Me & Isaac Newton Movie Review
Apted's Me & Isaac Newton brings us inside seven groundbreaking scientific minds. We get to know their studies, and we also get to know them. But what begins as fascinating documentary greatness fizzles down to a lengthy, anti-climactic ending. Insert your own Big Bang joke here.
The film starts off reflecting Apted's skill as a storyteller and filmmaker, with an almost wondrous feel to the introduction. The seven masterminds explain why they are so eager -- practically desperate -- to figure out the world. Meanwhile, appropriate imagery slowly fills the screen -- a cool, blue universe or a shaking collection of cells, ironic combinations of the literal and abstract.
Since the scientists interviewed are so diverse in their work, they're worth mentioning: a nuclear physicist searching for dimensions beyond the third; a Nobel Prize-winning pharmaceutical chemist; a primatologist who visited Madagascar and never left; a robotics expert; an Indian man creating clean drinking water in third-world areas; a cognitive scientist figuring out how and why we use verbal language; and a leading authority in the study of cancer. Man, you could get smart just standing near these people.
In getting them to the big screen, Apted does a couple of things right: first, he works within a strong formula, helpful due to the size of the group (the same size as his 1997 companion film, Inspirations). First we learn of the participants' childhoods and early interests (some stories are a hoot), and we then get a glimpse into their work and the hopes that have sprung from them. Second, Apted has really picked the right people for us to meet. At least three of them (the physicist, primatologist, and water chemist) could easily have had substantial, individual biographies made just about them.
But at a point late in the film, Me & Isaac Newton succumbs to that liability of all documentaries: it has a filmmaker that appears too close to the subject matter. The result, as it seems here, is that Apted doesn't know when to stop, forgetting that you can give too much of a good thing. In my opinion, the scientists provide nothing too revealing after about 90 minutes, and the movie runs about 20 minutes beyond that.
But that first hour-and-a-half makes for a classic documentary. The subject matter is vital, the people involved are smart, easy to listen to, and full of energy, and the director carefully weaves the first-person stories to highlight their variety, similarities, and originality. There were at least three times during the film where I found a revelation or idea to be just incredible.
Why can't we break through to the 10th dimension? How come we learn language in a few years, and not thirty minutes? What is the next disease to be conquered? Apted's subjects ask these questions, and prepare to answer them like very few people in the world. But why are they doing so on the big screen? The film's run is very limited, so one can assume that the motive is Oscar-driven, and once the movie loses its punch toward the end, that statue seems unlikely.
For all its meaningful, insightful knowledge, Me & Isaac Newton doesn't have to be seen in a theater. I would have been just as happy seeing it on PBS or Discovery.
Into the black hole.