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cience has been a reliable friend to Hollywood, providing the genetic magic that brought dinosaurs back to life, the errant drug that gave our planet to the apes, and the radiation that helped man become spider.

But has Hollywood been good to science in return?

In the height of summer blockbuster season, we asked everyone from George Church to Dr. Richard Besser to doctors-turned-politicians to fact-check the big-screen science behind some memorable movies and detail the scenes that made them squirm in the theater.

And we’d like to give a hat tip to @TheSciBabe aka Yvette d’Entremont, a former analytical chemist, for inspiring this list. Her own pick is 2012’s “The Avengers.”

Jurassic Park
Universal Pictures

“Jurassic Park” (1993)

Starring
Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern

IMDB plot summary
During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Expert fact-check
One of my favorite bloopers was “Jurassic Park” using “Lysine Contingency” for biocontainment. [Editor’s note: Lysine Contingency was an introduced genetic alteration that made the dinosaurs dependent on lysine supplements from the staff so they couldn’t survive outside the park, according to Jurassic Wiki.] But lysine is present in all foods in the world.
— George Church, geneticist and synthetic biologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and helped found the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Among his many research projects, Church and his colleagues at Harvard successfully put woolly mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant.

I love the visual effects. I went to see it with my then boyfriend (now husband) on the big screen and it really captured my imagination. But, even back then, I knew extinction is not reversible!
— Dr. Reshma Kewalramani, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Star Trek 1979
Paramount Pictures

“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)

Starring
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley

IMDB plot summary
When an alien spacecraft of enormous power is spotted approaching Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk resumes command of the overhauled USS Enterprise in order to intercept it.

Expert fact-check
In the old “Star Trek” movies, it used to bother me a lot when a character was shot with a phaser. The person was eviscerated down to their shoes but it left the ground underneath completely untouched.
— Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), former physicist

OUTBREAK DUSTIN HOFFMAN
Warner Bros

“Outbreak” (1995)

Starring
Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman

IMDB plot summary
Army doctors struggle to find a cure for a deadly virus spreading throughout a California town that was brought to America by an African monkey.

Expert fact-check
“Outbreak” was awful. How in the world did they get enough plasma from a single monkey to save thousands of people from a deadly Ebola-like virus? How is it possible the original outbreak in an African village killed, apparently, 100 percent of the population, and yet there were survivors when it reached white folks in the U.S.A.? … Some conspiracy theories claiming HIV was “made in a CIA lab” cite that movie. It has proven impossible, thanks to Hollywood, to get the world to understand that Richard Nixon shut down the U.S. offensive bioweapons program in the 1970s, and there is no CIA bioengineering secret lab.
— Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, author of “The Coming Plague,” and consultant on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, “Contagion”


The reported inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie also had some thoughts.

In all the time I was in the Army or at CDC, we never “nuked” an African village to contain an outbreak. The monkey that brought the disease from Africa to the U.S. was a capuchin or Cebus monkey, which is a South American species. To save a town dying from the disease, they plasmapheresed [Editor’s note: extracted antibodies from the blood of] said monkey and this roughly 20-pound monkey yielded a unit of plasma for every resident of the town — quite a feat. The monkey must have been very tired afterwards.
Dr. C. J. Peters, a virologist who worked on Ebola and other deadly pathogens at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and at the CDC

Rampage Still
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Rampage” (2018)

Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman

IMDB plot summary
When three different animals become infected with a dangerous pathogen, a primatologist and a geneticist team up to stop them from destroying Chicago.

Expert fact-check
“Rampage” has fun with CRISPR gene-editing, but makes big, George-sized mistakes along the way. CRISPR could hypothetically be used to try to give creatures new features like wings, but you’d likely have to start with one-cell embryos. Also, even in some viral, weaponized form making a contagious gene drive, CRISPR couldn’t affect the genomes of a high enough percentage of cells to make changes in a whole existing animal and it’d be too slow a process for Hollywood. You’d probably get a lot of asymmetry, too, such that that wolf monster in the movie, for instance, could just as easily have had one wing and flew in circles, or grew that wing out of its nose or butt. A creature sprouting up combinations of unrelated traits like wings and a porcupine tail from CRISPR is even harder to explain. Finally, the idea of an antidote or on-off switch for gene edits is less totally far-fetched and the latter is actually being explored in the lab, but probably couldn’t affect just one trait like aggression and wouldn’t take 10 minutes.
— Paul Knoepfler, stem cell scientists at the University of California, Davis


Two STAT reporters also went to the movies to see if “Rampage” got the science of CRISPR right. Read our review.

