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Science Goes to the Movies

An unusual concentration of science fact graces the silver screen
FIRST LOOK PICTURES

Matthew Broderick (right) as Richard Feynman arrives at Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project.
Mainstream movies are usually not very kind to science--witness the implausible and sinister behavior of the tornadoes in Twister or the secretive ineptitude of the government researchers in Independence Day. So it is a pleasant surprise to see two thoughtful, scientifically literate films--Infinity and Microcosmos--now going head-to-head with the likes of The First Wives Club. Infinity--a biography of the late physicist Richard Feynman--is in some respects the more unusual of the two. It stars Matthew Broderick and Patricia Arquette, both well-known Hollywood actors. But the subject is not the usual Hollywood fare: Infinity concerns Feynman's childhood and early adult years, focusing on his work on the Manhattan Project and on his relationship with his first wife, Arline, who died of tuberculosis at a young age. The result is a curious hybrid, part an account of the making of a scientist, part morality tale and part tragic romance.

The screenplay for Infinity derives from chapters in Feynman's two best-selling books of reminiscences, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. To the credit of Broderick (who directed as well), the movie hews quite closely to its source. The early sections showing how Richard's father, Melville, fostered his youthful curiosity offer a rare, perceptive look at a budding scientific mind. In one touching scene, the young Richard asks his father why when he pulls his wagon forward, the ball sitting in the wagon rolls to the back. Melville Feynman responds with a serious discussion of inertia and explains--quite accurately--that we know what inertia does, but nobody knows at the deepest level what it is. Later, Richard tries to explain to his father how an electron can emit a photon even though the photon was not "really" there before. These well-drawn exchanges eloquently express the way a scientist views the world.

The real, 24-year old Richard Feynman (center) with his colleagues at Los Alamos.
Unfortunately, Infinity is limited by Broderick's excessive reverence for his subject. Feynman's reminiscences, which appeared in print 40 years after the fact, are tinged with longing and arrogant pride but carefully do not reveal too much emotion. The movie, too, feels oddly remote. As a child Feynman had an almost pathological fear of being seen as a "sissy"; the emotional trauma of Arline's death and the moral conundrum of working on the Manhattan Project surely figured into his later, carefully cultivated madcap persona. But Infinity offers only sporadic glimpses of Feynman's inner turmoil. There is little sign of the dark restlessness that led him to crack safes at Los Alamos or bang on the bongos long into the night.

Infinity does not attempt a comprehensive overview of Feynman's life and work. You will not see his work on quantum electrodynamics (which netted him a Nobel Prize in 1965), his groundbreaking ideas about what we now call "quarks," or his theory of superfluidity. You will not witness his brushes with anti-Semitism or his often abusive treatment of women. (First Look Pictures has helpfully placed some additional information about Feynman on the Infinity Web site.) What you will see is an intriguing, if somewhat romanticized, portrait of the scientist as a young man

Microcosmos sets its sights on a somewhat less problematic set of characters: the insects and other tiny creatures that inhabit a field in the south of France. Biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou long ago left the university to seek new ways to communicate science to the public. Microcosmos, their first full-length movie, deliberately avoids the conventions of nature documentaries.

The filmmakers have completely dispensed with narration, relying instead on sharp camera work, stop- motion photography and a clever soundtrack (using real but highly amplified insect noises) to keep the action moving. Custom-made lighting techniques and robot-controlled cameras allow the viewer to swoop down and explore life down in the grasses. Nuridsany describes the result as "one day in the life of the bugs in this meadow," but the film actually took three years to produce. The craft--which snared a technical award at the Cannes Film Festival--shows in a succession of remarkable close-ups of insects in action.

Filming Microcosmos.
Microcosmos displays an obvious sympathy for a meadow's tiny inhabitants. The filmmakers have avoided predation scenes that depict the world of insects as cruel and harsh; their stated goal is to "rehabilitate insects and put them back into their right place." At the same time, Nuridsany insists that "the film is objective, not false." If the insects seem like individual characters in a drama, he argues, that is only because they acted that way. Indeed, he notes that one of the educational messages he wishes to communicate is that, contrary to entomological dogma, not all insects are alike. During filming, Nuridsany and Perennou discovered that there is considerable individual variation in the way the insects performed before the camera. Some ladybugs would fly away home right away, while others would go about their routine undisturbed.

As a scientific movie, Microcosmos has some notable flaws. (Here again, a related Web site fills in many details missing from the film itself.) The creatures depicted are not identified when they appear on-screen. The frequent distortions of time make it hard to gauge the real pace of events. And Microcosmos inevitably projects human attributes onto its buggy players.

Watching a dung beetle wrestle with a ball of excrement that has lodged onto a stick protruding from the ground, you feel the creature's bemused frustration; the sexual coupling of a pair of snails is nothing if not erotic. The film blatantly encourages this empathetic impulse: the snails' scene is accompanied by an operatic blast that is unabashedly romantic. The filmmakers admit that "we wanted to show them as human beings, with their concerns, and the way they deal with their everyday lives."

Those goals may border on anthropomorphism, but they do make for good entertainment. Young viewers will have no trouble understanding what is going on (although the movie, lacking an overall narrative, probably runs too long to hold the attention of small children). Nuridsany states that his real goal is to bring in adult moviegoers and return them to a state of childish wonder. "There is something magical about the very small world, " he says. It is a magic that Microcosmos captures well.

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