Hello everyone and welcome to another post in the series about biological topics in movies and TV series. You can find a link to the previous post right here. My intention with these is to clarify different claims made in various movies and TV shows I watched, and also to share perhaps some surprising facts mentioned in them. If you’d like for me to watch something specific, please let me know (I’m currently preparing another post focused on the German TV show “Biohackers”). So let’s start with some extremely popular offenders.
Friends – “Lobsters mate for life” In a classical Friends episode, Phoebe claims that lobsters mate for life. They don’t. There are some animals that remain monogamous for life, such as wolves, swans, penguins, and barn owls, but lobsters are not one of them; in fact, male lobsters actually change mates frequently during the mating season.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire During the famous scene in which professor Moody tortures the amblypygi (of species Damon diadema; Amblypygi belong to class Arachnida) with the Cruciatus curse, poor creature starts to squeal in pain, but can amblypyg actually make that sort of sounds? As it turns out, some species of spiders (which also belong to class Arachnida ) can tap on the surface or even vibrate (again, on certain surfaces) to make mating calls or communicate, but the type of screech depicted in the movie, under the spell or not, is physiologically impossible.
The Alienist – “Butterflies inflict pain during the coitus” While I’m still on the topic of invertebrates, let’s divulge into this one. Now, pain is the subject of many definitions, but assuming it’s just an unpleasant physical stimulus, the question is raised whether insects can actually feel it? Until recently, researchers agreed that insects can feel nociception, which is the response to life-threatening stimuli, but most agreed that they don’t feel the pain like we do. A recent study, however, showed that fruit-flies could experience a chronic pain-like state, but the science still has a long way to go to conclusively show if insects can or cannot feel pain. Do butterflies feel pain when mating? Possible, but it seems that, until more evidence comes to light, it’s highly unlikely.
Rouge – “Lions are not afraid of fire” This fun but quite forgettable B flick starring Megan Fox and a CGI lioness off-handedly mentioned that lions are, in fact, not afraid of fire. That didn’t sound right with me so I searched for it and it seems like it’s true. Apparently, not only they’re not afraid but like to check out what’s happening around the campfire. I would like to point out, however, that most of the web-sites are literally copying the same sentence about it, verbatim, and I didn’t find where it originated.
Did you notice similar misinformation or surprisingly correct information in popular movies and TV shows? Please let me know in the comments below, I love reading about movie mistakes!
I already wrote couple of posts on this topic, and today I’m focusing on several examples from movies and TV shows I’ve recently watched. The movies I’m going to write about are Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, The Good Liar, Charlie’s Angels (2019 version), and Paranoid TV show. So, if you are planning to watch those, just a warning that there will probably be spoilers below!
Let’s start with the obvious and amusing misportrayal: in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003 movie), Lara is riding sharks in the opening sequence. I think no one would believe this is actually possible, but shark petting videos recently became very popular. However, many researches are strongly discouraging this type of behaviour.
The Good Liar (2019 movie) is an interesting thriller with really good cast that I actually enjoyed. Without giving out too much of the plot, I’ll just mention one scene where Helen Mirren’s character gives the haircut to the character played by Ian McKellen. She uses cut hair for the DNA analysis, factually linking McKellen’s character for the past crimes. Of course, we all know that without the root, there is no DNA to analyze, right? Not quite. Most companies that do DNA analysis require hair with follicles in order to extract DNA for analysis; however, they mostly deal with paternities, so they need the nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, apparently can be extracted from the hair itself. For the movie’s purposes, I think nuclear DNA was needed, so this seems like a movie mistake. But, recently scientists did manage to successfully extract nuclear DNA from rootless hair, but that DNA is often fragmented and complicated to extract. I would also just like to mention that I believe this movie explains trauma and coping surprisingly well for a Hollywoood movie.
In Charlie’s Angels (2019 movie), which I hoped would be more enjoyable than it was, a very interesting premise was introduced; in order to effortlessly communicate, members of the team get a certain tattoo (at least I think it’s a tattoo, but don’t 100% quote me on that) and they can hear thanks to it. So, my first thought was, wow, they really went sci-fi on this one, but it sounded too out there. And then I remembered bone conduction. Simply, bone conduction allows you to hear the transmission, without blocking the outside sounds. And yes, only you can hear it. There are headphones already in use for this type of thing, and they can be also used to help with some kinds of hearing impairments. These headphones are placed on the skull, and I haven’t seen it implemented in a tattoo yet, but it’s actually a neat idea.
Paranoid (2016 TV show) is, in my opinion, really bad, despite only tangential connection to Biology. This show feel anti-medication and anti-psychiatrists, portrays them in a very bad light, and chooses not to mention how much medications and psychotherapy are actually helping people. The premise is also built on one of the cliche “anti-big pharma” representations. I was honestly insulted, despite not working in any of these fields. There is a also a subplot concerning a female character who had provocative photos of her taken 15 years ago, and she is not longer in possession of said photos; she is blackmailed with the possibility of leaking those. Her love interest immediately accuses her of things I won’t write here, but you get the main idea. I mean, am I the only one who sees this as highly problematic This TV show is doing some serious damage to the health care, it is insulting to physicians, it is insulting to patients, and I honestly can’t believe that no one during the whole production didn’t say anything.
