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Unexpected side-effects

I Am Legend

Jennifer Rohn 6 January 2008

SF scourge: measles virus off the rails

Although geeky boffins have been largely exterminated from Hollywood’s world, there is a much more infectious stereotype that lives on

Film scientists have definitely become sexier within my lifetime. After nearly a century of Hollywood’s tiresome parade of mad male boffins with distressed hair and socially maladjusted nerds with poor personal hygiene, it now seems the norm to portray researchers as handsome, even glamorous young men – and women, too. Although geeky pedants still occasionally roam the screens, my unscientific impression of a general sexing-up over the past few decades is backed by research from Sidney Perkowitz in his book Hollywood Science. From Bryronic mathematician Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park to sultry physicist Rachel Weisz in Chain Reaction, many movie scientist characters portray a refreshing lack of the usual suite of unattractive stereotypes normally inflicted on the profession.

It was only a matter of time, then, until Will Smith stepped into the fray. I Am Legend (directed by Francis Lawrence) is the tale of a gene therapy regimen gone horribly wrong, and one man, Dr Robert Neville, who is the last scientist standing. It all starts with Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson), who has the bright idea to cure cancer by altering a measles virus to home in on tumor cells – a strategy, it’s worth noting, that’s being seriously investigated in real life, although measles is not among the vectors (including adenovirus and lentivirus) normally considered. Initially 100% successful, the Krippen virus eventually mutates, becoming contagious and killing off most of the world’s population. The few that don’t succumb are either immune, like Neville, or are transformed into aggressive, hairless vampire-like creatures that cannot withstand sunlight.

Three years on, Neville, stranded in a gloriously unkempt New York City choked with weeds and teeming with escaped zoo animals, labors away in his basement lab to find a cure while trying to avoid becoming vampire bait at night. Smith, for the record, looks great in a white coat. And while he might seem whimsical Above Stairs, blasting through the ruined streets in his Mustang, teeing off on board a moored battleship and populating his favorite DVD rental store with department store mannequins, in the lab he’s all business. Betraying a single-minded, stubborn focus that most real scientists would find familiar, he keeps a meticulous video lab notebook and crunches through dozens of candidate compounds on caged, infected vampire-rats. Any promising drugs go straight to human clinical trials, though it can take all day to trick a vampire human into one of his traps. Needless to say there’s no placebo group. On the whole, though, I was quite satisfied with this portrayal of extreme drug discovery. Of course ultimately I Am Legend is just a vampire thriller movie, with computer generated baddies only thinly disguising a moralizing tale with Noah’s Ark overtones, but it’s satisfying that thought was put into at least some scientific details.

Unfortunately, although geeky boffins have been largely exterminated from Hollywood’s world, there is a much more infectious stereotype that lives on faithfully in I Am Legend. This is, of course, the notion that scientists, no matter how well-meaning, are tampering with nature at their own peril; ultimately, they are bound to lose control of their creations and destroy the world. People often point to the Manhattan Project as the origin of these fears – and who could blame them – but scholars tell us they are in fact several millennia old, showing up as they do in stories and plays from ancient Greece. In short, when man seeks too much knowledge, he is straying into the territory of the gods, who will surely punish him. Scientists devote their lives to discovering as much new knowledge as humanly possible so, by this reckoning, any negative outcome must surely be expected – and deserved.

Of course a killer virus makes a great story, but I for one am waiting for an era when writers will look beyond facile self-destruction as the sole acceptable way to use science in fiction, just as they have finally started to look beyond the physical stereotypes of its practitioners.