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An Article from the March 2004 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article

The author of this article is the editor of JOM.
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Feature: Materials World

The Reel Thing: One Editor’s List of Great Material Moments in the Movies

James J. Robinson


EXPERIMENTAL PROCEDURES

  1. I will only discuss films that I’ve seen. So, the list is only as good as my movie-going habits. (Uh-oh, I think that I’m revealing too much about myself already.) On the up side, I’m a movie buff going way back (as my couch and cable bill can tell you), so I’ve seen a lot; too much, actually.
  2. We must all accept that list making is an unscientific and contentious affair. If you disagree with the choices, no problem. Tomorrow, I’d probably write the list differently myself; and differently again the day after tomorrow.
  3. All of the films must be available on DVD. If you are moved to see any of them, I urge you to see them in the best available medium.
  4. The films had to be U.S. productions. This was the toughest call and means that you won’t find such worthy inclusions as The Man in the White Suit (U.K.) and The Structure of Crystals (Poland). Sorry.
  5. The materials and associated technologies presented can be either real or fanciful. They must, however, be presented in a credible context, meaning that the viewer can reasonably suspend his or her disbelief.
  6. I wanted a top ten list, but I’ve left myself the wiggle room to cite more than ten files by “partnering” certain highly complementary selections.

Editor’s note: I feel compelled to apologize for my clear lapses of taste and judgment in indulging the author’s desire to engage in florid persiflage, dubious digression, and continuous colloquialism. As for the content, let us simply allow that film commentary is rarely the realm of scholars, and that no persuasive evidence to the contrary is presented in this month’s issue.

Author’s note: If you visit the web version of this article, you will find a bonus supplement (just like a DVD). This special feature comprises web links to, among other things, movie trailers, theremin music, and (my favorite) a discussion of the amusing—and cautionary—fiasco of undisposable Flubber.

WHY MOVIES IN A “MATERIALS” JOURNAL?

Let me explain: Why not?

Who among us didn’t thrill to Luke Skywalker barreling through the “trench” of the Death Star or feel a catch in our throats when Lassie finally came home? Was anyone unmoved by the extremes of humanity and inhumanity of Schindler’s List or the dreadful opening moments of Saving Private Ryan? Movies have the power to capture our imaginations, fuel our anxiety, elevate our adrenaline, wrench our emotions, and spur us into action. In many ways, they have become the commonplaces of our culture.

What movies rarely do, however, is provide us an opportunity to marvel at the scope and complexity of materials science and engineering.

Ah, but “rare” does not mean “never,” and there are a handful of films that have great materials moments even if the movies themselves do not always, if ever, attain greatness. To be sure, materials never have the starring role, but they oftentimes have the power to amaze, awe, and accomplish fantastic feats.

Before pushing the “play” button on the countdown, however, I encourage you to first review the ground rules that I employed in filtering through the nominees. Some of them may seem arbitrary (and they are), but they all serve to give me a manageable structure in which to operate. As with any good article, these parameters are outlined in the Experimental Procedures section. Okay, enough with the introductory blah, blah, blah. Let’s get on with the show.

THE VIEWING ROOM

10. The Graduate (1967)

I despise The Graduate. Not because it is a bad movie; far from it as it’s a terrific and witty coming-of-age story. I hate it because of that damn Simon & Garfunkel song. The one that nearly everyone that I’ve met since the second grade has sung to me at least once. You know: “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo.” Phoo, phoo, phooey.

But I digress. The reason it makes the list is for the single word of advice that an obnoxious guest gives our hero (Dustin Hoffmann) during his college graduation party. “I’ve got one word for you: Plastics.” It gets a big laugh and is one of the two or three lines of dialog that everyone remembers. That’s good enough to include director Mike Nichols’ movie here.

Plus, it was good advice.

9. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Now we’re talking about a truly great movie: John Huston directing and Humphrey Bogart at his everyman best. The story is simple: Three honorable but poor expatriate Americans are stranded in Mexico, looking for work but not too proud to settle for handouts. Desperate to escape their downward circumstances, they pool their meager resources and set off to prospect for gold—the fourth and most Machiavellian of principal characters. Fortunate enough to find a rich strike and tough enough to work it (lots of slurry action here), the miners gradually succumb to greed, mistrust, and, ultimately, violence as we relearn that there is no such thing as enough if there is more to be had. Best materials (and most ironic) moment? The finale as Bogart’s “goods”—his blood-stained gold dust—is unknowingly trampled back into the Mexican sand. There is also a worthy environmental message. Says Howard (Walter Huston), the wisest of the prospectors: “We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.”

