Movie Review: Radioactive

Marie Curie is one of the most-brilliant physicists and chemists in the history of science. She was a pioneering woman who was years ahead of her time, and her life deserves a biopic in tribute to her genius that is equally as brilliant as she was. Sadly, Amazon's 2020 release of Radioactive is not that biopic.

WARNING!!! SPOILIERS AHEAD!!! (You have been warned.)

To be perfectly honest, I looked forward with great anticipation for this film to be released. Marie Curie's many contributions to science and humanity are almost legendary, and Rosamund Pike is a brilliant actress who is capable of reading the dictionary and making it sound wonderful. However, this movie isn't terrible because it lacks a strong female role model from history, nor is this movie terrible because it lacks an equally strong actress to play the lead character, nor is this movie terrible because it lacks an impressive set of actors to play the periphery characters, nor is this movie terrible because it lacked an acceptable script. The primary reason this movie is terrible is because it was guided by a director, Marjane Satrapi, who was apparently preoccupied with trying to create a work of "art" at the expense of the story that she should have been telling.

Here is one perfect example of useless "artsy" direction: after the tragic and untimely death of Marie's husband, Pierre, there is a long dream sequence with bizarre imagery that resembles one of the many LSD/acid trip scenes from Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic The Doors. While I admit that it was essential to Marie's story to include various scenes that depict her extreme grief after Pierre's death, this dream sequence had no place in the film. For this travesty of screen time I fully blame the director.

Here is another example of useless "artsy" direction: at several times throughout the film, the scene would suddenly jump several decades into the future from Marie's timeline in order to show how radiation was used after her death. Examples shown were both for good (e.g. radiation therapy for cancer patients), and for evil (e.g. atomic bombs and Chernobyl). These scenes were supposed to convey the eventual impact of Marie's discoveries, but the jarring way in which the story jumped around on screen made no sense at all. All of those scenes would have been better suited as some sort of visual epilogue that discussed the long-term results of Marie's efforts, which should also have included nuclear power as one of the many positive benefits. (See FOONOTE below.)

And here is yet another example of useless "artsy" direction: near the end of the movie, Marie finally succumbs to her years of radiation poisoning, and viewers are treated with a nonsensical scene of Marie walking through various hospitals of the future to visit the eventual victims of radioactivity's many ills. However, this scene wasn't as "artsy" as the director undoubtedly intended. On the contrary, this scene was just… silly. It had no emotional impact, it didn't serve the plot, and it really had no place in this film.

One of the main arguments that I have with this movie is the fact that far too many scenes play fast and loose with history. As with all Hollywood biopics, scenes are added, or shown out of order, or lack their historical impact. For example, the movie depicts Marie being offered her late husband's teaching position at the University of Paris, which was a first for a woman and certainly significant from a historical perspective. However, Marie had already been teaching for several years at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris; a position she earned through her own merits, which is far more impressive than assuming the position that her deceased husband had previously occupied. An emotionally gripping scene from the film is a vicious argument that ensues after Pierre travels to Stockholm to accept their Nobel Prize without Marie, which is notoriously and negligently inaccurate; both Pierre and Marie traveled to Stockholm, therefore the entire argument scene is nothing but a fabrication for dramatic effect, and grossly unfair to Pierre's public memory.

Another point of contention is that this movie begins too far into Marie's career, and completely glosses over her early years of struggle to enter a university and earn her degrees at a time when such things were nearly impossible for a woman to achieve. These are important pieces from Marie's story that should have been portrayed, but those parts of her past were completely ignored by this film in order to advance scenes that were ridiculously unnecessary - such as Pierre's obsession with spiritualism and séances. (Those scenes were useless to the story and had silly-looking and unnecessary special effects; e.g. ectoplasm portrayed as green electrical sparks. This movie wasn't supposed rip off scenes from Ghost Busters.)

If I were one of Marie's descendants, I think I would have been offended at the consistently selfish behavior that Marie's character consistently displayed. Granted, I never met Marie Curie, nor have I read any correspondence from her, nor have I met anyone who met her. Perhaps she was a selfish person who spent her entire life obsessed with nothing but personal gain. However, this movie had a scene in which Marie's children entered her bedchamber while she was having an affair. In this scene, Marie's only reaction was to ask her children if they wanted her to feed them, otherwise they needed to get lost. This scene and several like it destroy the chances that today's young women would look to Marie as any sort of heroic figure to emulate.

To give benefit of the doubt, this film's portrayal of Marie as a selfish and combative creature might have been someone's half-hearted attempt to show a strong female character. However, there is a world of difference between showing strength and being a narrow-minded, self-absorbed jackass, and this movie tended to lean way too far toward the jackass side of the behavior spectrum where Marie was concerned.

In a way, this movie has a hard time finding an audience; the history is far too bad to be useful to anyone who is interested in studying about the life of Marie Curie. In addition, if I were an educator, the protracted scenes of sex and nudity would prevent me from being able to display this movie to students. Which is too bad, because the world needs more girls to be interested in STEM subjects, and this movie threw away a perfect opportunity to help out in that endeavor.

With another director at the helm, and with a better script that delved more into Marie's history, Amazon might have been able to produce a wonderful mini-series about Marie Curie's life. Instead, this director and the accompanying script produced little more than a two-hour gap in my life that I will never get back.


FOOTNOTE:

On a personal level, I found it morally reprehensible that the director, Marjane Satrapi, kept jumping back and forth between Pierre's acceptance speech for his Nobel prize to scenes of the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The director's intention is perfectly clear: each time Pierre suggests how a "criminal" might use radioactivity, the story jumps to the scenes of the Enola Gay. There is no mistaking the director's meaning here: she is accusing the United States of war crimes.

I find it highly doubtful that anyone involved with this film was alive when World War II had been raging for six years, (or eight years if you include Japan's bloody invasion of China). By 1945, the war had already cost the world around 70 million lives. (See Fallen.io for a breakdown of how the number of deaths were obtained and how casualty estimates were distributed across the planet.)

If Japan hadn't surrendered, the war would have raged on for years, costing millions of additional lives. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of Japanese lives. (See Operation Downfall for details on how costly the inevitable invasion of Japan would have been in terms of casualties; both allied and Japanese.)

This miniature history lesson is outside the scope of a movie review, although it is certainly indicative of the director's continued obsession with playing it fast and loose with history, while also taking a moment to cram her close-minded and naïve opinions down her viewers' throats. Shame on you, Marjane Satrapi. You're not just a bad director and bad student of history, you're apparently a pretty rude person, too.

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