These ingredients came from outside the film-business, a blend of alchemy and Einstein, but the cinema intensified the image and stamped it on the culture: it gave us the modern mad scientist. And what mad scientists they were! Rotwang in Fritz Lang's Metropolis; Dr Frankenstein in James Whale's Universal series and its scores of descendants, shrieking, "It's alive!"; and Dr Strangelove. Together, they encoded and amplified many deep anxieties about the modern world.
Frayling begins with Georges Méliès' silent parodies of Jules Verne, and traces the path from the brooding Rotwang in his robot-creating laboratory - "the most influential scientist" in cinema - to the crippled, Hitler-loving, Strangelove, a mad scientist with a global reach conferred by Werner von Braun's missiles. Then he dwells on Frankenstein, and a series of 1930s bio-pics that lauded science but still managed to traduce scientists. His tour also takes in the boffins and space monsters of the 1950s, and the later worlds of Michael Crichton and Ridley Scott's Alien.
The later images are sometimes subtler. Crichton's Jurassic Park has a range of scientist stereotypes, and the real villain is the crazed capitalist. Sean Connery, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman have all played heroic (medical) scientists. In Contact, Jodie Foster even gets to portray a sympathetic female physicist who is not barmy, although still a tad unworldly.
Frayling concludes that, while the details change, the message stays fairly constant. Scientists on film have been more evil than in print, though he does not really explain why. His book is an adroit review of past studies of images of science combined with his own reading of films, with contributions from a radio series. It is pretty comprehensive, although I missed Alec Guinness as the Man in the White Suit. The result is entertaining, but not particularly profound - a bit like the films.
Jon Turney teaches non-fiction writing at Imperial CollegeReuse content