Deadly objects crashing to Earth are a hit among cinema fans, with the recent releases Don’t Look Up and Moonfall both falling into the end-of-times category. While the more dramatic movies might stretch reality, many films are created with a scientific angle in mind. So, who do the directors turn to?
We spoke to one such consultant: Professor of Planetary Science and poignant figure at NASA, Dr Amy Mainzer, who worked with writer-director Adam McKay on Netflix's recent Don’t Look Up. Being familiar with objects that might crash to Earth as an expert on Near-Earth Objects made Mainzer the obvious choice for the movie. Here, she tells us how one goes from space to cinematic consultancy and what are the pros and cons of being in charge of science in film.
What's it like consulting on a blockbuster movie as a scientist?
This was such a wonderful “lightning in a bottle” team to work with. From Adam to the VFX folks to the cast and production teams, they are all big fans of science and were keen to make science itself a main character in the movie.
As a scientist, I see so many examples where scientists are shown as caricatures, either being depicted as silly, weird nerds, or villains. Not that I don’t enjoy laughing at these portrayals sometimes too, but I was keen to work on a movie that shows scientists as fully realized human beings with flaws and strengths, just like anybody else.
This is important because, in my opinion, a big part of bolstering trust in science is helping folks get to know scientists as people too. A lot of what I thought and felt about scientists until I got to know some personally came from what I gleaned from reading and watching science fiction.
Although there is always a balance to be struck between the needs of a science fiction story and the way the laws of physics really work, I felt that this team was respectful of the science and did a great job of incorporating it into the story.
Sure, there were a couple of things that aren’t fully realistic (we don’t know of a huge comet bearing down on the Earth, thank goodness, and I gave them a pass on leaving a few lights on in the telescope dome because it’s hard to shoot a movie in complete darkness!), but the film does a great job in my opinion.
Most importantly, I hope people watching it will get a sense of what it’s like to be a scientist who must convey difficult news that requires urgent action. We need to be heard and listened to when we say we need immediate action on issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, and biological threats like the pandemic. We need people to listen to the recommendations of scientists who are experts in these areas so that we can avoid the worst outcomes.
There is an important nugget of hope in the movie: most people shown in the film want to do the right thing, and they almost succeed. But there’s a key moment when a person with undue influence puts a thumb on the scale. When scientists are marginalized by conspiracy theorists and special interests, things go sideways.
What role do you think comedy plays in science communication?
Comedy can be an effective means of helping us all to laugh at ourselves and lower our defenses a little. If we can laugh at our foibles and awkward moments, we can start to open our hearts and acknowledge our flaws. That’s a first step to accepting that we might need to change our behavior or make different choices.
Comedy’s also a great stress relief. Hopefully the movie is a bit of a stress relief valve for the folks out there working to combat climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the pandemic: you are seen, and your efforts are deeply appreciated.
What do you think works and doesn’t work when incorporating science into fictional stories?
The movies I love the most have strong stories and characters that pull you in so you want to spend time with them. The science definitely needs to be realistic enough so that it’s not a distraction, but I’m fine with stories that operate in a universe that isn’t completely like our own. Science fiction can be a mirror that helps us see ourselves and see the future we want to have – or to avoid.
If you want to know more about being a world-leading scientist in asteroid detection and planetary defense expert, we talked to Dr Mainzer about her career and what it took to get there here.