Streaming spotlight: inventors in the movies

Cinema's take on scientific creativeness

by Jennie Kermode

Nikola Tesla at work
Nikola Tesla at work

Today is Nikola Tesla’s birthday, and with a film about him due out next month (starring Ethan Hawke), we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s Streaming Spotlight to inventors in the movies. If you loved the bizarre creations of one of The Goonies’ young heroes, laughed at the gadgets produced by Billy’s dad in Gremlins or thrilled at Doc’s inventions in Back To The Future – if you’re a Tony Stark fan jonesing for more Iron Man or you’ve admired Hank and Professor X’s work in X-Men – then these seven films, all available to stream online, will make your week complete.

The Prestige
The Prestige

The Prestige - Amazon Prime

If there’s one actor who has set the bar for Hawke with his portrayal of Nikola Tesla, it’s David Bowie. Brief though his appearance in Christopher Nolan’s thriller may be, it makes quite an impression, capturing the differentness of a man who inhabits a mental world far from that of that of the people around him. His strange genius and disinterest in the material – beyond his need for funding – makes a highly effective contrast to the career-focused zeal of the rival stage magicians at the centre of the story – yet they, too, are inventors of a sort. If there’s one thing that experimental physics teaches early on, it’s that the best solutions are the simple ones, but stage magic is built around the premise of keeping us too focused on the trees to see the wood. Eye-catching performances from Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale distract the audience and make it easy to forget that Tesla was a man who once sheepishly claimed responsibility for flattening a large area of forest in Tunguska.

The Time Machine
The Time Machine

The Time Machine - Chili, Amazon Prime

The classic image of the frock-coated Victorian inventor has rarely been brought to life more perfectly than in George Pal’s 1960 take on HG Wells’ novel. Though there are plenty of time travelling inventors one might choose from in films from the playful James Vs His Future Self to the dark and uncomfortable Primer, they all owe something to this tale. The book was famous for its astonishing powers of prediction, from tanks to fashion to the atomic bomb, and Pal’s film captures something of that spirit but focuses more heavily on its hero’s adventures in the far future where humanity has evolved into two separate species – the slight, playful eloi, descendants of the upper classes, and the subterranean morlocks who emerge at night to prey on them. As the time traveller strives to recover lost knowledge and teach the eloi why knowledge matters, there’s a celebration here of the vital nature of human inventiveness and ingenuity, even in mourning its loss.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit - Netflix

Amber Wilkinson writes: Inventors don't get much more cracking than Wallace, the comic creation - and multiple Oscar winner - from Nick Park's Aardman studios. His inventions might be a little on the steampunk side but his faithful pal Gromit is generally around to save the day - although they get considerably more than they bargain for when they set up Anti-Pesto, a vermin removal outfit. Attempting to stop veggie thieves by humane, brainwashing means, Wallace has an unfortunate accident with the machine that gives him a monstrous craving for carrots - and a physique to match. Park has an eye for the absurd in the everyday and here he mixes monster movie staples with Ealing comedy flourishes to hilarious effect. With a fine voice cast, including the much-missed Peter Sallis as Wallace, alongside the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Peter Kay, this is a fast-paced romp with cross-cutting humour that hits home across the generations.

Joy
Joy

Joy - Amazon Prime

Whilst some people invent because they want to make a name for themselves, and some simply for the thrill of it, others do it to survive. With a TV-addict mother, a spectacularly irresponsible father and a useless husband, Jennifer Lawrence is joy in name only – until her impatience with the joint responsibilities of supporting the household and keeping it clean leads to her inventing the miracle mop. Based on a true story, David O’Russell’s rich character drama provides plenty of fun for the audience but captures the desperation of many ordinary lives and the toughness required to survive them. With only her grandmother believing in her, Joy has to make it all happen for herself, ultimately emerging as a very different person as a result. We spoke to stars Virginia Madsen and Diane Ladd and Isabella Rossellini about their work on the film, as well as catching up with O’Russell, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

Science Fair
Science Fair

Science Fair - iTunes, Amazon Prime

One of two documentaries to come out in 2018 following the activities of young inventors in international competition (the other being Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow), this lively, only intermittently nerdy film features some fascinating ideas and devices, and also illustrates something of the process whereby ordinary kids can make a difference in the world through technology. Focused closely on nine teenagers from very different backgrounds, it encourages viewers to ponder how much more might be achieved if everyone had the advantages that some enjoy, but it also finds elements that are universal, not least the excitement of mingling with other inventors and the mixed terror and excitement as they wait to hear who has won prizes. These include funding opportunities to help them develop what they’re doing, but there are also chances to find commercial support as they showcase their work. Unpolished and naturally emotive, this is a charming film that will be inspirational for young viewers.

The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man - Amazon Prime

Amber Wilkinson writes: Leigh Whannell's tense and visceral take on The Invisible Man, reimagines the Doc Griffin's medical student as a high-flying tech guru - and domestic abuser. Avoiding overt violence in the film's opening minutes, Whannell instead lets Elisabeth Moss do the work with body language, her every movement betraying fear as her character Cecilia Kass drugs her controlling fiancé Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and creeps her way from his Fort Knox-style home. Taking refuge with her sister's (Harriet Dyer) friend James (Aldis Hodge), she can't believe it when she's told her abuser is dead... and neither can we. Griffin's invisibility trick is achieved with technology - a high-end camouflage suit that he has which stays on the right side of credibility. The film has a strongly feminist and welcome slant, inviting us to believe Cecilia and share her sense of peril as those around her are more sceptical, while delivering genre thrills thanks to Moss' central performance and tricksy camerawork from Stefan Duscio that uses negative space in the frame to create a sense of threat.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story - BFI Player, Amazon Prime, Rakuten Play

She’s best known as a Hollywood star and the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White, but Hedy Lamarr was much more than just a pretty face, and without her inventions the world would be a very different place. As director Alexandra Dean explained to us, this documentary aims to explore the untold story behind the celebrity, taking in her daring escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna (and the arms dealer husband who had brought her there) and her invention of the world’s first system of secure radio communication. It looks at the crucial role her mathematical genius played in the war and at the later, tragic side of her zeal for invention, as she developed innovative plastic surgery methods and used herself as a guinea pig, with unfortunate results. Undaunted, Hedy left a formidable legacy – not least in her words “The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with smallest minds. Think big anyway.”

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