Ah, the movies. A chance to relax and unwind by disappearing into a far-flung visual fantasy, and a great way to bring down your tension-levels after a difficult day of PhD toil. But have you ever stopped to consider how academia and cinema intersect? You might not expect libraries, labs and study halls to make a thrilling setting for one and a half hours of pure film action, but as always, we here at Research Unwrapped are here to surprise you.
With the help of a little creativity, cinema has transformed dusty (ahem) academia into an imaginative, exciting and sometimes very bloody pretext for adventure. Of course, you may think it was all of those things anyway. And who would we be to disagree with you?
So sit back, take a large bucket of popcorn, and join us for a rousing tour through cinema’s surprising love affair with academia.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
If you had to think of just one film about the academic world, it would probably be this classic. Good Will Hunting plays the setting fairly straight, but is loaded with sharp observations on the viciousness of academia sure to make any seasoned researcher raise a knowing smile.
Matt Damon plays the titular Will, a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT research institute. When a famous professor (Stellan Skarsgard) challenges his class with a series of fiendishly difficult maths problems, Will secretly solves them all – until he’s spotted that is. This scene poses one of the films keenest observations, for the professor actually thinks that Will is vandalising a student’s work when he catches him at the blackboard. Why? Well, clearly because of his dirty overalls and janitor’s mop and bucket. It’s a cunning play on the kind of assumptions often associated with academia – that it’s a cloistered world, full of arrogance, presumption and disdain for those it considers beneath it.
Of course, the professor eventually recognises Will’s talent and draws him into the academic fold, and the film takes off. Many of it’s most penetrating insights revolve around the contrast between worldly knowledge and academic knowledge. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Robin Williams’ college psychology teacher cuts Will’s fixation on intellectual knowledge down to size:
“I ask you about war, and you’d probably, uh, throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one.”
Tony Todd’s dark, intense, bee-spewing killer is a cinematic icon, but it’s easy to forget that the whole film unfolds because of a graduate student’s attempt to complete her thesis. Virginia Madsen plays Helen, the eager academic who studies folklore. She seeks to prove that the ‘Candyman’, a violent ghost, is in fact just a story perpetuated by the residents of an impoverished slum – an attempt to pin the blame for their difficult lives on something.
Helen’s thesis is soon derailed by the need to survive the violent onslaught of the Candyman, but the academic thread runs all the way through the film – and it isn’t a pretty one.
Most of the academics in this film are portrayed as treacherous and backstabbing – knowledgeable but deeply unpleasant individuals. Of particular note is the comically named Philip Purcell who, leering over his spectacles with big bulging eyes, perfectly embodies the sneering demeanour of a smug senior academic. Unshakeably secure at the top of his tree, he naturally ends up the victim of the urban legend he so confidently lectures on.
Indeed, one of the clearest themes of the film is simply expressed – all the academics end up dead. It might sound reductive, but if you pay attention to the subtleties of the plot and its players, you’ll start to perceive a nuanced satire on the whole business of academia.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A little more light-hearted than our previous entries, here comes (surely) the world’s most beloved academic to add some action to proceedings. After a rousing opening escape through a deep jungle temple – complete with boulders, spikes, spiders and spears – Harrison Ford’s Indiana parts his hair, dons his spectacles, and puts on his tweed jacket to become a humble professor of archaeology.
We find ourselves in the (sadly fictional) Marshall College, where Indy’s lectures attract a startling number of admiring female students. One has even written ‘love you’ on her eyelids, in a memorable effort to get the professor’s attention. Does this kind of thing ever happen during your lectures? Answers by post to Audemic Headquarters please.
Indy leads a life that we suspect many archaeology students dream of – one split between the intellectual rigour of university and the boundless thrill of ‘fieldwork’. Although, if your PhD fieldwork looks anything like Indy’s – guns, whips and skulls included – then please, please let us know.
The Mummy (1999)
The Mummy is full of quaint little touches that detail the academic life of Evie (Rachel Weisz). The funniest of these are her frequent references to the ‘Bembridge Scholars’, a fictional academic circle based on the Isle of Wight (England’s secret intellectual powerhouse). Playing on the familiar name of Cambridge, the group inspires fury in Evie, whose applications to join their hallowed ranks as an Egyptologist have been repeatedly denied. There’s a nice reference here to the apparent exclusivity of some of England’s most prestigious universities.
Eventually, Evie’s efforts, along with husband Rick (Brendan Fraser) to put mummy Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) back in his sarcophagus lead to one of the film’s best lines:
“Take that, Bembridge Scholars!”
An extremely meme-able line by the way, if you care to look.
Once again, cinema picks up playfully on the difference between fieldwork and ‘inside work’, and it’s fairly clear where its loyalties lie. Evie saves Egypt and the world, while the Isle of Wight’s most famous and popular circle of academics…well, they don’t do a lot in this film. But we’re not here to judge.
So there you have it. Ultimately, academia is full of mummies, prodigies, ghosts and Nazis. Are we summarising the films we’ve just toured through, or simply describing your university’s board of governors? We’ll leave that one to you to decide. In the meantime, we hope you continue to enjoy all those moments where cinema pays homage to the wonderful, unpredictable academic world.
Keep striving, researchers! ✨