Mad Max 2 [The Road Warrior] (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mad Max 2</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Road Warrior</strong>] (1981)

(In theaters, March 2001) Much better sequel to the original film, this time taking the post-apocalyptic motif to an extreme that would be replicated in countless imitators. Obviously made with a higher budget that the prequel, and with considerably more assurance: The end action scene is a bona-fide classical sequence. Mel Gibson here looks like Russell Crowe in a career-defining bad-ass role. A shame that the script couldn’t have been more polished, because there’s a long middle stretch, and the dialogue (especially the villains’) is unintentionally hilarious. Definitely worth a rental for action fans, though. First film well-summarized in the first few minutes of the sequel.

Enemy At The Gates (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Enemy At The Gates</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, March 2001) The battle for Stalingrad ranks as one of the most dramatic stories of World War 2, and it was about time for a big-budget film to be made on the subject. That it ends up starring high-powered actors like Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes and the incomparable Ed Harris is just icing on the cake. The opening sequence is gripping, as is graphically shows brand-new recruits being thrown in a battle where each side can shoot at them. The rest of the film is mostly good, though by the end an ordinary love story threatens to topple the whole film. Any other film can and does include the requisite romance, so couldn’t we focus on Stalingrad some more? In any case, the images are gripping, the action scenes work well and while the cat-and-mouse game between opposing snipers could have been more focused, there’s enough of it to be satisfying. A good film made less special by a tacked-upon romance, Enemy At The Gates still stands as the first good film of 2001.

Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dude, Where’s My Car?</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, March 2001) Once in a while, there comes a film so mind-boggingly odd that it’s a wonder it got made. That’s exactly Dude, Where’s My Car?, a delightful absurdist science-fiction comedy that’s so good that it might be hard to acknowledge the fact that it eventually has to end. You wouldn’t expect a film about two slackers trying to find their car to be so inventive, but it just keeps building to better jokes. It’s goofy, good-natured, hilarious, without an ounce of pretension and with a surprising lack of gross-out gags so prevalent in current comedies. I laughed like an idiot and predict a wide cult following. Sweet!

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2001) It’s remarkably easy to dismiss this film as being nothing more than a stupid stoner teen comedy, but look closer and you’ll change your mind. Oh, I’m not saying it’s smart-disguised-as-silly, but there is a considerable amount of clever go-for-broke gleefulness in the way the film just marches on and boldly goes places you just don’t expect. It’s not only a blast on a second viewing, but on the third too. The DVD includes some pointless “extended scenes” you might be hard-pressed to distinguish from the originals. I also features an audio commentary track that’s a trip of its own: It starts off in mid-laugh, continues incoherently for a few minutes, breaks off as one of them goes get beers (or goes to the bathroom) and generally presents a picture of the film being a perfect accident where serendipity had at least as big a role to play as the screenwriter. Still, it doesn’t change my mind; the film is a great little comedy with many delightful moments. See it! It’s underrated!

Nobel Dreams, Gary Taubes

Random House, 1986, 261 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-394-54503-6

Popular clichés are prompt to paint scientists as emotionless creatures purely concerned by the pursuit of knowledge, so intellectually driven that they can make abstraction of the petty human emotions shared by The Rest Of Us.

That, of course, is wrong. Scientists are human beings like everyone else, and the intellectual drone only existed in movies (if he wasn’t mad, like most other movie scientists). They laugh, scream and shout just as much as you and I, and matters get less and less purely intellectual when you try to stuff hundreds of scientists at the same place.

Even though now somewhat dated, there are few books that do a better job at representing conflicts between scientists than Nobel Dreams, a nonfiction book about a quest for subatomic particles, a huge subterranean ring in Geneva and a scientist named Carlos Rubbia.

The root of Nobel Dreams‘s interest lies in the intrinsic nature of a type of scientific experiments grouped under the term “Big Science”. Contrarily to scientific endeavours that can be accomplished by a single researcher or a small group of experimenters, Big Science requires massive equipments, large teams and carefully orchestrated logistics. It’s not only hugely expensive, but it requires a massive administrative and logistical effort. Particle research, because of the enormous energies it requires to operate, has been a Big Science poster child since World War II (which featured the most emblematic Big Science effort ever in project Manhattan) and Nobel Dreams is partly an examination of such an experiment and the groundwork required for a Nobel-prize-winning success.

To this end, science journalist Gary Taubes spent time in CERN, the European high-energy physics center, getting to know the personalities and issues involved in the discovery of the W and Z particle. All of it would have been a drier, less interesting exposé if it hadn’t been for the lighting-rod personality of Carlos Rubbia, a formidable scientist with a massive ego and an abrasive personality. Reading Nobel Dreams, we get a taste of the implacable politics inherent in running Big Science experiments, where scientific concerns take a back seat to power imperatives. Running those experiment takes money -the root of all that’s interesting- and considerable charisma, especially when dealing with a multi-national workforces composed of highly skilled, highly obstinate theorists and experimenters.

It’s a story of beating-the-other-team, of personal friction and petty vindictiveness. It’s a story of brilliance and arrogance, of self-sacrifice and personal vanity. It’s a story of victory (the W and the Z) and defeat (the latter, less successful, experiments to prove super-symmetry). But over all, it’s a great bunch of stories about a set of jobs that aren’t very well understood by a great many people.

There are, inevitably, flaws: While Taubes makes a great effort at vulgarizing his subject, there are still a few thick patches of jargon. Worse; even though the structure of the book is rather clear, it doesn’t include an index, making it nearly useless for references purposes. And, predictably enough for a book already fifteen years old, it’s difficult for laymen to know whether the suppositions advanced in Nobel Dreams are still valid, and if the people involved went on to other better things.

(Well, was difficult to know earlier. Today, with the magic of the Internet search engines, it’s relatively easy to find out that Gary Taubes is still writing acclaimed scientific vulgarization, that the Higgs hasn’t yet been conclusively identified and that Carlos Rubbia hasn’t disappeared from the planet even though he most definitely hasn’t won a second Nobel. It’s also really easy to find out that Nobel Dreams itself has earned a good reputation in the field of science nonfiction.)

In any case, the true value of Nobel Dreams is to uncover some of the less idealistic side of science; how humans, with all their faults, are still very much at the heart of science. And that, even while reading about despicable behaviour, is still a very comforting thought.