Every so often, a seminal film comes out that ends up being the hallmark of its genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey redefined space and technology in science fiction. Star Wars proved sci-fi could provide blockbuster material, while Blade Runner remains the standard-bearer for post-apocalyptic dystopia. A slate of recent films have broached varying scenarios involving artificial intelligence – from talking robots to sentient computers to re-engineered human capacity. But Ex Machina, the latest film from Alex Garland (writer of the pandemic horror film 28 Days Later and the astro-thriller Sunshine) is the cream of the crop. A stylish, stripped-down, cerebral film, Ex Machina weaves through the psychological implications of an experimental AI robot named Ava possessing preternatural emotional intelligence and free will. It’s a Hitchcockian sci-fi thriller for the geek chic gadget-bearing age, a vulnerable expository inquiry into the isolated meaning of “sentience” (something we will surely contend with in our time) and an honest reproach of technology’s boundless capabilities that somehow manages to celebrate them at the same time.
ScriptPhD.com’s enthusiastic review of this visionary new sci-fi film includes an exclusive Q&A with writer and director Alex Garland from a recent Los Angeles screening.
On February 28, 1998, the revered British medical journal The Lancet published a brief paper by then-high profile but controversial gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that claimed to have linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with regressive autism and inflammation of the colon in a small case number of children. A subsequent paper published four years later claimed to have isolated the strain of attenuated measles virus used in the MMR vaccine in the colons of autistic children through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR amplification). The effect on vaccination rates in the UK was immediate, with MMR vaccinations reaching a record low in 2003/2004, and parts of London losing herd immunity with vaccination rates of 62%. 15 American states currently have immunization rates below the recommended 90% threshold. Wakefield was eventually exposed as a scientific fraud and an opportunist trying to cash in on people’s fears with ‘alternative clinics’ and pre-planned a ‘safe’ vaccine of his own before the Lancet paper was ever published. Even the 12 children in his study turned out to have been selectively referred by parents convinced of a link between the MMR vaccine and their children’s autism. The original Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. By that point, irreparable damage had been done that may take decades to reverse.
How could a single fraudulent scientific paper, unable to be replicated or validated by the medical community, cause such widespread panic? How could it influence legions of otherwise rational parents to not vaccinate their children against devastating, preventable diseases, at a cost of millions of dollars in treatment and worse yet, unnecessary child fatalities? And why, despite all evidence to the contrary, have people remained adamant in their beliefs that vaccines are responsible for harming otherwise healthy children, whether through autism or other insidious side effects? In his brilliant, timely, meticulously-researched book The Panic Virus, author Seth Mnookin disseminates the aggregate effect of media coverage, echo chamber information exchange, cognitive biases and the desperate anguish of autism parents as fuel for the recent anti-vaccine movement. In doing so, he retraces the triumphs and missteps in the history of vaccines, examines the social impact of rejecting the scientific method in a more broad perspective, and ways that this current utterly preventable public health crisis can be avoided in future scenarios. A review of The Panic Virus, an enthusiastic ScriptPhD.com Editor’s Selection, follows below. Continue reading “The Panic Virus” and the Origins of the Anti-Vaccine Movement→
As part of an ongoing recommitment to its sci-fi genre roots, SyFy Channel is unveiling the original scripted drama Ascension, for now a six hour mini-series, and possible launch for a future series. It follows a crew aboard the starship Ascension, as part of a 1960s mission that sent 600 men, women and children on a 100 year planned voyage to populate a new world. In the midst of political unrest onboard the vessel, the approach of a critical juncture in the mission and the first-ever murder onboard the craft, the audience soon learns, there is more to the mission than meets the eye. Which can also be said of this multi-layered, ambitious, sophisticated mini-series. Full ScriptPhD review below.
