TIFF 2017: Movie magic from math and science

This article was originally published in The Conversation on September 14, 2017, and is reprinted here with their permission. It was reprinted in the National Post.



Math and science are hot topics with contemporary filmmakers. Think of the brilliant portrayal of African-American mathematicians and scientists in 1960s NASA in “Hidden Figures,” or the tale of mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and his groundbreaking work with Godfrey Hardy at Cambridge University in “The Man Who Knew Infinity“.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), underway this month, is not immune to the charms of math and science, with past crowd-pleasers such as “The Theory of Everything” and “The Martian“. As a mathematics professor with a love for film and a Patron’s Circle membership that offers access to many of the festival’s premieres, I go on an annual search for STEM-centric movies.

Strange cultural collisions can occur between STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) storytelling and fans. In a cast chat after the TIFF 2015 premiere of “The Imitation Game“, Benedict Cumberbatch spoke about the protagonist, Alan Turing, as a mathematician and gay icon. In a now famous incident, his thoughtful reflections on Turing were disrupted by an audience member asking to ” feast on his yumminess.”

Although TIFF made recent headlines about slimming down its slate of offerings, there is no shortage of movies this year to pique my interest. Two movies caught my attention, each with science themes, and I give flash reviews of them below.

The Current War

1880. The world is still lit by fire.

These words on the opening title card set the stage for The Current War, whose world premiere was at TIFF 2017.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison, who is in a race with George Westinghouse, played by Michael Shannon, to get electricity to market. Edison is a proponent of direct current, which is safer, more expensive and has less range. In contrast, Westinghouse developed alternating current, which is cheaper but potentially lethal. Alternating current won in the end, but Edison was not willing to easily let go of the fight.

The Current War is eerily evocative of the modern race to innovation and commercialization within STEM.

Imagine a present-day Edison as Elon Musk pitching a new electric car. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does a superb job telling a lesser known story about the commercialisation of electricity set against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Americana.

Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing brooding and complex intellectuals, from Alan Turing to Sherlock Holmes to superhero Doctor Strange. Shannon is a familiar face in science fiction outings, playing the loyal father in Midnight Special and the villain General Zod in Man of Steel.

The movie is lovingly shot, with sumptuous period sets and costumes, and the performances, especially by Cumberbatch and Shannon, are terrific. The kinetic soundtrack forms a perfect accompaniment to the movie’s magical realist elements. The film felt disjointed at times, however, and I found it slow in places — it could use a deeper edit before wide release.

The Shape of Water

With a filmography containing Pan’s LabryinthPacific Rim, and Hellboy, it is safe to say that monsters are director Gullermo del Toro’s specialty. One of his persistent themes is finding the beauty and wonder in fantastical creatures, and his latest offering is no exception.

The Shape of Water is a triumph. I’d wager the film will be a favourite for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF and it should go deep into the Oscars.

The Shape of Water focuses on the unlikely love story between an intelligent sea creature and a mute woman, played by Sally Hawkins, whose performance is nothing short of breathtaking. Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer round out a powerhouse supporting cast. Much of the shooting for the movie took place in Toronto, the city del Toro calls home. The premiere was held at the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto, and the scenes shot in that historic space garnered enthusiastic applause from the local audience.

There are timely, allegorical messages here. While the scientists want to study the creature and the military wants to weaponize it, a custodian and her friends want to liberate it.

The film’s message is that rather than fear the unknown, we should embrace it.

Science and mathematics help illuminate the darkness as can film. The Shape of Water shines a light and is a perfect commentary for our time.

Where no one has gone before

There are so many untold stories of the pursuit of mathematics and science. Wouldn’t it be terrific to see Melissa McCarthy play Emmy Noether, the most significant mathematician you’ve never heard of? Or how about Jim Parsons playing Paul Erdős, the genius and eccentric mathematician with a love for humanity?

TIFF is an unexpected showcase for films focusing on STEM and it’s wonderful to see more emerge each year at the festival. The box office success of Hidden Figures and the Imitation Game proves that a ticket-buying public relish watching movies featuring mathematicians and scientists.

Bring us more STEM, Hollywood. Audiences are watching and so are Oscar voters.

Anthony Bonato

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