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Wednesday, April 25, 2001

VIDEORAMA: A GOLDEN RENTAL GUIDE

Science fare


There are two scientist types that have traditionally made it to the big screen: the mad and evil (Dr. Frankenstein) or the bold and dashing (Dr. Indiana Jones). Sometimes they are bold, dashing and mad (Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly"). If women, they are usually babes (Linda Fiorentino in "Men in Black," or Scully from "X-Files").

Real scientists, it would seem, are just too boring to be film heroes. But real science -- think computer power and biotechnology -- is catching up with science fiction, and Big Questions that were previously the preserve of sci-fi films or scientists are now relevant in our everyday lives.

While the mad scientist is still more popular than the scientist-hero, some films are tackling science without adding too much fiction and some are telling the stories of real-life scientists. And in light of today's technological advances, some old sci-fi films are looking a bit too close for comfort.

Planet of the Apes

Charlton Heston leads astronauts stranded on a world where an evolutionary quirk has produced apes more powerful than humans. With the first primate cloned this year, this film has real relevance.

Scientists have plans to give chimps a voice box, perhaps enabling them to speak. We can only hope they turn out like Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), the silky-voiced judgelike ape who befriends the humans.

The Race for the Double Helix

Enthralling film (titled "Life Story" in the U.S.) about the most important event of the 20th century: the unraveling of the structure of DNA. Instructive in that it also illustrates the egos, the political maneuvering and the excitement that was involved. Jeff Goldblum is perfectly cast as James Watson, the brilliant young American scientist who was a provocative cat among the Cambridge pigeons.

Microcosmos

Microcosmos

Beautifully shot film about the mostly hidden world of insects and their epic struggles in extreme closeup. Made by French filmmakers, there's no pure science in it, just the beauty that scientists -- and anyone -- can see if they look. Watch for the damselflies joined in a heart-shaped copulation wheel.

Infinity

Matthew Broderick stars as the young genius Richard Feynmann, the maverick Nobel Prize-winning U.S. physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, simplified quantum mechanics, held striptease lunches and played a mean bongo. Patricia Arquette plays his doomed wife.

Longitude

In 1707 the British navy lost 2,000 men when some of its ships, unaware of their correct position, hit the Isles of Scilly. This prompted the government to pass the Act of Longitude, which offered a reward to anyone who could come up with a way to calculate longitude and thus ensure the safety of trade and military ships. Thought of then as "the greatest scientific problem of all time," this film brilliantly charts the 30-year efforts of John Harrison, who built the first marine chronometers and solved the problem. It shows how science is often advanced by lone figures working against accepted conventions.



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