March 12, 2018

Science on Screen: Fact-checking "Robot and Frank"

“(The series) provides a public forum for idea exchange in discussion.”

buzz magazine
by Bill Taylor
March 12, 2018

Films have not often concerned themselves with scientific accuracy. Even within the generous framework of science fiction, films have relied on junk science or on just making stuff up. But this month, the Art Theater has been shining a spotlight on some of the rare films that have tried to get the science right.

The Art’s “Science on Screen” series has been running each Monday since Feb. 12 and will continue this Monday. The series has shown four science-related films, followed by discussions about the films and their themes with some of Champaign-Urbana’s top scientific minds.

The “Science on Screen” series began its life as a series at Massachusetts’ Coolidge Corner Theatre, funded with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Starting in 2011, it spread to art-house theaters across the U.S. that applied for the same grant. Until this year, however, the Art was not one of those theaters.

One of the conditions of the grant is that the participating theater has to be nonprofit, and until 2017, the Art was not.

“Once the Art became a nonprofit theater last summer, that cleared the way for us to apply. We’re very grateful (the grant) was approved,” said Dora Valkanova, the Art’s programmer. 

The audiences for the series must be similarly grateful. The series has covered an eclectic blend of films, from schlocky b-movies like “Empire of the Ants” to high-minded indies like “Ex Machina” and “Robot & Frank,” and classic blockbusters like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And those are just a few films in a catalog of many potential subjects.

“The ‘Science on Screen’ grant comes with a catalog of pre-approved films, and we can select any film from that catalog,” Valkanova said. 

The catalog runs the gamut from art-house classics like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” to recent crowdpleasers like “I, Tonya.” Presenter David Leake even noticed “Airplane!” and “This is Spinal Tap” in the catalog. 

“I love those movies but didn’t feel they fit the ‘science’ bill very well,” said Dave Leake, the director of the Staerkel Planetarium.

Leake ultimately went with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which he first saw upon its release when he was 16 years old. Presenting the film was, as he puts it, “a trip down memory lane,” and it gave him a chance to revisit the film from a more enlightened perspective.

“I’m certainly not a film critic, but I enjoy movies about space and things happening in space,” Leake said.

Other participants took a more analytical route for their discussions. Rhanor Gillette, professor emeritus  of molecular and integrative physiology at the University, presented on “Ex Machina,” talking in depth about the film’s depiction of “all of our contemporary anxieties about artificial intelligence as our next important domesticated animal.”

Some participants do not even care for the films they selected. Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University, chose to discuss Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” because of its lackluster future-dystopia take on the human genome.

“The film ignores the potent influence of the environment on the genome,” Robinson said. 

Instead, the film focuses strongly on the role of heritability in the genome.

Who knows what the future holds for science, but the future looks bright for “Science on Screen” at the Art. 

“The theater was packed and the audience asked thoughtful questions,” Robinson said.

For the community the series works well to spur conversation. 

“(The series) provides a public forum for idea exchange in discussion,” Gillette said.

“We will definitely apply for this grant again,” Valkanova said. The public looks forward to the results of that grant and hopes that the Science on Screen series will continue long into the future.

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