Chemical Oscars

If I asked you to name a movie off the top of your head that involved real chemistry in some way, one may spring to mind, perhaps two ... but five or even 10? It’s strange that such a rich area of science has been neglected by the film industry.  

Instead we are constantly bombarded by movies and TV shows beamed from the US covering medical sciences and physics: warp fields this (Star Trek) and flux capacitors that (Back to the Future). Sub-sections of science are frequently given screen time - genecology (The Island), virology (Outbreak) and forensics/criminology (CSI).  

Sure, Hollywood may not find the story of ’two lone pairs of electrons’ interesting but it always tends to opt for films based on genetically enhanced supermen to wow the crowds. The limited chemistry that does appear on screen seems to be linked to suffering (lye, Fight Club); addiction (heroin, Trainspotting); torture (acid, Saw III); chemically-induced super mutation (formaldehyde, The Host); painful death (VX nerve gas, The Rock); or sudden death (nitroglycerin, Lost). Do you see a pattern? Chemistry seems to be the villain, where the audience is forced to boo or hiss. 

I’m not suggesting that ridiculous films or TV shows should be made, purely based on the subject of chemistry. For instance: 

24x10-15: Jack Bohr (the electron) sets out on a mission to stop a number of rogue molecular terrorists, known as the Avogadro 32, from unleashing a devastating chemical reaction in test tube number 14. The entire season would be over soon after the show’s titles had popped up.  

C-12 Angry mass isotopes: When a 13C is on trial for an isotopic labelling crime he did not commit, one 12C gradually convinces the 11 remaining to acquit the suspect on the basis of reasonable NMR doubt. 

Hollywood could focus instead on the weird and wonderful historical figures behind chemistry - from stories of unforgivable atrocities committed by the ’father of chemical warfare’ during the first world war (Fritz Haber) to one woman’s undying passion for the atom (Marie Curie).  

To give them their dues, the screenwriters do try their best to entertain us with fictional chemicals, drugs or elements. 

Iconic cartoon The Simpsons  is riddled with wonderful examples: lithium dibromide, chlorhexinol, cyclobenzanone, phenolbutamine, and my personal favourite Bolonium. (’Your explanations are pure, weapons-grade bolonium!’) Its atomic weight is estimated to be ’delicious’ or ’snacktacular’. 

In Return of the Living Dead,  exposure to the toxic gas 2,4,5-trioxin results in death and immediate revival to a zombie-like state. What’s amusing is that this fictional chemical is often mistaken for 1,3,5-trioxane (also known as trioxin), which repairs cells after post-mortem tissue constriction. Note to self: when dead, make sure mortician does not use trioxin . just in case. 

In Batman,  the Joker markets hygiene products containing the toxic chemical Smilex, or Smylex, where the post-mortem is likely to read: ’victim appears to have died from excess laughter’. 

But you just know when the writer couldn’t care less: serum 114 (A Clockwork Orange), those creatures with ’molecular acid for blood’ (Alien), substance D (A Scanner Darkly), unobtainium (The Core), and even the most famous of all fictional elements: kryptonite.  

Surely there is a niche in the market for chemists in the screen scene?