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ME & ISAAC NEWTON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Featuring:  Gertrude Elion, Ashok Gadgil, Michio Kaki, Maja Mataric, Steven Pinker, Karol Sikora, Patricia Wright
Director:  Michael Apted
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Home Vision Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  January 22, 2002

Film ***1/2

It seems like when we were kids, most of us wanted to be scientists.  At least, I did.  The sad thing about the way the school systems work is that it often kills most of the instinctual joy we feel at learning and discovery.

Case in point…when I first put Me & Isaac Newton into my DVD player, I groaned when it started up.  It looked like something you would see on public television, which is fine for some, but immediately made me ready for sleep mode.  Why should I react in such a way to something potentially educational?  Call it sense memory.

Then I thought about the name of the director and producer…Michael Apted?  He’s made some terrific feature films, including Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist.  Perhaps more noteworthy, he is the author of the famed 7 Up documentaries for British television, in which he reunites with a group of kids every seven years to tell more of their story.  I was more interested.

And well I should be.  Me & Isaac Newton is a fascinating piece, in which science, nature and the mysteries of the universe are address by seven great minds.  They include Gertrude Elion, a Nobel Prize winner who discovered the treatment for leukemia, Steven Pinker, who studies cognitive learning, Patricia Wright, a naturalist, Maja Mataric, a robotics engineer, Ashok Gadgil, an environmental physicist, Michio Kaku, author and theoretical physicist, and Karol Sikora, a gene therapist specializing in cancer research.

Seven brilliant minds, seven fields, each in his or her own way tackling the problems and questions that have puzzled mankind for centuries.  We learn how each got started in his or her respective field, some of what each has learned along the way, some of their combined hopes for the future, and even opinions on science itself, which can be a wonderful or catastrophic thing depending on who’s holding the reins.

These individuals offer plenty to think about, but the material is not presented in a heavy handed or overtly intellectualized way.  In fact, despite their intelligence, they don’t come across as much different than anyone else.  They have their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their triumphs and setbacks.  It’s encouraging to learn that even the smartest of the smart find success to be sometimes a matter of lengthy trial and error.  A number of them even cite good old fashioned luck as a factor.  Ms. Elion was researching solid tumors when she stumbled on a way to treat leukemia.  Thanks to her “accident”, if you will, children with the disease went from almost certain death to about an 85% survival rate.  It may be better to be lucky than good sometimes, but the world is better off because this woman happened to be both.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with these people.  Michael Apted does not appear as an interviewer on screen, so as each scientist talks, it comes across as relaxed and personal.  This would be a great group of people to have over for dinner, just to listen to what they have to say.

I’m pleasantly surprised that this movie turned out to be much better than my initial reaction pegged it to be, and I have to confess, my gruff approach probably said a lot more about me than it said about this film.  This is a fascinating documentary about seven fascinating people, who manage to make the universe seem a little more and a little less infinite at the same time.

Video ***

The non-anamorphic transfer is perfectly good, though nothing about the subject matter lends itself to hyperbole.  Colors are generally very good, and image detail seems sharp and strong, though very few scenes even demand it.  I noticed no grain, shimmer, compression artifacts or print problems along the way…all in all, a good effort.

Audio **

The dialogue is clear throughout…in a picture that’s almost all talking heads, that’s the only measure to go by.  No further demands are made on your audio system…the program simply doesn’t require them.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Me & Isaac Newton is an intimate and interesting portrait of seven great minds reflecting on their beginnings and their futures:  what they’ve accomplished, what they hope to accomplish, and their wishes and desires for science and mankind.  It’s an intriguing and absorbing piece…definitely worth a look.