It’s Spacetime And Science Season At The Oscars

16:28 minutes

a fierce malaysian woman, actress michelle yeoh, portrays a middle-aged chinese immigrant and laundromat owner. she adorns a goofy google-y eye on her forehead and stands in a martial arts position, ready to fight
Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Credit: Courtesy of A24

The Academy Awards are almost upon us, airing March 12. Movie buffs may have already seen many of the nominated films. But for science geeks, there’s another form of criteria for what films go on the top of their watchlist: Do these movies include science?

a military fighter jet pulls an incredible stunt flying between two other fighter jets, catching them by surprise
Credit: Top Gun: Maverick via GIPHY

This year, a whole bunch of Oscar nominees are driven by science as part of the plot. The Best Picture category has three: the multiverses in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the water-based society in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and the gravity-defying aerial stunts in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The Documentary Feature Film category is also ripe for science analysis: “Fire of Love” follows the love story between two French volcanologists, “All That Breathes” follows brothers who run a bird hospital in Delhi, and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” spotlights Nan Goldin’s advocacy against the opioid-creating Sackler family. 

Ira is joined by Sonia Epstein, curator of science and technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, to discuss these films and more—including science-oriented films that were snubbed from this years’ awards. 

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Segment Guests

Sonia Epstein

Sonia Epstein is the Curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. She’s also the Executive Editor of Sloan Science & Film at Museum.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The Academy Awards are just a few days away, March 12th, and that means it’s time for SciFri to go back to the movies.

SPEAKER 1: You’re a tulkun. You saved my life. Thank you.

SPEAKER 2: Now my mind experiences every world, every possibility, at the same exact time, commanding the infinite knowledge and power of the multiverse.

SPEAKER 3: Morning, aviators. This is your captain speaking. Welcome to basic fighter maneuvers.

IRA FLATOW: If you’re a film buff, you may have already seen a bunch of the nominated features. But for science geeks like myself, I have an additional criteria for what movies go on the top of my watchlist. And that is, do these movies have some science in them? And it turns out that this year, a whole bunch of Oscar nominees have a plot driven by science, at least in part. Joining me to talk through these movies you might want to catch up on is a fellow science film follower Sonia Epstein, curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s start right at the top, right? Some of the nominees for Best Picture. A big frontrunner in the category is a mind bending multiverse movie called Everything Everywhere All At Once. Tell us about the science in this movie.

SONIA EPSTEIN: I will do my best. Yeah, so Everything Everywhere All At Once has 11 nominations this year, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing it win in at least a few categories. But as you said, this film is definitely based in the theoretical idea of the multiverse. The way to explain that in a more grounded way or a way that’s grounded more in provable real sciences, one might say, is quantum superposition, which maybe someone on your program has talked about before, and those listeners can go back and listen to a real scientist talk about what that is.

But essentially, you can see it, if you’re watching the film, not only in sort of the parallel storytelling strands that the filmmakers lead you through, but also in sort of what they say as a random arrangement of particles in a vibrating superposition. That’s actually like a quote from the film, and you see that at a certain point where one of the characters is holding something, and it’s constantly changing forms. And that actually becomes a sort of superpower in the film.

IRA FLATOW: It takes a while to catch on to what’s going on, and you have to stick with it. But at least the writers or the directors every once in a while will try to remind you what’s going on about the multiverse, right?


IRA FLATOW: They’ll describe it for you.

SONIA EPSTEIN: I think my favorite part of the way that science is woven into the story is, it’s as the sort of narrative storytelling device. And there’s certainly like a computerized video game type way that the characters in the film interact with the multiverse in that they can grab powers, so to speak, or special talents they’ve developed in other strands of their lives. But I think at the root of it, for folks who’ve seen the film, they understand it’s really sort of a family drama.

And a lot of what I think the writer directors are exploring is not only the principles of physics, but also how physics makes you feel. And there’s something that the characters in the film speak to about why should we care if there’s all these strands happening all at once. So I think that, to me, is the most interesting way that the film interweaves it. But yes, it very much falls in the category of a science multiverse kind of film.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, all right. Let’s talk about the sequels this year. The Best Picture category is full of equals, including Avatar, The Way of Water. What’s the science in this one– waters, avatars, both?

SONIA EPSTEIN: I would say both. I would also say very much the science or technology of making the film. But to start at the top, so Avatar, you have the idea of an avatar. And I don’t think anybody would argue that that is happening in the real world, but you do have things like brain computer interface, developments that neuroscientists are making in people’s ability through an implant to interact with something outside of themselves. And that’s sort of the idea of an avatar in the film.

