After I saw the new Brad PItt film, World War Z, I went to the web and read a dozen reviews. I wanted to see if anyone was impressed with the movie’s subtle but profound pro-science theme. Nope. Special effects, pacing, Brad Pitt’s acting…no one felt the film had an underlying theme worth noting. Which, to me, makes the film even more impressive, because the theme is there for us in plain sight. A summer blockbuster, popcorn entertainment, that delivered a message directly into the subconscious. Nice.
Major spoiler alert. Go see the movie. It’s scary. It’s fun. Come back and read this. Also, I liked the book too. I just don’t care to compare book to movie.
1. At the crux of World War Z is a comment about how science works that is both creative and true. The portrayal of scientists and science in film is a masochistic hobby of mine. Think Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park–a fun film certainly, but when Jeff’s character talks about science and chaos theory, I want to jab a pencil in my eye. One of the scientists in World War Z makes a surprisingly cogent speech about science: “Nature is a serial killer. She can’t bear the idea of not getting the credit for her genius, she wants to be caught. So she leaves clues. The trick is not to miss the clues.” [Script is not on line yet, so this is from memory and paraphrased.] This idea is clever and subversive. Pushes aggressively against the “nature as friend” trope we enjoy while sipping lattes, and tell’s it like it is: science is detective work.
2. The brilliant scientist falls on his gun and kills himself accidentally. “Fucking great,” I thought and was pissed off that my new favorite character bit the dust unceremoniously. But… A) American science right now is in the midst of self-destruction, so to speak, funding wise; and B) the scientist’s death is vital because Brad Pittl’s character has to pick up the pieces himself and be the scientist. The initial hypothesis and plan falls apart, and at the climax of the film, Brad puts together the clues that save the day. In the closing voiceover, Citizen science indeed.
3. “She disguises her weaknesses as strengths.” This hit me in my gear box — it’s true in cancer. Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) used to be the most feared form of acute leukemia due to high bleeding rate. Turned out out that the PML-RARA-driven disease is hugely responsive to all-trans-retinoic acid (vitamin A!!) and the survival rates from a diagnosis of APL approach 100%. (Yeah, we cure people).
4. Beginning montage shows important science stories, e.g. global warming, being drowned out my popular media garbage. We got screwed because we weren’t paying attention to the important stuff.
5. The hope for mankind is found at a WHO lab in England. The WHO staff are dedicated and smart.
6. A notable absence in the film is any reference whatsoever to religion in solving the zombie problem. Why did God let this happen? How will God save us? These questions just don’t come up. A subtle nod to religion comes when a group of refugees singing Islamic prayers at an Israeli border checkpoint attracts zombie’s ire. This made me very uncomfortable at first…the Israeli’s are portrayed as “getting it right,” and the Muslims screw things up?? WTF?? But, listening more carefully, the Israeli “solution,” very high walls, turns into a liability and that strategy fails. And the only “problem” really with the Muslim prayers, it turns out, is simply that they sing them too loudly. Heh. Maybe it’s, “keep the religion volume on low, and we’ll all be fine?”
We talked about telling science stories in our recent #storymaven #IsisVSTomasson web discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcPkwiKnsdg/ As scientists, we need to tell our stories with compelling narratives. (see also: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/06/wcsj2013-narrative/)
Let’s give credit to Hollywood when they make an entertaining film that has a pro-science heart.