Just How Scientific Were This Year’s Best Picture Oscar Nominees?


Oscar: It's hard to argue that science isn't fundamental to a statue that is covered in gold. Credit: Travis/Wikimedia Commons

The Oscars were last Sunday. It was a time for us, the moviegoing public, to take to social media and cattily comment on Zac Efron's inability to read a teleprompter ... https://twitter.com/carojess99/status/440314446041214976 John Travolta's mispronunciation of the name of "Let It Go" singer Idina Menzel ... and Kim Novak's bizarre spotlight-seeking behavior at an award show where she wasn't even nominated ... But what about us members of the moviegoing public who are also science nerds? Where can we go to talk about how our favorite subject permeated this year's nominated films? Why, to the Newscripts blog, of course! This year, we break down the science portrayed in each of the Best Picture nominees, ranking them from least to most amount of scientific material tackled. And if you think we missed some crucial science in the movies, sound off in our comments section. Also, be warned, spoilers are sprinkled throughout this post, so if you're planning to catch up on these nominees sometime in the future, proceed with caution. Now, without further ado, the nominees are ...   9. “12 Years a Slave” Synopsis: Freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is sold into slavery and spends 12 years toiling in the fields of the antebellum South. Director Steve McQueen uses excruciatingly long takes to force his audience to confront the violence of the U.S.’s dark past. By not cutting away from such cruelty, the film captivates in its brutal honesty. This really is the best picture of 2013. Is there science? Not really. By virtue of being a period piece, "12 Years a Slave" comes closest to touching the subject of science when it reminds its audience of the technological advances our current society enjoys over pre-Civil War America; one such reminder occurs when Northup struggles to write a letter home to his family using ink he made from crushed berries. But outside of such reminders of our advancements in technology, the film doesn't offer much scientific fodder.   8. “American Hustle” Synopsis: A team of professional swindlers (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) are forced to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a sting operation on corrupt politicians. Cowriter and director David O. Russell packs the movie with enough flashy costumes, big hair, and loud music to almost distract you from the fact that the movie’s glut of dialogue diminishes its coherence. Almost. Is there science? Like "12 Years a Slave," the science in "American Hustle" largely stems from the fact that the movie is a period piece, and no scene in the movie references science more overtly than the scene in which Bale's bored housewife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, places an aluminum container with tinfoil in a microwave that was given as a gift to Bale's character by Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito. After the microwave bursts in flames, Lawrence berates her husband for bringing a "science oven" into their home that she believes "takes all the nutrition out of our food." Surprisingly, concern over the nutritional content of microwaved food is something that we're still debating today, although such worries are unfounded. Another point of contention with this scene in the movie? Apparently, metal can't catch fire in a microwave. (Warning: Video contains not-safe-for-work language.)

Khat: Nothing takes the edge off a hard day of pirating quite like it. Credit: User:Katpatuka/Wikipedia

7. “Captain Phillips” Synopsis: A container ship led by a sea captain (Tom Hanks) is boarded by Somali pirates. Director Paul Greengrass showcases the shaky handheld camerawork and quick editing he's perfected in his previous based-on-a-true-story thrillers. Unfortunately, “Captain Phillips” isn’t nearly as empathetic and understanding to the plight of the pirates as it thinks it is. Is there science? Sort of. The Somali pirates habitually eat khat, an appetite-suppressing plant native to East Africa that is illegal in the U.S. The chemistry behind the stimulant, which contains amphetamine-like cathinone, keeps the pirates alert as they travel back inland after kidnapping Phillips. The use of drugs in this movie, however, pales in comparison to the drug usage in another Best Picture nominee we'll examine later.   6. "Her" Synopsis: A recently divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) begins dating his operating system, or OS, as he affectionately refers to her throughout the movie. It’s a ridiculous premise that emotionally sucker punches you with its unironic portrait of one man’s past, present, and future relationships. Just try to listen to “Moon Song,” the song Phoenix's character performs with his OS, and not be moved! Is there science? Well, it's kind of a science-fiction movie, so there's kind of some science. The development of Phoenix's OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) into a sentient being that adjusts to match Phoenix's personality parallels our own cognitive development. In the movie, Phoenix's character attempts to read a physics textbook (he struggles to get past the first chapter) that his OS has already finished so that he can better relate to her. But the funniest science-related material comes when Phoenix demos a video game that his friend (Amy Adams) is developing in which players control a mom avatar and rack up "Mom Points" for excelling at child-rearing activities such as driving one's kids to school on time. During the demo, Phoenix loses Mom Points for feeding his virtual children cereal with too much processed sugar, which obviously is a common problem in youth development.   5. “Nebraska”

