So much for gangsters or communists infiltrating Hollywood. The real invisible menace turns out to be scientists.
"Just a sign of the modern times — the science has to be there," says director Roland Emmerich, whose end-of-the-world film, 2012, opens in November. "We are all looking for great themes out there, and science has those."
Knowing, Nicolas Cage's apocalyptic science thriller, surprised critics by topping the box office with $24.8 million in ticket sales over the weekend. Angels & Demons star Tom Hanks last month toured Europe's CERN atom-smashing facility, which also stars in the antimatter mystery movie premiering May 15.
And a spate of other science-themed flicks arrives this year as well. James Cameron's alien world of Avatar opens in December, and Sony's animated inventor comedy, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, opens in September.
"It turns out a lot of people in Hollywood think science is cool," says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, the Los Angeles-based outreach office of the venerable National Academy of Sciences.
The exchange, which formally opened in November, pairs up films and shows in development with scientists. Its goal is to get the science on the screen straight, the latest example of science's mind-meld (to use some Star Trek lingo) with the popular imagination.
"Writers and directors have discovered there is a higher tolerance, maybe even an interest or a demand, for better science," says Angels & Demons director Ron Howard, who worked with CERN scientists on the film's depiction of the lab. "Audiences are getting smarter by the minute."
On the small screen, shows such as CBS' TheBig Bang Theory and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are undoing the legacy of Star Trek's pointy-eared Mr. Spock by making scientists look almost cool, says media scholar David Kirby of the United Kingdom's University of Manchester. "We are in a golden age of science on television," he says.
Shows like CSI and Fox's Bones, in particular, try to get science right, says Kirby, a former academic biologist. "Science gives these shows certainty in uncertain times. Even if science, in reality, is all about uncertainty."
It came from outer space
Says sociologist Wesley Shrum of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, "Science in entertainment isn't anything new." A Trip to the Moon, the 14-minute silent movie regarded as the first science-fiction film, was a hit after its 1902 release. The Lost World in 1925 featured dinosaurs trying to eat scientists and stomping city dwellers, almost seven decades before Jurassic Park.
"Movies change to reflect the society around them, and the way science appears certainly reflects that," says astronomer and blogger Phil Plait. In the past century, scientists went from somewhat remote heroes in films, such as 1943's Madame Curie, to more sinister figures in the Cold War, such as the title character in 1964's Dr. Strangelove, to more human characters, such as Jodie Foster's Eileen Arroway in 1997's Contact. Of course, mad scientists have always been popular, from 1931's Frankenstein to today's Fox show Fringe, blessed with its own nutty professor who works in a basement lab.