Science at Sundance

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The Sundance Film Festival has launched the careers of myriad household names in the film industry – Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Darren Arronofsky – to name a few. Established in 1978, the festival, shepherded by film legend Robert Redford, has meant many things to those who have made the pilgrimage to Park City, Utah, for a glimpse at artful filmmaking at its most raw and energetic – a buying opportunity, a source of inspiration, a place to find your audience. It’s also become a training ground of sorts for artists to hone their craft.

Since 2003, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded a $20,000 cash prize to the director of the best film at Sundance “to focus on science or technology as a theme or depict a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character.” In so doing, they reward and encourage more accurate science in future mainstream projects by inspiring budding talent toward stories inspired by all aspects of science, technology, engineering, and math. In the past, films that have been so honored include Max Mayer’s quirky romance Adam, Werner Herzog’s gripping documentary Grizzly Man, and Alex Rivera’s intense sci-fi thriller Sleep Dealer.

This year a finely drawn character piece, directed by first-time filmmaker Mike Cahill, took the top honor from Sloan –Another Earth. The film centers on a woman played elegantly by Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the piece with Cahill). The protagonist of the story derails her life when she accidentally causes the death of one man’s entire family in a car accident. The exquisitely drawn and simply powerful drama delivers relatable characters in Marling, and an enjoyably glowering William Mapother, who spin a wrenching web of grief mixed with great character beats.

The science in the film serves as a critical tool in the exploration of the metaphysical theme within the storyline.Another Earth appears in an orbit clearly visible to the naked eye from our Earth. The planet’s inhabitants appear to be exact replicas of those on our planet. But have they made the same mistakes? If not, are they happier in their lives? If they are living exactly the same lives, could there be someone in that other world who is the same as our main character? If she could meet her counterpart on that other planet, would she be able to forgive herself for causing the horrible accident?

The film’s sci-fi elements propel the plot and explore the characters while creating an intact world with specific and understandable rules for the audience. For all of these reasons, as well as a well-told story and great characters, Another Earth is an engaging and interesting Sloan Award recipient that presents scientific ideas in a way that sparks the imagination of its audience.

For a list of all the Sloan winners, click here.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.