Science and Technology Confront Reality

By Miller, Cynthia J.; Van Riper, A. Bowdoin et al. | Film & History, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Science and Technology Confront Reality


Miller, Cynthia J., Van Riper, A. Bowdoin, Baybrook, Loren P. Q., Film & History


Science and technology, and the people associated with them, are seldom depicted in film as benign. Heavy-laden with the potential for salvation or destruction, they are nearly always cast as a potent force in the shaping of humanity's well-being, and so, of its history. This Janus-faced nature of science is, of necessity, governed by a pact of mutual obligation with society - one that offers support, intellectual autonomy, and substantial cultural authority to the practitioners of science and technology in return for greater control over the unknown and intervention in the ills that plague humankind.

Early cinematic narratives of society's relationship with science and technology typically fell into two categories. The first ranged from unabashedly fantastic tales of promise and possibility - the Melies brothers' A Trip to the Moon (1902) and William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936) - to celebratory biopics like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and earnest documentaries such as Night Mail (1936) and Power and the Land (1940). The second category of narratives was cautionary tales, featuring scientists who placed their own hunger for knowledge and power ahead of society's needs. These were the cinematic archetypes of misguided and mad science: Dr. Rotwang of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927); James Whale's Dr. Frankenstein (1931); the many incarnations of Dr. Jekyll (notably 1920, 1931, and 1941); and the unseen designer of the machinery that bedevils Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

Both visions of the relationship of science, technology, and society have remained continuously in play on movie screens through the present day, with some films continuing to celebrate the engagement of science with society, while others caution about the dangers of its disengagement. Beginning in the 1950s, the horrors of the Second World War and the fears of the Atomic Age spawned a third type of narrative: one that questioned whether the long-standing pact between science and society was inherently flawed. Films addressing the social and human costs of science began to appear immediately after the war: as straightforward dramas (The Beginning or the End, 1947), as comedies (The Man in the White Suit, 1951), as monster epics (Gojira, 1954), and as detective stories (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955). The skepticism and irony given form in these films defy the clearly positive and negative poles of earlier portrayals, creating a range of complex, and often contradictory, cinematic depictions of science and technology in the latter half of the twentieth century.

This issue of Film S^History, "Science and Technology Confront Reality," is the first of two special issues on Representations of Science and Technology in Film. The five articles featured here explore how science and technology are variously pressed into service across genres to mitigate society's complexities and fears, from civil-defense films, to rubble films, to classic B-movie horror, and from docu- drama to mock- documentary.

In our lead article, "Good Germans, Humane Automobiles: Redeeming Technological Modernity - In Those Days," Paul Dobryden examines the rubble of humanity, and the car entrusted with its salvage. Through the memories of a battered automobile found amidst the ruins of a German city, the film seeks to reconstruct an alternative history of the Third Reich - one in which the ideal of "the humane" persisted - in order to give hope, and a useable past, to a war-torn nation.

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