Lifelong Learning Programme

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This material reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein

Valid XHTML 1.1 Valid CSS!

Chemistry is all around us
Copyright 2015
This project has been funded with
support from the European Commission

Educational Packages

Chemistry in Science Fiction

Science in Science Fiction


The early science fiction films– as well as their great-grand children of today – show the intertwined relationship between scientific results and discoveries and their influences on the societies as well as on every single human being and the effort to cope with them.

Progress in technical and natural sciences will remain a challenge for humanity and quality of life for everyone, and science fiction films are an efficient medium to get in touch with these fundamental questions. To get involved in the topic offers the opportunity to realize the importance of natural sciences (chemistry included) and the responsibilities of becoming – and being - a scientist or a technician.

In this context, the question of morale is always part of the debate: Should we do what we can do, and if we do, will it be worthwhile?

Science fiction films thus (deliberately or not) reflect the the challenges, problems and opportunities of the times they were made in, as well as the general outlook or point of view concerning scientific developments. In general, the development of science and technology or scientific research (for the good or bad) was a major element in science fiction up to the 50s and 60s.

Surprisingly, most science fiction in that era was not really about “hard” technology (inventing new weapons, new means of transport, new means of making life easier), but rather about “soft” science, the usage and effect of rays and electricity, of drugs, formulas and of course chemistry.

Later, science and technology became rather ornamental in science fiction. That's to say, advanced technology and science (with all those special effects) provided a granted context or background to a story, but did not play a central part of the story itself. This has changed over the last years, especially with regard to new scientific developments, namely computer science (including robotics, artificial intelligence and networks) and genetic engineering. Here again, it is not the hardware that is the focus, but the effect on the environment and especially on human life. Therefore, we shall focus in this topic on the following films:

“Frankenstein” in the original version of 1931 is a black-and-white film, 67 Minutes long. James Whales, a British director who made his professional career in Hollywood, adapted the novel of Mary Shelley. Very often the film is seen as a horror film, but it really can be seen as a classical science fiction film: scientific results are progressed to a certain new status and then put in practice for the first time. The way of directing the film shows the economical, technical and social influences of the early Thirties in the USA as well as world wide.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, 1931, black-and-white, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The film is an adaptation of “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll develops a drug that releases the evil side in himself, and thus becomes the violent Mr. Hyde. Dr Jekyll then becomes addicted to the drug and is not able to control his alter-ego Mr. Hyde.

“The invisible man”, 1933, black-and-white, 68 Minutes, by director James Whales. The film is based on a novel of H.G. Wells. A scientist discovers a chemical formula that makes objects invisible. As he does not know the side effects of the formula – triggering madness – he is slowly loosing control and morale. He turns into a thief, arsonist and at last into a murderer.

“Tarantula”, 1955, directed by Jack Arnold is a black-and-white film, 77 Minutes long. The film is about a biological researcher who is trying to prevent food shortages. He invents a special nutrient which causes animals to grow to many times their normal size. One of this animals in the laboratory, a tarantula, is freed, grows to gigantic proportions and causes havoc. The film was made in the 50s and during the McCarthy era in the USA.

“The Fly”, 1958, directed by Kurt Neumann, is based on the short story "The Fly" by George Langelaan. The scientist Andre Delambre has been working on a transporter device that works a bit like the beamer in Star Trek. He tries the device himself, but a fly got caught in the procedure as well, and their atoms are mixed. Now he has the head and arm of a fly, and the fly has his miniature head and arm.

“Atom Age Vampire”, 1963, is a black-and-white Italian science fiction film directed by Anton Giulio Majano. The story is about a brilliant scientist Dr. Levin, who researches the effects of radiation on living tissue in post-Hiroshima Japan, creates a miraculous healing agent which he uses to treat people. Unfortunately, he must kill to obtain more of the healing agent.

“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, 2001, directed, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, is based on the short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss. In the film, global warming has led to ecological disasters and reduced the human population. This situation has led to the creation of advanced human-like robots that are capable of emulating thoughts and emotions. The robot David is an advanced prototype, designed to resemble a human child, and to virtually feel love for its human “parents” who can not have their own children.

“Spider-Man 2”, 2004, directed by Sam Raimi, is a science fiction film based on the fictional Marvel comic character Spider-Man. The main scientist in this film is Dr. Otto Octavius, who turns insane and causes havoc following a failed experiment and the death of his wife.

“Splice”, 2009, directed by Vincenzo Natali , is about a young scientist couple that introduces human DNA into their work of splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use. Their decision to use human DNA in a hybrid in order to revolutionise science and medicine leads to unexpected results.