Wednesday, February 21, 2018
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BILL NYE: SCIENCE GUY: Scientist As Superhero

Readers of a certain age will fondly remember Bill Nye as their de facto substitute teacher, wheeled in on a video cart to impart some easily understandable nuggets of scientific knowledge. Bill was one part Captain Kangaroo, one part Carl Sagan. His show, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was an energetic, frenetic half hour that sought to educate while entertaining, pairing a rotating cast of children

Bill Nye: Science Guy

Readers of a certain age will fondly remember Bill Nye as their de facto substitute teacher, wheeled in on a video cart to impart some easily understandable nuggets of scientific knowledge. Bill was one part Captain Kangaroo, one part Carl Sagan. His show, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was an energetic, frenetic half hour that sought to educate while entertaining, pairing a rotating cast of children with its friendly and lanky host.

Bill Nye: Science Guy on the other hand reveals a much more flawed and serious man than the version of himself that fans of the show might remember. In charting Nye’s evolution from public television star to scientific ambassador, directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg smartly avoid the bio-doc pitfall of painting their subject as some sort of infallible figure whose achievements alone would silence any critics. But the filmmakers clearly admire their subject and find another way to make him the hero of the film; by pitting him against two villains who serve as Nye’s Bizarro and Professor Zoom.

Unfortunate People

By setting up these antagonistic relationships for Nye, Alvarado and Sussberg give the film a compelling framing device that provides a narrative thrust most biographical filmmakers attempt via chronology. Ken Ham and Joe Bastardi are direct counterpoints to Nye, spewing toxic misinformation to the public, specifically children, for unknown personal or ideological reasons.

source: PBS

Ham, a Creationist, is bad enough, erecting a giant ark-shaped icon to the gods of ignorance, but he’s also easy enough to dismiss as a biblical literalist whose belief that dinosaurs lived alongside humans will inherently limit any widespread acceptance of his ideas. But where Ham claims the bible as his evidence, climate change-denying Bastardi is a much more insidious figure – utilizing perverted science, the very method by which anyone can objectively find his claims to be false.

Both of these men just really got under my skin, and I’d rank them along such notable documentary villains as Gene PingatoreBilly Mitchell, and Sharp James. When juxtaposed with their rhetoric, Nye’s level-headed realism comes across as nobly crusading against evil, and all of a sudden we have the kind of conflict that great docs often thrive upon, where in other hands we might have just had a paint-by-numbers examination of a life well-led.

source: PBS

But the film is hardly some puff piece pitting its hero against those who would see his efforts fail. Science Guy also bravely examines Nye’s faults, of which he’s keenly self-aware (his narcissism and addiction to fame, for example). Many of Nye’s ideological opponents are quick to claim that he’s not a real scientist, but an engineer who found his way to TV acting. The film also makes us aware that Nye is equally problematic for some in the professional scientific community, who view his live-streamed debate with Ham or his continued willingness to appear on Fox News alongside those who, like Bastardi, twist and abuse that which they hold dear.

Those arguments hold some water, but there are also valid counter arguments against them, though they’re absent from the film. Where Science Guy finds its academic legitimacy for Nye is in his current role as CEO of the Planetary Society, a position he owes to Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Nye once took Astronomy under Carl Sagaat Cornell, and to be running the organization his former professor founded must be both a humbling reminder of the footsteps in which he follows, and all the legitimization he needs to move forward.

Please Be Better, World

Bill Nye: Science Guy is an exceptional look at its central figure while also giving ample time to the world in which he’s embroiled. We get to know the “real” Bill without being dragged through a narrative formed simply by the passage of time. Perhaps taking inspiration from the original The Science Guy show, the directors deftly weave biography, scientific explanation, and verité footage in a way that makes for a film that’s at once engaging, entertaining and educational, while offering enough criticisms of Nye to let the viewer come to their own evaluations of his character. It’s like the Crumb of science educator documentaries.

source: PBS

This film sparked something in me – something akin maybe to how I felt the first time I watched Sagan‘s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which I regrettably saw too late in life to affect my career course, but nevertheless helped instill in me some strong personal foundations. When basic scientific fact is presented as clearly as Nye is able to do, yet there are still so many who would deny its reality, it’s just such a sadness. The deepest sadness!

The possibility that, instead of folks like Nye or Sagan, kids today would have a Ham or Bastardi is truly bone-chilling. That science should be taught to kids, creationism is fantasy, and humans are bringing about their own destruction via wholesale environmental devastation should be base truths against which no one would wish to argue and upon which our society should be built. The fact that they aren’t demonstrates how vital Nye and his ilk are, not just as educators, but as protectors of the planet. If that’s not a super-hero, I don’t know what is.

What are your favorite pieces of art that further the perpetuation of science?

Bill Nye: Science Guy is now playing theatrically, and expands to more cities across the US today. To see when it’ll be playing near you visit the website.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Arlin is originally from Chicago, IL and currently resides in Oakland, CA. Receiving his BA in Film Studies in 2010, he is a failed rapper who works in film distribution. Among his non-cinematic interests are biking, playing basketball, record collecting, and breakfast cereal. He is still processing the new season of Twin Peaks and hopes one day that the world recognizes the many values of the Siesta system.

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