8. Superman (1978) and X-Men (2000)

In Richard Donner’s Superman (Christopher Reeve), we see the best on-screen rendering of green kryptonite, the one substance that can kill the nearly invulnerable Man of Steel. Undoubtedly the best-known of all fantasy (and maybe real) minerals, kryptonite is irradiated rock from Superman’s home world, Krypton. After the explosion of that doomed planet, chunks of the debilitating substance meteored (literally) throughout the universe. In the film, Lex Luthor tries to kill Superman with one such souvenir. The red-caped wonder is incapacitated for a lengthy period but is rescued in time to save the day. The film also scores materials points with some nifty crystalline structures, which seem to be the preferred architectural design (and data-storage medium) for both Krypton and Superman’s earthly Fortress of Solitude.

Metallurgy is of much greater significance in X-Men, which is based on a sprawling 40-year mythology from the extremely popular series of Marvel comics. In x-treme brief, the X-Men are mutants, each with a unique superpower. These good mutants, while shunned by a suspicious general public, endeavor to protect the unappreciative human populace from evil mutants who really do want to take over the world. The chief bad mutant is Magneto, a World War II concentration camp survivor who can effortlessly command all things metallic. The most intriguing X-Man is ill-tempered Wolverine, who has the power of rapid healing. This benign gift made him an ideal subject for evil government tests that clad his skeletal structure with a virtually indestructible alloy called admantium. They also gave him a set of roughly foot-long admantium claws that he can push out of his fists at will. Very ouchy.

Top materials moment: When Magneto effortlessly rends a train passenger car, elevates Wolverine, and bends his admantium claws. This is one mutant that our favorite X-Man can’t beat.

7. Goldfinger (1964)

In my book, the third James Bond movie to star Sean Connery—Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger—is the best of the series and features the best of the Bond villains: Auric Goldfinger (even his first and last names suggest precious metal). Unlike so many Bond villains, Goldfinger is uninterested in geopolitical destabilization or world domination. Instead, he’s a criminal who loves gold and wants to increase the value of his personal stock. How to do this? Simple, explode a nuclear weapon inside Fort Knox, thereby irradiating the U.S. gold supply and rendering it worthless. Metallurgically, we see that Goldfinger smuggles gold by fabricating golden replacement parts for his Rolls Royce. (That’s some expensive car!) We also get a glimpse at the gold stores inside Fort Knox, a fight with gold bars, and a documentary-style observation of a car being crushed into a cube at a scrap yard. The best material moment, however, is when Goldfinger has Bond strapped to a gold table in his foundry for purposes of bisecting the superspy with an industrial laser. Just another day at the metal works.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Forbidden Planet (1956)

No discussion of materials in the movies would be complete without some discussion of the Star Trek universe. Star Trek, in its many incarnations (six television series, ten theatrical features, countless books), has inspired nearly two generations to pursue careers in science and technology. I bet that very few engineers working on the Mars rovers can’t give the Vulcan greeting.

While the best materials technology in Star Trek is reserved for the television series (e.g., the legendary dilithium crystals), one notable exception occurs in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (directed by Leonard Nimoy). It largely takes place on 20th century Earth courtesy of an incursion into the time-space continuum. The environmentally themed plot deals with the core regulars (Kirk, Spock, etc.) trying to take a pair of whales back to the future to save the Earth from imminent destruction. (Don’t ask why.) To transport the tonnes o’whale and supporting seawater, the crew needs to retrofit a Klingon ship with a Plexiglas holding tank. To get the Plexiglas, every engineer’s hero, Scotty, makes a trade with a materials supplier by giving the formula for transparent aluminum. Best materials moment: A quick view of the formula on a computer screen.

While Star Trek is world-renowned, few people are familiar with the film that was a central inspiration for the series. Fred McLeod’s Forbidden Planet (based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest) tells the story of a 23rd century United Planets cruiser that has been dispatched to the planet Altair-IV to check on the status of an Earth colony that had been established there 20 years earlier. They soon discover that all but one of the original colonists is dead, killed by a mysterious “planetary force.” The force has spared one scientist (Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon), his teen-age daughter, and a marvelous robot named Robby. Ultimately, it is revealed that Altair-IV was once home to an intellectually, socially, and technologically superior race called the Krell. Marvels of the Krell include such decidedly un-1950s concepts as nanotechnology (Robby is able to reproduce any substance on an atom-by-atom basis), holograms (Morbius can conjure a three-dimensional projection of anything that he can envision), and computers (represented by a view screen that can summon all of the stored knowledge of the Krell).

