Tag: science fiction

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

*This post contains some spoilers, do not continue reading if you wish to protect your future movie viewing experience.*

Last weekend my son and I went to see Jurassic World. I enjoyed Jurassic Park when it came out and like science fiction movies in general and was pretty excited to see the film. I’m also a biologist and dinosaurs are cool so I was stoked!

I generally have low expectations for many films as a feminist scientist and many fail to meet the Bechdel test . Female characters are often relegated to the sidelines or only talk about dudes and romantic relationships.

I was therefore happy to see within the first 30 minutes of the film that four female characters were introduced. Judy Greer plays a mom sending her two sons off for a visit to see their aunt who is in charge of the daily operations of Jurassic World. She’s a lawyer and it’s revealed later in the film and she and her husband are contemplating divorce and it seems like they’ve shipped the kids off for a fun adventure while they work out the details of their split. One of the sons, Zach, has a girlfriend who has come to see him off. Aunt Claire is played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a highly driven, emotionally unavailable career woman. When her nephews arrive she foists them off on her assistant Zara played by Katie McGrath. The fourth female character is a technical support worker (Vivian) in the command centre played by Lauren Lapkus. The film passes the Bechdel test because it has greater than two women in it, several of these women talk to each other, and these conversations involve something other than talking about men.

Unfortunately the female character development isn’t stellar throughout the rest of the film and features many tropes such as the frigid, type A, career woman who has no time for family (Claire), the highly emotional mother (Karen), the put upon younger assistant (Zara), the token techie woman (Vivian), and the overly clingly girlfriend who needs constant assurances about the status of her romantic relationship (Zach’s girlfriend).

Some icky things that happen during the film:

  1. Claire’s wardrobe choices. That white suit and pumps are awesome and powerful for the boardroom. For tromping around in the jungle searching for kids and avoiding dinosaurs? Not so much. There’s actually a scene at the top of a waterfall in which Claire modifies the suit that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the situation.
  2. Zach says a prolonged good-bye to his girlfriend at the start of the film. He then proceeds to stare/ogle other young women at various places around Jurassic World to the point where the younger brother calls him out on it. Creeper alert!
  3. There is a thoroughly creepy sexual harassment incident as the central command of the park is being evacuated. The male technician (Lowery) who has decided to valiantly stay behind to hold down the fort attempts to kiss the female technician (Vivian) as she’s leaving and is firmly rebuffed. Turns out he assumed that she would welcome his advances because she’s never stated that she has a boyfriend. Turns out that she does have a boyfriend, but hasn’t talked about him because she’s a professional and doesn’t talk about that stuff at work. What a stunning concept! This was doubly uncomfortable because the situation garnered huge laughs from the audience.
  4. The assistant Zara dies, but doesn’t do so quickly. Nope, the flying dinosaurs play around with her a bit first up in the air, then play with her in the water and try to drown her, and she finally meets her end when the flying dinosaur that’s gobbled her up is itself eaten by the gigantic, aquatic Mosasaurus dinosaur.

The scientists don’t fare much better. Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong who was also in Jurassic Park) is still working in the lab, still engineering new dinosaurs, and evidently didn’t learn anything from the experiences in the first film. He’s portrayed as having no moral compass and is part of a larger military conspiracy effected by Hoskins (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). He gets to be the evil scientist who is in it for himself and leaves the island on a helicopter with a mysterious briefcase which we assume contains plans and genetic material for a new crop of dinosaurs that we’ll no doubt see in the next film.

Overall the movie is a fun romp and the special effects are amazing. Unfortunately the portrayal of women and scientists in the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

80’s Geeks Rejoice: Book Review of “Ready Player One”

What kind of world does the future hold? In the book “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline it is a dystopian one with a twist. While the real world crumbles around global society, most people lose themselves in a massive multiplayer on-line simulation called the OASIS. The software and hardware involved in OASIS makes World of Warcraft look like child’s play. The OASIS has become reality for most people and is therefore a place where fortunes can be made and lost.

The plot of the novel revolves around a contest implemented by one of the founders of the OASIS when he dies. He’s embedded an “egg” prize within the code of the game and whoever completes a series of quests and puzzles and retrieves the egg inherits his estate which is worth billions. The hunt is on and we follow the adventures of the protagonist Wade and his friends in a race to the finish line.