There’s also the idea for folks who’ve seen the film, and I think it was in the first one, too, of these amplification suits. I think they’re called amp suits in the films, and that’s sort of like an Iron Man suit, something that you pilot from a cockpit, but it’s much bigger than you. And that is certainly based in some real world technology that DARPA and the army is developing, these sort of exoskeletons for combat purposes.

IRA FLATOW: With so much special effects built into this and CGI, you wonder what’s the next thing that they’re going to try. I mean, they already have films that squirt water at you when the seats are shaking.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, in 4D. And speaking of pilots, let’s go to our next Best Picture nominee that we’re going to talk about that was a big crowd pleaser, and I’m talking about Top Gun Maverick. And while this movie was a bit more down to Earth than the last ones we’ve talked about, there were some incredibly aerial stunts done by Tom Cruise and the cast. I felt like I was going to get motion sickness at some point.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Totally. I thought those scenes were so fun to watch. I mean, I’m not proud of this, but I did watch this film on an airplane, which, in some ways, I think mirrors the cinema experience of watching something communally, but obviously on a very small screen. But being in a plane and watching him control those things just made me feel sort of crazy.

IRA FLATOW: No fear factor that you’re in the plane.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Exactly. But yes, this film, a lot of physics. I mean, for those who followed the sort of physics science tweets about this, there’s certainly some speculation about some of what’s portrayed in the film– Tom Cruise going at Mach 10, and would he really survive being ejected from the cockpit at that speed? But it gets into what Mach is, the speed relative to sound, and the G-Force and that sort of G-Force induced physiological loss of consciousness. All those things, I think, pilots would definitely relate to.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s, as Johnny Carson used to say about a joke, if you buy the premise, you buy the bit. So if you buy the premise you can eject from a plane at Mach 10, you’ve got to believe you can survive it, right?


IRA FLATOW: Another film nominated– let’s move on– for a few awards, including costume design, visual effects, Best Supporting Actress, is Black Panther, Wakanda Forever. Now, I remember in the first movie, there was a lot of tech. Is that the same case for this film?

SONIA EPSTEIN: Even more so. I’ll admit, this is my favorite science film pick. Similar to a lot of superhero movies– I’m thinking of Superman, even Dune– there’s an element that gives the Wakandans, this East African nation, their power in the Black Panther series, and that’s called vibranium. And yeah, this film starts with the sort of premise of the United States. More nations should be given access to this from a security perspective. Wakanda can’t be the only nation. And then the tension in the film comes when it’s discovered that, in fact, they are not the only nation. So I won’t give anything away. But I think there’s–

IRA FLATOW: No, no spoilers yet.

SONIA EPSTEIN: No, I know. Well, it happens very early in the film, but similarly, actually, to Avatar– this is another film where there’s sort of a big water element. But also, yeah I just think vibranium has a lot to say about real world global economy and how it’s, at this moment, very dependent on rare earth metals that are often the cause of geopolitical tensions, like lithium and et cetera.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another category with a lot of science films, and I’m talking about Documentary Feature film. Let’s start with one that we’ve talked about on Science Friday a few months ago– Fire of Love, which is about volcanologists.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yes, definitely a crowd pleaser, as Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love. This is a film that is purely composed of archival footage of two married volcanologists, Maurice and Katia Kraft, who were very active in France and really sort of pioneers in the use of film to study what was happening with volcanoes and the different types of explosions, and also used film as a tool to help communicate the impacts of their research. So, for example, to warn people of the dangers of volcanic explosions and volcanoes and to pressure governments to create more standard evacuation procedures and warning systems. So it’s unlike a film that one has ever seen before.

IRA FLATOW: A lovely film.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Another documentary we talked about on Science Friday is called All That Breathes. And briefly give us the science on this story.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Sure. So this is a really interesting story of two Muslim brothers in New Delhi who start a bird hospital, and it’s a bird hospital specifically for a type of bird called the black kite that is a carnivorous bird. And the reason why there has to be a hospital dedicated to this bird is Hindu society is a vegetarian society. And these birds, as I said, are carnivorous. And so veterinary hospitals, the predominant veterinary hospitals that are run by Hindu people, won’t treat these birds.

