Best movies about scientists

Andrew Gelman asked readers to identify the top 5 movies about scientists. With the caveat that there are many candidates I haven’t seen, here’s an opening bid. Based on my own opinion, but I threw in Rotten Tomatoes critic and audience scores in parentheses:

  • Real Genius (75%, 83%)
  • Jurassic Park (93%, 91%)
  • Dr. Strangelove (99%, 94%)
  • Apollo 13 (95%, 86%) and The Martian (93%, 93%). Basically the same movie, so counts as one selection. And I’m choosing to count engineers as scientists.
  • Angels and Insects (71%, 68%). The movie sticks close to the novella, which is also excellent. Be warned: it’s rated R for a reason. The sex isn’t gratuitous–in fact, it’s integral–but it’s there.

Yes, I freely admit that some of the movies on this list stretch the definition of “about scientists”. If you ask someone what Jurassic Park is about, they’re probably not going to say “paleontologists”. But if you adopt a narrow definition of “about scientists”, then your choices are limited to biopics of scientists and The Ph.D. Movie. And I doubt even Jorge Cham himself would argue that The Ph.D. movie is one of the top 5 movies about scientists.

Other candidates:

  • Pi (87%, 85%). I want to see this.
  • Contagion (84%, 62%). I really want to see this. Heard it was great, surprised the scores aren’t higher.
  • The Andromeda Strain (67%, 72%)
  • A Beautiful Mind (75%, 93%). A plausible top 5 candidate.
  • Proof (62%, 59%; not that Proof). Note that it’s possible that seeing the play from a front-row seat in London spoiled the movie for me. The play was great*, the movie was fine but nothing special.
  • Contact (63%, 78%). Anecdotally, I’ve found that scientists like this better than non-scientists.
  • Good Will Hunting (97%, 94%). Just misses the cut for me, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who has it in their top 5.
  • Awakenings (88%, 89%). A plausible top 5 candidate.
  • The Imitation Game (90%, 92%). Surprised the scores are this high, I heard it was just pretty good. And commenters on Gelman’s blog hated it, so this might be one of those movies about scientists that only works if you’re not a scientist.
  • The Theory of Everything (80%, 84%). Again, surprised the scores are this high, I heard it was pretty average.
  • Mindwalk (88%, 89%). I’m listing this just to show off how many indie movies I watched in college. I loved this as an undergrad, and got into a classic late night dorm room debate over it. But I suspect that a plotless movie in which the “characters” are basically just three walking, talking worldviews (“scientist”, “artist”, and “practical politician”) won’t grab anyone who’s not “me in 1991” or some reasonable facsimile.
  • Creation (46%, 49%). I’ve seen it and it is indeed as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes scores indicate. Do not bother seeking it out, especially if you are a Darwin fan. Your specialist knowledge of Darwin’s life and ideas will only make it more painful to watch.
  • wΔz (71%; no score). Not a George Price biopic, despite what the title suggests. Included solely to remind you that, yes, there is indeed a horror movie based on the Price equation. Which just goes to show…something. I’m not sure what. But definitely something.🙂

*I confess that part of what made it great for me was that it was a small theater with seats more or less abutting the stage. When the lights came up at the beginning, Gwyneth Paltrow was sitting on stage not five feet from me. That was awfully cool.

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58 thoughts on “Best movies about scientists

  1. Of the biopics, Kinsey and Gorillas in the Mist are quite good. Adaptation (aka only good Nicolas Cage movie) has really nice evolutionary backbone and Master and Commander has obviously very darwinesque main character.

    • Good picks, I’d forgotten some of those. Haven’t seen Kinsey, sadly. Saw Gorillas in the Mist ages ago and only recall finding it powerful. I considered listed Adaptation but decided it was too much of a stretch to call it a movie about scientists. A debatable choice, obviously. I considered Master and Commander too, but decided it was more of an action/adventure movie; also a debatable choice. It’s excellent in any case–has the same makers as Creation, which makes Creation even more disappointing.

  2. Twister is also on my list; it might be stretching the definition of ‘about scientists’ but it’s one the few with a female scientist as a main character.

    • Yeah, I’d consider “Twister” too big a stretch, but obviously that’s a pretty subjective call.

      Interested to hear that you’d put Twister on your top 5 list, I heard it was just ok.

      Just looking back over the list now for female scientist leads, Jurassic Park, Contact, Proof, Mindwalk, and Contagion jump out. There are female scientists in Real Genius and The Martian, but in supporting roles.

