Movie Review By Casey McCabe
That most of us will never find a cure for cancer, divine the roots of human intelligence or understand what motivates the Universe – and that no one expects us to – is an odd source of comfort. There is curious, as in the idle pondering of the night sky. And then there is curious, as in the consuming pursuit of string theory and fourth dimensions. As much as we rely on science to provide the answers to modern living, we tend to keep the scientists themselves at a distance. They are, we suspect, entirely different animals, vastly worthy of our respect though not necessarily enviable. .
In his curious new documentary, "Me & Isaac Newton" director Michael Apted serves up scientists as very human indeed, yet somehow undeniably denizens of a different planet. His profile subjects, more renowned than they are famous, include a medical researcher, an environmental physicist and artificial intelligence pioneer, a theoretical physicist, a cognitive scientist, a cancer researcher and a primatologist. Seven men and women who have made significant discoveries, or are on the cusp of even greater revelations. Yet Apted proves less interested in ferreting out the layman's explanation than fulminating on the roots of scientific curiosity itself.
Most documentarians are essentially anthropologists by disposition, and Apted, who created the award-winning Seven Up documentary series would certainly fit the bill. But Apted is also the director of large-scale aggressively entertaining feature films including the last James Bond entry, "The World is Not Enough." And frankly, Me & Isaac Newton could have followed some basic Hollywood formula without sacrificing its integrity. The viewer simply doesn't know who or what it is following during the first half of the film when the players are introduced and randomly interchanged. Some of the scientists have noticeably weaker stories, yet in the spirit of fairness are given equal time. The best story belongs to primatologist Patricia Wright, a scientist with the most physical and personally complex journey: from a housewife who purchases a pet monkey in New York, to a MacArthur genius living in the jungles of Madagascar. We never quite glean the nature of Wright's discoveries, just as we never quite inhabit the lives of the other chosen scientists.
What Apted has crafted is a perfectly serviceable documentary that plays like a longer if not necessarily special episode of Nova. Suggesting its own scientific conundrum, the closer Me & Isaac Newton tries to get to its subject, the farther away it appears to the common eye
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/29/00
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