Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

By Richard, Derek | Extrapolation, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema


Richard, Derek, Extrapolation


The Unquestioned Images of Lab Coats in Postmodernism. David A. Kirby. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2011. 265 pp. ISBN 9780262014786. $28 he.

Reviewed by Derek Richard

One of the most prevalent themes of postmodern culture is the reliance on the image. Postmodern scholars such as Jean Baudrillard have even gone so far as to suggest that the image has distorted our perception of reality. Moreover, Jean-Françios Lyotard argues that capitalism's emergence with science has played a large role in shaping postmodernism. If the image and commoditized science are indeed significant cultural themes, then a commercial technology that creates images for the masses demands attention. Cinema-and, above all, science fiction cinema-is especially relevant here because both the form and the content of the sf film embody the postmodern combination of the image and commoditized science. In other words, both the technological apparatus of cinema and the subject matter of sf films play a crucial role in shaping public perception.

In Lab Coats in Hollywood, author David A. Kirby attempts to delineate this process by looking at the relations between sf cinema and technology as a source of an ideological imagination. Kirby sheds light on the relationship between the entertainment industry and science culture by analyzing the role of the science consultant on Hollywood films. Throughout the ten-chapter text the author transitions from highlighting the specific duties of a Hollywood science consultant on recent big budget sf films such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to addressing more ideological issues such as the dissemination of scientific knowledge, film's role in fostering scientific research, and filmic conceptual devices such as "technoscientific imaginary" and "diegetic prototypes" 14). "Ultimately," Kirby writes, "my interest as a science studies scholar is to understand how representations and narratives in entertainment media impact scientific culture" (15).

In the first third of his book Kirby discusses the duties of the science consultant, whose primary responsibility on a typical Hollywood film is to achieve realism. Kirby cites Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as a pivotal film that set the precedent for filmmakers using science experts for authenticity and verisimilitude: "A glance at the list of organizations contributing scientific and technical advice for 2001 dwarfs such input for any other film before or since" (2). Kirby transitions from citing examples of films that used science consultants to addressing the implications of verisimilitude in the media. "Virtual mass media's reality effect is a double-edged sword as it allows people to virtually witness science but it can also lead to questioning what is real" (28). His discussion of realism becomes even more interesting when he points out that a science consultant's work on a film often directly affects the science culture. For example, after his work on Armageddon (1998), science consultant Chris Gilman was hired by NASA to "design and manufacture a prototype External-Vehicular-Activity space suit to be used for real space walks" (91).

The second part of the book deals with the relationship between films and scientific knowledge. It is in this section that readers gain the most insight into the persuasive potentialities of cinema. Kirby specifically discusses how films play a vital role in dealing with scientific information that is "in flux." For instance, Jurassic Park (1993) significantly impacted the debate concerning the genealogy of dinosaurs. One of the film's most salient features is that the dinosaurs are portrayed as having similarities to birds, not reptiles. This is no accident. Jurassic Park's science consultant was Jack Horner, one of the leading theorists on the bird-dinosaur debate at the time. …

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