My favorite materials moment, however, deals with Krell metal, which, says Morbius, has molecules that are “many times more densely interlocked than earthly steel, though it drinks up energy like a sponge.” An energy creature that is attempting to slay our heroes must first penetrate 66 cm of Krell metal. As the creature applies more and more energy toward breaching the barrier, a bank of limitless gages, each of which shows an exponential increase in the amount of energy expended by the creature, illuminate one after the other. In moments, as more and more dials illuminate, the metal goes from gray, to red, to white, to liquid. Cool.

5. Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002)

These two films, both based on novels by Philip K. Dick, are sci-fi noir, taking a thoughtfully dark look at humanity against the backdrop of a not-so-unthinkable future.

Drawn from the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner ruminates on what it means to be human. Here, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are left to wonder which is more human: people or the machines that they create. In Blade Runner, the machines are called replicants; they are androids that are all-but indistinguishable from people. These machines, programmed with feelings and memories, are treated like a slave race and are limited in their aspirations by artificially shortened life spans. Our hero (played by Harrison Ford) hunts a group of runaway replicants and learns much about himself in the process.

The materials moment of note here takes place in a biomaterials lab where the most dangerous (human?) of the rebel replicants meets his maker.

While Blade Runner occurs in a somewhat distant future, Minority Report could occur within our lifetimes. Here, technology has evolved to the point that it is possible to predict crimes before they happen. The criminals to-be are arrested and prosecuted based on what they are about to do rather than what they actually do. In making Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg convened a group of 23 futurists for a three-day think-tank session to envision the look, feel, and technologies of a future 50 years hence. Widespread wireless, omnipresent computer technology, ubiquitous electronic materials, and just-in-time manufacturing are a few of the technologies on display. Best materials moment: The mentally powered laser-forming of blank spheres to clue detectives about an impending crime.

4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Given the opportunity, I can gush endlessly about J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and director Peter Jackson’s faithful adaptation of the seemingly inadaptable work. For a change, however, I’ll use restraint.

In making these films, the production team commissioned hundreds of artisans, craftsmen, and metal workers to hand craft authentic weapons, armor, shields, buckles, etc. so that every frame of the fantasy film would look fantastically real. The result: Never before has metal felt so palpable in a film. We witness countless warriors clad in all manner of armor with glinting weapons. We see fiery furnaces as evil orcs pour, heat, and beat swords, plate, and helmets to wage war. We glimpse mithral (in the form of chain mail), a metal of incredible lightness, unequaled strength, and great rarity.

Favorite material moment in the first film? Easy: The Ring of Power. This dark precious can give ultimate power to the enemy and can enslave the minds of free peoples. We watch it cast in the prologue and see how its inscription can only be coaxed out of hiding when held in fire.


GRATUITOUS TECHNICAL CONTENT
While movies that spotlight materials are rare, film in and of itself is all about materials magic.

The composition of celluloid is simple enough—take strips of cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, or polyester, coat with a gelatin containing silver salts and, maybe, dyes if you insist on color, and then varnish to taste. Stimulate the resulting photosensitivity with a little light, and voila: le cinema.

Like many of our favorite materials systems, film is subject to a variety of environmental and chemical attacks. Too much heat, too little ventilation, too much moisture—just about anything but the images recorded—can contribute to destroying good and bad movies with equal efficiency. The nitrate-based films in particular are a moody lot, as they begin to decay as soon as they are produced. Eventually, nitrate film emits nasty NO2, HNO2, and HNO3 gases (which accelerate the decay of any nearby film as well). With more time, the film discolors, becomes adhesive, bonds into a solid mass (think the Blob), and reduces into a highly combustible and explosive brown powder. (Talk about an action movie!) Meanwhile, acetate films, while not immune to degradation (being especially vulnerable to shrinkage and embrittlement), have the good taste to resist blowing up in a temperamental moment.

The field of film preservation is a fascinating one, having attracted considerable attention in recent years as organizations scramble to both save and restore these flicking windows into our past. Surprising fact: Only about 20% of all silent-era films have survived to today. The rest are lost, rotted, or (as befits a materials system) recycled for the silver content.

