10/30/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Eureka! Hollywood Discovers British Scientists!


As a tech historian, I am pleased as punch that Hollywood has finally focused its blockbuster, Oscar-bait attention on British scientists.

First up is The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as "A Brief History of Time" physicist Stephen Hawking on 7 November, followed two weeks later by The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II cryptologist hero and computer pioneer Alan Turing.

I'm pleased as punch primarily because, arguably, Great Britain has produced more pioneering scientists than any other country -- Isaac Newton, James Watt, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Charles Darwin, Joseph Lister, Lord Kelvin, Ernest Rutherford, just to name a few. But other than Cosmos (thank-you, Neil deGrasse Tyson!), the U.S. entertainment industry has largely ignored this drama-laden roster.

Yes, in Creation, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Darwin got some motion picture props thanks to stars Mr. and Mrs. Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, but this was an independent BBC production -- hardly the major Hollywood studio treatment Hawking and Turning are about to receive. Plus, Creation concentrates on the after-effects of Darwin's writing "The Origin of Species" on his personal life rather than on his potentially more cinematic H.M.S. Beagle voyage and revolutionary evolutionary insights.

It's easy to understand why Hawking's and Turing's stories are attractive, which is why the films seem so superficially similar: young brilliant scientists make ground-shaking discoveries and establish inspiring romantic relationships while battling both older authoritative establishment and their own dark futures. While Hawking is doomed to a spend his life paralyzed and in a wheelchair, Turing was eventually driven by a homophobic British government to chemical castration and eventual (likely) suicide.

Theory Review

I got a chance to see The Theory of Everything at a screening, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is Redmayne's emotional performance. Not only is he a remarkably physical doppelganger for Hawking, he brings an evocative depth of humanity to the man we know only from his crooked wheelchair posture and his droning synthetic voice.

While the movie is slickly produced and stylishly mounted, the script is drawn from a book by his oft-heroic yet long-suffering first wife, Jane, and covers Hawking's post-graduate Cambridge days in the early 1960s when he was first diagnosed and eventually paralyzed by ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease.

As a result of the source material, we see only isolated inklings of Hawking's genius. A couple of minutes scrawling equations with a quivering hand on a chalkboard and handing in pages of quickly scrawled equations to a stunned professor -- and that's about it. Otherwise he mopes, he creeps, he crawls, he climbs, he's depressed, he visits, he plays with his kids -- when and how did he work?

Most stunning, it's Hawking's poetry-studying wife who gets the big physics speech explaining the conflict between the predictability of Albert Einstein's relativity theory and the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. (The title of the film refers to Hawking's on-going yet largely unseen efforts to reconcile these two paradoxical forces.)

Two Scientists, One Actor

This is not the first attempt to dramatize Hawking's rise and fall and rise. Ten years ago, the BBC produced a film called Hawking, available on Amazon Instant Video for $1.99, which covers most of the same ground as The Theory of Everything. But instead of focusing on Hawking's relationship with his wife and his increasing infirmary, there's a lot more of his actual theorizing and battles with the British scientific establishment over his Big Bang and black hole theories. And it's Hawking himself who explains it all.

And, in an odd coincidence, starring as Hawking in Hawking is none other than Imitation Game star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch doesn't do a bad job portraying Hawking, but Redmayne's performance is wider, deeper and more personal, and his physical resemblance to Hawking allows you to more easily lose yourself in his struggles. But I would have loved to have seen Redmayne as the genius Hawking in Hawking rather than the strangely unproductive Hawking in Theory.

Dueling Scientists

I haven't had a chance to see Imitation Game, but the trailers seem to imply there's a lot more of Turing's actual war-winning work portrayed and less of his straight or gay sex life. Plus, Turing's computer decryption Nazi-fighting work is likely a bit easier to grok for the general public than Hawking's often dense cosmology theories. (And, like Hawking, Turing's story was earlier told via a BBC production, Breaking the Code, in 2002.)

What I'm really afraid of is a case of dueling doomed British scientist movies, dooming both. While not exactly on the level of dueling asteroid (1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact) or Wyatt Earp films (1993-94, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp), I hope Theory and Imitation Game don't end up cannibalizing each other's audiences or awards.

Perhaps if Hawking's and Turing's stories do attract both audiences and awards, Hollywood will check out the compelling stories of other British scientific action heroes.