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.
- 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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