  3. Via Twitter, a suggestion of Moneyball on the grounds that it features scientific material (statistics as a tool for discovery and prediction), even though it’s not about scientists:

    w delta z is only on the list on those grounds as well–it’s about the Price equation, but stars police detectives, not scientists.

  4. There’s also the question of what movies about scientists should be made. I mean, which ones would be good movies; I’m not thinking about commercial potential here.

    A Rosalind Franklin biopic is an obvious candidate. Her life has an obvious dramatic shape. And there’s already a successful play about her life, Photograph 51.

    Similarly, any historical scientific case in which contrasting personalities were racing one another to some discovery has obvious dramatic potential.

    I’ve seen a couple of other scientific plays–Galileo, Copenhagen. But neither is really cinematic at all, I don’t think.

    Could you make a movie dramatizing the Manhattan Project?

  5. I really liked And the Band Played On. I’ll definitely have to check out some of the others that made this top list that I haven’t seen. I love your blog!

    • Wait, do you seriously want to count *Ghostbusters* as a “movie about scientists”? I can’t tell if you’re joking…

      Next you’re going to be voting for The Nutty Professor, Back To the Future, Weird Science, Young Frankenstein, and every Hulk/Avengers movie.🙂

      In semi-seriousness: I’m happy to count movies like Real Genius and Jurassic Park despite their ridiculous, that-could-NEVER-happen plots. Because the scientists in those movies mostly talk and act like real scientists would in those outlandish situations.

  6. Primer is about a group of tech entrepreneurs/engineers, and it got a decent score on rotten tomatoes (71%, 80%). It starts suitably nerdy, and then gets more and more WTF? as it goes along. Great movie, and apparently only cost $10K to make.

    • Yep, I second the suggestion of Primer.

      I found most of it incomprehensible, but this was apparently on purpose because the writer/director didn’t want to dumb-down the content because he wanted to accurately capture the confusion caused by new technologies.

      Also, its Wikipedia Page has a Feynman-diagram to explain the idea behind the time-travelling device… It doesn’t get more sciencey that that!

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  8. Jurassic Park is definitely my #1, and I’d put Outbreak in my top 5. But shouldn’t Bio-Dome at least be an honorable mention?

  9. Jaws would definitely be in my top 5, for Richard Dreyfus’s portrayal of Hooper, the shark expert. A documentary about Jaws a few years ago interviewed a number of marine biologists who pointed to Jaws as inspiring their choice of career. I came close to studying marine biology for the same reason but opted for a broader degree instead.

    • Yes, Jaws is terrific. I didn’t think of it when I was coming up with my list, I guess because I don’t think of Dreyfus’ marine biologist as sufficiently central to make it a movie “about scientists”. But your mileage may vary on that, obviously.

  10. This is a fun topic. It seems to me that Creation, The Imitation Game, and A Beautiful Mind all get maligned because people want film makers to take no artistic license with the lead characters. I don’t find that realistic. I think I can say with confidence there isn’t a single “mathematician” out there like Dr. Ian Malcolm and therefore people can’t roll out the argument that the movie isn’t good because it doesn’t strictly follow someone’s life and beliefs perfectly. Maybe I’m saying this because I enjoyed Creation and thought they at least captured some important things like Darwin’s struggle with publishing his ideas, his struggle with religion, and they portrayed his curiosity with nature.

    • I actually wouldn’t mind a good movie about Darwin’s life that took some liberties with the facts. I just don’t think the liberties taken by Creation led to a good movie. Basically, I think the filmmakers struggled to visualize inner turmoil, which is something movies always struggle with. Seeing Creation not work is one reason why I suggested in another comment that we need more movies about multiple scientists racing one another to a result. Or else movies in which the race for a result has obvious high stakes for people besides the scientists concerned, as with the Manhattan project. I think it’s easier to dramatize a race, or a race against the clock, rather than inner turmoil.