For those who find film far too quaint for our digital era, let us give praise to the wonders of the DVD. Now we’re talking the JOM side of the street: Laser beams and photoresists; vacuums and nickel sputtering; electroforming in nickel sulfate solution; the injection molding of polycarbonate; more sputtering, this time with aluminum or gold. Toss in some ultraviolet lacquer bonding, and we have a disk ready for a DVD player near you. That’s a lot of advanced technology to deploy so that the kids can watch Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (again and again) with crystal clarity.

As for the technology deployed in the other movie-viewing staple—the videotape—who cares? It is rapidly devolving into a relic of a bygone era.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

While metals play a key supporting role in The Lord of the Rings films, they take center stage in the Terminator movies, especially the second and arguably best of the three. It is as if director James Cameron, who is well known as a techno-geek in his own right, is something of a closet metallurgist. The story involves world-dominating machines of the future sending a robot killer (a terminator) to present-day Los Angeles to murder the boy who will grow up to lead a rebellion that will overthrow the genocidal machine rule. Human rebels of the future send back a less-sophisticated terminator who has been reprogrammed to protect the boy. Metal mayhem follows.

It is a tremendous action film that helped introduce the now widespread utilization of computer imagery to make the unimaginable look perfectly real. The main marvel is the seemingly indestructible “bad” terminator, which is a “polymimetic” machine of liquid metal alloy that can reshape itself endlessly into any non-mechanical form that it can sample. The nearly-as-indestructible “ good” terminator is a titanium alloy brute in the form of the current governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Favorite materials moment: Bunches, all in the climax, which occurs in a steel mill. The liquid metal terminator is temporarily solidified with liquid nitrogen before being blasted into a million brittle bits. He recovers, of course, before meeting his ultimate end in real liquid metal, a heat of steel. The governor terminator soon follows so that his technology cannot be mined for future wrong doing. Touching in a decidedly guy way.

2. The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

Thirty years before James Cameron gave us the polymimetic alloy, Walt Disney gave us Flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor. Flubber, or “flying rubber,” is a marvelous and malleable substance that was inadvertently invented by Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) of Medfield College while experimenting in his garage laboratory. After a good, old-fashioned laboratory explosion, the professor discovers that this Silly-Putty-ish elastic not only conserves all of its kinetic energy in a collision but it also absorbs additional kinetic energy. Hence, a bouncing ball of Flubber will only go higher with each bounce. As we learn in the film, this is a handy quality for helping the college basketball team (whose shoes have been treated with the stuff) beat its rival. It also enables the professor to retrofit his Model T with a Flubber-powered engine that gives the vehicle anti-gravity properties (rather like the gravity-repelling cavorite of H.G. Wells The First Men in the Moon). Best materials moment: the professor’s amazed and bemused expression while watching his nascent creation ricocheting about the laboratory for the first time.

Some snarky readers (students in particular) might say that the character of Professor Brainard was near documentary-like in its portrayal of a forgetful genius professor at work. Perhaps, but a true documentarian’s look at an imaginative, but far from imaginary, genius inventor is the subject of our top film.

1. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993)

In my experience, every good list has a certain “Huh?” element that serves as a great conversation starter. I’ve saved mine for the top spot. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey differs from all of the other films on this list in that it is a documentary. As a true story, it is more fantastical than all of the other films on this list combined.

Made by director Steve Martin, the film introduces us to Leonard Theremin (Lev Sergeivitch Termen). Theremin was a scientist, engineer, musician, performer, bon vivant, political prisoner, professor, and, some say, spy.

Born in 1896, Theremin, who was long interested in electricity and music, became a member of Russia’s Physico-Technical Institute in 1920. While measuring electrical capacity changes in gases of different densities at different temperatures by using headphones rather than a voltameter, he found that he could control the pitch of the sound by moving his hands toward and away from the device. From this observation, he built the theremin, a musical instrument that looks like a plain wooden box with a pair of antennae positioned from the top and side at a right angle. The theremin sets up low-power, high-frequency electromagnetic fields around the antennae, one of which controls pitch and the other volume. The musician literally plays the air around the antennae and sounds (hopefully musical) result.

Most of us know the theremin as the eerie woo-aah-woo music that sometimes appears in science fiction films of the 1950s. It is also distinctly heard in the Beach Boys classic song “ Good Vibrations.”

