There was a time when the portrayal of scientists in movies followed a dependable script: Hire a bug-eyed loon (your Christopher Lloyds, your Brent Spiners, your John Nerdlebaum Frinks), front-load their appearance with as much wordy exposition as possible, then violently dispatch them, the more quickly and ironically the better. This summer, though, big-screen brains have gone from totally geek to totally chic.
It began with Thor, in which Natalie Portman played a frisky, God-flirting astrophysicist who hangs out with Kat Dennings and old Swedish dudes, and does her most serious astrophysicalizing in a tastefully converted New Mexico gas station. Later this summer comes Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which we are asked to accept James Franco as a distinguished professional monkeyologist, whose perfectly coiffed hair is almost as impressive as his many advanced degrees. (Actually, that last bit is totally believable.) Finally, this fall brings us The Thing (see the new trailer, above), a quasi-remake/prequel of John Carpenter’s horror classic. Only this time Kurt Russell’s rugged, monster-slaying helicopter pilot has been replaced by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower-packing, Columbia-educated paleontologist.
Our thoughts on this unlikely development are twofold. One: Hope you invested wisely, DJ Qualls! The juicy part you thought you were getting in Roland Emmerich’s new disaster movie? It’s going to Zac Efron instead. (He’ll make a fantastic quantum mechanic or whatever!) Two: It’s time we gave credit where credit is due for this new golden age for preposterous PhDs. It was Denise Richards’ groundbreaking performance as nuclear physicist (!) Christmas Jones (!!), in 1999’s bad Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, that really made Hollywood rethink who was qualified to portray Mensa members onscreen. No longer were we forced to hear monologues about gigawatts from actors who had conceivably heard of gigawatts! Truly, Denise Richards was the Jackie Robinson of cinema’s unfair IQ line, and she deserves our thanks. Let’s all remember to think of her fondly when we’re watching Rosie Huntington-Whitely in a future remake of Revenge of the Nerds — in her rightful role as a nerd.