British filmmaker Michael Apted’s new documentary, which consists of thumbnail portraits of seven prominent scientists, is closer in style to one of his feature films than it is to his acclaimed study of various Brits revisited at seven-year intervals (the latest installment being 42 Up). That series, as fascinating as it is, is mostly a placid string of interviews. Me & Isaac Newton uses such flourishes as different film stock, weird point-of-view shots and effects footage to keep the viewer engaged, at least on a visual level. It’s only afterward that you may wonder what it was all about.
The film is divided into three sections — “Beginnings,” “The Work” and “The Future” — and within each section gives relevant information for each of the scientists. They are, to a person, an admirable lot, true believers in both the soul-enriching aspects of the accumulation of knowledge and its beneficial practical applications. The first two-thirds of the film, combining biographical and scientific success stories, is the most compelling, as it follows people such as physicist Michio Kaku from a World War II Japanese-American internment camp to his fame as one of the founders of string theory, and conservationist Patricia Wright, whose success in the Amazon rain forest seems a combination of strong will and blind luck.
By the last third, though, the film begins to seem like a pep talk for people who fear that rational thought may be becoming rare coinage in world culture. Given its subject matter and flashy style, it’s like an Errol Morris film without Morris’ taste for the everyday grotesque. It’s optimistic, encouraging and a little bland.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].