With his invention, Theremin gave public performances, gained the favorable attention of Vladimir Lenin, and was sent on a successful tour of the West to demonstrate this new technology. Theremin found New York City’s fast-paced, artistically minded culture to his liking and by the end of the 1920s, was living there. Here, he trained new theremin soloists, struck a deal with RCA to build and market theremins, became a fixture in high society, opened a music and dance studio (in vain hopes of creating a dance performance that could somehow work in tandem with the theremin), built an electronic cello, and defied conventions by marrying an African-American ballet dancer.

In 1938, he vanished.

Some say that Theremin was abducted by the KGB, others say that he was a Soviet spy who left the United States before the outbreak of World War II. Most believed him dead. Whether by choice or duress, Theremin had returned to his homeland in secret and with mixed results. Over the next fifty years, he did stints in Butyrskaya Prison (for anti-Soviet activities) and the Kolyma labor camp. After finding favor once again, he worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Moscow State University.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, friends and family in the West discovered that Theremin was still alive and living in Russia. In 1991, he returned to the United States to some acclaim and died two years later.

All of this and more is captured in Martin’s documentary, including rare archival footage and scientific sketches, interviews with many Theremin associates, a performance by Clara Rockmore (the greatest theremin soloist), and even an interview with the nearly 100-year-old Theremin himself. He is universally credited with being the father of electronic music, and heavily influenced Robert Moog, who invented the landmark Moog synthesizer.

Favorite materials moments are the stuff of the TMS Electronic, Magnetic & Photonics Materials Division. Of course, there is the weirdly wonderful theremin itself, a motion sensor/kidnap prevention/burglar alarm, a low-resolution 1920s television concept, a Soviet bugging device called the buran, and fanciful plans to use magnetism to transport vehicles across rivers.

This film is a worthy inclusion on anyone’s short list of science and technology in the movies.

THE END?

So, there you have it, a top-ten list comprising an even baker’s dozen of movies. Did I miss your favorite? I don’t doubt it. Did I lean too heavily on fantasy films? Probably. Is there room for improvement? Unquestionably. Am I going to write a sequel? That, dear reader, depends on the box office.



WEB-ONLY SUPPLEMENT:
RECOMMENDED BROWSING

If you enjoyed this article (or hated it and would like to find something really interesting to read on the web), you might want to point your browser at one or more of the following:

  • Where Can I Learn More about Film Restoration? There are plenty of sites that are happy to both educate and collect your donations to support the cause. Visit the National Film Preservation Foundation for a nice overview of the field. For good technical details, check out Film Forever.
  • How Can I Manufacture My Own DVDs? The truly serious should take a deep dive into DVD-Makers.com. This robust site contains information for the hobbyist and professional alike.
  • Please, I Must Know Much More about Flubber: If this is true (and I'm worried about you if it is), the web is the place for you. Many sites offer Flubber concoctions, but none have the bounce of the real imaginary thing. Still, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has a dandy Flubber-esque polymer that you can mix up at home with the kids. My favorite Flubber web site, however, is a page at Useless Information that describes Hasbro's wonderfully ill-fated introduction and recall of a Silly-Putty-ish product called Flubber, which the toy-maker released as a tie-in with the movie Son of Flubber (the sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor). It is priceless.
  • Is There Anyone Who Can Tell Me How Films Affect the Public's Perception of Scientists? Have I got the symposium for you: Images of the Sciences and Scientists in Visual Media, which was held in November 2003 at New York University. Based on the abstracts and papers, this is a subject that is taken very seriously.
  • Are There Any Other (Hopefully Better) Lists of Science Films Out There? Loads, but none that focus on materials in the movies. Still, I recommend the following:
    • techtv: This site hosts an amusing article called "Bad Movie Science," which teaches us that movies like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Space Cowboys are deeply flawed in the technology department. I would argue that they are deeply flawed in the good movie department as well.
    • Sci-Fi Science Blunders Hall of Infamy: This entertaining site has the mission of documenting blunders and boners in science fiction television shows and movies and describes the real science that the directors, writers, and producers have overlooked.
    • Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics: The home page says it all: "The motion picture industry has failed to police itself against the evils of bad physics. This page is provided as a public service in hopes of improving this deplorable matter."
    • Top 10 Science Movies: Our chemistry guide at About.com, Anne Marie Helmenstine, has one of web's rare lists of good films with a science component.
  • I'm Desperate to Hear Theremin Music. Help! My pleasure. All things Theremin can be found at Thereminworld.com, including a page with links with Theremin music and videos. Ooooh aaaah ooooh.
  • Tell Me More! Tell Me More! No can do. I have to have some secrets. The truly motivated should now take the time to dig deeper at Google.com.
 

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2004

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