Science fiction movies have come a long way since _The Deadly Mantis_ or _Cat Women of the Moon_. Even in the fifties, of course, there were movies that did as good a job as the times allowed to show science and scientists. With the help of the superbly realistic visual effects we have had over the past couple of decades, the capacity for accurate depictions of science has increased, and so, too, has the interest of filmmakers who want to do such depictions right. Since film directors and producers are not scientists themselves, they hire out to get advice. Sometimes the results are good for the movie and also good for science, and sometimes not. Science consultation in the movies is the wonderful subject of _Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema_ (The MIT Press) by David A. Kirby. Kirby is nicely positioned to write such a book; he was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before becoming a lecturer in science communication studies. And he obviously loves movies. The book reveals the surprising ways in which science has shaped movies, and even more surprisingly vice versa.
Kirby starts on a high note, looking at Stanley Kubrick's _2001: A Space Odyssey_, which he says is "the most scientifically accurate film ever made for its time." _2001_ is, of course, mostly about space flight and exploration in the future, and had its share of NASA consultants, but don't forget the "Dawn of Man" sequence; Kubrick got advice from the father-and-son anthropological team Louis and Richard Leakey. Consultants can make movies better by fact checking, or by advising on the look of tools and lab spaces. Consultants can increase the scientific plausibility of the movie, and if the plausibility is up, suspension of disbelief is maintained, and the audience is drawn in. It doesn't hurt that scientists in the audience of an accurate film won't be picking at it. Next to _2001_, the book pays the most attention to the _Jurassic Park_ movies, for many good reasons. Not only did paleontologist Jack Horner, who was involved in many aspects of the movie, get grants and fees, but he also got to influence the movie to show his own ideas about how birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, for instance. There are sometimes problems because a scene that is scientifically accurate might be cinematically boring. Sometimes there are problems because scientific accuracy clashes with an audience's view of the way things are supposed to be. The 2000 movie _Mission to Mars_ had plenty of scenes on "The Red Planet," but we know from the rovers that it is actually a yellow-brown. In the movie, the geology has a red tinge; scientific accuracy would have made things look less plausible. There are many movies cited here that have used good science to promote public understanding and intelligent debate on contentious issues. _The China Syndrome_ was well researched and its questions about the safety of nuclear power still linger. _Armageddon_ and _Deep Impact_, both released in 1998, made people think about what might be done if we see that asteroid or comet headed to wipe us out (although _Armageddon_ showed deep flaws in its science, as described here).
Kirby's book shows how products of the future might be introduced in a movie; the interfacing by gestures with the computer, as used by the detective in _Minority Report_, was an imaginary prototype suggested by one scientific advisor who has gone on to make physical prototypes of such an interface. Kirby shows how scientists are often thrilled to work on a picture with famous people from Hollywood, and frequently do so without pay. He also shows a big disadvantage: if the scientist needs to be on set or on call, it's a good bet that this will be an impossible schedule for an academic, field, or commercially-employed scientist, so maybe one that just got a degree would be hired, for all the problems that might cause. One of the important themes here is that scientists and filmmakers are increasingly acknowledging the importance of their close connection; the National Academy of Sciences' Science & Entertainment Exchange program, for instance, wants to increase the involvement of scientists in the filmmaking process. Kirby knows plenty of the personalities involved here, and obviously has watched the movies carefully. He has given many detailed descriptions of scientific and cinematic work, and his brightly-written book ought to be enjoyed by anyone interested in either subject.