Scientists are people too” seems to be the overriding message of genially freeform docu “Me & Isaac Newton,” director Michael Apted’s followup to “Inspirations,” his 1997 inquiry into the creative life that was the debut effort from new-media mogul Paul G. Allen’s Clear Blue Sky Prods. Longish item has stylish look and sufficient entertainment value to cut it in arthouse situations, but as with earlier piece, more comfy fit will be pubcasters, educational webs and arts channels, perhaps paired with its predecessor.
Once again the production team (identical to that of earlier work) has used rigorous selection criteria, “a balance between the science of human values and the science of cerebral values,” according to Apted, to snag the seven subjects profiled. While there’s nobody on the pop culture level of David Bowie and Roy Lichtenstein (both in “Inspirations”), each egghead appears to have been chosen based on a pleasant mixture of wry wit, steely intellect and eccentric obsession.
Grandmotherly Gertrude Elion (who died earlier this year and to whom the pic is dedicated) was a prolific pharmaceutical chemist who believed “science is truth and truth is beautiful,” while environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil, prompted in part by the tragic death of five cousins in infancy from a contaminated water supply, is perfecting a portable water purification unit that utilizes UV light.
Perhaps the most breezily mischievous of the bunch, theoretical physicist and bestselling author Michio Kaku (“Hyperspace,” “Visions”) was inspired by Buck Rogers character Dr. Zarkoff to ask his mother’s permission to build an atom smasher in his garage (“Sure!” he remembers her saying). Yugoslav emigre and computer scientist Maja Mataric, who gave birth during filming, runs the Robotics Research Lab at USC, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker studies toddlers in the process of learning language. Modest and reserved, Karol Sikora is on the front line of morally volatile cancer research (“I don’t see a spiritual side to science,” he says crisply). Patricia C. Wright’s ownership of a pet owl monkey as a housewife led to a 1989 MacArthur Genius grant and the formation of the lemur-friendly Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar.
As in earlier docu, Apted is particularly interested in the origins, processes and prognostications of his subjects. Thus, pic is organized into chapters, “Beginnings,” “The Work,” “Eureka” and “The Future,” with early sections presenting each scientist in established order and later segs mixing things up. Given the relatively static nature of their work, creative decision to emphasize visuals over narration pays dividends. Pro tech credits are enhanced by imaginative juxtapositions and locations that include South Africa, England, Massachusetts, New York, New Mexico and North Carolina.
In this light, Apted, who splits his time between docus such as the “7 Up” series (“42 Up” is due this fall) and high-profile Hollywood features (he’s finishing the new Bond film now) is uniquely suited to this endeavor, bringing a storyteller’s eye and compassion for the individual to material that might well have become stagnant in the hands of another. Evocative title comes from a sense of solitude and purpose felt by Kaku while figure skating for relaxation.