And so there’s a sort of kinship formed between these Muslim brothers and the birds. And they develop this specific veterinary hospital for them. So in that way, the film, you see a lot of the birds, a lot of the care that the brothers give to them, a lot of the medical procedures that they do. And I think in a lot of ways, it’s sort of a comment on our relationship to non-human animals and to nature and to the close ways that we live, especially in cities, with animals. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Another documentary on the list is called All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which is, in a way, about the opioid crisis.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yes, so this film by Laura Poitras is, in a lot of ways, a documentary and sort of a biopic about the artist Nan Goldin, but it is very much framed by the organization that she started, which is called PAIN, which stands for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now. And that was a project that she began in 2017 specifically targeted at the pharmaceutical developers, the Sacklers, who developed and marketed OxyContin. And the film takes a look at both addiction and the actions that she and her organization have taken in protest against the Sacklers.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, there have been a couple of films, a film and a TV series about the Sacklers.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yes, Dopesick, one of my favorite TV series. I would say, for anyone who really– I mean, it’s a horrifying story. So not to be lighthearted about it by any means, but the series is really, I thought, fantastic and gets into what was so nefarious about specifically the marketing of that drug.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about this year’s Oscar nominations that focus on science with my guest, Sonia Epstein, curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. So we’ve made our way through the science nominees. I want to talk now about the 2022 films that were snubbed by the Oscars.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, starting with one of my favorite films of the year, Nope. We talked about that a few months ago, but give us a refresher.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Sure, so I mean, also one of my favorite films, Nope is by Jordan Peele, sort of a– it was marketed as a horror film. I didn’t think it was as– it had definitely bits of all sorts of genres, comedies. It was sort of a Western. And yeah, the science in that film, I mean, it definitely has to do with aliens. So things that are real and not. But I know what you covered on the show previously, which I thought was a great story, had to do with really the development and the depiction of the alien presence in the film and how it was inspired by real life sea creatures. So that, in particular, I thought was, yeah, a really innovative use of science and storytelling.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we were talking about sea creatures there, and even an octopus because the alien would hide itself in a cloud like octopuses do when they hide among rocks. So you can’t really see it.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Totally, yeah, yeah. So the film is sort of based on there being this unidentified object and this family trying to track it down. And they use a lot of technology and filmmaking in the process. And certainly, the history of film is very much also a part of that, which is one of the reasons why I loved it.

IRA FLATOW: Go see it.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, go see it.

IRA FLATOW: Go see it, even though it was snubbed, yeah. Another very interesting movie that got snubbed is called Crimes of the Future. And this one is about eating plastic. Fill us in on that.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Sure, David Cronenberg, he’s, I think, maybe a little bit too out there for the Oscar mainstream, but certainly one of my favorite directors. It’s a film that I think falls into the category of body horror, but essentially presents a world in which a subset of humans has evolved to digest plastic. And some organs have, as a result, changed, and surgery figures very heavily into the film, these kind of performative surgeries. The human body is changing, and it’s sort of a result of climate change in the world and the proliferation specifically of plastics, which I think is very true. I mean, maybe not that the human body is changing, but maybe it is. I think there’s also been some research on that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, well, we certainly are consuming a lot of plastic, tiny little pieces.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, microplastics, totally. I think I know that he has an interest in that. So I imagine it came from a real place.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about the last movie that got snubbed that we’re going to talk about. It’s called Apollo 10 and 1/2. Not Apollo 9 or 11 or 10– 10 and 1/2. It’s an animated film, right?

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yes, yes, so this generated some pre-Oscar nomination controversy because it is a film by Richard Linklater that’s made through a technology called rotoscoping that he would argue counts as animation, but initially, the Oscar gatekeepers argued that it wasn’t. It’s a new technology. There’s been an Amazon Prime television series called Undone that was filmed in the same way. But essentially, it looks animated, but it’s done with real life actors. And so, they said that he wasn’t eligible, and he argued back, and ultimately, they let it in as a consideration, but it wasn’t nominated.

But the 10 and 1/2, it’s a great premise. It’s set in the year that the moon mission took place, 1968. It’s sort of a look at Texas during this time. And the premise is that NASA sort of messed up in their calculations and built a spaceship that was only big enough for a child.


SONIA EPSTEIN: And so they secretly sent a child to the moon before Apollo 11, and that is the premise.


SONIA EPSTEIN: It’s a very sweet film. You can see it on Netflix.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that does sound really cool. I missed that. I’m going to have to catch that.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Sonia, always a pleasure to talk film with you.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Same here, Ira. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Sonia Epstein, curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York.

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