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Physics 199 and 102:  Film Themes

A major component of Physics 199: Science Fiction in Black, Blue and Green and Physics 102: Modern Physics for the Humanist is watching and writing about a selection of themed science fiction films.  This page describes the different groups of films that students can choose from.  Each film group will have three members who watch three films together, write essays on the same films, and read and comment on each other's drafts.

Click on the movie title to see the three essay questions for that film.

Film Theme 1:  Futurism

Metropolis (Fritz Lang) -- One of the first science fiction films and best ever silent films from the German cinema of the 1920's, Metropolis is one of the most pioneering films of all time.  Freder, the elite son of the powerful ruler of Metropolis, enters the workers city after falling in love with Maria, a prophet and religious leader.  When the original mad scientist transfers Maria's essence into the machine-man, the false Maria leads a workers' revolution designed to destroy Metropolis.  Can Freder and Maria save the city in time?

Soylent Green -- What is the mystery of Soylent Green, the leading food for half the world?  The year is 2022, and the world has become so polluted and overpopulated that "real" food has become rare and available only to the very richest people.

Metropolis (anime) -- A loose reinterpretation of the Fritz Lang Metropolis, where in the far future, the worker class has been replaced by robots, and Tima, a special robot ala Maria, is created by the mad scientist.  Both Metropolis movies ask what it means to be human, but for different times and eras.


Film Theme 2:  Genetic Engineering

Gattaca -- Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke star in this brilliant look at the near future, when genetically engineering leads some of humanity to a wonderful future.  When one "God-child" becomes a "borrowed ladder" to get the chance to travel in space, he must confront his genetically superior brother while hiding his true identity.

The Island of Dr. Moreau -- Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer lead us through a new version of the H.G. Wells story where natural selection is helped along by splicing human and animal genes.  Can Dr. Moreau create a special, improved, peaceful race that would be our next evolutionary step.

The Boys from Brazil -- The evil Nazi scientist and war criminal, Dr. Josef Mendele (played by Gregory Peck), works to fulfill the greatest ambition of the Arayan race by killing 94 undistinguished civil servants across the world.  Can the Ezra Lieberman, the Nazi hunter (played by Lawrence Olivier) uncover the mystery in time? 


Film Theme 3:  Space Travel

The Right Stuff -- Hot Dog test pilots and America's first astronauts compete to see who has the "Right Stuff."  Watch the movie to find out the answer to the question, "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"  Very funny, intelligent movie based on the Tom Wolfe book.

Forbidden Planet -- One of the classics of science fiction from the 1950's.  Faster than light travel, ray blasters, an intelligent robot who can make bourbon and carry lead, an advanced alien civilization that accidentally killed itself in one night, a mentally enhanced scientist, vicious monsters that make no sense until they do, and a beautiful girl who's never seen a man other than her father -- what more can a science fiction film have?

Red Planet --   With the Earth's atmosphere destroyed by pollution, a project to terra-form Mars begun, using algae to create oxygen.  But soon, all the algae begins to disappear on Mars.  A team of scientists travels to Mars to find out why and discovers that the cause of the missing algae could save Earth.


Film Theme 4:  Time Travel

12 Monkeys -- Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to prevent the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, led by the mental patient Goines (Brad Pitt), from releasing a deadly virus that kills 5 billion people and forces humanity off the surface of the planet.  But do Cole's actions actually start the virus, rather than stop it?  Can Cole escape his destiny?

Timeline -- A quantum tunneling device opens up a wormhole into the past.  When one archaeology professor is accidentally lost in 14th century France, his research team must travel back in time to save him.  Braving a battle of the 100 Years War, our archaeologists must "make their own history."  Based on a novel by Michael Crichton.

Slaughterhouse 5 -- Billy Pilgrim, WWII war veteran and survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, is abducted by aliens and becomes "unstuck in time."  Traveling out of control between his past and future, Billy comes to a new understanding of time and free will.  Based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel.