The biggest threat to mankind may not end up being an enormous weapon; in fact, it might be too small to visualize without a microscope. Between global interconnectedness and instant travel, the age of genomic manipulation, and ever-emerging infectious disease possibilities, our biggest fears should be rooted in global health and bioterrorism. We got a recent taste of this with Stephen Soderberg’s academic, sterile 2011 film Contagion. Helix, a brilliant new sci-fi thriller from Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore, isn’t overly concerned with whether the audience knows the difference between antivirals and a retrovirus or heavy-handed attempts at replicating laboratory experiments and epidemiology lectures. What it does do is explore infectious disease outbreak and bioterrorism in the greater context of global health and medicine in a visceral, visually chilling way. In the world of Helix, it’s not a matter of if, just when… and what we do about it after the fact. ScriptPhD.com reviews the first three episodes under the “continue reading” cut. Continue reading REVIEW: “Helix”→
Space movies are almost always grandiose in their storytelling aspirations. The enormity of space, the raw power of the shuttle, the existential quandary of whether we are alone in a vast Universe, and (as is the case in Gravity) an almost-inevitable crisis that must be resolved to steer the astronauts onboard to safety. There is one critical detail, however, that most fail to convey visually—solitude. Dr. Katherine Coleman, who spent thousands of hours aboard the shuttles Columbia and the International Space Station, and who was a primary mentor to star Sandra Bullock, recounts isolation—spatial separation, physical movements, zero gravity and a distant Earth—as the biggest challenge and reward she faced as an astronaut. With a tense, highly focused storyline centered almost entirely on one brave scientist, Gravity is a virtual space flight for the audience, but also a gripping examination of emotional and physical sequestration. Through this vista, we are able to perceive how beautiful, terrifying and enormous space truly is. Full ScriptPhD.com Gravity review under the “continue reading” cut. Continue reading Editor’s Selection: ‘Gravity’→
In 2007, new NASA research suggested that underneath the vast ice sheaths of Jupiters moon Europa lay oceanic water, which is a key element to support life. The Galileo probe, which had been orbiting the moons of Jupiter since December of 1995, was constantly orbiting and swooshing near the sixth largest moon in the solar system, collecting pictures and data that could prove the existence of liquid water. Then in 2011, scientists hit a proverbial jackpotevidence for two liquid lakes the volume of the North American Great Lakes underneath a region of jumbled ice blocks termed the Conamara Chaos. Even in the wake of such exciting discoveries, critical budget cuts severely threatened NASAs space program, including the Mars rover and Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. This same time frame gave concurrent rise to private space travel, led by the commercial venture Virgin Galactic and ambitious research company Space X. The merger of limitless industry resources with the possibility of uncovering alien life seems like a perfect Hollywood pitch. Such is the scenario explored in the brilliant documentary-style sci-fi thriller Europa Report. A full ScriptPhD review under the continue reading cut. Continue reading REVIEW: Europa Report→
SyFy channel’s new show Defiance is breaking the mold in every way. An unusual combination of fantasy blockbuster, small town mystery and sci-fi action drama, Defiance takes place on a decimated, post-apocalyptic Earth set several decades into the future. After an alien invasion and war, hmans try to co-exist with a group of aliens that are both friend and foe in a small town literally defying the odds. ScriptPhD.com was extremely fortunate to have access to one of the head writers of the show, as well as its official science advisor. In our interviews, we delve deeper into the backbone of this sci-fi hit, which is a terrific, engaging story, paired with colorful characters and the clever incorporation of science to support the plot. More after the “continue reading” cut.
The history of science movies nominated for Oscars is not a very long one. Aside from the technical achievement awards or an occasional nomination for acting merits, the Best Picture category has historically not opened its doors to scientific content, save for notable nominees “A Clockwork Orange,” “District 9,” “Inception” and “Avatar.” A documentary about science has never been nominated for the Best Documentary category, until this year, with How To Survive a Plague, Director David France’s stunning account of the brave activists that brought the AIDS epidemic to the attention of the government and science community in the disease’s darkest early days. “Plague” set history last weekend by becoming the first “Best Documentary” nominee with an almost entirely scientific/biomedical narrative. More importantly, it also established a standard by which future science documentaries should use emotional storytelling to captivate audiences and inspire action. ScriptPhD review and discussion under the “continue reading” cut. Continue reading Oscar-nominated Documentary a Landmark for Science→
For every friendly robot we see in science fiction such as Star Wars’s C3PO, there are others with a more sinister reputation that you can find in films such as I, Robot. Most movie robots can indeed be classified into a range of archetypes and purposes. Science boffins at Cambridge University have taken the unusual step of evaluating the exact risks of humanity suffering from a Terminator-style meltdown at the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.
“Robots On the Run” is currently an unlikely scenario, so don’t stockpile rations and weapons in panic just yet. But with machine intelligence continually evolving, developing and even crossing thresholds of creativity and and language, what holds now might not in the future. Robotic technology is making huge advances in great part thanks to the efforts of Japanese scientists and Robot Wars. For the time being, the term AI (artificial intelligence) might sound like a Hollywood invention (the term was translated by Steven Spielberg in a landmark film, after all), but the science behind it is real and is not going to go away. Robots can now actually learn things akin to the way humans pick up information. Nevertheless, some scientists believe that there are limits to the level of intelligence that robots will be able to achieve in the future. In a special ScriptPhD guest post, we examine the current state of artificial intelligence, and the possibilities that the future holds for this technology. Continue reading Artificial Intelligence: The Risk of Robots on the Rampage→
“The wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water.” —Ismail Serageldin, World Bank
Watching the devastation and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy and several recent water-related natural disasters, it’s hard to imagine that global water shortages represent an environmental crisis on par with climate change. But if current water usage habits do not abate, or if major technological advances to help recycle clean water are not implemented, this is precisely the scenario we are facing—a majority of 21st Century conflicts being fought over water. From the producers of socially-conscious films An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc., Last Call at the Oasis is a timely documentary that chronicles current challenges in worldwide water supply, outlines the variables that contribute to chronic shortages and interviews leading environmental scientists and activists about the ramifications of chemical contamination in drinking water. More than just an environmental polemic, Last Call is a stirring call to action for engineering and technology solutions to a decidedly solvable problem. A ScriptPhD.com review under the “continue reading” cut. Continue reading It’s Not Easy Being Green: Water, Our Next Endangered Resource (And Innovation Opportunity)→