Running Into Awful Academics At The Movies

Image Credit: KiwiDeaPi, CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s not often we can readily identify with movie scientists. Even if you are a biologist, the image of a handsome labcoat wearing genius scribbling equations on a perspex board isn’t something that many of us see ourselves in. My own experience with science consists more of wading through spreadsheets, poring over manuscripts and generally yelling at a computer screen seen through barely concealed tears of frustration.

But every now and then I stumble across something I very much recognise in an on-screen academic. On this particular occasion, said stumble occurred during a watch of The Relic, a 1997 monster movie set in the Chicago Field Museum. It was a welcome setting, given that I wrote my PhD while working at Trondheim’s Natural History Museum, and that Chicago’s Field Museum is potentially the best museum I’ve ever visited.

This portrayal of an academic, however, was decidedly unwelcome.

Margo Green’s character from the book that this movie was based on is a hard-working, reasonably well-appreciated researcher writing her PhD. In the movie she is a post-doctoral researcher (or some similar station above a PhD) played by Penelope Ann Miller, who runs a lab with at least 3 or 4 students of varying degrees under her watch.

Early in the film Dr. Green becomes incensed that a fellow researcher, Greg Lee, is applying for the same grant as her, which seems odd. In fairness, Greg has already successfully applied for another grant, but any researcher who refers to a grant as rightfully ‘theirs’ may be getting a touch ahead of themselves.

Leave it be. She’s going to have a rotten time pretty soon.

However, later in the film her students hold up a prop skeleton and begs her to let them leave the lab. Green responds with a disarming smile and a laugh, urging them to get home, it’s past their bedtimes etc..

Except HANG ON. NOT FUCKING COOL. Outside it’s dark, and this is Chicago in springtime, so it’s at least 8pm. She has been keeping her students in until 8pm.

Being stuck with an authority figure that espouses this sort of behaviour is sadly a reality for many early career researchers. I’ve lost count of the number of academics I’ve seen normalising 60-70 hour work weeks, driving students away from a scientific career by suggesting personal lives are not an option if you want to take the job seriously.

It’s absolute crap. Yes, when deadlines approach, such a week may have to happen once in a while, but it’s nothing normal, and when they do pop up any advisor worth their salt will give you a break afterwards.

The reason that on this particular occasion the movie irritates me so much is that the behaviour is played off as if Dr. Green is some saint, letting her students go with a wave and a laugh. It also annoys me that I would never have thought twice about how domineering or toxic that sort of behaviour is had I not had so many colleagues and friends who suffered from it (and some who still do) during their time in academia.

It’s something I’m noticing increasingly in popular media these days that flew over my head previously. Dr. House is the absolute worst, and keeps his position as a result of his brilliance despite his destructive presence to the ERCs surrounding him. Curt Connors, you PAY Andrew Garfield for that time he spent in your lab when he should have been picking up Aunt May. Come to think of it you had better give him some damn co-authorship. And Ian Malcolm should definitely have an open door policy for the sake of his female students.

Green also spouts a raft of anti-social science BS, crapping on ‘useless relics’ and generally turning up her nose at anthropology on a constant basis (despite the Field Museum having a heavy anthropological bent and her character BEING AN ANTHROPOLOGIST in the books). It reminds me of my ignorant days as a Masters student, writing social sciences off as soft, spouting “the plural of anecdote is not data” to anyone who would listen. Gross.

The movie itself is a lot of fun, and I would heartily recommend giving it a go. Said researchers do spout some pretty ridiculous scientific nonsense (odd for such a grounded take on academia), but the monster is a lot of fun.

And as always, you can listen to our episode on The Relic below at our podcast Cinematica Animalia! If you enjoyed it, remember to leave an in-app rating, as it really helps!

New episodes of Cinematica Animalia are available every Thursday. You can listen in on Spotifyon Soundcloud, or any podcast app worth its salt.

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