Hollywood has a curious crush on science, seen this year in movies such as Star Trek (anti-matter engines), Angels & Demons (anti-matter bombs) and Transformers (a critical bomb).
The latest dose of oddball silver screen science comes this week with G-Force, a talking guinea pig spy movie from Walt Disney Pictures. The science in the movie — talking guinea pig ninjas save the world from evil — is nuts, as director Hoyt Yeatman freely acknowledges. But he points out a lot of military animal science is out there, and the movie reflects some real world science.
"I actually had the idea from my 5-year-old son dressing up a guinea pig in gear," Yeatman says. But after a year and a half of researching a script, "I began to see there were a lot of crazy things really out there."
The result is a Jerry Bruckheimer Films parody of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, sort of Mission Impossible meets Rin Tin Tin. The guinea pigs are squad boss Darwin (voiced by Sam Rockwell), weapons nut Blaster (voiced by Tracy Morgan) and martial arts vixen Juarez (voiced by Penelope Cruz). Plus a star-nosed mole computer geek, Speckles (voiced by Nicolas Cage, of course.)
Squirrels, not guinea pigs, were arrested as spies in Iran two years ago, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, after border guards spotted their eavesdropping equipment. "Squirrel espionage would not be without precedent," noted Wired's Sharon Weinberger, at the time. "Other members of the animal kingdom have been tagged as possible spies, including pigeons and cats."
Indeed, from carrier pigeons, to suicidal dogs equipped with anti-tank mines in World War II, to dolphins used to patrol waters in the Vietnam War, armies have recruited animals for all sorts of missions.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, provided plenty of ideas for G-Force, Yeatman says. The Defense Department research agency's HI-MEMS program is "aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces" in moths, according to its website. The idea was the inspiration for G-Force's fly spy "Mooch" (voiced by Edwin Louis), who provides surveillance for the guinea pig team. This should keep Iran's border police on their toes.
DARPA and Los Alamos National Laboratory have also recruited bomb-sniffing bees to find land mines. "Honeybees are as good as dogs," Los Alamos entomologist Timothy Haarmann told USA TODAY in 2006. Los Alamos researchers have also looked into training bees to sniff out cocaine and other drugs at border crossings.
"The chief conceit in G-Force that the guinea pigs have been trained to understand people," Yeatman says. "They could talk amongst themselves all the time, it's just that people haven't been smart enough to understand them."
And in fact, animal communication also is a hot topic among researchers. Parrots, most famously the gray parrot Alex trained by Harvard University's Irene Pepperberg, can learn the basic elements of English, attaining roughly the intellectual development of a 5-year-old.
The honeybee "waggle dance" (decoded six decades ago by Karl von Frisch), which the insects use to recruit nest mates to find food, "is one of the most celebrated communication behaviors in the animal world," wrote entomologists Christoph Grüter and Walter Farina in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution last year.
Of course, "guinea pigs aren't known for their athletic abilities," says Yeatman. Or vocabulary. "So, we had to take a few liberties in the film," he says, to create a team of ninja rodents.
Still, he argues there's enough real science alluded to in the film to touch on real world issues. "If we can back up the story with a little bit of real science, we really make the movie a better experience for the audience," Yeatman says.