I hope you like these kind of posts, because I already have enough material for another one (there are a lot of Biology & science mistakes on the big screen). What is your favourite movie mistake related to Biology?
Couple of weeks ago, as I was driving to classes, I saw a big billboard that showed couple of people and a word “FORTITUDE”. At first, I thought it was some kind of fantasy drama, but after looking it up, it turned out to be crime related TV show starring actors I like. And as a true crime buff who enjoys all crime related content, I decided to watch it. After all, if it stars Christopher Eccleston (the best Doctor Who) and Stanley Tucci, it must be great, right?
Well, not quite – there are parts of the series that I loved, especially ones regarding biology, despite some of them being naively incorrect. Other parts were not so well executed, but today I want to focus mainly on biology (obviously). Fortitude, the name of the show, is also a name of the imaginary town on an island in polar circle. As it is in small towns, they have a doctor, police force, one hotel, some houses, and many secrets. Oh, and research centre, of course!
In the first episode, we see a scene where hungry polar bear eats a person. Also, we are introduced to an ambitious post-doc whose research focuses on apex predators; he has a theory that due to environmental changes, predators change their behaviour and develop cannibalistic urges (yes, there was some talk about bear eating another bear). Also, they make a point of making fun of him because he researched that in Britain, where badgers are only the predators. I don’t know why was that supposed to be funny, because I’d rather encounter a wolf than a badger, but I decided to let that one slide. Another story-line follows two children, a boy and a girl, who find a mammoth tooth; this boy later develops mumps-like symptoms and frostbite on his feet (he wandered off); there is also a murder of The Ninth Doctor, and we are led to believe that the murderer was father of the girl who found the mammoth tooth. Why, you may ask? Because he didn’t want to surrender the thawed carcass but sell it to The Ninth. And due to global warming, the carcass has already started to thaw.
Now, that immediately rang a bell; old preserved animal, suspicious disease… Despite some lazy writing, I continued to watch the series, despite not being really satisfied with the direction of it; some of the characters were very well characterized, especially Richard Dormer’s Sheriff, but I generally dislike series where everyone is cheating on everyone with anyone – it feels as if writers think that’s the only way to induce tension and drama. Also, Sheriff’s obsession with one female character was a bit too much – this amount of stalking and re-reading her files is not normal and has no place in adult behaviour. And he’s kind off supposed to be a good guy in the end. I digress, because this post is about biology.
The aforementioned boy ends up first in the hospital, and then in the research centre where they are developing a method to treat frostbite. Not a lot has been said about this, so I can’t actually comment on it, apart from the fact that he’s being held sedated, in a tank, where it’s not exactly clear how they feed him (I haven’t noticed any openings for infusion pipes). Also, who’s caring for him in the research centre? Someone has to wash him and change him every day, but they made it a point that he’s not supposed to be woken up, due to frostbite pain. So, not exactly biology, but big mistake anyway.
Also, at one point, their only doctor is almost murdered (by her own daughter who developed symptoms similar to the boy and then died due to heart failure) and they have to preform a lumbar puncture on the boy. Again, why you may ask? Well, during the autopsy of murderous daughter, the post-doc and his veterinary boss discovered some molecules; some anti-bodies and IgE. And immediately they developed the theory that this was some different kind of disease that turns people into murderers. Which wouldn’t been such problems, apart that IgE’s are the common antibodies that could indicated allergy of some sort? And in their research lab, they don’t have electronic microscopes, which are used to see viruses? A mess. That’s the only word I can use to describe this plot jumps, a big headache-inducing mess. However, let’s go back to the lumbar puncture. Doctor, I presume general practitioner, is incapable of helping, since she’s basically on her death-bed. So a post-doc and his boss decide to do the lumbar puncture, because why not? (Hint: NO.) They do it perfectly, but before it, they ask the boy’s mother for permission, because lumbar puncture is painful. (Hint: It’s not! Headache that comes after is painful, but the puncture itself doesn’t actually hurt. Source: been there, done that.) Anyway, boy’s spinal fluid doesn’t show presence of whatever thing they were looking for, which de facto labels him a murderer of The Ninth Doctor (excuse me?), despite having positive anti-bodies in his blood, which indicated that he might have had that mysterious disease. My only comment is, no, it doesn’t work like that, and please everyone stop thinking that you understand immunology, especially when we have specialized doctors who spend their lives learning about our immune system.
Anyway, back to the mammoth carcass, and the rest of mammoths that are thawing on this island. I would just like to say that there are also some Russians involved in the whole story (they work in a mine), the Governor wants to make an ice hotel on a glacier (I’m not kidding – on. a. glacier.), and literally everyone has a secret and/or secret agenda.
