“Be the hero of your own life story.”—Gerard Butler in Nim’s Island
Movies featuring strong female characters surviving on their own are so unusual, I thought it important that I take a look at Nim’s Island, the South Pacific adventure fantasy movie based on the book by Wendy Orr. The film version stars Abigail Breslin as Nim Rusoe and Gerard Butler playing both Nim’s father (Jack Rusoe) and Alex Rover, the main character in adventure novels written by Alexandra Rover (a novelist portrayed by Jodie Foster). Although elements of this film are clearly fantasy, it deserves the attention of science teachers because of the potential it has to inspire girls to be independent and to hold on to an interest in science. Unfortunately, this potential is not fully realized for reasons I will describe below.
Nim and her father live on a volcanic island in the South Pacific, where Jack studies plankton and writes occasional articles for National Geographic magazine. In the most obvious fantasy aspect of the plot, Nim is able to communicate with several animals on the island, including a pelican, a sea lion, and a lizard. The Rusoes work hard to keep their island secret to discourage visits from tourists. Though isolated, Nim and her father enjoy solar panels, an internet connection, and regular shipments of books, food, and equipment from the outside world. One day, Jack sails to a nearby atoll to gather a new plankton sample and Nim stays behind because she expects that turtle eggs she has been watching are about to hatch. Jack is delayed by various mishaps, so Nim must take care of herself for a few days and protect the island from “invasion” by Australian tourists. Along the way, she begins an e-mail correspondence with Alex Rover, the author of a series of adventure novels that Nim enjoys reading. At this point, Nim believes that Alex is a man, and imagines him as the main character in the books. Worried that Nim is on her own, the agoraphobic Alexandra Rover undertakes the difficult journey to the island with her fictional character, Alex Rover, coming along in her imagination. Nim and Alexandra develop their heroic qualities simultaneously; Nim by repelling the invasion, Alexandra by first leaving the house, then riding in a helicopter and stealing a lifeboat. When they meet on the island, Nim is shocked to discover that the author of her favorite adventures is a woman and rejects her help. They come together when both realize that they can rely on themselves, not the Alex Rover of their imaginations.
This film has a few positive examples for young girls who are interested in science and nature. First and foremost, Nim lives on her own and is self-sufficient for a few days. By the end she is able to function without the help of her imagined male hero, Alex Rover; I believe that is a positive message for young girls. Nim also provides a good model for science practice when Alex(andra) Rover sends an e-mail asking if molten lava is visible in a volcano. Rather than simply say she does not know (or even worse, make up an answer) Nim climbs the volcano to look and see for herself. Teachers can point out that when scientists have questions about the world, they gather data to try to find the answers. Finally, Nim applies a basic understanding of physics when she uses a simple machine (a lever) to move large boulders she could not move with brute force.
All the positive, inspirational, messages are undermined by the fact that the fantasy of a male Alex Rover is replaced by a Hollywood version of a girl doing science, rather than application of science and technology to more significant challenges. I do not object to Nim’s conversations with animals because they are unrealistic. I can suspend disbelief to enjoy a movie when necessary. I take issue with the fact that Nim’s main challenge is so trivial: invasion by silly Australian tourists. I cannot help but think of movies about boys lost on islands; The Lord of the Flies and Peter Pan spring immediately to mind. In those stories boys about the same age as Nim are in danger of being killed, by starvation, by each other, or by pirates. Nim is never in any real danger in this film, and her solutions to the challenges she faces are based on fantasy science (sea lion flatulence and lizards flung with coconut catapults), not the actual resources she could use. Hollywood puts boys in real danger with real villains, and their victories are therefore more powerful than Nim’s repulsion of the cruise ship. Perhaps the writers believe that girls don’t use computers for anything other than e-mail. With the computer and internet connection she could find out for herself how to treat the wound she sustains, rather than asking Alex Rover. Also, given the regular shipments of supplies, she should have a decent pair of binoculars to use, rather than a replica of a 19th century spyglass.
Apart from my concerns about the implicit messages in the movie, there are a few explicit errors of fact that could lead to interesting conversations in elementary or middle school science:
- A volcano cannot be made to erupt by knocking rocks off the side of the mountain. It is possible to predict a volcanic eruption through seismic activity, and earthquakes can cause landslides, but the landslides do not cause the eruption.
- A zoom out and back in effect is used a few times to move the action from one place to another. One evening, when Nim sends an e-mail to Alex Rover in San Francisco, the camera pulls back from the South Pacific, pans over the ocean, and zooms back in to Northern California. Unfortunately, the film shows Nim’s location in darkness and San Francisco in daylight, which means it would be about 4 a.m. in the South Pacific, not shortly after sunset.
- To help Alex Rover find her, Nim gives the location of the island as “20 degrees south and 120 degrees west,” which is near the Cook Islands. This is not enough detail for anyone to find her. Near the equator, a single degree of latitude or longitude is about 70 miles wide, so she has given a location that is a square about 70 miles on a side. Five thousand square miles is a very large area of open ocean in which to find a small volcanic island.
This film had the potential to be an inspirational, empowering experience for girls in upper elementary grades, but the choice to rely on fantasy and to keep Nim from really using science and technology prevents that potential from being realized. If I were to use this film for an activity in university-level “gender and science” class, or with any group of girls (in a girl scout troop or an all-girls school), I would focus on having students “fix” the science problems I have noted and on researching genuine survival techniques for genuine survival situations—first aid, botany, shelter, and perhaps on modeling some of these skills. Only when we begin to encourage girls to be independent in their real lives, not just in their fantasies, will they truly become the heroes of their own stories.
Note: This review would not have been possible without conversation with, and suggestions from, Dr. Molly Clark Hillard.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science
and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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