I enjoyed reading this book because it had good pacing and was entertaining. A great deal of its entertainment value is due to the fact that I grew up during the 80’s. The number of pop culture references in this book for this time period is huge and I caught myself laughing out loud several times while reading the story. The story starts out rather lighthearted, but it quickly becomes quite dark given the fortune that is at stake. I also liked the overarching theme of the book which really made me think quite a bit about what influences how different people feel about what is reality and what isn’t. The world of the OASIS is so immersive that reality becomes a bit blurred for many of the characters in the novel.

My only complaint about the book is that the ending wrapped up a bit quickly for my liking, but this allows the author the option of revisiting the world that he has created in future novels. The movie rights for the book have been acquired and I think that with today’s technology it could make a very engaging film. The novel is a quick and simple read, but I still find myself thinking about many of the concepts and ideas that it introduces which I think is the mark of a great book.

If you are a geek and came of age in the 1980’s you’ll get a real kick out of this novel, but I think that its message will resonate with a wide variety of readers.

A thank-you to Mr. Leonard Nimoy

I was sad to hear on Friday that Leonard Nimoy had died. I remember discovering Star Trek (the original series) in Grade 7 while channel surfing one day after school. I was amazed by the show in terms of its positive setting in a universe where humans explored the vastness of space in the Enterprise. I also thought it was amazing that the ship had a Science Officer and that he was an alien. The use and study of science was interwoven with the issues explored in each episode and Mr. Spock generally played an important role in the plots. It was, as he would say, fascinating.

From that point on I realized that you could make a career out of doing science and that it could lead to the exploration of new frontiers and places. Mr. Spock helped me to see the usefulness of logic and generating hypotheses to explain phenomena in the universe around us. Star Trek helped me to see science as something useful, cool, and exciting and it is truly one of the reasons that I’m a biologist today. Spock had a highly successful career and had many friends on the show despite the fact that he was an outsider and continuously struggled to find out where he belonged. The child of a human mother and a Vulcan father, he wrestled with honouring both civilizations while making his way in the world. I have a great deal of respect for that and it was one of the many things that I liked about Mr. Nimoy’s nuanced portrayal of the character.

Thank-you Mr. Nimoy for opening a young girl’s eyes to the possibility of a life of science and the hope that the future can be a bright one for humanity.

Using Popular Sci-Fi films to Illustrate the Concept of Endosymbiosis

I teach a fourth year undergraduate course on the origin of life on Earth and endosymbiotic theory. I use my first lecture as an opportunity to highlight some of the interesting material that we will be covering that semester and to get the students hooked on the class. I do this by talking about several examples of endosymbiosis that are present in popular science-fiction movies.

 

I have a very broad definition of endosymbiosis. I classify it as two organisms living together where one organism lives inside of or is contained by the other organism. Endosymbiotic relationships exist on a spectrum of whether they are inert (e.g. not harmful or helpful), mutualistic (e.g. helpful to both parties), commensal (e.g. helpful to one, but not hurtful to the other), and parasitic (e.g. detrimental to one and beneficial to the other).

 

The first example that I discuss in class is from the 1979 classic film Alien. I didn’t see this film until I was a teenager and by then several sequels had been released. The first film in the franchise is a great example of how to use suspense effectively to really scare your audience. There is a classic scene in this movie that will ensure that you never look at eating in a mess hall or cafeteria the same way ever again. Long story short, the humans in this film serve as very effective incubators for the alien in a grisly endosymbiotic relationship. The relationship comes to an end in a very messy way. Unfortunately using this reference dates me a bit; usually only 2 out of 44 students have seen the film when I ask for a show of hands. I do have several students tell me after a few lectures that they ended up watching the film and liking it, so Ridley Scott’s royalties continue to serve as a revenue stream for him.

 

The second example that I use is from the 2009 film Avatar. The aliens in the film, the Na’vi, ride dragon and horse- like creatures. There are several short scenes in the film where a direct interaction between the Na’vi rider and direhorses or banshees is achieved by cilia like structures and a neural interface is created. I talk about this type of cellular interface as an interesting example of communication between two different endosymbionts.

 

The last example that I use in class is from the 1999 film The Phantom Menace. There is a scene in the film where Qui-Gon Jinn is testing Anakin Skywalker’s blood for midi-chlorians. Midi-chlorians are described as intelligent, microscopic life forms that allow their hosts to detect and use the Force if present in high enough quantities. Anakin’s midi-chlorian count is the highest ever detected and we all know how that turned out!

 

I use these fake examples of endosymbiosis from film to illustrate and discuss some of the concepts involved in endosymbiotic theory. They represent an interesting way to bring popular culture into the classroom and hold the interest of my students.

 

I’m always on the look-out for other examples of endosymbiosis in film or television; please leave any ideas in the comments!