Is alcoholism hereditary?: This scene from "Nebraska" got us thinking. Credit: Paramount Vantage

Synopsis: David Grant (Will Forte) drives his senile father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), from Montana to Nebraska because his father believes he has won a Publishers Clearing House-style jackpot from an organization based in Omaha and he wants to collect his winnings. It’s a heartfelt, funny, and touching meditation on small victories in small-town America. Is there science? As a result of Woody's deteriorated mental state, yep. His illusions of grandeur lead some to believe that Woody has Alzheimer's disease, although his son David denies this--a disagreement that highlights the difficulty of definitively diagnosing a patient with the disease. And when David joins his alcoholic father at a bar for a drink and orders a Mountain Dew instead of a beer, he highlights how genes can put individuals at risk of developing alcoholism.   4. “Philomena” Synopsis: A British journalist (Steve Coogan) helps Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) track down the son that the Catholic church forced her to give up for adoption when she was an unwed teenager. The movie is a high-wire balancing act of drama and comedy that shows a condemnable amount of restraint in exploring Lee’s complicated lifelong relationship with religion. Is there science? Yes, and it comes in the form of a spoiler, so stop reading now if you don't want a major plot point ruined for you. ... Alright, everyone cool? The movie's little bit of science creeps in when Philomena discovers that her son had AIDS, is dead, and used to work in the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The revelations bring to mind the protests that happened during both presidencies over a lack of federal AIDS research, a subject that was explored in-depth in the 2012 documentary "How to Survive a Plague." And when Philomena discovers a photograph of her long-lost son before his death, she sees that her son had the skin cancer Kaposi's sarcoma, which was prevalent among early AIDS patients.        

Methaqualone: "Wolf of Wall Street's" prescription for a hard day of stock trading. Credit: Chemical Abstracts Service

3. “Wolf of Wall Street” Synopsis: Director Martin Scorsese follows the rise and fall of Wall Street power player Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). At slightly under three hours long, the movie is overstuffed and sometimes shoddy in its editing, but it’s also surprisingly thought provoking and funny—particularly DiCaprio, who has never given a performance this free of vanity. Is there science? As a result of the copious amount of drugs used in the film, yes. Belfort snorts lots of cocaine and pops tons of Quaaludes (active ingredient, methaqualone), a depressant that was designated a controlled substance by the U.S. in 1984. Some stockbrokers value the drug because it lowers their inhibitions and makes it easier for them to engage in aggressive trading.   2. “Dallas Buyers Club” Synopsis: A good ol’ Texas oil boy (Matthew McConaughey) contracts AIDS and struggles to get the medication he needs to fight his disease. Recognizing a market opportunity, he opens a “buyers club” where fellow disease sufferers, many of whom are homosexuals, can have access to all the drugs they need for a monthly fee. It’s a film anchored by great performances (McConaughey and Jared Leto) and a predictable storyline of how a homophobic man learns that, hey, gay people are—to steal a phrase from McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech—alright, alright, alright. Is there science? Of course! McConaughey's character participates in a Food & Drug Administration clinical study involving the antiretroviral azidothymidine (AZT). He self-medicates with another antiretroviral, Peptide T. At one point, a nurse played by Jennifer Garner even curls up on her couch to read an issue of The Lancet. For all of its predictability, "Dallas Buyers Club" tackles a lot of science, although the film has been criticized for depicting AZT (which is still recommended in the treatment of AIDS today) as an ineffective treatment while depicting Peptide T (which is not recommended in the treatment of AIDS today) as actually effective.    1. “Gravity” Synopsis: A team of astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to return to Earth after their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope goes terribly wrong. The special effects are breathtaking. If only the threadbare script were worthy of such CGI magic. Is there science? You bet your sweet asteroid there is! There's so much, in fact, that the Washington Post wrote a great article breaking down the science "Gravity" gets right and wrong, including if Bullock's character could have really traveled from the Hubble Space Telescope to the International Space Station to China's Tiangong-1 space station as depicted in the film (no, the objects are too far apart), if she could have actually used a fire extinguisher to propel herself through space (kind of), and if tears that fell from her eyes would have really floated off her face in space (no). "Gravity" is so scientifically thought provoking, in fact, that it's the only Best Picture nominee to have been both reviewed by C&EN and angrily derided by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson via Twitter. Ladies and gentleman, debate its accuracy all you want, but this is the 2014 Best Picture nominee with the most scientific material.

Author: Jeff Huber

Jeff Huber is an associate editor at C&EN. He enjoys finding peculiar news stories that make him laugh and/or tilt his head in a thoughtful manner. This hobby has served him well as a contributor to the Newscripts blog.

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