      As much as I like Jurassic Park, I don’t think the character of Ian Malcolm quite works. He’s an entertaining imaginary version of what a hip, snarky Santa Fe Institute mathematician might be like. But he also gets saddled with that anti-corporate, anti-meddling-with-nature speech about how the park is just “selling it”. Those standard Hollywood tropes just sound off (at least to me) coming from the mouth of a scientist, especially one like Malcolm. It’s like the filmmakers felt that *somebody* had to give that speech, and randomly settled on Malcolm. But in fairness, that’s a blip in what’s mostly an extremely effective movie. Better than it has any right to be, really, because in many ways it has the DNA of a B movie. But what a B movie!*

      *In part because the special effects still hold up, and indeed mostly look better than those of recent blockbusters. That’s an interesting example of the value of constraints. Spielberg & co. were working at the dawn of useful CGI, and so couldn’t just unthinkingly computer-generate everything. They used whatever technique would give them the best-looking shot, which often meant building huge robots. There are waaay fewer CGI shots in Jurassic Park than you might think. And they used every trick in the book to make sure that the CGI looked good, such as having a lot of scenes take place at night, in the dark, or in the rain. Because it’s much harder to make CGI animals look real in broad daylight.

    • I agree that it’s hard to visualize inner turmoil, but I don’t think Paul Bettany did a bad job of it. Based on my admittedly non-extensive readings of Darwin’s correspondence it’s not as if Darwin was consistently and overtly anguished. Given that limitation I suppose I didn’t expect an exquisite portrayal of inner struggle. I also think that for many (a majority?) of scientists curiosity is the driving inspiration for what they do. So while portraying scientific races could be more entertaining, it’s also a subset of what happens.

      As a bit of a tangent, I don’t think you’ve fairly characterized Malcolm (at least in the movie since I’ve seen that more recently than reading the book). He’s not necessarily anti-corporate or anti-messing with nature as in the speech you refer to he explains why he thinks it is different than trying to save condors. The whole speech was about the illusion of controlling nature without fail. He studies, “unpredictably in complex systems” and chaos theory which is why he is the character railing against the idea that the entire park can be constructed and deemed failsafe.

      • “I agree that it’s hard to visualize inner turmoil, but I don’t think Paul Bettany did a bad job of it. ”

        I don’t think the issue’s Bettany’s performance, although I think he’s too overwrought. It’s more to do with what he’s asked to perform.

        Perhaps it’s not surprising that we’ll have to agree to disagree on Creation. The movie doesn’t seem to have been well received on average by either critics or audiences, but anecdotally it looks to me like reactions to it may have been more varied than for a typical film (e.g.,

        “So while portraying scientific races could be more entertaining, it’s also a subset of what happens.”

        Sure, scientific races are only a subset of all of science. But not all of science is equally good grist for filmmaking.

        “As a bit of a tangent, I don’t think you’ve fairly characterized Malcolm..deemed failsafe”

        Sure, the speech has some elements mixed in that are appropriate to Malcom’s “chaotician” character. But I think it’s pretty clear that the speech as a whole is an example of the sort of anti-corporate and don’t-mess-with-nature tropes that are a staple of certain sorts of Hollywood movies.

        It’s just one speech, fortunately. Indeed, it grates on me in large part because it *is* just one speech. Jurassic Park so rarely puts a foot wrong that it’s particularly jarring when it does.

        But all this is the sort of thing on which viewers are going to disagree, which is fair enough.

  11. No Highway in the Sky (1951). Jimmy Stewart plays a materials scientist working for a government research organization. He develops a theory of metal fatigue with real world applications. The (near) final scene is a test that finally verifies the theory, but he has to figure out why the prediction happened after the calculated time. This may have been loosely based on a real problem with the first British passenger jet.

      • It does a better job with an eccentric scientists than most movies. It was based on a Nevil Shute novel. I would reccomend it highly. One of the interesting things was the metal fatigue theory was based on quantum dynamics calculations. Not the right answer in the real world, but a decent attempt from the 1940s

  12. There was also a movie dramatisation a few years ago of the visit that David Lack made to the Galapagos. It was a made-for-tv thing but very good. Can’t recall its name though.

      • “I spoke to David’s son, Andrew, after it was broadcast and he described how surreal it was sitting watching it with his mother (who is still alive) and for her to see herself portrayed by an actor on screen. I can’t imagine how weird that would be. ”

        Sadly, my fantasy of discovering something so amazing that I get portrayed in a movie by mid-90s Jeff Goldblum is unlikely to come to pass. For reasons too numerous to list.🙂

      • “There’s still time, Jeremy”

        Remember how earlier I talked about how difficult it is to dramatize inner turmoil? Well, it’s even more difficult to dramatize lack of inner turmoil. And it’s more difficult still to dramatize lack of any drama whatsoever. Anyone who wanted to dramatize my life story wouldn’t have to take liberties so much as chuck my life story and replace it with the life story of someone else.🙂

        And while yes, I guess there’s still time for me to live through some quiet-life-gets-turned-upside-down-by-unexpected-scientific-discovery drama, the odds of that are so low as to make winning the lottery look like a good bet.🙂

      • “Anyone who wanted to dramatize my life story wouldn’t have to take liberties so much as chuck my life story and replace it with the life story of someone else”

        Yes, it’s a shame that Hollywood never changes real events for the sake of dramatic action…..🙂

      • “Yes, it’s a shame that Hollywood never changes real events for the sake of dramatic action….”

