spengler is also a good example of a scientist who’s work distracts him from enjoying other aspects of life and worrying about his own physical safety. He seems to be unaware or disinterested in the romantic advances of Janine Melnitz – the Ghostbusters’ secretary. His scientific distraction also leads to contemptible behaviour which is a danger to both himself and others. Leaving out vital instructions such as ‘don’t cross the streams’ or attempting to drill a hole in his own head, places a significant burden on his friends to monitor his actions and compensate for his irresponsible ways.

Other characters seem unaware of social conventions and often subvert them. Gwildor in ‘Masters of the Universe’ (1987) was apparently surprised when his companions objected to him sneezing in their faces. Yet, this same Gwildor is fully capable of a inventing and building a ‘Cosmic Key’ which enables the owner to travel anywhere in time and space.

Ill-Chosen Scale Models

Scientists often have to deal with the very large and the very small; sizes beyond human imagination. Therefore, they often evoke scale models which can aid explanation and visualisation. Films utilize this idea for the purpose of reinforcing the character’s eccentricity. Doc Brown’s model of Hill Valley results in him setting a toy car on fire.  And, ‘Tell him about the twinkie,’ is all I need to say about Egon.

Relentless Analysis

Scientists are often seen as applying analysis to areas of human activity where it is either morally questionable or philosophically dubious. The scientists who arrive at the end of ‘E.T.’ (1982) with intent on capturing the creature for study, seem to do so with moral disregard. Most of ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ (1986) is dedicated to Spock’s (the science officer’s) misplaced analysis of human language and behaviour. A ‘fish-out-of-water’ plot thus becomes easy when there is no socially comfortably section of water for a scientist to inhabit.

The Translator

Most of the these films will have some ‘regular guy’ who is at hand to translate anything complicated which is essential to the plot. It is a theme to portray the scientists as either unable, or unwilling to communicated this knowledge to the layman effectively. Marty McFly for Doc Brown and Pete Venkman for Egon Spengler both get frustrated at their inability to understand and their friend’s inability to explain. Anyone with a bad science teacher can identify with these characters.

‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980) removes the need for an explainer altogether by having the only scientist in the film be a mute robot called R2-D2 who is wheeled over to do something technical only when everyone else is busy shooting at something.

And there, in George Lucas’ clunky script, lies the most accurate portrayal of a scientist’s place in society in film history.

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Posted in: Film, Physics, Science