For 40 years, superhero enthusiasts have followed the comic-strip travails of Bruce Banner, a placid scientist who morphs into a raging green monster after accidental exposure to gamma ray radiation. When director Ang Lee began his big-screen adaptation, The Hulk, he wanted to keep the comic strip’s original story line, but with a 21st-century spin. So he hired John Underkoffler ‘88, SM ‘91, PhD ‘99, a former researcher at the Media Lab, to investigate and consolidate cutting-edge science that would explain Bruce Banner’s gamma-ray-induced transformation.Though Underkoffler had the right background for the job of movie science consultant-a PhD in media arts and sciences and a credit as the science and technology consultant on Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Minority Report-he quickly found himself researching subjects he hadn’t studied since his undergraduate days at MIT: microbiology, immunology, and genomics. He pored over books and journals, searched the Internet, and consulted friends and former colleagues at MIT. Ultimately, Underkoffler came up with the means to explain-as plausibly as possible-how an average man could turn into a monster: Bruce Banner’s unstable scientist father, David Banner, changed his own genetic sequence (splicing in DNA from a self-regenerating starfish, for example) and passed those altered genes on to his son. Then, as an adult, Bruce is accidentally exposed to gamma ray radiation that activates “nanomeds” used in his own experiments-a combination that would kill anyone with normal DNA but that turns the mild-mannered Bruce Banner into a lean, green, rage machine. Though each event has a real-life scientific basis, the chances that, together, they’d produce a real-life monster are slim. But the trick in Hollywood is to make the connections believable to an audience. And that’s Underkoffler’s talent. His creativity, and his commitment to exploring real science for a Hollywood setting, have made him a hot commodity with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors.
“I’m just thrilled to be able to have to go become an expert in something like immunology or genomics,” Underkoffler says. “You unearth all sorts of great stuff. It goes to prove that the reality of science is much more interesting than you could make up.”
Underkoffler made the leap from MIT to Hollywood in 2000, after a production team for Steven Spielberg’s movie Minority Report visited the Media Lab. The team was there to look for emerging technologies that could be used in the film, which is set in 2054. Underkoffler’s science background and familiarity with movies impressed production designer Alex McDowell, who convinced him to move to Hollywood to work on the film. Underkoffler helped create Minority Report’s futuristic world-parts of which are based on work he had done at the Media Lab on holography and computer interfaces. For example, in one scene, Tom Cruise’s character manipulates thousands of images on a vast, transparent computer display. Underkoffler invented the gestures Cruise makes and taught him how to perform them.