        In that case, I’m more than happy for someone to digitally remove Alan Turning from The Imitation Game and replace him with me.🙂

    • Yes, there are a number of action/adventure/disaster movies with big roles for scientists that haven’t come up. I guess because many of them aren’t very good? The Core. Deep Impact. Prometheus (I read someone hypothesize, only half-jokingly, that Ridley Scott had to make The Martian to make it up to scientists for making Prometheus. According to the article, Prometheus is mediocre in general, and relies on stupid choices by nominally-intelligent scientists to advance the plot). Probably others I’m forgetting.

  13. A few other movies about scientists that came up in Gelman’s post (Rotten Tomatoes critic and audience scores in parentheses):

    The Insider (96%, 90%). Great movie, but strikes me as a whistleblower/journalism drama much more than a drama about scientists, but your mileage may vary.
    Madame Curie (83%, 65%)
    The Seven Percent Solution (82%, 65%). Sherlock Holmes meets Freud counts as a movie about scientists? Really?
    Infinity (62%, 36%). Matthew Broderick (!) in his directorial debut, directing himself as Richard Feynman (!) in a movie focused on Feynman’s romance with his first wife.
    Insignificance (73%, 68%). Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy meet in a hotel room…
    William Shatner apparently played Stanley Milgram in a made-for-TV movie.
    Bringing Up Baby has Cary Grant as a paleontologist, and The Lady Eve has Henry Fonda as a rich (!) herpetologist. But I’m not sure that either of those is “about scientists”. It’s my impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that the occupations of Grant and Fonda are totally incidental to those films.

  14. Actual movies:
    The Dish – Apollo 11 from the point of view of the Australians.

    Assuming television movies are acceptable:
    Challenger – About Feynman’s work on the Challenger disaster.
    Einstein and Eddington – Andy Serkis as Eistein and David Tennant as Arthur Eddington, what more could you want, except it is actually really good (in my opinion).

    • Thanks! I’m especially intrigued by Einstein and Eddington. Which is probably unfortunate as it’s probably hard to track down unless somebody’s pirated it on YouTube.

      Had heard about The Dish, but haven’t seen it and had forgotten it.

  15. Cannot come up with many suggesions that hasn’t already been mentioned, but since The Imitation Game is on the list I guess Enigma (2002) could be there as well. Maybe a stretch to say that it’s about scientists though. From what I remember, it is also taking larger liberties with historical events and characters compared to The Imitation Game (e.g. a love story between ~ the Turing character and a mysterious woman).

    If TV-series are allowed, Showtime’s Masters of Sex should probably be included, since it is loosely based on a pioneereing research team on human sexuality. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of it though.

  16. Temple Grandin, a nice TV-biopic about a scientist who worked on humane handling of animals in agriculture
    The Fly

    Not directly for the Top 5:
    And of course a bunch of great (B-)Movies like Evolution, Vampire Bats or Locusts😉

  17. How about a nomination for worst depiction of scientist – my vote goes fro Michael Caine as the entomologist in Swarm although Julian Sands as the arachnologist in Arachnophobia runs him a pretty good second🙂

    • Yes, sorry I missed Interstellar (with a 4.5 year old at home, I miss a lot of movies these days…). I heard it was good but wasn’t quite great. Which maybe just shows that expectations were unrealistic; I think a lot of people (including me) expect every Christopher Nolan movie to be perfect…

    • Sorry for the late reply, but the fact that someone made a horror movie about the traveling salesman problem is even more awesome than the fact that someone made a horror movie about the Price equation.

      Makes you wonder if there are horror movies about Fermat’s Last Theorem, P=NP, and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.🙂

  18. I liked the opening credits in Hulk – the one directed by Ang Lee, with Eric Bana as Banner. Apparently Ang Lee’s wife works in a lab and advised him??

    The Voyage of Charles Darwin miniseries is one of my top 5 shows

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