Well, before mammoths, let’s talk about one thing they got right, and that’s IgE – it gives us immunity to various parasites. And as it turns out, the mammoths were infected, just not with a virus, but parasitic wasp. Basically, larvae survived in mammoths, and were now making humans their hosts – since they were as old as mammoths, the humans didn’t actually have some real defenses against them. This is also definitely confirmed after post-doc finds some live wasps in the doctor (he then sets the whole room on fire, in order not to get infected or allow the wasps to find new hosts – yes, he survives).
Ichneumonidae, also known as Darwin wasps, are indeed parasitic wasps with 25 000 described species. Honestly, I think they were a very good choice for the main bad guys in the series, and were quite well described. Basically, these wasps reproduce in a bit gruesome way – they lay their eggs into a living host, which is then eaten by newly-formed larvae. Apart from this family, there also exists another similar wasp, called Emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa). This wasp, of the family Ampulicidae, injects cockroaches with it’s eggs; the peculiarity is that the wasp also injects the cockroach with the toxin directly in thoracic and cerebral ganglia, which prevents cockroach to move, effectively turning it into a zombie. It was explained that this is what happened in the Fortitude as well, the wasp larvae have taken control of human bodies, and they turned on people closest to them, when they felt threatened.
All in all, I wouldn’t call Fortitude’s first season exceptionally bad, but I wouldn’t exactly call it good. They had some excellent moments, and the mammoth-wasp story-line was, in my opinion, on point, but was often overshadowed by multiple story-lines that don’t necessary bring anything to the overall plot. If you want to watch something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, and can overlook some of the obvious biological mistakes, I would recommend it. However, I think it’s time that filmmakers educate themselves, or ask for help, when tackling topics they don’t quite understand. (I read on Wikipedia that the writer did consult a parasitologist, which is probably why that part of the story functioned well; I don’t know why they didn’t do it for the other aspects of biology in the show.)
So, what do you think? Should we focus more on biology being correctly represented in popular media? Did you watch Fortitude – if yes, what did you think about it? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
Hello everyone, and welcome to my new post! Yes, I’ve decided to try and write more often, and this time I will do a bit of self-promotion. As you may, or may not, know, I love watching movies – I think they are great past-time and I find them relaxing. Lately, I have had some troubles concentrating for more than an hour, but for now I would like to think that’s because I wasn’t choosing good movies to begin with. What does that have anything to do with neuroscience?
Well, apart from writing this blog, I also write and edit for Gyrus Journal. Gyrus is student journal of neuroscience, where we write review articles about different topics: basic neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. I have written some articles, and if you stumble across them, don’t judge me too hard – they are meant to teach us how to search databases, cite, and write in English, since our mother-tongue is Croatian. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this journal, since it helped me a lot in understanding of many scientific terms in English language, primary language of science; it also helped me to learn how to communicate with my authors, as well as how to dissect a topic I’m supposed to write/edit about. Of course, we also have reviewers, wonderful professors and scientists from University of Zagreb, who do the last editing before publication. (I would just like to say that we didn’t have reviewers from the very beginning, hence why some of the earlier articles perhaps lack in quality.) Lately, we have been struggling a bit with latest editions, but started to publish articles online – you can access them all on the link above. You can also follow us on Facebook page as well as Twitter!
In Gyrus Journal, you will also find shorter articles and movie&book reviews, where title of this post finally comes in play! So far, I have written five movie reviews, with three still waiting to be published. For my first one, I picked the obvious choice: Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan. Apart from being one of my favourite movies in general, I think it truthfully portrays anterograde amnesia.
In addition to portraying Leonard’s fragile mental state that makes us question not only his current objectives, but also whether his recollections of past are reliable, or simply figments of his imagination and almost fatalistic wishes, Memento is different in comparison with other films of similar genre, simply because it truthfully portrays the slow agony of losing the principal neurobiological process – a human memory.
The second review I did was about movie that might not seem so obvious, but was quite intriguing: Side Effects (2013) starring Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This movie also has a crime aspects but it deals with the psychiatric illness, for which we don’t know, until the very end, if it’s real or faked.
Although dealing with semi-real thesis, the question still remains how the movie influenced real world cases. Did it help with recognizing the ones feigning the illness, or just put extra strain on the patients dealing with the illness that is already under deep historical stigma? Regardless of being the rather entertaining thriller, we are left wondering whether the movie deepened the negative view of the various psychiatric illnesses in the general public.
Three, still unpublished, reviews are:
100 Minutes of Glory (in Croatian) – a biopic about famous Croatian painter Slava Raškaj, who was born deaf, suffered from depression, and lived her last days in Psychiatric hospital “Vrapče”. In Croatian, title of the movie is also a wordplay on Croatian word “slava”, her name; it’s literal translation to English is “glory”
A Different Brain – famed documentary by Loius Theroux; it follows four patients who suffered through some sort of traumatic brain injury and consequences it brings
Still Alice – movie that earned Julianne Moore an Academy Award for Best Actress, Still Alice is a touching but often times difficult story about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease
What about you? Do you like watching movies – which ones are your favourite? If you watched any of these, please tell me what you think! I would love to discuss movies with you & I’m really interested what you watch in your free time 🙂