By Christy Tidwell
There’s just a week and a half left before Halloween, but there’s still time for more spooky movies! This week’s classic and contemporary movie recommendations prominently feature scientists and scientific research, highlighting the risks of scientific experimentation and exploration (especially when done outside the bounds of formal research contexts) as well as the limits of scientific knowledge.
Classic Movie #4: The Fly
David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly is a classic of body horror. Its central premise is that a human (Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum) merges with a fly and becomes a horrifying human-fly mutant: Brundlefly. This transformation emphasizes bodily mutation through both the intimate horror of things like losing fingernails (as gruesomely shown in the bathroom scene) and the ultimate form of Brundlefly, so dramatically changed that it no longer has a recognizably human face.
The Fly is also another horror film about mad science (following in the footsteps of Frankenstein, recommended during Week 1). It’s not just that a human merges with a fly, after all, but that a scientist conducts experiments on himself that go very wrong. The film dramatizes what can happen when scientists abandon the norms and regulations of scientific practice. If you can’t get funding through traditional means, how far are you willing to go for your research? Are you willing to experiment on yourself? Although historically there have been quite a few scientists willing to do this, The Fly serves as a cautionary tale indicating that this will not always work out. Some renegade scientists might get to be Humphry Davy (who experimented with nitrous oxide and discovered its use as an anesthetic – without killing himself!), but others are Seth Brundle/Brundlefly.
Contemporary Movie #4: Annihilation
Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name) also follows a scientist, a biologist (Natalie Portman). She is on an expedition with an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a linguist (all women) into a mysterious environmental disaster zone known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer doesn’t follow the familiar rules of nature and ever stranger things happen to and around the group of explorers. Without giving too much away (since the movie is still relatively recent), I can say that Annihilation centers both scientific exploration and environmental issues, which connects it nicely to the STS degree.
Where The Fly endorses traditional science by showing the awful consequences of going outside its boundaries, Annihilation takes a different approach, illustrating the limits of scientific knowledge. The team of women in Annihilation are overwhelmed by the world within the Shimmer, ultimately unable to study it objectively and changed by it instead. In both films, scientists are unable to remain completely separate from what they study.