Mixing Bad: where are all the great chemical films?

A few steps from the corner of K and Sixteenth Streets is the American Chemical Society (ACS). a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress that represents chemists.  It is also the world’s largest scientific society. I recently sat down for lunch with ACS’s Lead Communications Officer, Joan Coyle to discuss the history and connection between chemicals and film along with Darcy Gentleman, Ph.D. Darcy is a scientist, a world-class mixologist and coincidentally, a film fan. One of his favorite quotes is in The Insider (1999) when conscience-stricken, Phillip Morris chemist Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crowe, utters, “I love science.”

Darcy Gentleman and Joan Coyle (from ACS)
– photo Russ Imrie

“Much of the chemistry seen in Hollywood film occurs in sci-fi and super hero movies,” Coyle said, “Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it’s bad. Chemicals [and science] in film inspire kids to enter the field and demonstrate how chemistry is a big part of our everyday lives. The bad part is inaccurate scenarios reinforce misconceptions of science.”

Chemicals and science (often gone very badly) have been used as plot devices since the early days of film. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) was particularly ghastly, following closely on WWI’s mustard gas butchery. In the 1990’s, Sean Connery starred in two films that bracketed popular ideas of chemicals and science. Medicine Man (1992) focused on the jungle search for obscure medicinal plants and unknown therapies while The Rock (1996) revolved around a suspenseful terrorism plot to wipe out San Francisco using nerve gas.

Conversely, within the last few years, scientists or chemists seem more positively portrayed in pop culture. For example, the character “Q”, the Quartermaster in charge of James Bond’s spy gadgets, had previously been played by older British actors, such as John Cleese. Instead, Skyfall (2012) director Sam Mendes chose 31-year-old Ben Whishaw, the youngest and most attractive to reprise the role.

“It’s [also] important to remember Hollywood produces films to make money—not to teach science or chemistry. An encouraging trend, though, is the increasing number of consultants hired to get the science right. In fact, the producers of Breaking Bad consult with expert members of ACS,” Coyle noted.

Linked listing to chemical/science themed films and programs – thanks to Darcy Gentleman, ACS. 

Russ Imrie blogs on tech, security, and WTFs at supTweet

Leave a Reply