Best Science Movie? It Doesn't Take a Genius...

After a comment suggesting that a Science Film festival be held to combat a certain idiotic movie, He of Uncertain Principles agreed, and then the powers that be at scienceblogs decided to hold a poll on the Best Science Movies. And the four choices are...."Contact", "Gattaca", "An Inconvenient Truth", and "Jurassic Park." To which I can only say...

i-e03a62b4fa77ce711184a2350d572a59-Real_genius.jpgWhat! No "Real Genius?" I mean come on! Talk about the ultimate of geeky science movies. Make that geeky physics science movies. Do I even need to count the ways? Okay I guess I do:

  • Lasers. Really, really powerful lasers. Lasers so powerful they cut through a campus statue. And lasers which lead to crazy parties with water slides involving a nearby School of Beauty.
  • An evil geek. With braces. Which get wired so as to receive voice signals from the good guys. Who pretend they are God. "Hello? Hello, Jesus?... He hung up..."
  • Solving long standing problems in gravitational physics: "Would you prepared if gravity reversed itself? The only thing I can't figure out is how to keep the change in my pockets. I've got it! Nudity!"
  • A genius who lives in a closet and wears pajamas and ends up winning thirty one point eight percent of the prizes, including a rockin RV.
  • A movie which includes the lines: Mitch: "This is coherent light." Mitch's dad: "Oh, so it talks. "
  • And did I mention lasers? And, by the way, lasers are a young science, you know. And did I mention Val Kilmer and lasers?

Now, I don't know how I feel about a rumored sequel to Real Genius, and yeah, okay, I'm a bit biased, but still "Real Genius" has got to be one of the top science movies. At least I know it recruited a lot of smart people to go to Caltech (I never met a Lazlo, but I did meat Jordan.) And, did I mention, lasers?

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I really really loved Real Genius, and really really hated Contact.

Contact and Titanic are still the only movies I've ever fallen asleep in at the theater.

I really enjoyed when they froze the ground in their dorm. Made me really want to go to college.

Real Genius played fast and loose with the laws of physics, but generally for a plot purpose. The UV laser beam wouldn't have been stable or well collimated relayed that distance through that many small mirrors, but what the hell. It looked cooler doing it that way than stealing the laser off the bench and physically transporting it to the auditorium. Nor would you be able to see it if it were actually ultraviolet. Yes, the energy deposition rate from a weapon-grade laser would be too high to be able to pop popcorn.

I can excuse a lot of that; it's not like those car chase scenes are exactly physically plausible, either.

But they actually mounted a retroreflector cube to provide a target. They used scientific doubletalk that actually resembled laser physics ("radiatively coupled directly to the ground state") as opposed to Star Trek. That was a real PROM burner, and a reasonable programming time. The sabotage via dirty optics was plausible. Mitch's science fair project was a pulsed laser, which is easier to build that a continuous-wave one.

And as much as I pity William Atherton for the anal-retentive asshole roles he's been typecast into, I love Professor Hathaway. "By any chance is Mitch adopted?"

There's a short feature in either the current Discover or in Scientific American where a physicist (I believe) lists his five best and five worst sci-fi movies. Worth a glance if you're seriously interested in this topic!

Even though the "science" is basically bollocks, i will always have a soft spot for Formula 51. But Real Genius wins for capturing best the life and atmosphere of dorm life on a science floor.

The technical details that get glossed over I can forgive -- the collimation and delivery, making popcorn pop, whether a block of ice is going to lase like that, etc. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that.

Val Kilmer aligning a mirror, by hand and "dead reckoning" to feed into the lightshow system on the other side of the quad was the most unbelievable thing in the movie. That would require, what, at least a milliradian? No knobs tweaked? Puh-lease.

Dude, it's Val F'in Kilmer. He's crazy and I'm pretty sure with crazy come mad optic aligning skillz.

Ah, Gattaca was awful.

How did that make the list and Real Genius not? (Val Kilmer - say no more)

Me? I like a little science with my science fiction. Gattaca was too much fiction and too little science (or clever fudging of real science).

By pxcampbell (not verified) on 29 Apr 2008 #permalink

Please don't forget "It happens every spring," in which chemistry professor Ray Milland discovers a substance that causes baseballs to be repelled by wood, and pitches the St. Louis Cardinals to the pennant. Science *and* baseball --- now *that's* a plot.

Okay, I looked it up. It was _Discover_ magazine for November 2007 (so I have a bunch sitting in the bathroom and they're out of order! Fortunately, the bathroom isn't)
The list is here:

Top "5"
1. Gattaca
2. Metropolis
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still -*AND*- On the Beach
4. A Beautiful Mind
5. Contact

Bottom 5
1. The Core
2. What the #$*! Do We Know!?
3. Chain Reaction
4. Volcano
5. The Sixth Day

It was compiled by Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory University physics professor. Have at it!

New students at Caltech get an informal orientation tour of the campus (at least they used to back in the seventies) which takes them into the steam tunnels that provide underground links to most of the older buildings on campus. That's why students pop up bone-dry for physics lectures in Bridge Laboratory despite pouring rain. It's why closets sometimes open and students march out, occasionally startling visiting research associates.

Real Genius captured a lot of the weird mix of insanity and genius that pervades Caltech. I regret to report that on a recent visit to Pasadena I discovered that our homeland-security era has fallen heavily on the campus, which now has electronic locks on all the student houses. While I'm sure that contemporary Techers have their favorite dodges by which to evade the police state, it has probably dampened the cheerful atmosphere of creative anarchy.