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.
On the Hulk set, Underkoffler found himself sharing the breadth of his scientific expertise. In addition to hashing out the major scientific back story to the movie, he also served as a more general science consultant. When the film’s editor wanted to know how fast the Hulk had to be running in order to jump a mile, for example, he called in Underkoffler to apply some calculus. When the costume designer wanted to know whether or not genomics scientists would really wear white lab coats (not usually), she asked Underkoffler for advice. He also designed the research posters that line the movie set’s laboratory walls. And he gave the actors a basic science tutorial in the labs at Caltech to introduce them to latex gloves and pipettes. Underkoffler would have brought them to his alma mater for such training, but “MIT was 3,000 miles away,” he explains.
No matter. Underkoffler is well suited for the West Coast. Though his MIT credentials helped him get a foothold in Hollywood, it’s his lifelong love of movies that keeps him in California. “I think it was inevitable that I would end up in Hollywood,” says Underkoffler, who used to organize movie nights for fellow graduate students. “It helps if you are a film nut from the beginning.”
Bill Butera ‘82, SM ‘88, PhD ‘02, a former colleague at the Media Lab, confirms that his friend’s jump into film might not be as radical a departure as it initially seems; he describes Underkoffler’s master’s research in holography as “the beginning of the intersection of art and technology.” Butera believes Underkoffler’s work in popular film “is pioneering in its own sense. Most of us wouldn’t do it,” he says. “John has an abiding interest in mediums of exploring human communication.”
And Underkoffler seems to have found a niche for himself. In addition to Minority Report and The Hulk, he has worked on Spielberg’s TV miniseries Taken, the upcoming Cat in the Hat movie with Mike Myers, and Tim Burton’s new film Big Fish, and he is currently working on a film called Aeon Flux, based on an early-1990s MTV animated series. Still, Underkoffler believes that despite his success in blending his passions for movies and science, the Institute shouldn’t necessarily crank out a new wave of Hollywood technology consultants. “I perish the thought of discouraging anyone, but I think there probably isn’t enough stuff going on. After Minority Report I didn’t expect it to happen again.”
Perhaps the reason it has happened again, says Underkoffler, is that he offers directors something just as important as his scientific expertise. He is able to rattle off a long list of disparate directors and writers whose innovative, sometimes fantasy-tinged films have influenced him, including Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Hal Hartley’s recent No Such Thing. His love of such films may be what helps him reconcile scientific accuracy with narrative momentum. “Ang wanted utter verisimilitude and to keep the movie grounded in real science and to keep it there as long as possible,” he says. “But I mean, eventually you’ve got a 15-foot green guy running around.” While he is hired to give movies a believable science background, Underkoffler also wants them, in the end, to bring others as much joy as they bring him.