“Bill Nye: Science Guy” is an efficiently thought-provoking study of what it means to be a rational and analytical advocate for science in an age when deniers of evolution and climate-change often seem to have higher profiles, deeper pockets and louder voices. But it’s even more interesting as the story of a beloved celebrity who wants to reinvent himself, to be taken more seriously — by longtime admirers and philosophical adversaries alike — even as he takes advantage of his pop-culture prominence to reach the masses with his messaging.
Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg (“The Immortalists”) offer a sympathetic yet balanced view of their subject, 62-year-old Bill Nye, star of the long-canceled but enduringly popular “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” a kid-friendly TV series that provided informal and entertaining scientific demonstrations for generations of viewers much too young to remember the similarly ambitious “Watch Mr. Wizard.” Although PBS ended the series back in 1998, it has enjoyed a long afterlife in reruns, classrooms, and the minds of nostalgic fans. Illustrative clips of Nye’s appearances at book-signings and other events testify to the warm esteem he continues to elicit from thousands who grew up with him as their televised tutor.
If you look closely at those clips, however, you can’t help noticing Nye isn’t entirely at ease with adulation. (He often responds to selfie requests with an impatience that borders on brusqueness.) “Bill Nye: Science Guy” hardly qualifies as a warts-and-all expose of the private man behind a public persona. But it does suggest the extent of a reflexive standoffishness that, as Nye himself readily admits, stems from memories of his unhappy childhood, and fears that, like his brother and sister, he might be stricken by Ataxia, a crippling neurological disease that runs in his family. So far, he’s shown no sign of the malady — but he identifies it as the reason why he’s never married and fathered children. Well, at least one of the reasons.
On the flip side, Nye often appears positively buoyant whenever he speaks of his work as CEO and official face of The Planetary Society, an organization co-founded by his idol and mentor, the late Carl Sagan, and dedicated to fulfilling Sagan’s dreams for a solar-powered LightSail spacecraft. And although he comes close to losing his temper a couple times during live and televised debates with people he considers dangerously anti-science — like Ken Ham, an aggressive creationist who raised money for a Noah’s Ark theme park by cannily exploiting viral videos of his public exchanges with Nye — he’s by and large a happy warrior when it comes to making the case for his side of the issues.
The catch is, while celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson definitely qualifies as a pro-Nye guy, others in the scientific community have openly criticized Nye for drawing attention to contrarians such as Ham and Joe Bastardi, the latter a TV weather forecaster (and, oddly enough, champion bodybuilder) who routinely mocks Nye’s dire predictions of global warming. Others pointedly note that the Science Guy isn’t really a scientist at all — he actually holds a degree in mechanical engineering — and accuse him of being a mere pretender who has successfully packaged himself as an affably telegenic expert known for his infectious good humor and snazzy bowtie.
Based on what we see of Nye in this beguilingly absorbing documentary, however, it appears the naysayers have done little to temper his determination. The final portion of “Bill Nye: Science Guy” focuses on faint early signs that he’s starting to bring an outspoken critic around to his point of view. It’s a hopeful sign, to be sure, but the filmmakers don’t push too hard in the direction of a neatly tied-up happy ending. They, and Nye, fully understand that conversion, like self-reinvention, is a process that takes time.