Film Theme 5:  Apocalypse and Nuclear Holocaust

Logan's Run -- The city of the future is a paradise for its residents.  But you better enjoy yourself, for when you are thirty, your clock is up!  Will you try for renewal on carousel or will you run?

The Planet of the Apes -- A group of astronauts testing a time dilation hypothesis crashes on a planet some 2000 Earth years after take-off.  The barren waste-land of a planet is dominated by talking Apes who hunt and experiment on dim-witted, but pretty and mute, humans.  SciFi classic starring Charlton Heston that spawned a five movie sequence.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes -- In this sequel, we discover an advanced race of humans living underground whose insane worship and telepathic abilities are confounding.  When a war breaks out between these humans and the Apes, who should we help? Anyone?


Film Theme 6:  Religion and Politics

Dune, The SciFi Channel MiniSeries -- Arrakis, Dune, Planet of the Spice.  He who controls the Spice controls space travel and the universe.  When House Atreides is given control of Arrakis, a subtle plot is set in motion that leads to its fall at the hands of the Emperor and House Harkonnen.  Young Paul Atreides, a visionary, and his Bene Gesserit mother seek desert Power for their revenge.  Does Paul become the Messiah of local legend?  Does he simply utilize the local myth to inspire followers? (also Dune 2, Dune 3)


Film Theme 7:  Artificial Intelligence

The Matrix -- The "real world" is nothing more than a mind control program, put in place so that humans could be grown in captivity as a power source for artificially intelligent machines.  Whoa.

Lawnmower Man -- An obsessed scientist uses his virtual reality machine to increase the intelligence of a local worker, who becomes a super-brilliant being capable of entering the "net" and leaving his physical body behind.  What would happen when all the world's phones ring at once?

Ghost in the Shell -- In an age where a person's being (the ghost) can be downloaded into the brain of a new body (the shell) and the brain can be hacked, what does it mean to be human?  Can the "puppet-master," a program designed to acquire information who develops self-awareness, be stopped by a government cyborg agent?  Or will the cyborg join with the "puppet-master" to become a new being?


Film Theme 8:  Aliens

Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- After a transformative experience, two civilians stumble across a professional effort to contact alien intelligence.  Why are these two random people driven to understand this contact?

Sphere -- A team of scientists is sent to greet an unknown life form which crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean 300 years ago.  Reminiscent of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Forbidden Planet, this film (with a great cast including Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson) takes a wild dip in the science fiction ocean.

2010 -- In the sequel to 2001, a team of Russian and American astronauts goes to Jupiter to discover what happened to Hal, Discovery and the first crew.  In the process, they meet an alien intelligence and generosity that motivates peace on Earth.


Film Theme 9:  Manipulating the Future

The Terminator -- An unsuspecting waitress in 20 years will become the inspiration for humanity in its unforeseen war with artificially intelligent machines.  But can she survive an attack by a Terminator sent back in time by the machines in attempt to kill her before her time?

Minority Report -- When John Anderton, a "pre-crime" detective, is implicated in the future murder of a man he doesn't know, his actions to understand his future and evade capture lead him a new understanding of determinism.

Paycheck --  A money loving engineer turns down $92 million paycheck in exchange for a package of "junk" before having his memory erased.  What rational human being would do that, and can he understand why in time to save the future from being known and determined? 


Film Theme 10:  Biological SciFi

Aeon Flux -- "Some called Bregna the perfect society. Some call it the height of human civilization. But others know better. The Goodchilds built Bregna to ensure us a future. They built the Relical, a memorial to remind us of what we've survived. " Why doesn't the deadly assassin, Aeon Flux, kill chairman Trevor Goodchild to bring down the government?  What is the mystery of the Relical?

The Island -- In a film reminiscent visually and thematically of Logan's Run, two people who thought they were part of a human oasis decide to run rather than go to the paradise-like Island achieved by the winners of a lottery.

Jurassic Park -- Why would anyone recreate dinosaurs?  Interesting efforts to recreate them, both in the plot and the shooting of the film. 


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