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The Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting: Scientific Romanticism

In this introduction to Dimitri Vorontzov's latest article series, we explore the basics of scientific romanticism, from Indiana Jones to Tony Stark, and what it means for storytelling.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you know your romantic science?

Contrary to what it may sound like, I’m not asking about your expertise in sweeping people off their feet and making them swoon.

No—scientific romanticism is a trend in science that served as an intellectual foundation for one of the most financially successful movies of all times: James Cameron’s 2009 mega-blockbuster Avatar.


Romantic scientists recognize their intellectual pursuit as a great adventure, centered around a proud, poetic figure of a genius-hero, traveling through distant corners of the world on the quest for self-discovery through greater connection with nature.

Avatar fills all the checkmarks of scientific romanticism: It includes the motive of traveling to an exotic, shockingly beautiful locale, the quasi-anthropological exploration of the unusual biology and culture, the idea of nature as a sentient macro-organism, and many metaphors for the notion of unity, connectedness, and harmony with nature.

Avatar made almost three billion dollars at the box office worldwide and remained the highest-grossing film of all times for the next decade.

Besides the fame of James Cameron as a filmmaker, the universal appeal of Avatar can be attributed to the array of themes it explores—and the perfect timing with which these themes were addressed.

James Cameron completed an 80-page treatment for Avatar in 1994—but he waited until 2005 to start the production of that film, and it took four more years to bring his vision to reality. During the production period, James Cameron made sure to align the story with the spirit of the time.

[Sci-Fi Circuit: The Purpose and Value of Science Fiction]

The energy crisis of the 2000s, the massive economic recession, the prolonged and falsely justified NATO invasion in oil-rich Iraq, the escalating global climate catastrophe, spurred by unstoppable technical race and corporate greed, the collapse of the Twin Towers, dramatically mirrored in the movie—all of these events and factors made the message of Avatar resonate with the entire world at the time of its release.

What’s especially remarkable about James Cameron’s amazing insight as a screenwriter and film producer is that he chose a range of subjects that he knew would only grow in their urgency as time goes by!

The notion of scientific and technical progress representing a direct threat to our ability to survive as a species; the imperative to protect our vulnerable environment from the effects of the unstoppable corporate greed; the disillusionment with militarism, imperialism, and ultra-radical narrow-minded patriotism—these themes, addressed in Avatar, touch us today deeper and on a more visceral level than a decade ago.

That’s why Avatar not only succeeded as a standalone film, but it also launched a franchise that will continue for several decades and is expected to bring tens of billions of dollars through box office revenue and streaming, as well as technological patents and merchandise sales.

Even though currently you may not have the clout in Hollywood comparable to that of James Cameron’s—that’s the kind of stories I’d like you to write: momentous, necessary, far-reaching, dealing with pressing issues—and growing exponentially in their importance as the time goes by!

And that’s why it’s vital to grow your stories out of a clearly defined philosophy.

[The Holy Trinity of Sci-Fi Storytelling: Science, Religion, & Politics]

Scientific romanticism was identified as a distinct school of thought and became prevalent during the first half of the 19th century. It came as a backlash against the previously reigning classical science that saw nature as a clockwork-like environment, to be reduced through study to its mechanical parts and their motions, each part and motion carefully measured, cataloged, and described in the language of mathematics.

The curiosity about a scientist as a person, the attitude to nature as a friend, the poetry and magic of scientific pursuit—these ideas were new and shocking when they were first formulated.

Doc Brown, from Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future saga, is a great cinematic representative of scientific romanticism, and so is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a prominent supporting character in Peter Weir’s 2003 adventure-drama film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Indiana Jones is a perfect example of a scientific romantic, and so is Tony Stark, the Iron Man.

avengers endgame

You can find romantic scientist characters in many sci-fi and action-adventure movies. You can find them in real life, too. Elon Musk could be considered an archetypal example of the contemporary romantic scientist type.

Rooted in the philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, scientific romanticism found its best expression in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—who was not only a world-famous poet, playwright, and novelist, but also an expert in geology and optics, and a pioneering biologist. Goethe’s ideas influenced another great romantic scientist, Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution. One of the most notable literary figures of the late scientific romanticism was the French writer Jules Verne, the grandfather of literary avant-garde and surrealism, the inventor of science fiction, and the author of sixty-five novels, fourteen plays, and dozens of short stories, of which many were turned into successful films.

The first reign of scientific romanticism was relatively brief. By the last quarter of the 19th century, that intellectual trend was in decline, replaced with a next strong wave of utilitarian, pragmatic attitudes to nature, which has dominated science ever since.

However, today, for the first time in over a century, scientific romanticism is experiencing a strong resurgence because humankind became aware of the existential crisis of our civilization, caused by our morally ambivalent attitude to scientific progress.

We may refer to this new contemporary trend in science and culture as “scientific neo-romanticism”.

James Cameron, the writer-director of Avatar, presents an extraordinary consistent example of a neo-romantic figure in contemporary film and science. A graphic artist, writer, producer, director, engineer, adventurer, experimental scientist, and environmental advocate, he was the first person in history to descend alone to the lowest point of the Mariana Trench, where he discovered several previously unknown deep-water animal species. He designed video cameras for NASA, currently participates in the initiative for colonization of Mars, and works on developing nutrient-rich, plant-based meat, cheese, and dairy products.

James Cameron’s movies often emphasize the conflict between technology and humanity—probably best-expressed in the iconic image of a human-machine hybrid, the Terminator.

That conflict represents the inner moral conflict of James Cameron as a thinker and an artist. He’s clearly and unapologetically fascinated with technology—it’s not a coincidence that every film he’s made was instrumental in advancing the technology of filmmaking and film projection. But he’s also concerned with the devastating effect technology has on our planet, and is proactive in his attempts to reverse or ameliorate that effect.

That theme—technology vs humankind—was already present in the very first screenplay James Cameron ever written and produced—the 12-minute 1978 Xenogenesis. That tiny homemade movie was impressive enough to persuade the great Roger Corman to hire young James Cameron to work on Battle Beyond the Stars—and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is your inner moral conflict as an artist? What unsolvable ethical dilemma is eating you alive and keeping you awake at night?

Don’t rush to answer this just yet. This series of articles will help you find the best answers—likely more than one!

[Sci-Fi Circuit: Exploring the Problem of Exposition in Sci-Fi]

But clearly, there’s something to be said for finding a deeply personal theme, rooted in a particular philosophy, if it can lead to extraordinary career success, such as that of James Cameron.

That’s because both the timely and the timeless values of any great story can be found in the philosophy at that story’s core.

Fortunately, there had been only very few distinct schools of thoughts that influenced mainstream cinema, leading to the creation of ultra-successful movies. We’re going to review them all, and hopefully, it won’t even take us too much ink and time!

Afterward, you can select one or several such schools of thoughts that resonate with you the most, match them against the deepest emotions and concerns of contemporary audiences, and grow your best stories from these rich sources of inspiration.

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In the next article in The Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting, we’ll dive deep into the ideas of Abrahamism—the ethical foundation of all contemporary Western storytelling, including of course the mainstream screenwriting.

Please stay tuned for the next article!

Learn more about story in our SU course, Basic Premise and Story Development for Screenwriters