'Bill Nye: Science Guy': SXSW Review
Bill Nye takes on climate change deniers and creationists in this affectionate documentary
Dirs: David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg. US. 2017. 100mins
For a documentary that preaches the importance of rigorous scientific reasoning, Bill Nye: Science Guy is a little slipshod in its conclusions. A mostly affectionate portrait of the former children’s television host, who has sought to rebrand himself as a serious thinker and ambassador for science, the film shows the obstacles that such a man faces in an era in which religious faith and so-called “alternative facts” have gained prominence over logic. But directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg don’t dig deeply enough into their complex subject, while spending too much time on the same distractions that are compromising Nye’s focus.
The filmmakers are particularly interested in Nye’s passion for debating climate-change deniers in high-profile events.
Nye’s popularity should make Science Guy an attractive commercial pickup, although the film is just as well suited to the small screen. And at a time when global warming remains a political hot potato, this documentary could find sympathetic crowds among those concerned about the planet’s rising temperatures.
Earning a degree in mechanical engineering in the 1970s, Nye parlayed his education into a television career teaching kids about the wonders of science. It’s been about 20 years since his show Bill Nye The Science Guy went off the air, though, and the documentary examines what he’s been doing since, the filmmakers particularly interested in his passion for debating climate-change deniers in high-profile events.
Though the film features many rosy interviews with his colleagues, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science Guy does try to scratch Nye’s congenial, nerdy surface to get a greater sense of the man. He talks candidly about his family’s history with ataxia, a condition that impairs balance and body movement, which affected his father and siblings but, oddly, has not visited him. Suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt but determined to make the most of his life, Nye seems to have been driven from a young age to be famous, and Alvarado and Sussberg gently probe how that ambition has occasionally clouded his judgment and undermined his mission to advocate for science.
But while this character shading makes Nye an intriguing enigma, Science Guy doesn’t put much weight behind these revelations. Instead, they’re a light gloss meant to suggest a balanced portrait, while Science Guy spends most of its running time insisting that Nye is a hero in his community. One doesn’t doubt the influence he’s had on generations of young people, but the movie sacrifices nuance for pleasant hagiography.
Anyone dismayed at the growing public resistance to science — whether it’s climate change or fringe religious groups challenging the actual age of the earth — will find much in Science Guy that’s infuriating. The filmmakers follow Nye as he travels to Kentucky’s preposterous Creation Museum and meets with its ill-informed Christian founder Ken Ham, who later in the movie opens his Ark Encounter theme park, which purports to show how the Bible story actually happened. Nye’s apoplectic expressions say all that’s necessary about these abominations to history and reason. But Science Guy also raises the point, argued by some of Nye’s colleagues, that by debating a charlatan like Ham, he’s actually giving this baseless viewpoint validity — an argument that the movie agrees with.
And yet, Science Guy spends a large part of its final section again showing Nye engaging in debate, this time with a TV meteorologist named Joe Bastardi who refutes the science on climate change. This prolonged, unenlightening segment merely reiterates what’s problematic in Nye’s approach. But by positioning the showdown with Bastardi as their high-stakes finale, the filmmakers become as guilty as their subject, giving an inordinate amount of screen time to individuals (and their opinions) that don’t merit scrutiny.
Production companies: Structure Films, Exhibit A, Complex Corporation, The Redford Center
International sales: WME, LCopland@wmeentertainment.com
Producers: Seth Gordon, Nick Pampenella, David Alvarado, Kate McLean, Jason Sussberg
Executive producers: Mary Rohlich, Henry S. Rosenthal, Walker Deibel, Chad Troutwine
Cinematography: David Alvarado
Editor: Annukka Lilja
Music: William Ryan Fritch