Streaming Spotlight: Come up to the lab

For World Laboratory Day, we're going to work with scientists

by Amber Wilkinson

Radioactive Photo: Studiocanal
It's World Laboratory Day today, celebrating the work of pioneering scientists around the globe - something that has, arguably, never been more relevant than now, as we continue to fight the Covid pandemic. Films have long had a love affair with laboratories as well, whether as places of industry like that depicted in The Story Of Louis Pasteur, which won Paul Muni an Oscar for his portrayal of the French scientist back in 1936, or as secretive environments where strange potions - or large monsters including the many iterations of Frankenstein's monster - can be cooked up. Today our streaming spotlight is going up to the lab to see what's on the slab. Shivering with antici...pation, entirely optional.

Radioactive, Amazon Prime

Real world lab discoveries don't come much more important than those made by Marie and Pierre Curie - who "did the double" in Nobel terms, first taking home the Physics accolade for radioactivity itself, then the Chemistry gong for radium and polonium. Taking an experimental leaf out of Lauren Redniss' graphic novel from which the film was adapted by Jack Thorne, director Marjane Satrapi not only outlines the story of Marie and her work, in the face of establishment sexism that didn't even want to acknowledge her work, but also flashes forward in time to show how the discovery has been employed for good and ill - via cancer treatment and nuclear bombs. Rosamund Pike imbues Marie with a fierce intelligence and a personality to match.

Iron Man, Disney

Iron Man
Iron Man Photo: Disney
Andrew Robertson writes: Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark might be as comfortable in the bordello as the boardroom but the Iron Man series is full of laboratories. These are sometimes disguised as workshops, and the line between mechanic and scientist is one of many that he crosses. The iterative designs of the Iron Man suits aren't just a callous attempt to turn different art styles and plot needs into a merchandising juggernaut, each of them up to and including the towering Hulkbuster is an attempt to solve a particular problem within the constraints of an anthropomorphoid armour. The films themselves were also an experiment. Billions of dollars later it all seems obvious but back in 2008 this wasn't a sure thing. They wouldn't give Iron Man a completion bond until Downey's rehabilitation had included a feature length film, one of the many bits of trivia that makes Lucky You a brilliant source of quiz questions. All the prototypical features are there, and for better or worse they've been trying to recreate that set of conditions since.Of course Tony isn't the only lab rat even in his films. Father Howard passes on atomic secrets via scale models, there's nanotech born of a new year snub, even a specific market being catered to with a cloned heart. That act of replication is a key element of both the scientific and Marvel methods, but Iron Man was there first. Though it is less standing on the shoulders of giants than brushing imaginary lint from them before a quip.

Re-Animator, Apple TV, Amazon Prime and other platforms

Jennie Kermode writes: A young student doctor (Bruce Abbott) traumatised by the loss of a patient hooks up with an obsessive newcomer (Jeffrey Combs) who is developing an experimental serum which he believes can revive the dead in Stuart Gordon's much-loved comedic adaptation of HP Lovecraft's popular story. Given their lowly position, neither man has much access to labs and equipment, let alone recently deceased specimens on which to test the serum, but science finds a way. David Gale plays the jealous neurologist out to steal their work and Barbara Crampton provides a memorable turn as the 'bubble headed co-ed' whom our hero is dating, and who happens to be the daughter of the dean. Lofty ambition gives way to obsession and everything that can go wrong does when the dead refuse to cooperate. The film's wilder notions are balanced by an acute understanding of the pettiness of academic rivalries.

Contagion, Netflix

It might have been made back in 2011 but Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, written by Scott Z Burns, came right back into the spotlight courtesy of Covid. The thriller, which charts the tale of a fictional pandemic saw a spike in downloads, with Warner Bros announcing in 2020 that it had sprung back to being its second most watched film after Harry Potter. There are certainly some similarities to Covid, with the fictional disease also being a respiratory infection and Burns made big efforts to get the science bits right in terms of the disease spread and vaccine development, by consulting medical experts and representatives of the World Health Organisation. The end result is gripping and chilling in equal measure - not least in showing how easy it is for health misinformation to also catch on, represented by blogger Alan (Jude Law).  The all-star cast also features Kate Winslet, Matt Damon and Jennifer Ehle.

Human Nature, Netflix, Amazon

Human Nature
Human Nature
Jennie Kermode writes: A lively, accessible guide to CRISPR gene editing, this documentary gets beyond the tabloid scare stories and pulp science fiction's obsession with making monsters to look at what this vitally important branch of science really means. It explains its potential to tackle virtually any disease, from cancers to Covid, and to repair all sorts of damage in the body, while taking a realistic approach to the amount of work which needs to be done for each such application. Although it's a little quick to set aside related sociological concerns, it addresses individual issues very effectively and shows viewers how it all works through a combination of animated sequences and time spent inside the lab. The vast majority of its participants work directly with this science and are passionate about what they do, making for an engaging film which is a great reminder of what science can do for us at a human level.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Netflix

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Jennie Kermode writes: Profit-focused corporate technological advancement goes up against community-focused small business innovation, both showing a casual disregard for health and safety restrictions in this sequel to animated hit Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. Keen young inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hadar) has dreamed all his life of becoming a Thinkquanaut alongside Steve Jobs-like celebrity CEO Chester V (Will Forte), but when he is dispatched to the island which he inadvertently plunged into chaos in the first film by inventing a machine which turned weather into food, it quickly becomes apparent that something is wrong. His instructions are to find his old lab and destroy his invention, but the food it has created has now become sentient, the island is full of cute creatures, and his friends - including Sam (Anna Faris), the meteorologist he has a crush on - are convinced that Chester V has sinister plans for them all.

Frankenweenie, Amazon Prime, Disney+

We can't let a feature on labs on film pass by without the inclusion of at least one Tim Burton film, given that the director absolutely loves the places. From the cog-filled inventor's lab of Edward Scissorhands to Dr Finkelstein's lab in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Surely the sweetest is the one where little Victor Frankenstein attempts to resurrect his pet dog Sparky, with its gothic style and bits and bobs calling to manner any number of classic Frankenstein labs along with more everyday laboratories like that Back To The Future's Doc Brown kept a secret. Like many films of this type, however, you must be careful what you wish for and Victor soon finds himself facing a spot of trouble from the re-animated. Aside from the outdated 'comedy Asian' mad scientist, this is a nicely worked and soft-centred film that also has some delightfully creepy moments and which expands well on Burton's short of the same name, which you can watch on Disney+ or over at Daily Motion.

We're heading back to 1910 to round-up our laboratory selection, with another version of Frankenstein, which sees the not-so-good doctor cooking up something less than wholesome in a cauldron.

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