Skyfall
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures

“Skyfall” (2012)

Starring
Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, and Naomie Harris

IMDB plot summary
Bond’s loyalty to M is tested when her past comes back to haunt her. When MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Expert fact-check
The villain in the James Bond movie “Skyfall” is an embittered former spy whose jaw was supposedly melted away by a hydrogen cyanide suicide pill gone bad. Except … hydrogen cyanide is best known as a poisonous gas and hydrocyanic acid, from which it can be derived, is less corrosive than lemon juice. If it was that corrosive, it would have melted the capsule itself long before. I was so annoyed that my son later said he would never go with me to a good spy movie again.
— Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook” and the upcoming “The Poison Squad”

Journey to the Center of the Earth
20th Century Fox

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959)

Starring
James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl

IMDB plot summary
An Edinburgh professor and assorted colleagues follow an explorer’s trail down an extinct Icelandic volcano to the earth’s center.

Expert fact-check
I have yet to encounter anyone who has visited the center of the earth, sailed a subterranean sea in a mushroom boat, or safety floated atop of lava — or more accurately, magma.
— Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), former doctor

Claudette Barius/Warner Brothers Pictures

“Contagion” (2011)

Starring
Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law

IMDB plot summary
Health care professionals, government officials, and everyday people find themselves in the midst of a worldwide epidemic as the CDC works to find a cure.

Expert Fact-check
In many ways it gets the science right, but I was struck by the speed by which they created a new vaccine and saved the world. That’s misleading. As we’ve seen with HIV, Ebola, Zika, malaria … creating vaccines that are safe and effective can take a long time and can be elusive. The rapid creation of a vaccine in “Contagion” can contribute to the false expectation of what science can do during a public health crisis.
— Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director (during the start of the H1N1 influenza pandemic) of the CDC

Prometheus
Kerry Brown/20th Century Fox

“Prometheus” (2012)

Starring
Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, and Michael Fassbender

IMDB plot summary
Following clues to the origin of mankind, a team finds a structure on a distant moon, but they soon realize they are not alone.

Expert fact-check
I have to say the movie that really annoyed me was “Prometheus.” The cartographer gets lost immediately, and as soon as the biologist sees an alien animal he wants to cuddle with it. Then the whole crew just continues to do idiotic things to put everyone in danger.
— Danielle Tomasello, postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute

 

 

And lest we forget, Bill Gates is a movie buff. Earlier this year, he sat down with STAT to do a little truth-squadding on movies like “Contagion” and 2016’s “Inferno.”

In an interview with STAT, Bill Gates discusses his favorite TV shows and movies about bioterrorism. Dom Smith/STAT

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  • I saw Contagion and was bemused when an expert in disease control approached an infected person at the bus stop. She reached to put an N-95 respirator on him, an N-95 with an *exhaust valve*! when a simple surgical mask would have worked a bit better. Got to give them credit for trying though.
    In another scene in Contagion, an investigator decides to interview a case in-person inside an isolation room rather than by using a phone and looking through a window. Maybe OK for dramatic effect, but not OK to limit spread and reduce infection risks.

  • You left out “interstellar”, the most scientifically insulting sci-fi movie ever, and yet he got a score of 8.4 on imdb (just to highlight the dumb/ignorant society we live in). Where they slaughter everything from biology, to astrophysics and beyond

    • I believe that you are confusing entertainment with teaching. While the original Muppet Show also has a 8.4 on IMDB, I don’t think the show is an indication of how dumb or ignorant our society is. I believe it to be an indication of how much we like to laugh and be entertained.

    • Interstellar was entertaining enough, and they used Kip Thorne as an astrophysics consultant with the black hole. Good enough for me.

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