Sidney Perkowitz July 17 2023

Can AI select great science films?


AI chatbots can apparently do everything from straightforward tasks like planning a vacation to complex and creative ones like writing film scripts. What I haven’t seen is chatbots selecting and reviewing films. Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB already provide reviews and audience ratings about feature films including science fiction. But sites like Labocine Spotlights that particularly review independent films about science are scarce. I decided to see if chatbots could fill this lack by selecting some worthwhile underappreciated science-based films.

Using Open AI’s ChatGPT-4, Microsoft’s Bing, and Google’s Bard, I experimented with prompts until I got good results. Requests to list the all-time “ten best science-based films” yielded mostly science fiction. But when I requested the "best independent films that are not science fiction and not made in Hollywood that are about real scientific topics,” the result was a total of 51 films released between 1982 and 2019, many of them new to me. Most of the choices were valid. They cover science and tech or their impact in fields from elementary particles to psychology, in documentary or dramatic formats.

The Labocine archive holds seventeen of these films. One particular cluster stands out. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) is an early documentary about the oncoming threat of climate change; The Age of Stupid (Franny Armstrong, 2009) mixes dramatic, documentary, and animation formats to examine how we view climate change; and the experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982), tackles the wider but related issue of how human technology interacts with the natural world. These three provide a mini-history of climate change and our evolving attitudes toward it.

Though scientists had long seen signs of human-caused climate change, it first gained wide attention after the United Nations formed its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 and the Earth Summit met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 1982, Koyaansqatsi preceded these events but a comment from its director Godfrey Reggio shows that the film treats a bigger issue that includes climate change. “It's not,” he said, “that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe ...” Another clue is the film’s title, the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Koyaansqatsi shows how humanity’s industrial and technological way of life is mismatched to a natural world with different processes and rhythms. Human-caused climate change is one result. Without dialogue or plot, Koyaansqatsi illustrates this collision through striking visuals and a strong musical score by minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)

The films 87 minutes open with close-ups of ancient Paleo-Indian rock art in Utah, then shifts to the launch of a Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11. This is followed by scenes showing raw nature without people, mixed with scenes of humanity altering nature and inhabiting busy urban environments. Rugged desert crags, billowing clouds, and turbulent water contrast with images of mining and oil drilling, skyscrapers and housing projects, and endless streams of vehicles hurrying day and night, intensified by a propulsive score. Industry and technology in our lives appear as we see auto assembly lines, food processing, and microchips, while slow motion and time-lapse cinematography show dense crowds of mostly unsmiling people frantically scurrying or walking a slow dream-like pace in their cities. The final shots show another rocket launch, this time ending in an explosion, and again, the Utah rock art.

One particular moment in Koyaansqatsi is a metaphor for the power of nature and for climate change itself; it shows towering human structures looking puny beneath an unimaginably huge bank of ominous dark clouds. In contrast to evocative visuals like this, An Inconvenient Truth delivers in detail what was known and projected about climate change in 2006 as related by former U. S. Vice-President Al Gore. This 97 minute-long film won an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Documentary Feature and is among the all-time highest grossing documentaries. Most important, it is credited with globally increasing public awareness of climate change.

In the film, Gore addresses a live audience about climate change, talking informally and sometimes humorously but with great concern. His mission to tell this story, he says, began in college. It was further motivated by his family history and his political experience in watching factions in government and industry minimize the problem and even use propaganda to deny its reality. Gore also explains the greenhouse effect and uses graphs and images to demonstrate that climate change is human-caused and show its consequences such as rising sea levels and an increase in violent weather. The film delivers accurate science in easy-to-grasp form, enlivened by clips of real events and a scene from “The Simpsons.” Gore ends by telling his audience, and all of us, that we already have the means to stop climate change, if we can find the individual commitment and political will to do so.

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

More than An Inconvenient Truth, The Age of Stupid treats climate change with passion and urgency. It immediately sets a harsher tone with its setting in the ruined world of 2055, where climate change has flooded London, burnt the Amazon rainforest, and set Sydney afire. In a last outpost of civilization, an unnamed Archivist (Pete Postlethwaite) examines film clips and animations from the era when the climate threat was being recognized, to understand what has brought our planet and us to this bleak condition. Some clips describe our utter dependence on oil, the fossil fuel whose use produces atmospheric CO2, and the unwillingness of people and society to reduce that use. Other scenes introduce real people whose lives are affected by the need for oil and the resulting climate change.

These include Layefa, a Nigerian woman whose own life and her nation both suffer environmental and economic harm as Big Oil extracts Nigeria’s reserves; the French mountain guide Fernand, who can now only show visitors a fast-disappearing glacier near Chamonix; Piers and Lisa, an English couple who want to combat climate change, but find that Piers’s plan to erect clean energy wind turbines is rejected by the community because they will “spoil the landscape;” and Alvin, an American ecologist and environmentalist who lost his New Orleans home to flooding by Hurricane Katrina, the kind of violent weather that climate change engenders, and who works for an oil company he considers environmentally friendly. Alvin gives the film its title when he calls our misuse of resources for more than a century the “Age of Stupid.”

The Age of Stupid (Franny Armstrong, 2009)

Looking back at these and other stories, in 2055 the film’s future Archivist can only state this grim epitaph for humanity: “Why didn't we save ourselves when we had the chance? Is the answer: because, on some level, we weren't sure if we'd be worth saving?” That epitaph may still apply. It’s true that factors like the growing use of solar and wind energy have reduced the rate of atmospheric carbon emission. But the climate denial noted in An Inconvenient Truth and The Age of Stupid still operates, and binding global pacts about carbon emissions remain to be hammered out. Meanwhile, events in the summer of 2023 inspire headlines like “Floods, Heat, Smoke: The Weather Will Never Be Normal Again” that suggest we are nearing a true tipping point. We can only hope we are also not entering a new Age of Stupid.

AIs don’t care about climate change. But in selecting these three films, AIs brought me back to my earlier viewings of Koyaanisqatsi and An Inconvenient Truth, and introduced me to The Age of Stupid. These interactions reawakened my own human concerns, and left me hopeful that properly used, AI can be an effective film critic and a force for good.

Sidney Perkowitz is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus, Emory University, US. His latest books are A Short Introduction to Physics and Science Sketches: the Universe from Different Angles.